OCR Religious Studies – Philosophy of Religion

The Philosophy of Religion exam paper in OCR A Level Religious Studies (H573/01) contains essay questions on the following topics:

Ancient philosophical influences

Plato and Aristotle
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

Plato and Aristotle were ancient Greek philosophers who arrived at different conclusions about the fundamental nature of reality and how we can gain knowledge:


The theory of the Forms

Plato saw the physical world we inhabit as a kind of shadow or illusion – a poor representation of the true nature of reality. Physical things come and go, but Plato believed the true nature of reality must be eternal and unchanging. This eternal and unchanging reality is the world of the Forms.

For example, when you look at a beautiful painting, you experience a particular thing. But these particulars are just inaccurate and incomplete reflections of the Forms in which they participate – in the case of the painting, the Form of beauty.

Another example: You draw a triangle on a piece of paper. But however precisely you draw it, this particular triangle will never be a perfect triangle – only the Form of the triangle has perfectly straight sides and angles that add up to exactly 180°.

Basically, the world of the Forms is a world of perfect, eternal, and unchanging abstract objects, and this world of Forms is what reality is according to Plato.

Plato forms divided linePlato saw the Forms as arranged in a hierarchy:

  • At the top of this hierarchy is the Form of the good.
  • Beneath this are other higher Forms, such as justice and beauty, which partake in the Form of the good. For example, justice is a good thing, so partakes in the Form of the good, but is not goodness itself.
  • Beneath these are the lower Forms, such as shapes and numbers.
  • Lower still are actual physical objects – the world of appearances. These aren’t even Forms, they’re just temporary particulars that partake in the Forms. For example, a table is just a temporary particular that partakes in the Forms of tableness, squareness, etc.

Our senses (e.g. sight and sound) tell us about the physical world, but this isn’t knowledge according to Plato because it’s just perceptions of a temporary and changing realm. Our physical reality imperfectly reflects and distorts the Forms, which are the true nature of reality. To acquire proper knowledge of reality, according to Plato, we must use a priori methods (i.e. reason and understanding) to comprehend the world of the Forms.

The allegory of the cave

Plato’s allegory of the cave illustrates the difference between:

  • False knowledge of our physical world (i.e. appearances), and
  • True knowledge of the world of the Forms (i.e. reality)

Plato's allegory of the cave

The allegory is as follows:

  • Prisoners (who represent ordinary people) are chained facing a wall in a cave, their heads tied so they can’t turn around.
  • Behind them is a fire, and people parade objects in front of the fire, which cast shadows on the wall (these shadows represent our perceptions of the physical world).
  • The prisoners think these shadows are reality, because that’s all they ever experience.
  • But one day, a prisoner is freed (this freed prisoner represents the philosopher). Once he gets used to the brightness, he sees the fire and the real objects that cast the shadows.
  • The freed prisoner then goes outside the cave. At first it’s so bright that he can only look at the shadows cast by objects. But once accustomed to the light, he is able to look at the objects (these real objects represent the Forms) and, eventually, the sun itself (the sun represents the Form of the good).
  • If the freed prisoner were returned to the cave, his eyes would no longer be used to the darkness and he’d be unable to discern the shadows on the cave wall. If he told the other prisoners what he saw when he left the cave and how the shadows are not real, the other prisoners would think he’d been harmed from leaving the cave and had gone mad.

In addition to illustrating the difference between reality (the Forms) and appearances (the physical world), the allegory also illustrates the role of the philosopher: Once he sees the real world, he can’t go back to seeing the shadows. The philosopher sees it as their duty to educate the people still chained in the cave, but faces persecution for telling the truth (as did Plato’s teacher Socrates, who was sentenced to death for his teachings).


Plato and Aristotle form and matterAlthough Aristotle rejects Plato’s theory of Forms – the existence of abstract and ideal objects that are separate from the physical world – Aristotle does not reject the idea of form itself. Instead, Aristotle saw form as inextricably linked with the physical world. For Aristotle, the form of a table, say, exists within every physical table and not in a separate realm.

Where Plato rejects observation and experience as sources of knowledge (for him this is like looking at shadows on the cave wall rather than actual objects), Aristotle argues that a posteriori observation and experience enable us to work out the general principles that underlie change. By understanding the causes of change, we can understand the essence of things (their forms) and gain knowledge of reality.

The four causes

Aristotle believed that things naturally tend towards their telos (i.e. their purpose): They go from potentiality to actuality. For example, a seed may actually be a seed now, but it is potentially a tree. The seed tends towards its telos, which is to fulfil its potential and become an actual tree.

Aristotle identifies 4 causes (sometimes called the 4 explanations) that underlie this change from potentiality to actuality:

  1. Material cause: What something is made from. For example, the material cause of a table might be wood or metal.
  2. Formal cause: The shape or arrangement of something. For example, the formal cause of a table might be its flat shape and legs.
  3. Efficient cause/agentic cause: Something apart from the thing that creates that thing. For example, the efficient cause of a table might be a carpenter who carved it from wood.
  4. Final cause: The purpose or ‘telos’ of something. For example, the final cause of a dining table would be to serve as a platform from which people eat their food.

aristotle 4 causes dining table example

These 4 causes underlie all change (the movement from potentiality to actuality). By understanding these causes, we can understand the essence of things (i.e. their form) and gain knowledge.

The prime mover

Aristotle applied the 4 causes to the universe itself. He concluded that the final cause of the universe must be a prime mover.

Aristotle believed the default state of matter is rest. For example, if you roll a ball along the ground, it eventually stops moving and returns to rest. But things in our world are constantly moving and don’t stop. For example, the stars in the sky don’t just stop moving and return to rest – they keep moving forever. So how is motion within the universe sustained if the default state of things is to stop moving and return to rest?

Aristotle’s answer is that there must be something – a prime mover – that keeps this motion going:

  • This prime mover can’t be moved by something else, because then this something else would need an explanation of what moves it, and so on for infinity. So, the prime mover must be unmoved and eternal.
  • The prime mover is pure actuality and so never changes.
  • The prime mover doesn’t cause this motion by pushing objects (so the prime mover is not the efficient cause of the universe). Instead, everything is naturally drawn towards the prime mover because things are naturally drawn towards their purpose/telos. It is this natural attraction of things towards the prime mover that sustains motion within the universe.
  • This prime mover can’t be made of matter, because matter is subject to change. So, the prime mover is not a physical substance but a mind.
  • But since the prime mover is unchanging, this mind can’t be thinking about anything outside itself because these thoughts would mean changes in the mind. So instead, the mind of the prime mover is eternally experiencing itself.

Note: This is basically an early version of the cosmological argument (see below).

AO2 evaluation: Plato vs. Aristotle 

Issues for Plato: 

  • Where to draw the line? Plato suggests there is a Form of everything – e.g. the Form of the chair, of beauty, of a triangle, of a cat, etc. – but where does this end? Is there a Form of a bogey, for example? And is there the Form of the laptop, for example, even though laptops didn’t exist in Plato’s day? This seems absurd.
  • Third man argument: Plato would say the Form of largeness, for example, explains what is common to all particular things that are large. But the Form of largeness must itself be large and so there must be something common to [all large things + the Form of largeness], which would create another (third) Form. This process could be repeated for infinity without ever identifying a single Form of largeness (or a Form of beauty, of human, etc.).
  • Empiricist challenge: Plato doesn’t really provide much evidence for the existence of the world of the Forms, nor does he explain how the world of Forms interacts with the physical world of appearances. In contrast, empirical approaches have increased our understanding of the physical world (e.g. the laws of gravity, evolution, etc.) and these claims can be verified by observation. Empiricists may also appeal to Ockham’s razor: If we can explain everything empirically, then Plato’s theory of Forms adds unnecessary complexity to our understanding of the world.
    • Plato’s reply: As Plato sees the physical world as mere appearances or shadows, he probably wouldn’t be impressed by advances in empirical and scientific knowledge. Further, Plato does provide some evidence to support the existence of the world of the Forms (e.g. Meno’s slave – see the AQA philosophy notes for more detail).
Issues for Aristotle: 

  • Purpose is subjective: Aristotle asserts that everything tends towards its final cause or telos (i.e. purpose) as though what this telos consists of is an objective fact. However, the purpose of something is arguably subjective and differs depending on perspective. For example, an old suitcase may have been designed for the purpose of carrying luggage, but someone may use it as a table. This suggests that a thing’s ‘purpose’ is not an objective fact or law of nature, but is just a subjective interpretation imposed by human minds. This sentiment is captured by the existentialist quote “existence precedes essence”, meaning things first just exist without a purpose/telos and then humans create a purpose/telos for them after the fact.
  • Infinite sequence: Perhaps there is a never-ending sequence of movers stretching back for infinity, in which case there is no prime mover. See the issues for cosmological arguments below for more.
  • Prime mover vs. religious interpretation of God: Unlike the religious interpretation of God, the prime mover is not said to be omnibenevolent, which avoids the problem of evil. However, religious believers may reject this interpretation as it raises questions as to why such a being would be worthy of worship. Further, it wouldn’t be possible to develop a relationship with such a being and would make prayer pointless since the prime mover just exists and does not intervene in human affairs.

The nature of soul, mind, and body

soulWe’ve all heard of soulsbut what are they? Is the soul a physical thing, like the body? Or is it a separate type of thing altogether, like a ghost? Is a soul different to a mind? Do souls even exist? That’s what this topic is about.

Plato vs. Aristotle on the soul

Plato and Aristotle on the soulPlato and Aristotle have differing ideas of what the human soul is that are in line with their differing ideas of the nature of reality (as described above):

Plato’s view of the soul

According to Plato, just as reality consists of two parts – the unchanging and eternal world of the Forms and the temporary physical world of appearances – so too does a human being: There is the unchanging and eternal soul, which is separate from the changing and temporary body.

Plato saw the soul as originating in the world of the Forms. In the world of the Forms, the soul is eternal, unchanging, and possesses knowledge. However, the appetites/desires of the soul draw it to the physical world and into a temporary physical body. This physical body acts as a kind of prison for the soul. The body’s senses (e.g. eyesight, hearing) obscure the true nature of reality and can only give rise to opinion, not knowledge. But through reason, we are able to remember the world of the Forms and gain knowledge (Plato uses Meno’s slave as an example to prove this – see the AQA philosophy notes for more detail). So, for Plato, all learning is just remembering things from the world of the Forms. When we die, the soul is freed from the prison of the body and returns to the world of the Forms.

Aristotle’s view of the soul

As we saw above, Aristotle rejects Plato’s separation of form from matter, but not the idea of form itself. For Aristotle, a thing’s form is its essence – and this essence exists within the object itself. For example, the essence of a table is its shape – a flat platform on which you can put things. This form exists within the object and not in a separate abstract world of Forms. Similarly, the essence of a human being is its soul – and this soul isn’t something that exists separate from the physical body.

Aristotle gives a couple of examples to illustrate this relationship: If the body was an axe, the soul would be its ability to cut things. If the body was an eye, the soul would be its ability to see things. Notice how these functions (cutting and seeing) are not the same thing as the physical object but are nevertheless inseparable from it. Likewise, the soul is not the same thing as the body, but is inseparable from it. 

So, for Aristotle, the soul of a human being is its essence. This includes things like abilities (e.g. jiujitsu or carpentry) and personality (e.g. funny or angry).

Metaphysics of consciousness

In modern philosophy, the debate about souls has shifted more towards a debate about minds and consciousness.

consciousness qualiaOur conscious minds have weird properties unlike ordinary physical things. For example, when you look at ripe tomatoes, there is something it feels like to have that experience of redness – you have the subjective experience of red qualia. Your mind is experiencing redness but if someone were to cut open your physical brain to see what’s going on it’s not like your brain would be literally red.

This raises the question of what the conscious mind actually is. Broadly, there are two types of response:

Substance dualism

For a more in-depth explanation, see the substance dualism notes for AQA philosophy.

Substance dualism is the view that the mind is a non-physical substance that is completely separate from the physical body.

Plato’s account of the soul above is along these lines. But the most famous substance dualist is probably Rene Descartes. Descartes gives several arguments for substance dualism, such as:

The cogito argument

Descartes’ cogito argumentI think, therefore I am – can be used to support substance dualism.

In this argument, Descartes doubts everything that is possible to doubt due to the possibility that an incredibly powerful evil demon could be deceiving him without his knowledge. It’s possible that, in reality, Descartes does not have a body at all and that his perceptions of hands and feet and legs and so on are just illusions created by this evil demon. However, even if such an extreme scenario were true, Descartes realises he cannot doubt the existence of his mind because there would have to be a mind for the evil demon to be deceiving in the first place! And so, the fact that Descartes is able to doubt the existence of his mind proves his mind must exist.

Descartes argues that the essence of the mind is a thinking thing – and this essence is not physical. In contrast, the essence of the body is a physical thing that does not think. These different essences suggest the mind and body are separate substances that could exist without each other.

For a more detailed explanation of this last point, see the conceivability argument.

The indivisibility argument

Descartes’ divisibility argument suggests that mind (i.e. mental stuff) and body (i.e. physical stuff) have different properties and so cannot be the same thing:

  • My body is a divisible substance (e.g. you could chop my leg off)
  • My mind is an indivisible substance (e.g. you can’t chop a thought in half)
  • Therefore, my mind and body are different substances

For a more detailed explanation of the indivisibility argument and responses, click here.


For a more in-depth explanation, see the physicalism notes for AQA philosophy.

Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) is the view that everything that exists is physical or somehow related to the physical – and this includes the mind. In other words, consciousness can be explained entirely in physical terms.

Arguments for materialism include:

Two meanings of ‘soul’ (Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins distinguishes between two uses of the word ‘soul’:

  • Soul 1: A non-physical entity that contains a person’s essence and is separate from their physical body (like how Descartes or Plato conceive of soul).
  • Soul 2: A metaphorical way of speaking about a person’s essence (e.g. their core personality, mind, and values).

Dawkins says it’s fine to use ‘soul’ in the soul 2 sense. For example, you might describe an evil murderer as ‘soulless’, or talk about how a really great piece of music touched your ‘soul’.

But the notion of soul 1 should be rejected, he says. Dawkins sees soul 1 as an out-dated concept used to explain consciousness in times when we didn’t know better. Nowadays, modern science has replaced the need for soul 1 and we should explain consciousness in physical terms (e.g. biological processes in the brain). It’s like how, in ancient times, illnesses might have been explained by evil spirits but these explanations got replaced by scientific ones.

Category mistake (Ryle)

A category mistake is when one concept is confused for another. For example, to ask “how much does the number 3 weigh?” confuses the concept of number with the concept of things that have weight.

Gilbert Ryle thinks substance dualists make a similar category mistake when they talk about the mind as the kind of thing that exists independently of the physical body. He gives the following analogy to illustrate this:

  • Someone asks you “what is Oxford University?”
  • So you show them all the lecture halls, libraries, labs, teachers, and so on
  • After showing them all this, they say “you’ve shown me the lecture halls, libraries, and labs, but what is the university?”

To ask this question is to make the category mistake that Oxford University is a single thing independent of all the buildings etc. Likewise, Ryle says it’s a category mistake to think the mind is a single thing that exists independently of the physical body and behaviours.

For a more in-depth explanation, see the behaviourism notes for AQA philosophy.

Interaction issues for dualism (Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia)

If substance dualism is true, it’s hard to see how the mind interacts with the body (e.g. how your thought “I’m hungry” can cause you to move your physical body to the fridge to get some food) given that they are two completely different kinds of substance. Materialism doesn’t face this problem – it’s just physical stuff (mind) interacting with other physical stuff (body).

Descartes’ student, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, made the following argument along these lines, which can also be used to support materialism:

  • Physical things (e.g. the body) only move if pushed
  • Only physical things can push physical things
  • So, if substance dualism is true and the mind is a non-physical thing, the mind cannot move the body
  • But the mind can move the body
  • So, substance dualism is false (and materialism is true)

For a more in-depth explanation, see the interaction issues for dualism notes for AQA philosophy.

AO2 evaluation: Dualism vs. Materialism 

Issues for dualism: 

Issues for materialism: 

The nature of God

For a more in-depth explanation, see the concept of God notes for AQA philosophy.

God is typically understood to have the following divine characteristics:

This topic looks at what these characteristics mean and whether it is possible for a being to possess them.


Omnipotence means God is all-powerful/the most powerful being possible/can do anything.

This might sound simple at first, but there is disagreement about what it means to say God can do anything.

God can do the impossible

This interpretation of omnipotence says God can do literally anything – even things that are impossible.

Here, we don’t just mean that God can do what’s physically impossible – like making gravity repel rather than attract objects, or making time flow backwards – we mean God can also do what’s logically impossible. In other words, God could make contradictions true. For example, God could make a 4-sided triangle, or make it so that 1+1=7. Such things might seem hard to imagine, but Descartes argues that finite human imagination is not an accurate guide to God’s infinite power.

However, this interpretation of omnipotence creates potential problems, such as:

  • Self-contradictory: If God can do what’s logically impossible (e.g. make a 4-sided triangle), then it isn’t logically impossible at all!
  • God becomes arbitrary: If God isn’t bound by any rules – even the rules of logic – then why choose to behave one way over the other?
  • The problem of the stone: Could God create a stone so heavy He couldn’t lift it? Yes, according to this definition of omnipotence, God could create such a stone (because God can do literally anything). But then this would mean God couldn’t lift it (which would contradict God’s omnipotence)! This shows it is hard to make sense of a being that can do literally anything – including the impossible.

God can do anything logically possible

This interpretation of omnipotence says God can do anything that’s logically possible. In other words, God can do anything that does not involve a logical contradiction.

So, God can do anything physically (or metaphysically) possible: He can make and destroy universes, change the laws of physics, resurrect the dead, and more. But God’s omnipotence does not mean He can violate the laws of logic and make a 4-sided triangle, for example. This is the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that to say God can’t do the logically impossible does not impose any real limit on God’s power because what’s logically impossible isn’t anything at all – it’s meaningless.

Divine self-limitation

Another approach to omnipotence says that any limitations to God’s power are self-imposed.

For example, it may be that God really could do the impossible if He chose to, but that God decided to create and follow the laws of logic in order to provide consistency and order for the universe. Without the rules and structure of logic, everything would be too chaotic and nothing would make any sense (including human life), so God chooses to follow the rules of logic.

Eternal (or everlasting)

God is said to be eternal. This means God is timeless/exists outside of time. From this eternal perspective, what we call the ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ all exist within an eternal present. In other words, God perceives all moments in time simultaneously.

eternal God boethiusAs beings that exist within time, it can be hard to imagine what existing outside of time would look like. To help illustrate this, Boethius described time as a circle. Human experience through time is like travelling around the circle in a line, whereas an eternal being (God) exists at the centre of the circle and so perceives all points on the line simultaneously.

Anselm’s 4-dimensionalist approach builds on Boethius’ understanding of eternity. Physical space has 3 dimensions: Length, width, and depth. And we can think of time as a 4th dimension: All the 3 dimensions of physical space are contained within the present moment in time. Similarly, just as all 3 dimensions of space are present within the 4th dimension of time, all 4 dimensions are present within God. In other words, all of time is present within God in an eternal 5th dimension.


An alternative approach describes God’s relationship with time as everlasting rather than eternal. According to this view, God exists within time rather than outside of time. God existed at the beginning of time, can remember everything that has happened since, and will continue to exist forever.

Richard Swinburne argues that the everlasting interpretation of God is more consistent with the God of the Bible. In the Bible, God regularly intervenes in human affairs. For example, in Isaiah 38, Hezekiah is terminally ill and prays to God, who hears the prayer and extends his life by 15 years. Such a sequence of events only makes sense if God exists and can act within time.

Swinburne further argues that an eternal God would be unchanging and cold. It is only an everlasting God that would be capable of forming relationships with human beings and loving them, in line with the conception of God as omnibenevolent.


Omniscience means God is all-knowing/knows everything. Like omnipotence, God’s omniscience is interpreted in different ways:

  • God knows literally everything (including e.g. the future)
  • God knows everything that is possible to know

Free will

Many religions claim human beings have free will – the ability to freely choose or not choose their actions. One motivation for this claim is that if humans didn’t have free will, it would seemingly be unfair for God to reward or punish them them (e.g. through heaven and hell), which would undermine God’s omnibenevolence.

However, free will raises another potential inconsistency: How do we reconcile free will with the claim that God is omniscient?

  • If God knows everything, then God knows what I’m going to do next
  • If God already knows what action I’m going to do next, then it must be true that I do that action
  • And if it must be true that I do that action, then I don’t have a free choice to do something different

So, this suggests either that we don’t have free will, or that God is not omniscient.

Potential ways to resolve this conflict differ depending on God’s relationship to time:

  • Everlasting: God has an everlasting (not eternal) relationship with time and so the future does not yet exist. God’s omniscience means God knows everything that’s possible to know, but free will makes it impossible to know the future.
    • Response: It is possible to know the future. For example, if you know your friend well, you can predict what food they’ll order at the restaurant. Plus, there are many examples of prophecies in the Bible (e.g. the coming of Jesus) that suggest God does know the future.
  • Eternal: If God is eternal and exists outside of time, then what we call the ‘future’ is like the present to God. So, God could be observing – and thus know – our future actions as we freely choose them like how we observe other humans make free choices in the present (see the AQA notes here for more).


Benevolence means someone has a disposition towards doing good. And so, God’s omnibenevolence means God is perfectly disposed towards doing good.

Omnibenevolence is typically understood to mean two subtly different things:

  • Emotional sense: God is perfectly loving, i.e. this is how God feels towards human beings and everything. In the Bible, this perfect love is illustrated by Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbour and even to love your enemies.
  • Moral sense: God is perfectly good in a moral sense, i.e. God always acts in accordance with justice, what is right, and what is fair.

However, God’s omnibenevolence raises potential issues. For example:

  • The euthyphro dilemma (see AQA notes for more): Is God good because 1. He follows the moral law, or 2. He created the moral law? Option 1 challenges God’s omnipotence, because it suggests God is bound by rules outside of Himself. But if God creates the moral law (option 2), then in what sense is it meaningful to say God is ‘good’ when ‘good’ could have been whatever arbitrary thing God wanted! This challenges God’s omnibenevolence.
  • The problem of evil: If God is perfectly good, why does He allow evil and suffering? For more on this, see below.
  • The problem of hell: Many religions believe in hell as a place of eternal punishment for sins committed on earth. One reason hell may be in tension with God’s omnibenevolence is that this punishment is disproportionate and unjust. However bad someone’s sins were on earth, these sins will be finite in nature, but the punishment is infinite. The problem of hell may also be linked to God’s omniscience: An omniscient God would already know if someone was destined for hell even before they were born, in which case why create them just to suffer?

AO2 evaluation: The nature of God 

Issues for the nature of God:

  • The problem of the stone: This suggests the concept of omnipotence is contradictory (see above).
    • Response: George Mavrodes argues that it’s not the concept of omnipotence that is the contradictory, but the idea of a stone an omnipotent being cannot lift that is the contradiction. If this is the case, then to say God cannot create a stone so heavy He can’t lift it would be consistent with the idea that God’s omnipotence means He can do anything logically possible.
  • Free will vs. omniscience: See above.
  • The euthyphro dilemma: See above.
  • The problem of evil: This challenges God’s omnibenevolence (see below).
  • Relative strengths of Boethius, Anselm, and Swinburne

Arguments for God’s existence

The 3 classic types of argument for God’s existence are known as:

The syllabus categorises them as arguments based on a posteriori observation (teleological and cosmological) and arguments based on a priori reason (ontological). And so, in addition to evaluating the specific arguments, you can also evaluate the general method.

Arguments based on observation

Teleological arguments and cosmological arguments argue that God exists based on a posteriori observations.

Teleological arguments

For a more in-depth explanation, see the teleological argument notes for AQA philosophy.

Teleological arguments are also known as arguments from design. These arguments observe that parts of nature (e.g. the human eye) appear so complex and perfectly suited for their purpose that they can only be explained with reference to an intelligent designer: God.

Aquinas’ 5th way

St. Thomas Aquinas gave 5 arguments for God’s existence, known as the 5 ways. The 5th way is a version of the teleological argument:

“We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”

– Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1 Question 3

plant growing teleological argumentIn summary:

  • Things act towards a purpose or end (their telos, as Aristotle would say), even without intelligence
    • For example, plants grow towards the sun so as to get more light so they can photosynthesise
  • These actions always (or almost always) achieve the best result
  • This can’t just be explained by luck, there must be an intelligence guiding these actions (like how an arrow won’t find its way to a target by luck, it has to be guided by the intelligence of an archer)
  • This intelligence that guides these actions is God.
Paley’s teleological argument

William Paley considers the difference between things that are designed and things that aren’t designed.

Paley Teleological argument watchImagine you were walking through a field and saw a stone on the ground. You might be happy with the explanation that it had just been there forever, Paley says. But if you were walking through a field and found a pocket watch, that same explanation wouldn’t be satisfactory.

The difference between the watch and the stone, Paley says, is that the watch has many parts (e.g. springs and cogs) organised for a purpose (i.e. to tell the time). This is the key hallmark of design.

Like the watch, aspects of nature have this hallmark of design. For example, the many feathers and shape of a bird’s wing are organised for the purpose of flight. The many parts of the human eye are organised for the purpose of sight. And since design can only be explained by a designer, nature must have a designer: God.

AO2 evaluation: Teleological arguments 

Issues for teleological arguments:

  • Evolution (see AQA notes for more): Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that the appearance of design/purpose can emerge organically without the need for an intelligent designer.
    • Swinburne’s reply (see AQA notes for more): Yes, if we assume the laws of nature, then evolution may explain the appearance of design without a designer. But where do these laws of nature come from? It’s not like gravity etc. can be explained by evolution.
  • Weak analogy (see AQA notes for more): Teleological arguments appeal to similarities between man-made designs and aspects of nature. But there are several weaknesses in this analogy.
  • Epicurean hypothesis (see AQA notes for more): If time is infinite, and physical matter is finite, then it is inevitable this physical matter will eventually arrange itself into combinations that appear to be designed purely by random chance and without a designer.
  • Spatial disorder (see AQA notes for more): Teleological arguments focus on features of nature that are so well-organised as to suggest design (e.g. the wings of a bird). However, there are features of nature that are not so well-organised. For example, hurricanes and natural disasters are chaotic and cause damage – why would a designer include these? Further, these ‘designs’ could be improved. For example, animals could be made stronger and made so that they felt less pain.
    • Paley’s reply: Paley argues that even a broken watch is evidence of a watchmaker. Similarly, even if nature’s designs are imperfect in some respects, they are still evidence of design (and hence a designer: God).
  • Is the designer God? (see AQA notes for more): Even if we accept that there is evidence of a designer of nature, it does not follow that this designer is the omnipotent God described above. For example, we only experience a finite universe, in which case the designer may be a very very powerful being but not an omnipotent being.

Cosmological arguments

For a more in-depth explanation, see the cosmological argument notes for AQA philosophy.

Cosmological arguments start from the observation that everything has an explanation. For example, your existence can be explained by your parents, and their existence can be explained by their parents, and so on. Cosmological arguments seek an explanation of the existence of the universe itself. The argument is that the universe depends on something else to exist: God.


We saw Aquinas’ 5th way above, which is a teleological argument, but ways 1-3 are versions of the cosmological argument.

Ways 1 and 2 are very similar in structure, with one using the concepts of mover and movement, and the other using the concepts of cause and effect.

1st Way (argument from motion) 2nd Way (argument from causation)
Things in the world are in motion (e.g. a football rolling along the ground) The world is full of causes and effects (e.g. a smashed window)
Things don’t move by themselves: Everything that is in motion is put in motion by a mover (e.g. someone kicked the football) Nothing can be the efficient cause of itself: Every effect has a cause (e.g. the smashed window was caused by someone throwing a rock)
This mover must itself be moved by something else, and that something else must also be moved by something else, and so on This cause must itself have something that caused it, and that something else must also have a cause, and so on
If this sequence goes back for infinity, there is no first mover If this sequence goes back for infinity, there is no first cause
But if there is no first mover, there would be no subsequent movers and nothing would be in motion But if there is no first cause, there would be no subsequent causes and there would be no causes or effects
But things are in motion But there are causes and effects
So there must be a first mover So there must be a first cause
This first mover is God. This first cause is God.

Aquinas’ 3rd Way (argument from contingency) is a little different. Rather than talking about motion or cause and effect, it uses the concepts of necessity and contingency:

Contingent existence Necessary existence
Depends on something else for its existence Does not depend on anything else for its existence
Might not have existed in some other possible world Must exist in every possible world
E.g. You exist contingently because if your parents didn’t meet, you wouldn’t have been born E.g. God is said to exist necessarily because nothing else brought God into being

Using these concepts, the argument can be summarised as:

  • Everything that exists contingently did not exist at some point
  • And so, if everything that exists exists contingently, there would be a point at which nothing existed
  • But if nothing existed, then nothing could begin to exist
  • But since things did begin to exist, there was never a point at which nothing existed
  • Therefore, there must be something that does not exist contingently, but that exists necessarily
  • This necessary being is God

AO2 evaluation: Cosmological arguments 

Issues for cosmological arguments:

Arguments based on reason

Ontological arguments differ from cosmological arguments and teleological arguments in that they are based on a priori reason alone.

Ontological arguments

For a more in-depth explanation, see the ontological argument notes for AQA philosophy.

Ontological arguments argue that God exists based on the definition of ‘God’.

Anselm’s ontological argument

St. Anselm says God is ‘a being greater than which cannot be conceived’. Using this definition, he deduces God’s existence in an argument that can be summarised as:

  • God is, by definition, the greatest conceivable being
  • It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind
  • Therefore, God exists in reality
    • (because if God only existed in the mind, then He wouldn’t be the greatest conceivable being because we could conceive of a greater being: The one that exists in reality)

In the next chapter, Anselm expands on this definition of God:

“O Lord, my God,… thou canst not be conceived not to exist… And, indeed, whatever else there is, except thee alone, can be conceived not to exist. To thee alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others.”

– St. Anselm, Proslogium, Chapter 3

Here, Anselm contrasts God’s necessary existence – “thou canst not be conceived not to exist” – with the mere contingent existence of things which “can be conceived not to exist”. So, a bit like in Aquinas’ 3rd way above, Anselm believes God not only exists, but exists necessarily.

AO2 evaluation: Ontological arguments 

Issues for ontological arguments:

  • Gaunilo’s island (see AQA notes for more): Gaunilo takes the same logical structure of Anselm’s ontological argument and uses it to derive an obviously false conclusion, which suggests the logic of Anselm’s ontological argument is invalid:
    • The perfect island is, by definition, the greatest conceivable island
    • It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind
    • Therefore, the perfect island exists in reality
  • Existence is not a predicate (see AQA notes for more): Kant argues that ‘existence’ is not a real predicate. For example, “the book [subject] is red [predicate]” tells us something about the book – it informs us about the concept. But to say “the book exists” does not logically add anything to the concept. Instead, existence is something that has to be proved a posteriori and cannot be derived a priori.

The problem of evil

For a more in-depth explanation, see the problem of evil notes for AQA philosophy.

The problem of evil is an argument that God does not exist because of the existence of evil and suffering in our world. Responses to the problem of evil are known as theodicies.

Versions of the problem of evil

There are two versions of the problem of evil:

The logical problem of evil

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

– Epicurus

The logical problem of evil says, a priori, that God’s existence is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil.

J.L. Mackie’s inconsistent triad argument is a version of the logical problem of evil. Mackie argues it is impossible for all 3 of the following statements to be true simultaneously:

  1. An omnipotent God exists
  2. An omnibenevolent God exists
  3. Evil exists

The reasoning for this is that if 1 were true, God would be powerful enough to get rid of all evil. Plus, if 2 were true, God would want to get rid of all evil. So, if 1 and 2 were both true, evil would not exist because God would just eliminate it. However, evil does exist – people steal, get murdered, etc. – so either God is unwilling (not omnibenevolent) or unable (not omnipotent) to eliminate evil.

The evidential problem of evil

The evidential problem of evil allows that it is logically possible that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow some evil to exist (e.g. because of free will or soul making), but argues that the unnecessary amount of evil in our world and unfair ways evil is distributed suggest God does not exist.

For example, we might accept that God would allow the evil of stealing because of the greater good of giving humans free will. But would an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God allow innocent babies to be born with painful congenital diseases? This seems unfair and has nothing to do with free will. There’s also pointless evils. For example, a deer gets burned in a forest fire in the middle of nowhere and dies a slow and painful death – and no one even knows about it. It seems God could easily have eliminated such pointless suffering without sacrificing some greater good.

If God is omnibenevolent, He wants to maximise good and minimise evil. And while it’s logically possible there is some mysterious and unknowable reason why our world is the most effective way to maximise good, the evidential problem of evil suggests this is highly unlikely. This is strong a posteriori evidence against God’s existence.

AO2 evaluation: The problem of evil 

Issues for the problem of evil:

  • Free will (see AQA notes here for more as well as the Augustinian theodicy below)
    • Response 1: But what about natural evils, such as deaths from earthquakes and hurricanes? How does free will explain these?
  • Soul-making: See below.
    • Response: The soul-making hypothesis is potentially compatible with any amount of evil. In other words, no amount or distribution of evil could count as evidence against God’s existence because the religious believer could always just say it is necessary for spiritual development. As such, the soul-making response may be unfalsifiable.
  • Relative strength of logical and evidential versions: As a deductive argument, the logical problem of evil sets the bar very high: It says there is no logically possible scenario where God would allow evil. And so, to beat the logical version, you only need to describe a logically possible scenario – however unlikely such a scenario is in reality – where God would allow evil (e.g. free will). As an inductive argument, the evidential problem of evil does not 100% disprove God’s existence. However, you could argue that it is highly persuasive and strong evidence against God’s existence.
  • Reject assumed attributes of God: One way to resolve the inconsistent triad and explain why God allows evil is to reject either God’s omnipotence or God’s omnibenevolence:
    • Omnipotence: For example, process theology argues that God is not able to override human free will. It is thus impossible for God to prevent evil.
    • Omnibenevolence: You could argue that God is omnipotent but not omnibenevolent in the way theistic religions typically conceive Him. For example, deistic conceptions of God (e.g. Aristotle’s prime mover) are not necessarily omnibenevolent.


A theodicy is an explanation of why an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow evil. In other words, theodicies are responses to the problem of evil:

The Augustinian Theodicy: Free will

St. Augustine explained the existence of evil as the result of free will. This is sometimes called the soul-deciding theodicy. According to Augustine, God is perfect and can only do good. However, evil and suffering occur because humans (and angels) use their free will to disobey God’s perfection. So, evil is not a thing itself, but a privation (lack) of good.

The Augustinian theodicy comes from the Biblical story of the Fall in the book of Genesis. According to this story, God initially made a perfect world without evil (the Garden of Eden) along with the first humans: Adam and Eve. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge, but a serpent (Satan) tempts them to disobey. Adam and Eve give in to temptation (because they have free will) and eat from the tree of knowledge, after which God banishes them from the Garden of Eden into a fallen world – our world – that contains evil.

The Augustinian Theodicy: The Fall

“For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

– Genesis, chapter 3 verse 5 (KJV)

As descendants of Adam and Eve, all humans inherited their sinful nature (you can think of it like a sin gene). This is known as original sin. Because of this original sin, all humans deserve to be punished.

The Irenaean Theodicy: Soul-making

John Hick explains the existence of evil as necessary for spiritual development. This is known as the soul-making theodicy.

The soul-making theodicy originates in the philosophy of Irenaeus (which is why it’s also referred to as the Irenaean theodicy). According to Irenaeus, God’s ultimate plan for humanity is spiritual development. God deliberately made humanity spiritually immature and deliberately made the world a difficult environment. This difficult environment requires humans to make moral decisions, which enables them to learn and mature spiritually. God made humans in His image – with the free will to choose between good and bad – and God’s long-term plan is that creation will grow to his likeness and perfection, freely choosing the good over the bad.

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

– Genesis, chapter 1 verse 26 (KJV)

Free will is a big part of the soul-making theodicy. God could have just made humanity perfectly good from the get-go, but that would effectively remove free will. True goodness – goodness in God’s likeness – must be freely chosen.

Hick builds on this idea. Hick argues that God created an epistemic distance between Himself and humanity. This epistemic distance is a gap between humans and God – it means we can never know of God’s existence with 100% certainty. The reason for this again comes back to free will: If God made his existence and character obvious, we would have no choice but to follow Him (Peter Vardy likens this to a king forcing a peasant girl to marry him due to his authority even though she doesn’t love him). Instead, what God wants is a genuine and freely chosen decision to follow in God’s ways and choose good (to continue Vardy’s analogy, this is like marrying someone because you genuinely love them).

According to the soul-making theodicy, hell exists for further soul-making. It is not a place of eternal punishment but is instead a place where souls continue to exercise free will in the face of evil and which, eventually, they can escape from. Hick thus believes in universal salvation: The idea that everyone will go to heaven (eventually).

AO2 evaluation: Theodicies 

Issues for the Augustinian theodicy: 

  • Original sin is unfair: How is it fair and just for God to punish all humans (including newborn babies) for the actions of Adam and Eve? This seems to contradict God’s omnibenevolence.
    • Reply: Original sin is more about the nature of human beings as sinners – not about specific sinful acts. As mentioned above, all humans are descended from Adam and Even and so inherited their sinful nature (like a gene).
  • Evolution: Whereas Genesis describes humans as created by God fully-formed, the theory of evolution argues that humans evolved from primates. If the underlying Adam and Eve story is wrong, then it undermines any conclusions about the problem of evil drawn from it.
    • Reply: Many Christians see the story of Adam and Eve as symbolic. They see the lessons about human nature, free will, good and evil etc. as the point of the story rather than a literal description of the origin of humanity.
Issues for the Irenaean theodicy: 

  • Pointless evils: E.g. a newborn baby suffering in pain, or animal suffering – where is the soul-making here? It’s not like babies or animals can understand what’s going on and develop spiritually.
    • Reply: This again goes back to epistemic distance – if there was always an obvious point to suffering, it would make God’s existence obvious. Plus, pointless evils are necessary to develop spiritual virtues such as deep sympathy (see the AQA notes here for more).
  • Universal salvation: The idea of universal salvation is theologically controversial and a minority view among Christians. For example, Matthew 25:46 says “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” which suggests that hell is a place of ‘everlasting’ punishment from which no amount of soul-making leads to escape.

Religious experience

A religious experience is a subjective encounter that the experiencing person interprets as in some way religiously significant (e.g. as an encounter with God). The syllabus mentions two types of religious experience:

  • Mystical experiences are experiences totally unlike ordinary perceptions. They can be hard to describe but common themes of mystical experiences include a feeling of experiencing the infinite and of experiencing unity with all things. This is often accompanied with strong feelings of ecstasy.
  • Conversion experiences are experiences that lead someone to immediately and completely change their way of life. The classic example of this is Saul in the Bible. Saul initially persecuted Christians but, following a conversion experience where he met Jesus, converted to Christianity and became Paul the Apostle and founded several Christian communities.

This topic considers how these experiences should be understood and what conclusions, if any, we can draw from them.

William James: Features of religious experience

William James was a philosopher and psychologist. In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James studied religious experiences across different cultures.

James identifies 4 features common to mystical religious experiences:

  • Ineffable: The experience is indescribable. The subject can’t adequately put the experience into words.
  • Noetic: The subject feels they gained knowledge or insight from the experience. In the case of religious experience, this is like direct knowledge of God that is deeper than can be reached by the intellect.
  • Transient: The experience itself is short-lived in duration – usually less than half an hour (but the after-effects may be long-lasting or even permanent).
  • Passive: The experience happens to the subject, it’s not something they actively make happen and is beyond their control.

Explanations of religious experience

The syllabus mentions the following explanations of religious experience:

Union with a greater power is the supernatural explanation that is used as evidence of God’s existence. This can be contrasted with the other two explanations – psychological and physiological – that say religious experiences have a natural explanation and so are not evidence of God’s existence.

Union with a greater power

William James’ conclusions

“I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript

From his studies, James concluded that religious experience proves the possibility of union with a greater power.

It is important to note that this is not the same thing as proving God exists – as James himself points out. However, James does take religious experience to prove the existence of a spiritual dimension to reality. He concludes that the similarities between religious experiences across cultures suggests there is some truth to be found in all religions – an idea known as pluralism.

James believed all mystical religious experiences tap into this same spiritual reality, which is the core of of religion. Different cultures then develop their own beliefs and practices around these experiences – different religions. Studying these religious practices, for James, is ‘second-hand’ religion and less important than the direct mystical experience, which is first-hand contact with God or a greater spiritual power.

Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony
  • Principle of credulity: We should accept our own perceptions as accurate unless there is good reason not to (e.g. you’re high on drugs). In other words: If you saw it, it’s probably real.
  • Principle of testimony: We should accept others’ accounts of their experiences as accurate unless there is clear evidence against them (e.g. they’re a known liar or mentally ill). In other words: If someone says they saw something, it’s probably real.

Applied to religious experience, Swinburne would argue that if someone claims to have had an experience of God or ‘union with a higher power’, the principle of testimony says we should take this account at face value and accept it as accurate – unless there is good reason not to.

Natural explanations

Psychological explanations

Psychological explanations explain religious experiences as the result of mental processes, such as illusions and hallucinations.

Sigmund Freud, for example, believed religion to be a man-made psychological fantasy. He saw the mind as composed of different parts – conscious and subconscious – that interact with each other. According to Freud, religion fulfils several useful psychological purposes, such as:

  • Fear of death: The religious belief in life after death alleviates the unpleasant fear of death.
  • Guilt: The religious belief in God’s forgiveness (e.g. in the story of Jesus) alleviates the unpleasant feelings of guilt for bad things we’ve done.
  • Safety: As children, our parents provide us with a sense of safety and security in a dangerous world. As adults, the world is still dangerous, but God provides that same feeling of safety and security (Freud would point to how God is referred to as ‘the Father’ as evidence for this).

Applied to religious experience, Freud would say such experiences are merely illusions that result from a person’s beliefs, fears, and desires surrounding religion. The subconscious forces of the mind are so powerful that they may cause someone to hallucinate a religious experience – a bit like in a dream – but such experiences are entirely a creation of the mind and do not reflect reality.

Physiological explanations

Physiological explanations try to explain religious experience by identifying the underlying physical processes that cause them, such as brain states and chemical factors.

Medical researchers Newburg and D’Aquili studied mystical experiences in an attempt to identify the underlying neural mechanisms. For example, through brain scans of monks and nuns engaging in religious practices (e.g. meditation and prayer), they identified areas of the brain – which they call the ‘causal operator’ and ‘holistic operator’ – which show increased activity during religious experience.

Similarly, Michael Persinger used a device – nicknamed the ‘God helmet‘ – to stimulate areas of the brain associated with religious experience via magnetic fields. According to Persinger, over 80% of participants felt they experienced a ‘presence’ with them, with some participants having perceptions of what felt to them like God.

AO2 evaluation: Religious experience 

Issues for religious experience as union with a greater power:

  • Is testimony sufficient? In response to Swinburne’s principle of testimony above, Hume would argue we should always “reject the greater miracle”. In the case of religious experience, Hume would say it is more likely that the person claiming to have had a religious experience “should either deceive or be deceived” than that they really did meet God. In other words, we have plenty of evidence of people hallucinating, dreaming, lying, or just making mistakes. And, in contrast, we have very little evidence of meeting God in-person. So, in the case of religious experience, Hume would argue it is more likely the testimony is mistaken than that such a thing really happened.
    • Corporate religious experience response: Corporate religious experiences are when a religious experience is shared by multiple people. For example, in the Miracle of the Sun of 1917, more than 30,000 people gathered in Fatima, Portugal, where they saw the sun ‘dance’ in the sky after a miracle was prophecised by 3 shepherd children. The fact that so many different people all experienced the same thing makes this testimony far stronger than the claim of a single person. In this case, you could argue the greater miracle would be 30,000 people all suffering hallucinations at the exact same time.
      • Mass hysteria counter-response: Sceptics often point to the many examples of mass hysteria from over the years (e.g. the Hammersmith Ghost hysteria of 1803 or the clown panic of 2016) and argue that the Miracle of the Sun and other corporate religious experiences are similar such cases of mass hallucination.
  • Does religious experience prove God? Even if there really is no natural explanation for some religious experiences, this does not necessarily prove that God is causing them. For example, there are many accounts of religious experiences in Buddhist cultures, but Buddhists do not believe in a monotheistic God like Christians, Jews, and Muslims do.
    • Response: James never took religious evidence to prove God’s existence – only “union with something larger than ourselves”. Similarly, Swinburne does not take religious experience as proof of God’s existence. However, the principle of testimony suggests we should take religious experiences of God as evidence in support of God’s existence.
Issues for natural (psychological/physiological) explanations of religious experience:

  • James’ pragmatic argument: William James makes a pragmatic argument for the validity of religious experience. Pragmatism is the view that if a belief or theory has practical benefits or effects, then it should be treated as true. Conversion experiences are the most obvious example of observable positive effects of religious experience. James gives several examples of conversions, including an alcoholic named Mr. Hadley who never drank again and went on to become “an active and useful rescuer of drunkards in New York” following a religious experience. James argues that mere hallucinations are not able to cause such drastic change and so dramatic conversions such as these require a supernatural explanation.
    • Response: Bertrand Russell counters that there are plenty of cases of people being inspired by works of fiction to change their lives – and we don’t take these cases as evidence that these fictional characters must exist.
  • Cross-cultural validity: If religious experience was entirely psychological, you would expect differences between cultures that reflected the different beliefs of those cultures. However, as described above, William James observed four features were common to religious experiencesregardless of culture. The fact different cultures have the same experience may suggest a common supernatural cause to all of them, which supports the union with a higher power explanation.
    • Response: These common experiences may be due to the fact that humans from different cultures have common biology (e.g. common brain pathways), which could be seen to support physiological explanations of religious experience instead.
  • Combined explanations: Even if religious experiences have a natural explanation (e.g. psychological or physiological), this does not mean there isn’t also a supernatural explanation as well. For example, James says: “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature” – in other words, physiological factors (e.g. alcohol) may cause religious experience but such experiences are still interactions with something supernatural. Similarly, Newburg and D’Aquili conclude that “it is a foolish reductionism indeed that states that, because [mystical experiences] can be understood in terms of neuropsychological processes, it is therefore derivative from baseline reality. Indeed the reverse argument could just as well be made.” In other words, it is equally possible that the supernatural (God) causes changes in the brain than the other way round.

Religious language

The religious language topic covers 2 different debates:

Negative vs. analogical vs. symbolic

Religions and sacred texts often talk about God as ‘infinite’, ‘eternal’, and ‘beyond understanding’. However, as finite and temporal beings, it is unclear whether we can even make make sense of such descriptions. In some Islamic traditions, for example, it is forbidden to depict or even imagine God because God is beyond human comprehension and so any representations will be inaccurate. So, this topic is about how we should describe and think of God, when God is beyond human understanding:

The apophatic way (via negativa)

the apophatic way (via negativa)The apophatic way says we cannot describe what God is, we can only describe God what God is not. For example, rather than describing God’s power, the apophatic way would emphasise that God is not weak. Rather than describing God’s goodness, the apophatic way would say that God is not evil.

Pseudo-Dionysus argued that positive descriptions of God create an anthropomorphic (i.e. human) and inaccurate idea of God. If we think of God’s power, for example, we will inevitably think of powerful human beings (e.g. presidents or business leaders) and this will create a picture of God’s power as somehow similar. However, God’s power is beyond human comprehension and so such comparisons are inaccurate – it is only appropriate to think of God’s power in an apophatic way.

The cataphatic way (via positiva)

the cataphatic way (via positiva)The cataphatic way says we can, positively, describe what God is.

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that, by analogy (i.e. comparison), we can understand God’s positive qualities – at least partially.

Positive words used to describe God, such as ‘powerful’ and ‘loving’, are not univocal – they don’t have the same meaning as when we describe human beings – because human beings aren’t the same as God. But nor do these words have a completely different meaning either – they’re not equivocal – because humans were made in God’s image.

univocal equivocal religious language

So, Aquinas advocates for a middle ground: Analogy. Words used to describe God resemble words used to describe human beings:

  • Analogy of attribution: We can say there is a causal relationship between properties of human beings and properties of God. Aquinas illustrates this with an example using the medical understanding of his day: A healthy cow will produce healthy urine, and so we can get an idea of the cow’s health from the cow’s urine. Similarly, as God is the cause of human beings, we can get a vague idea of God’s power and love from looking at human examples of power and love.
  • Analogy of proportion: We should understand the extent to which something has a property in proportion to the kind of thing it is. For example, we might call a 3 year old who can read a book ‘clever’, but we wouldn’t apply the same standard of ‘clever’ to a 20 year old PhD student. As God is infinite, we should understand God’s properties – power, love, knowledge, etc. – in proportion to that.

The symbolic way

The symbolic way of talking about God says that words used to talk about God should not be understood literally as descriptions, but symbolically.

Paul Tillich argues that literal language is unable to adequately express God. Literal language describes things in our empirical world that we can understand – but God is beyond the physical world and beyond our understanding. So, the meaning of religious language is almost entirely symbolic.

“That which is the true ultimate transcends the realm of finite reality infinitely. Therefore, no finite reality can express it directly and properly…. Whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately, whether or not we call it God, has a symbolic meaning… If faith calls God “almighty,” it uses the human experience of power in order to symbolize the content of its infinite concern, but it does not describe a highest being…”

– Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

According to Tillich, religious language taps into “hidden depths of our being” a bit like how art and music “reveal elements of reality which cannot be approached scientifically”. As such, the meaning of religious language is to point to a higher reality that cannot be expressed literally. When people hear religious statements, such as “God loves us”, these symbolic expressions connect them to a spiritual reality beyond what is or can be expressed in literal or scientific language.

tillich signs and symbols religious language
A sign (left) just points to a thing, whereas a symbol (right) points to and participates in a thing.

Symbolic religious language not only points to this higher spiritual reality, it also participates in it. Tillich differentiates between signs and symbols. A sign simply points to something (e.g. an arrow pointing to a McDonalds) whereas a symbol points to and participates in the thing (e.g. a nation’s flag represents the nation itself – disrespect towards the flag is seen as disrespect towards the nation).

Religious language is similarly symbolic: The cross, for example, does not only point to God but also represents Jesus’ sacrifice. By representing and participating in this spiritual reality, religious language connects us to something beyond the physical world in a way that literal language is unable to.

AO2 evaluation: Negative, analogical, and symbolic religious language 

Issues for the apophatic way/via negativa:

  • Limited knowledge: The apophatic way limits theological discussion to the point where it may be impossible to know much about God at all, leading to agnosticism.
    • Maimonides’ response: Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides uses the example of a ship. He argues that with enough negative information – not a plant, not a natural thing, not flat or round, and so on – we would eventually have an idea of what a ship is, even if we’d never seen one.
  • Conflicting evidence: Many religious texts do positively describe God. For example, in the Bible, Exodus 34:6 describes God as “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”. Psalms 116:5 says “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.” These are positive descriptions of what God is.
    • Maimonides’ response: These should be understood as descriptions of God’s actions, not God’s character or essence.
Issues for the cataphatic way/via positiva:

  • Incorrect interpretation: The cataphatic way could potentially lead to incorrect interpretations of God. As Pseudo-Dionysus argues above, positive descriptions risk creating an anthropomorphic (i.e. human) and inaccurate picture of God. Similarly, Maimonides argues that thinking of God in positive terms is idolatrous as it in some sense divides God – it separates God’s properties from God Himself. Instead, Maimonides argues, the only positive description of God is that he exists: “we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence”.
  • Limited knowledge: Aquinas would say, for example, that God’s ‘power’ is not the same as human power (not univocal) but nor is it completely different (not equivocal). Although this may provide a bit more information about God than the apophatic way, it is still not fully clear what ‘power’ means in this context.
    • Swinburne’s response: Swinburne rejects Aquinas’ use of analogy and argues that religious language should be understood as univocal. So, with the example above, ‘power’ should be understood to mean the same thing as it does in human contexts, but stretched to a much greater degree.
Issues for the symbolic way:

  • Conflicting evidence: Although some religious language may be symbolic, a lot of religious text makes more sense when understood literally. To pick a random example from the Bible, Matthew 21:17 says “And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.” This appears to be just a factual description of what happened rather than something symbolic.
  • 20th Century critiques: If religious language is only symbolic, then its claims cannot be verified. Thus, according to Ayer’s verification principle (see below), religious language would be meaningless. Similarly, symbolic religious language cannot be falsified (see below) and so would be meaningless according to Flew.

20th Century perspectives

For a more in-depth explanation, see the religious language notes for AQA philosophy.

The 20th Century debate concerning religious language is about what people mean when they make religious claims such as “God loves us”, “God answers prayers”, and “God exists”. Are such claims even meaningful?

At first, it might seem obvious that such claims are meaningful. When religious people say “God exists”, they are describing the world and expressing a belief. In the language of philosophy, they are making a cognitive statement that they believe to be true. However, some philosophers disagree with this analysis of religious language:

  • The logical positivists say “God exists” is meaningless because it can’t be verified.
  • Falsificationism says “God exists” is meaningless because it can’t be falsified.
  • Wittgenstein takes a non-cognitive approach, arguing that “God exists” is not a description of the world that is either true or false. Instead, the religious believer is doing something like expressing their commitment to a particular – religious – way of life.

Logical positivism

The key view of logical positivism is the idea that for a statement to be meaningful and capable of being true or false, it must be verifiable.

AJ Ayer was a key figure in the logical positivist movement. Ayer’s verification principle says that a statement is only meaningful if it is either:

  1. An analytic truth, i.e. logical truths, such as mathematical statements (e.g. “1+1=2”), and things that are true by definition (e.g. “triangles have 3 sides”).
  2. Verifiable, i.e. there must be some observation or test (at least in principle) that would prove the statement is true. For example, even if the technology didn’t exist yet, you could in principle verify the statement “there is water on Mars” by sending a space ship to Mars and finding water there.

Applied to religious language, Ayer’s verification principle says that it is meaningless. There is no experiment or test, for example, that could verify God’s existence.


Karl Popper argued that meaningful scientific claims must be falsifiable: There must be some possible observation or test that could in principle disprove the claim.

For example, “water boils at 100°c” could be falsified by heating some water to 999°c without it boiling and so is a meaningful claim. In contrast, there is no test that could disprove the claim “everything in the universe doubles in size every 10 seconds” because any measurement device used to prove the claim would also double in size. Thus, “everything in the universe doubles in size every 10 seconds” would be meaningless according to Popper.

Antony Flew applied this idea of falsification to religious language. He gave the following analogy intended to illustrate how God’s existence is unfalsifiable and thus meaningless:

  • Two explorers find a clearing in a jungle. Both weeds (these represent evil) and flowers
  • (these represent good) grow here.
  • Explorer A says the clearing is the work of a gardener (who represents God). Explorer B (atheist) disagrees.
  • To settle the argument, they keep watch for the gardener.
  • After a few days, they haven’t seen him, but Explorer A says it’s because the gardener is invisible.
  • So, they set up an electric fence and guard dogs to catch the gardener instead.
  • But, after a few more days, they still haven’t detected the gardener.
  • Explorer A then says that not only is the gardener invisible, he’s also intangible, makes no sound, has no smell, etc.
  • Explorer B asks: What is the meaningful difference between this claim and the claim that the gardener doesn’t even exist?

antony flew jungle clearing religious languageIn other words, Explorer A’s theory is unfalsifiable – nothing could possibly prove it wrong. Every time they put the theory to the test with observations, Explorer A come up with a reason why those observations don’t disprove it. And so, because it is unfalsifiable, Explorer A’s theory is meaningless.

Flew says it’s a similar thing with belief in God: We can’t see God, hear God, touch God, etc. We can’t even use the problem of evil as evidence against God’s existence because the religious believer just creates reasons why an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow evil. Flew argues that because the religious believer accepts no observations count as evidence against belief in God, the religious believer’s hypothesis is unfalsifiable and meaningless.

Language games and form of life (Wittgenstein)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy argues that the meaning of words is not some static thing that is the same in all contexts. Instead, meaning comes from how words are used – and the same words may be used differently in different contexts and by different people.

Just as different games have different rules, different contexts give rise to different language games. Compare, for example:

  • “The bus passes the bus stop”
  • “The peace of the Lord passes all understanding”

Although these two statements have the same structure on the surface, they clearly mean two completely different things – they’re ‘moves’ within two different language games.

Verificationists like Ayer analyse “God exists” within the language game of science – they treat it like a hypothesis that can be empirically proved or disproved. But Wittgenstein would argue religious believers aren’t playing the scientific language game when they say “God exists” – they’re playing the religious language game. And so, to analyse “God exists” within the scientific language game is to misunderstand what it means.

For Wittgenstein, the proper way to understand religious language is as a form of life. This is a bit like a wider language game – it’s someone’s foundational way of seeing the world:

“It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.”

– Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

wittgenstein duck rabbitSo, for Wittgenstein, the disagreement between the religious believer and someone like Ayer is not a disagreement about facts. Instead, it’s a difference in ‘interpretation’ – the two sides reflect two different ways of seeing the world.

It’s a bit like the duck-rabbit picture above: It’s not like the duck is ‘right’ and the rabbit is ‘wrong’ or vice versa – they’re two different ways of seeing the same thing. Likewise, it’s not like “God exists” is ‘right’ and “God does not exist” is ‘wrong’ – they’re two different interpretations of the world that reflect different forms of life.


Wittgenstein’s analysis of religious language is interpreted by some as non-cognivitist.

Cognitive statements
Non-cognitive statements
Descriptions of the world Not descriptions of the world
Are either true or false Are neither true or false

  • “Water boils at 100°c”
  • “Triangles have 3 sides”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Paris”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Berlin”

  • “Ouch!”
  • “Go over there.”
  • “Hooray!”
  • “Don’t do that!”

Non-cognitivist interpretations of religious language say “God exists” is not a description of the world that is either true or false. Instead, it is something non-cognitive – it is neither true or false.

AO2 evaluation: 20th Century perspectives of religious language 

Issues for logical positivism/Ayer’s verification principle:

  • Self-defeating (see AQA notes for more): The verification principle is, itself, neither an analytic truth nor empirically verifiable. So, according to its own criteria, the verification principle is meaningless!
    • Ayer’s reply: The verification principle is not a statement, but a definition.
  • Too strict: There are many meaningful claims that can’t be verified. For example, historical claims such as “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” can’t be verified because we can’t go back in time to do so. Similarly, we can’t verify many scientific claims, such as “nothing travels faster than light”, because we can’t search every corner of the universe to verify that there are no exceptions.
  • Eschatological verification (see AQA notes for more): Hick argues that even if “God exists” is not verifiable empirically, it is verifiable eschatologically (i.e. after we die). Hick tells a parable of a celestial city to illustrate this concept.
Issues for falsificationism/Flew’s jungle clearing analogy: 

  • Mitchell’s partisan analogy (see AQA notes for more): Religious belief is not like ordinary ‘provisional hypotheses‘ that are abandoned as soon as the evidence goes against them. However, this does not mean religious belief is an unfalsifiable ‘vacuous formulae‘ held in the face of any and all conflicting evidence (as Flew claims). Instead, religious belief is a ‘significant article of faith‘ – the religious believer accepts evidence against God’s existence (e.g. the problem of evil) but maintains faith and seeks an explanation of conflicting evidence. Mitchell tells a parable of a resistance fighter to illustrate these concepts.
  • Hare’s ‘bliks’ (see AQA notes for more): Religious beliefs are ‘bliks‘ – fundamental beliefs that are not sensitive to evidence. Although bliks are unfalsifiable, they are still meaningful to the person who holds them. Hare tells a parable of a paranoid university student to illustrate this concept.
Issues for Wittgenstein/language games/form of life:

  • Counter-examples: Contrary to Wittgenstein’s interpretation of religious language as a separate language game, many religious believers do treat “God exists” like a scientific hypothesis that is literally true. For example, Aquinas is seemingly arguing that “God exists” is literally, scientifically, true in his cosmological and teleological arguments above. This suggests that (at least some) religious believers are not, in fact, playing a different language game to people like Ayer.

The OCR Religious Studies A Level is assessed via 3 exam papers:

OCR religious studies exam structure

Paper 2: Religion and Ethics>>>

Paper 3: Developments in Religious Thought >>>