Studying Religion

- Kantian Style

by Stephen Palmquist (

How should we study religion?

This question is relevant not only to stu­dents working towards a degree in religious studies, but to every thinking human being. For a person's concep­tion of how religion ought to be studied will determine to a large extent that person's view of the value (or lack of value) of be­ing reli­gious, whether or not that person actually studies religion in depth. I say "to a large extent" because this is only one of two key factors which determine a person's religious disposition. The other im­por­tant factor is what a person actually finds as a result of engaging in a religious quest.

Some approaches make it easier to find something religiously meaningful in life, while others make it more difficult. For ex­ample, some people would identify "studying religion" with discovering certain external facts, per­haps by learning the latest theories about the "true" date and authorship of some religious texts, or observing people as they engage in religious practices in order to dis­cover the so­cial and/or psychological factors causing them to act in such a way. Such an assump­tion often tends to lead students of religion to doubt the value of being religious. Others, by contrast, would associate studying religion with discovering internal truth, per­haps by practicing certain devotional exer­cises, or thinking philosophically about ques­tions re­lating to religion. This assumption often tends to confirm for the student the value of being religious.

Philosophers, of course, have developed widely differing views on what it means to study religion or to be reli­gious, not all of which put religion in a posi­tive light. But among them one figure stands out because of his immense influence on vir­tually every subsequent philosopher. That person is the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose understanding of the task of studying religion provides us with an inter­esting way of combining the two ways of studying religion mentioned above.

According to Kant, there are basically two approaches people tend to adopt when studying religion (or anything else, for that matter). The first is a dogmatic approach, which assumes that the truth about God is "out there" to be grasped by us human beings, and that human reason is capable of grasping it. Dogmatists who believe their search has enabled them to find God will become "theists" (one who knows that God exists), whereas those whose search leaves them empty-handed will become "atheists" (one who knows that God does not exist).

The second approach is that of the scep­tic, who assumes there is no way we can grasp any knowledge of God. As a result, the true scep­tic will be neither a theist nor an atheist, but an "agnostic" (one who claims we cannot know whether or not God exists), though many sceptics doubt that there is any good reason to believe in God actively, even if He does exist. Interestingly, dogmatists and scep­tics share a common assumption: they both believe that what we find as a result of study­ing God and/or religion will be some­thing objective, something quite distinct from the investigator's own heart and mind. They dif­fer only in how they view the "object" to­wards which the religious quest is directed. Dogmatists believe this object must lie at least partly within the grasp of human knowledge, whereas sceptics believe it does not.

One of most significant features of Kant's philosophical System is that it defines and elaborates a "third way"-a narrow path which winds its way between the extremes of dogmatism and scepticism. He called this new, moderate approach to the study of reli­gion, the Critical approach. A Critical ap­proach acknowledges the aspects of both dogmatism and scepticism which make these extremes so appealing, but rejects those aspects which distort the truth. It accom­plishes this task, first and foremost, by re­jecting their common presupposition about the way truth actually becomes known. Kant argues that the proper approach to the task of studying God and/or religion is to look for something subjective, something which arises out of the investigator's own heart and mind. For Kant, then, "subjective" is not a negative term; it does not indicate a "bias" or unfair attitude, as it usually does in today's English usage. On the contrary, it indicates that the only way to solve the long-standing philosophical disputes which have troubled philosophers down through the ages (not the least of which is the question as to how God and religion ought properly to be studied) is to criticize reason itself, by examining the nature and limitations of the human heart and mind.

To what position does Kant's Critical approach lead for those who wish to use it to study religion? Kant himself has often been inter­preted as an agnostic "deist" (one who be­lieves a God exists, but does not interact with the world He created). But if this were true, then Kant would merely be another sceptic-a position he certainly did not intend to endorse. Nevertheless, like most bad inter­pretations, this one does con­tain some truth. For Kant's Critical approach does require him to agree with the sceptic on one basic point: our study of religion will never provide us with factual knowledge of God as an object existing "out there" in the world. What the traditional interpretation ig­nores is that Kant's approach denies that this requires us to adopt the sceptic's agnostic po­sition. Rather, he claims that the dogmatist is also right in one respect: the "object" of the religious quest can be known. The dog­matist errs only in failing to recognize that the religious quest is a quest for subjective truth; and the sceptic errs only in believing that the impossibility of obtaining objective knowledge of God requires us to give up the search altogether.

Kant is able to maintain this position, midway between the dogmatist and the scep­tic, by carefully distinguishing between the "theoretical" and the "practical" ways of studying religion. A theoretical approach uses the mind to search for scientifically verifiable knowledge, whereas a practical approach uses the heart to search for morally verifiable be­liefs. When Kant joins the sceptic in denying that we can know God, he is defining the scope and limits of any theoretical approach to the study of religion. When he joins the dogmatist in affirming that we can know God after all, he is defining the scope and limits of any practical approach to the study of reli­gion. Because Kant's Critical approach leads him to affirm both human ignorance of God as an objective reality and human knowledge of God as a subjective reality, we can call his position "Critical theism".

Let us now look more closely at how Kant develops and defends his Critical theism, and at the way in which he applies it to the study religion. First, why does Kant think we cannot know God as an objective reality? A complete an­swer to this question would require us to stray too far into the dif­ficult area of Kant's theory of knowledge. It will suffice simply to say that Kant believes theoretical knowledge always requires two basic elements, which he calls an "intuition" and a "concept". Any­thing that is "given" to our five senses when we experience an object could be called an in­tuition; when we general­ize the various given elements in our experi­ence, we form them into concepts, which act as rules enabling us to use words to describe certain types or aspects of objects. We can be said to have "knowledge" of something (in this theoretical sense) only when we have both a given intu­ition and a corresponding concept.

The prob­lem for anyone who wishes to use a theoreti­cal approach to study religion is that the pri­mary object of religion, God, can­not be given to us in intuition. Or at least, if God were to appear to us in all His glory, that experience would be so overwhelming that we would be unable to form any concept out of our intu­itions. Therefore, although theologians can form the concept of God, and mystics might be able to intuit God, nobody can combine such intuitions and concepts in a single expe­rience to produce objectively valid knowledge of God.

Kant uses this fact about the limitations of human knowledge to demonstrate why each of the three traditional theoretical argu­ments for the existence of God is invalid. The "ontological" argument tries to prove that God exists merely by arguing that the very concept of God as a "necessary Being" re­quires that the Being we are thinking about must exist. But Kant shows that this argument is based on a confusion between "logical" existence (i.e., the concept of an existing thing) and "real" existence (i.e., the in­tuition of an existing thing).

The "cosmological" argument tries to prove that God exists by claiming that, be­cause every­thing in the world is caused by something, the whole world must itself have a cause. But Kant shows that this argument is based on a confusion between "transcenden­tal" and "empirical" causality: unless we were able to step outside of the universe and view it in its entirety as an ob­ject, we simply cannot know whether or not it must obey the same laws that objects within the universe must obey.

Finally, the "physico-theological" (or "teleological") argument tries to prove that God exists by directing our attention to par­ticular existing things within the world which display a design or purpose that was not man-made: the experience of something as having a purpose presupposes the exis­tence of a rational being who designed it, so the numerous natural objects which display such purposes must point to a God who designed them in this way. This argument, Kant claims, deserves to be regarded with the greatest respect; yet as a scientifically valid proof of God's existence, it too fails. At best, it requires us to believe in some super-human force that shaped the material world into its present form; but it in no way requires us to believe in a God who created the material itself (nor to worship such a God, if He exists).

Kant's rejection of these arguments is certainly the primary reason why he is so often branded as an agnostic deist. Yet those who see him in this way usually have trouble explaining how the next step in his discus­sion of our belief in God can be consistent with such an apparently sceptical position. For Kant now argues that, although our minds are unable to provide us with knowl­edge of God, such knowledge is readily avail­able if we listen to our hearts instead. The "practical" approach is concerned primarily with examining the sources not of our scien­tific knowledge, but of our moral awareness of right and wrong.

Kant argues that a morally good act is one in which we obey what he calls the "moral law", which speaks internally to each individual's conscience, telling us to respect our fellow human beings by freely acting only in those ways which we could desire all people to act. Often, this will require us to make a choice between doing something which we know is good or doing something else which would make us happy. The basic characteristic of a virtuous action, therefore, is that it requires a person to say "no" to his or her own desire for happi­ness in order to obey the internal prompting of the moral law.

A problem arises at this point, however, the solution to which contradicts the claim that Kant was an agnostic deist. The problem is that reason tells us not only to obey the moral law, but also to desire happiness; yet obeying the moral law often requires us to give up our own happiness. Imagine, for ex­ample, that you decide not to cheat on an exam even though the best student in the class is sitting right next to you, but you then fail that class and are told you will not be able to graduate with your classmates. I would guess that such a situation would make you quite unhappy. It might even cause you to question your decision in the exam: "Perhaps it would have been better if I had cheated after all!" Kant believes such appar­ently harmless questions, which all thinking persons have asked themselves from time to time, are actually calling into question the very rationality of morality itself. For in such situations we are, in effect, saying: "If doing what is right makes me unhappy, then morality itself is irrational!"

Kant argues that this problem can be solved only by believing in a God who over­sees our human situation, understands our predicament, and guarantees that those who obey the moral law will eventually be reward­ed (e.g., in the life after death) with a kind of happiness which is far greater than the hap­piness we gain from fulfilling our earthly desires. In other words, even though one need not believe in God in order to act morally, one must believe in God in order to understand why acting morally is meaningful.

Kant's argu­ment presents us with three options: we can become a pure sceptic and stop trying to per­form good actions; or we can continue acting morally but claim that morality is simply ir­rational; or we can believe in God and thereby provide ourselves with an ultimate reason for obeying the moral law. Kant himself clearly supported the third option, calling it a "moral argument" for believing that God exists. Although this argument does not in any way remove our theoretical ignorance of God's ex­istence, it satisfies, according to Kant, all the demands of our reason and provides the only possible "proof" that God exists. Indeed, any sceptics or dogmatic atheists who continue to act morally are in their hearts acting as if God exists, even if they refuse to believe in God with their minds.

Even though this practical approach must be the ultimate rational basis for all re­ligious belief, the theoretical approach is not entirely useless as a means of studying reli­gion. Rather, once we keep in mind that the practical approach is the primary approach, giving us our ultimate rational jus­tification for believing God exists, there is nothing wrong with using our minds to de­termine what this God must be like. That is, we must be careful not to base our be­lief that God exists on a theoretical approach; but once we have used the practical approach to estab­lish to our heart's satisfaction that He does exist, we are free to use our mind once again to investigate theoretical questions con­cern­ing God's nature. When Kant himself did this, he found three main characteristics of God's personality (corresponding directly to three aspects of human nature): de­pending on which part of our own nature we use as our basis for view­ing God, He will appear to us as either a holy lawgiver (mind), a benevolent ruler (heart), or a righteous judge (belly).

So far I have been discussing the Critical approach which Kant outlines mainly in his three Critiques-books in which God and religion are just two of many different topics Kant discusses. But Kant devoted another book, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Religion, entirely to the task of applying his Critical philosophy to the study of religion. In this book he establishes the necessary con­ditions which make religion possible. With­out going into any detail, the four main re­quirements can be summarized as follows: (1) religion is possible only if we recognize the radical evil in human nature, without which we would have been able to reach the goal of moral goodness on our own; (2) the resulting experience of a struggle between good and evil in our hearts must lead to an experience of conversion, in which God somehow im­parts grace to us; (3) the final "victory" of goodness can occur only when we band to­gether under our common recognition of the moral law and form a church in which we can encourage each other to obey; and (4) reli­gious activities must all serve, either directly or indirectly to enhance our ability to obey the moral law, which can be regarded as the voice of God, commanding us in our hearts, because "false service" of God happens when­ev­er we wrongly think we can please God merely by believing the right doctrines or obeying non-moral church rules.

In the foregoing discussion of what it means to study religion in a "Kantian style", we have seen that the study of religion must always be based on a practical approach, though it can then adopt a secondary, theoret­ical approach as well. There is, however, an aspect of religion which does not fit into ei­ther of these two approaches, mainly because it cannot itself be "studied". That aspect is the experience of religion. For Kant, the reli­gious experience of truth, beauty and good­ness in the world is far more important than the study of these realities as abstract philo­sophical ideals. Even the traditional theoreti­cal arguments for the existence of God, which have to be rejected if we treat them as noth­ing but mere theories, do have a value if they can be used to induce an experience of the reality to which they refer. But for Kant, the reality of God is manifested most clearly in the human experience of obligation, rooted as it is in the moral law. Moreover, just as the moral law can be regarded as an experience of the "voice of God" in our heart, the awesome sight of countless stars on a dark and clear night can be regarded as an experience of the "hand of God" in nature.

Such experiences cannot be studied. Yet without them, the task of studying religion can never be more than an academic game-at best an amusing pas­time to fill up our time in a world where there is nothing better to do, and at worst an illusory "dead end", which fools some into worshipping idols and blinds others from see­ing the Light which illumi­nates their own life.