Immanuel Kant endures as one of the brightest philosophical minds the world has ever seen.
Dr. Terry Godlove, professor of philosophy at Hofstra University, profiles Kant’s views on religion.
Dr. Terry Godlove, associate dean for First-Year Programs and professor of philosophy and religion at Hofstra University, is the author of Kant and the Meaning of Religion, published by Columbia University Press. The book discusses how Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion contributed to our secular age in which belief and especially unbelief have become real options for millions of people. Dr. Godlove has been on the Hofstra faculty since 1986 and teaches courses in the history of philosophy, theory of knowledge, and philosophy of religion. His previous books include Religion, Interpretation and Diversity of Belief: The Framework Model from Kant to Durkheim to Davidson (Cambridge, 1989) and Teaching Durkheim on Religion (Oxford, 2004).
Immanuel Kant’s Religious Philosophy
Today, at least in most North Atlantic societies, we have space for atheists, for true believers, and for most everyone in between. Belief, unbelief and plenty of shades of grey are real options for millions of people. But, it wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago belief in a transcendent God was taken for granted and was often enforced by any means necessary. How this change came about mostly has to do with large-scale political forces and with the spread of capitalism.
But philosophy has played a role as well, and among philosophers Immanuel Kant looms large. Kant shows that we can prove neither that God exists nor that God does not exist—and so he exposes believers and atheists as making mirror-image mistakes. They both claim to know what cannot be known.
In this way Kant helped to bring about a more secular world.
Now, so far the story revolves around big ideas and large-scale forces—God, faith, secularity, capitalism and the like. But the corrosive effect of Kant’s philosophy on belief in God also has to do with the very small: with Kant’s theory of concepts and his theory of meaning.
Kant thinks that, in order for a concept to be meaningful, it has to connect up with experience in some regular, tangible way. If it does not, then we may begin to doubt whether it has any content at all. So in addition to showing that God’s existence can neither be proved or disproved, Kant also gets us to ask, What do we even mean by the concept “God”?
At this point the threat Kant’s philosophy poses to the transcendent God turns not so much on disproof as on vacuity. No dramatic Enlightenment victory; just a slow, fitful, fade to black.