The study of religion is based on numerous philosophical approaches ranging from ontological and phenomenological to anthropological approaches. However, the most common and widespread approaches to the study of religion are the ontological and phenomenological models. Both ontological and phenomenological approaches analyze and study the basis, function, and development of religion. However, the two approaches utilize different rational models, process and thought patterns in their study of religion. The philosophical models of ontology and phenomenology enable us to have a deeper comprehension of the functional analyses of religion and the substance and experience of transcendence which is an integral part of religion.
Ontology is concerned with the philosophical study of being with a particular interest in the concepts of becoming, existence and reality. Ontology deals with issues related to the existence of organizations, entities and objects and their relations within a hierarchy. An ontological approach towards religion is focused majorly on the argument about the existence of God and other deities upon which religion is based. The ontological approach begins its analysis of religion with a hypothetical question about the existence of the universe and its organization. A study is then done to find solutions to the hypothetical questions and if the study proves that a universe exists and the universe is indeed organized then this will be proof that a supernatural being or deity must be in existence (Dombrowski 113). The ontological approach has been used by Christian philosophers such as Rene Descartes and Anselm of Canterbury to argue about the existence of God as the basis of Christianity. Similarly, ontology as a model of philosophy has also been used by Islamic philosophers and scholars Mulla Sadra and Allama Tabatabai to explain the existence of Allah as the basis of Islam.
Phenomenology, on the other hand, is concerned with the study of structures of consciousness derived from first-hand experiences. Phenomenology deals with the intentionality derived from experience as intentionality form the central structure of every experience (Dombrowski 245). The phenomenology of religion is concerned with the experience derived from religion and therefore focuses more on the experiential basis of religion. The phenomenological model of religion explains religion based on the orientation and belief of worshippers and the experience of transcendence. The phenomenological approach considers religion as made up of different components and parts and therefore compares these divergent components to religious traditions to have a deeper understanding of religion.
The ontological and phenomenological approaches to the study of religion both have their weaknesses and strengths. The main strength of the ontological model is that it requires no empirical validation to prove the existence of God. The fact that the ontological approach is based on the formulation of a hypothetical argument removes the need for any empirical evidence as once the premise is accepted then it logically follows that the conclusion must be true. For example, if a hypothesis states that; If the universe exists and its existence is characterized by order then a supernatural being in control of the world must be in existence. According to the above hypothesis once one agrees that there is an orderly universe, he or she ultimately agrees with the conclusion that there exists a supernatural being. This strength is exploited by ontological philosopher Alvin Plantinga who begins his arguments with scientific hypothesis, therefore, avoiding or delaying the issues related to the validity of the predicate of his arguments. The main weakness of the ontological approach to religion is the model’s reliance on a hypothesis. A hypothesis is made up of numerous premises that if proved to be inaccurate may prove fatal to the entire argument espoused by the ontological model. Philosopher Immanuel Kant also exposes a weakness of the model by arguing that existence is not a predicate and therefore one cannot define God into existence (Gellman 288). Bertrand Russell, another ontological philosopher, supports Kant’s argument that existence cannot be based on a predicate and argues that Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments on the existence of God is only extensions of an ontological argument and not the intentions of the ontological argument. Existence cannot be based on a predicate as illustrated by the example below: First predicate: Santa exists; second predicate: Father Christmas is Santa; Therefore: Father Christmas exists. This example shows that predicates can only be used to create syllogisms and not to prove existence.
The phenomenological approach to the study of religion also has its strengths and weaknesses. The main strength of the phenomenological model is the fact that the model relies on empirical evidence and validation to make conclusions and analyses regarding religion. The phenomenological approach focuses on people’s conscious experience concerning religion and experience can be measured and subjected to scientific research and analysis (Hick 323). Therefore, the model enables the study of the phenomenon of religion without passing judgment on whether religion is a true or false concept. The phenomenological model enables religious students and philosophers to shelf their beliefs to concentrate on the analysis of believers’ experience of transcendence. Moreover, the phenomenological approach does not stress the belief, acceptance or rejection of a given religious belief system as it is concerned with the analysis, study and search for the purpose, meaning and value of religion (Moser 291). The philosophical model of phenomenology reflects the multiplicity of beliefs and non-beliefs as it does not recognize a singular belief system as the singular source of value to mankind. The duplicity and multiple facets of the phenomenological approach make it suitable in a highly heterogeneous society composed of diverse religious views and belief systems.
The main weakness of the phenomenological approach is the fact that it is susceptible to bias and subjectivity. The phenomenological approach, like any other scientific process, relies on empirical evidence and data that may be susceptible to bias and inaccuracy. The weakness of bias is worsened by the fact that the phenomenological model is mostly used in areas with diverse religious beliefs and may, therefore, be used by unscrupulous scholars to promote a given religious belief (Hick 378). This is compounded by the fact that the evidence relied on by the phenomenological model is based on believers’ experiences which is intricately subjective. Due to the complexities involved in the analysis and collection of data of religious believers’ experiences establishing the reliability, validity, and practicality of the empirical evidence used in the phenomenological approach is very challenging.
The philosophical approaches of ontology and phenomenology are quite important in the study and analysis of religion. The ontological approach focuses on the existence of deities upon which religious belief systems are based while the phenomenological model focuses on the experience believers derive from first-hand religious experience. The two models though different provide us with an in-depth analysis of the functions, ideologies, and values that underpin religion and therefore deepen our comprehension of the phenomenon of religion.
Dombrowski, D. Rethinking the Ontological Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Gellman, Jerome. Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry. London: Ashgate, 2002
Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. 2nd Ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
Moser, Paul. The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.