The development of Western religious thought enjoyed its blossom in three historical periods: Late Middle Ages, when the fundamental elements of the rational comprehension of the Supreme Being were formulated; the Enlightenment, marked with the reconciliation of science and religion, and the beginning of the 20th century, with the spread of phenomenology and positivism as the new ways of experiencing God. Accordingly, the most influential philosophers, who made a substantial contribution to Western religious thought, were Aquinas, Rene Descartes, and William James.
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Aquinas was one of the “founding fathers”, who explained the necessity of comprehending God by human cognition along with maintaining emotional commitment and trust in the Lord, known as faith. The scholar presented the view that God’s existence was not self-evident, especially to mortals who had limited capacities in terms of perception. In this sense, Aquinas formulated the five ways of proving God’s existence, which later initiated vibrant discussions of the Lord’s nature in cosmological, moral, and teleological contexts. The thinker proposed the ideas that God was the primary cause of life and motion in the world; that the Lord was the source of perfections and highest moral and intellectual categories as well as the wisest “designer” who led living beings on their path.
Aquinas also suggested that “There must exist something the existence of which is necessary. […]It is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another” (Moore & Bruder, 2005, p.400). Philosophies of the following epochs were to great extent focused on either supporting or refuting these arguments, so Aquinas created the framework of Catholic philosophy that was further expanded and enriched. He also brought contemporary theology into the realm of philosophy and initiated an active exchange between these two self-sufficient sciences, so that philosophers began to reflect upon religious issues, whereas theologians started using the methodological apparatus of philosophy (e.g., induction, deduction, and so forth).
Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment, sought to draw more rational explanations of the Supreme Being, taking into consideration the achievements of contemporary science. His unique method of philosophical reasoning consisted in challenging each belief and assumption (Moore & Bruder, 2005, p.405), which had not been proven logically, as he earlier confirmed that the human apparatus of perception was extremely limited and unreliable.
Descartes’ views on the existence of God can be characterized by subjective, individualistic, and mixed ontological-cosmological nature, but he was first to raise an important issue, the initial cause of the idea of eternal Supreme Being. By combining the ontological and cosmological arguments, Descartes also presented the notion that human belief in and understanding of the supernatural, the absolute and the perfect, could not appear by itself but was inspired by the deity.
William James, one of the first psychologists, who addressed the issues of higher neural activity like attention, perception, cognition, will, and emotion, is also known for his approach to faith as the result of human passionate nature and willingness to believe in the omnipotent and omnipresent force to rely upon and seek support from (Moore & Bruder, 2005, p.423). By conceptualizing the psychological foundations of faith, James shows that believer gains greater benefits as compared to atheist, as the former receives hope for the divine blessing and protection, whereas the latter lives in fear and vacillation, questioning the truthfulness of religious beliefs and fearing that the acceptance of these beliefs is a significant error.
Thus, James to great extent modernized the classical perspective on the necessity of religious affiliation and faith and was the first thinker who illustrated that religion was a personal and rational choice by comparing the social and spiritual experiences of believers and non-believers. By connecting the philosophy of religion with psychology, James also contributed to the development of logical positivism in religious issues.
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As one can conclude, it is barely possible to expect Western religious thought to develop to its current state without the doctrines, developed by Aquinas and Descartes, and James’s perspective on the prudence and usefulness of religious commitment.
Moore, B. N. & Bruder, K. (2005). Philosophy: The power of ideas (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Ball, D. A., McCulloch, W. H. Jr., Frantz, P. L., Geringer, J. M., & Minor, M. S. (2006). International business: The challenge of global competition (10th ed.). New York: McGraw- Hill.