Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition

Course No. 4670
Professor Tyler Roberts, Ph.D.
Grinnell College
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Course No. 4670
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Course Overview

With the advent of modernity, the questions on which philosophers and religious thinkers had been reflecting for centuries underwent a dramatic and unprecedented change.

For over a thousand years, the existence of God and the importance of religion had gone unquestioned in the Western world. Any discussion was confined to the best ways of understanding and putting into practice a religious truth that had already been revealed.

But beginning in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution began to erode the position of authority held by religion. A new willingness to confront religious authority and a new respect for reason and its accomplishments began to counter established ways of thinking based on revealed religious truth.

As a result, modern philosophy began to separate from theology, and new philosophers began constructing a universal, human rationality independent of faith. For the first time in human history, it had become possible to not simply ponder faith and its forms of expression, but to challenge it as a fundamental truth-and to even question the very existence of God.

This schism fundamentally changed the course of Western civilization, and it has had consequences that remain with us to this day.

Now, with Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition, noted scholar and Professor Tyler Roberts of Grinnell College leads you through a 36-lecture journey that will help you understand exactly what the debate has been and will continue to be about.

The Challenging Debate That Has Defined Western Culture

This conversation is especially important in the West, which still plays host to an active debate between belief and skepticism far more vigorous than in other parts of the world.

It's a debate that increasingly swirls around the role religion should have in our lives, not only in terms of our personal decisions about worship but over how much influence religion is to have in the public arena, including politics, education, and medicine and other sciences.

The unmistakable conclusion is that each of us has a vital stake in understanding the nuances of the debate. By gaining a richer understanding of the debate's key aspects-including the nature of the conflict, the meaning of the arguments, and what is at stake both philosophically and theologically-you can add significantly to the level of sophistication you already bring to one of today's most far-reaching issues and increase your understanding of both Western civilization's past and the direction of its future.

Grasp the Ideas of the West's Most Influential Theological and Philosophical Minds

Skeptics and Believers is not a course in religious doctrine but one of intellectual and philosophical exploration, examining more than three centuries of debate in the Western world about the nature of religious faith and its compatibility with reason. Drawing on some of Western civilization's greatest theological and philosophical minds, Professor Roberts even-handedly follows and analyzes the arguments of a broad range of skeptics and believers, including the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Denis Diderot, Karl Barth, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, Martin Luther, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.

Professor Roberts's presentation maintains the sense of a true conversation across time, so that one never loses the thread of how one idea relates to another as he weaves a vast amount of material into a coherent whole that amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. The result is one of the most intellectually satisfying plunges into philosophical and theological thought you will ever take.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Religion and Modernity
    Modernity brought new views of knowledge and reality and new methods of inquiry, allowing Western thinkers unprecedented freedom to criticize religion and even to question the existence of God. Learn how this ushered in a tension between faith and suspicion that has endured as a major dynamic of Western religious thought. x
  • 2
    From Suspicion to the Premodern Cosmos
    Learn how Friedrich Nietzsche's 1882 picture of a meaningless cosmos marked a high point of the modern conflict between faith and suspicion, offering a stark contrast to the once-dominant conception of the Christian cosmos reflected most clearly in the work of the medieval period's major Christian thinker, Thomas Aquinas. x
  • 3
    From Catholicism to Protestantism
    Nietzsche was far from the first challenge posed to Aquinas, as you learn in this examination of the theological, social, and cultural conflicts that began to loosen Catholicism's hold on Europe as early as the 14th century, ultimately paving the way for Martin Luther's radical new Christian vision. x
  • 4
    Scientific Revolution and Descartes
    Watch modernity begin with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation, which brought not only religious wars and challenges to established social structures but also a Scientific Revolution and radical new ideas about the cosmos. These changes inspired thinkers like Rene Descartes to reconsider the nature of intellectual authority. x
  • 5
    Descartes and Modern Philosophy
    Grasp how Descartes' efforts to find new foundations for knowledge led him to make sharp distinctions between reason and revelation, philosophy and theology, and make him, for many, the first truly modern philosopher. x
  • 6
    Enlightenment and Religion
    The Enlightenment produced thinkers who embraced a natural, universal human reason they saw as promising freedom from the past and tradition. See how thinkers like John Locke presented religion with modernity's first great challenge: Can religion be rational? Some, like Locke himself, answered the question with a definitive "yes" while others thought the answer was clearly "no." x
  • 7
    Natural Religion and Its Critics
    The Enlightenment idealization of reason created its own debates. You learn to contrast the "rationalism" of Descartes—with knowledge's origins found in innate ideas—with the "empiricism" of thinkers like David Hume and Denis Diderot, who argued that knowledge must be grounded in the evidence of our senses. x
  • 8
    Kant—Religion and Moral Reason
    Follow Immanuel Kant's reasoning as he seeks a way beyond the rational-empirical impasse with a "critical philosophy" that claims knowledge is based not in the passive reception of sense impressions, but rather in the mind's active organization of them. From this perspective on the nature of human knowledge, we can never "know" God, but we can rationally postulate God's existence. x
  • 9
    Kant, Romanticism, and Pietism
    Kant's revolutionary ideas were extremely influential and remain so today, but they raised many questions for 19th-century religious thinkers dissatisfied by the idea of God as "postulate." You examine the alternatives offered by two radically different schools of thought. x
  • 10
    Schleiermacher—Religion and Experience
    Often called the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher was deeply influenced not only by Kant, but also by Romantic and pietist views of religious experience. You grasp his defense of religion as being grounded in a "sense," "intuition," or "feeling" of the whole of the universe. x
  • 11
    Hegel—Religion, Spirit, and History
    Learn how the views of Schleiermacher and Kant were challenged by those of G. W. F. Hegel, which stressed our conceptual, not just experiential, knowledge of God and sought to overcome the static rationalism of the Enlightenment. Hegel argued that history was the process by which Absolute Spirit, or God, empties itself in creation and then comes to self-consciousness in humans. x
  • 12
    Theology and the Challenge of History
    Some Enlightenment thinkers had questioned whether historical events—such as miracles—could help prove religions; others had begun to study the Bible as a historical document. As historical consciousness achieved dominance in the 19th century, you see how a new set of challenges emerged for religious thinkers. x
  • 13
    19th-Century Christian Modernists
    You encounter ways in which the challenges of Enlightenment philosophy and modern historical studies were met by a variety of 19th-century Christian modernists. These include Protestants Horace Bushnell and Albrecht Ritschl, the Anglican Oxford movement, and the Tubingen school of Catholic thought. x
  • 14
    19th-Century Christian Antimodernists
    In contrast to liberals and modernists, many Catholic and Protestant thinkers viewed modernity with suspicion. You learn how Catholic antimodernists were successful in increasing papal authority and establishing Aquinas's ideas as foundational, while Protestant resistance took shape in evangelical—especially fundamentalist—ideas. x
  • 15
    Judaism and Modernity
    Step to the other side of the Judeo-Christian tradition to learn how modernity was challenging Jewish thinkers just as it had their Christian contemporaries. And grasp how the distinctiveness of Jewish history—including marginalization and persecution—shaped Jewish thought in different ways, as seen in the 18th-century writings of Moses Mendelssohn and the later work of Herman Cohen. x
  • 16
    Kierkegaard's Faith
    Ultimately as influential as Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard attacked modern efforts to make Christianity "reasonable." You learn how Kierkegaard instead emphasized that faith is only realized in the passionate commitment of the existing, not just the thinking, person. x
  • 17
    Kierkegaard's Paradox
    Continue your introduction to Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments, seeing how he presents faith as a gift from God that, paradoxically, can never be accepted by reason, no matter how diligently reason tries to "grasp" it. x
  • 18
    19th-Century Suspicion and Feuerbach
    You are introduced to the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, one of the major 19th-century critics of Christianity. Unlike Enlightenment critics attacking religion's supposed irrationality, Feuerbach sought to "unmask" the way religion prevents us from grappling with the reality of life. x
  • 19
    Marx—Religion as False Consciousness
    Not everyone agreed with Feuerbach that the power of thought was enough to change human life. Here you see how Karl Marx argued for a more materialistic interpretation of religion and culture, portraying religion as a symptom of a human alienation grounded in social and economic structures. x
  • 20
    Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Morals
    Friedrich Nietzsche was a critic of both religion and modernity. In examining his On the Genealogy of Morals, you see the clearest expression of his view that the modern period is a culmination of the nihilistic "slave morality" at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. x
  • 21
    Nietzsche—Religion and the Ascetic Ideal
    Continuing Nietzsche's Genealogy, you explore his presentation of a process by which "bad conscience" uses religion to increase feelings of guilt, ultimately culminating in Christianity and its "ascetic ideal," of which modern ideals of science and this-worldliness are but the latest stages of development. x
  • 22
    Freud—Religion as Neurosis
    Following along the "unmasking" trail blazed by Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud sought to expose religion from a psychological perspective. Here, you see faith presented as a "universal obsessional neurosis" born out of the Oedipal complex, with God as a wish fulfillment of the loving father able to forgive our hatred of him. x
  • 23
    Barth and the End of Liberal Theology
    Shaken by the brutality of World War I, Karl Barth published Epistle to the Romans, launching 20th-century religious thought and rejecting the liberalism of the 19th century. He argued that the task of the religious thinker is one of "confession," acknowledging and reflecting on God's saving message. x
  • 24
    Theology and Suspicion
    Prior to Barth, those suspicious of religion saw it, in varying degrees, as a product of "false-consciousness." Learn in this lecture how Barth and subsequent thinkers like Paul Ricoeur began to integrate this into their analysis, acknowledging how religion can foster illusions and false, mystifying comforts, even as they affirmed the richness, value, and realism of genuine religious faith. x
  • 25
    Protestant Theology after Barth
    Examine the spectrum of Protestant theology after Barth, from the "correlational theology" that sought to reconcile human experience with Christian revelation to the evangelical ideas of the mid-20th century, which saw revelation as offering "fixed truths" and "moral absolutes" for all times. x
  • 26
    20th-Century Catholicism
    In this sweeping examination, you learn that much of the Catholic theology of the 20th century was dedicated to overcoming the antimodernism instituted at the First Vatican Council in 1869—culminating in 1962's Vatican II—in spite of antimodernist views that continue to hold substantial power. x
  • 27
    Modern Jewish Philosophy
    Focus on the work of Martin Buber—who believed that so-called "I-You" relationships fostered contact with the divine—and that of Franz Rosenzweig, whose "New Thinking" focused on the revelatory encounter with God's love, through which one is released into "the flow of life." x
  • 28
    Post-Holocaust Theology
    With traditional monotheism holding that God is both omnipotent and benevolent, the problem of "theodicy"—explaining the existence of evil and the suffering of the innocent—has always been problematic. You explore the theological responses to what is perhaps history's most agonizing example. x
  • 29
    Liberation Theology
    Explore how Christian theologians and clergy developed "liberation theology" in response to poverty, colonialism, and an underdeveloped third world. Learn how their work has also influenced feminist and black theologies in Europe and the United States since the 1960s and has influenced a number of different religious traditions. x
  • 30
    Secular and Postmodern Theologies
    Increasing secularization has also challenged religious thought in recent decades, as you discover in this bracing look at the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the impact of philosophers such as Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida on the work of contemporary thinkers like Mark C. Taylor and Gianni Vattimo. x
  • 31
    Postmodernism and Tradition
    For many, postmodernism offers a way to recover traditional elements of religion. Explore the ways in which this opportunity has been seized by different thinkers, including philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion, and theologians who use a "narrative" approach to understand God's revelation as the primary shaping force of life. x
  • 32
    Fundamentalism and Islamism
    This lecture focuses on two examples of the contemporary resurgence of fundamentalist religion around the world— Christianity in the United States and Islam in the Middle East—exploring the history of each and the way each manifests itself in the modern world. x
  • 33
    New Atheisms
    With the rise of the Christian Right and militant Islam has come a corresponding and vocal rise in various kinds of atheisms, many warning us of the irrationality and violence inherent in religion. You hear two of those voices as you examine the work of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. x
  • 34
    Religion and Rationality
    Gain important context for understanding that part of the debate that holds faith irrational by definition by exploring the variety of ways in which philosophers of religion approach this often-divisive relationship between religion and rationality. x
  • 35
    Pluralisms—Religious and Secular
    Enjoy a look at how some of today's most creative religious thinkers have approached one of their discipline's most provocative questions: How do you incorporate issues like pluralism, diversity, and tolerance when the religions you are studying contain claims of exclusive salvation or of being God's choice? x
  • 36
    Faith, Suspicion, and Modernity
    In concluding the course, you address the unavoidable point that the religious life does involve making claims about the nature of reality. Explore what those claims might be and the directions in which reasonable common ground between skepticism and belief might lie. x

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Your professor

Tyler Roberts

About Your Professor

Tyler Roberts, Ph.D.
Grinnell College
Dr. Tyler Roberts is Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where he teaches courses in religions of the Western world, modern religious thought, theory and method in the study of religion, and religion and politics. After earning his A.B. in Philosophy and Religion from Brown University, Professor Roberts studied philosophy at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany, and religion at...
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Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 81.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Objective and Rational Tyler Roberts, the Professor in this course, is in many ways exemplary of the hIghest academic ideals of objectivity and rationality, especially given his subject, which is rarely approached is such a manner. He is also deeply scholarly, having mastered the intricacies of a vast array of viewpoints on the subject. For myself, I had some acquaintance with the authors who advanced a philosophical, skeptical, or "suspicious" argument about religion, but I was wholly unfamiliar with the theologians covered in this course, so Prof. Roberts' discussion of them gave me a much broader and deeper understanding of religion in the modern world. My criticisms of the course are therefore of secondary importance, but I would still like to share them. First, regarding presentation rather than substance, I was very irritated by the confluence in Prof. Roberts' voice of two common rhetorical and linguistic patterns. Effective argumentation is enhanced by holding back the key points until the end of a sentence. But in English, it is customary to drop one's voice at the end of a sentence to indicate finality. As a result, I often had to repeatedly replay parts of the lecture with the volume raised ever higher to make out the key words in a sentence, not always successfully. More substantively, I felt that the subject was somewhat Bowdlerized in this course, in that the more distressing aspects were deemphasized. First, all religions rest upon a threat as well as a promise. The Christian God is determined to avenge himself on those who disobey his commandments by casting them into eternal torture in Hell. Salvation by the love of Christ has no meaning outside of this context, but that context remains hidden in this course. Second, the greatest threat posed to society by religions, as well as by secular ideologies such as racism, is violence and coercion. But in this course, the issue is approached in terms of the necessity in a modern, liberal, secular, democratic society of maintaining dialogue among citizens of different religions and ideologies. I admit that such dialogue is a prerequisite to avoiding violence, but Prof. Roberts does not actually say that.
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intelle I have been listening to this CD course in the car for the past three weeks. Different, for sure, than any course I had ever taken. Of importance? Marginal. I had a feeling that the instructor (just happened to be from UCLA, my alma mater) talked around a lot of points (perhaps trying to give us a real feel for the existing environment/culture at the time), but could have done the job with perhaps a third as many words; sometimes that tended to muddy his key point. I was impressed that he offered to hear from us course takers and provided his direct contact information at UCLA. Lee Willard
Date published: 2019-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Instructor We haven't finished the whole series yet, but have really enjoyed learning about the philosophy that drove these periods. The instructor is excellent - very knowledgeable and unbiased. He just gives you understandable facts of the period without any "agenda".
Date published: 2019-01-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hard to follow I found the course interesting in places but it almost seemed intentionally over most peoples heads.
Date published: 2018-09-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A mixed bag I had no problem with the lecturer's presentation skills, unlike some of your critics, nor was I disturbed by his religious biases (some thought he was presenting from the Christian point of view and others thought he was too evenly balanced among religions). My main criticism is that the series did not hang together as a history of religious debate, debate between skeptics and believers. It was a series of disparate talks, some on philosophers that would not have been out of place in a general philosophy course. His selection of people and themes was lopsided: not sure Marx deserved the time spent ("Religious Debate") while the exponents of "liberation theology" were for the most part communists or socialists with a secular social agenda, and hardly theologians; it would have been good to learn about the critics of "liberation theology". Where was the "religious debate"? Also I expected "Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition" to start far before Descartes; there were intense religious (Christian) debates in the 1,500 years before that. (Perhaps my fault--I should have paid attention to the table of contents and not be misled by the title and description." In short, I found many of the individual lectures interesting in their own right, but did not feel the whole was satisfying.
Date published: 2018-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wonderful course! This was my 49th Great Courses purchase, and it was a great one. Very balanced and authoritative lectures. Get this one.
Date published: 2018-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done and well balanced. An excellent and well balanced overview of the religious and philosophical debate which has existed, continues today, and will continue as long as there are two people with conflicting ideas. The professor does a masterful job of expounding the ideas and religious/philosophical trends in an even handed and non-prejudicial way. Definitely recommend this survey course to anyone interested in the subject.
Date published: 2018-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and deep The course was quite good and the instructor did a great job. I would strongly recommend that this course not be one's first exposure to religious philosophy. Previous work in basic philosophy would be helpful.
Date published: 2017-11-20
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