Ayer, Donovan and Westphal summary questions with key concepts


  1. Why does Ayer claim that assertions made about a transcendent God are not intelligible notions?
  2. Why does Ayer reject the notion of God with a capital ‘G’?
  3. Why does Ayer suggest that the atheist and agnostic positions are as untenable as the theist’s?
  4. What does Ayer mean by asserting the existence of a transcendent god shows nothing but the ‘state of mind’ of the theist?
  5. Why are claims made by primitive religions given some credit where those of sophisticated religions are not?
  6. Ayer uses all of these phrases: true / false; unintelligible notions; no literal significance; not propositions; nonsense; not a genuine cognitive state; fallacious; cannot be any transcendent truths… – what point do they all have in common?
  7. What does Ayer suggest about believing people?

These are the key concepts in Ayer’s article:

Primitive vs. sophisticated religions / teleological; ontological; religious experience / atheism; agnosticism; religious language; truth; knowledge [Plus number 6!]


Key concepts:

Hegel / scholastic vs. deistic / historical context: religious persecution, intolerance and war in Europe/ Enlightenment rationalism / Kant’s idea / Schleiermacher – Spinoza / Hegel / Hume / Marx / Nietzsche / Kierkegaard. See list of their ideas! [document called: Notes on the key concepts and philosophers in Westphal’s extract.]

  1. How does the focus shift in this article from the preceding ones [in the volume in which Westphal is included – not the leaflet we have]?
  2. What did Hegel complain about?
  3. What was the difference between scholasticism and deism and what historical situation did deism arise to combat?
  4. What did Hume and Kant’s critique of the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments seem to provide a devastating blow to? And what was the result?
  5. Summarise Kant’s reformulation.
  6. What belief did Schleiermacher and Spinoza have in common?
  7. What does Hegel suggest about the importance of the person of Jesus?
  8. What is meant by ‘suspicion’ in terms of Hume?
  9. What have Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard all got in common as far as the function of religion in society?


  1. In your own words explain the difference between ‘knowledge about’ and ‘knowledge of.’
  2. Which form if either is more important in Donovan’s view?
  3. In your own words explain what Buber means by ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’ relationships.
  4. In Donovan’s opinion what are the problems with religious experiences as a form of knowledge?
  5. What is the difference between ‘feeling certain’ or ‘inner conviction’ and ‘being right’?
  6. What is the problem with ‘intuitive’ knowledge?

Key concepts: BASICS – is religious experience a valid form of knowledge? If it isn’t has it any value?

  • What is regarded as knowledge? / How does knowledge come? / Is religious experience a valid form of knowledge and what doubts can be cast on it?/ Intuition as a form of knowledge / Feeling certain and being right – how do we know we are right? / Knowledge about and of / I-It and I-You /

Notes on the key concepts and philosophers in Westphal’s extract

Hegel complained that we can know God and not just religion like others suggested. To him religion must be the knowledge of God. His central thesis was that religion and philosophy are the same but differ in form – only philosophy has the concepts for true knowledge need to reinterpret the concepts of ‘idea’ and ‘spirit’. As a form of Spinozism it seeks to ‘articulate and defend itself’ in philosophical argument not hide in ‘feeling.’

Kant had helped Hume destroy the traditional purely reason arguments for the existence of God so no knowledge of God through purely theoretical reason but through practical reason i.e. through religious experience. A key proponent of the enlightenment new religion in which he believed there could be found a universal reason and universal morality he wanted to separate religion and morality. He felt firstly that religion didn’t need morality; secondly that morality leads automatically to religion and thirdly that religion is simply a recognition that all duties are divinely commanded anyway and therefore religion is unnecessary to a moral life. The true church, an ethical commonwealth, can only be created on earth by moral self-improvement of humanity. This is like…

Pelagius who believed that mankind can make it to heaven on our own merits not by the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Scholasticism was the school of philosophy that thought that faith and reason are harmonious. Whereas…

Deism was the school of philosophy that thought that they needed separating – as in husk and kernel. The core from the trappings…

Enlightenment rationalism was the attempt to heal the breaches between the different religious faiths by concentrating on what they had in common. Rather than their specific claims to authority or salvation their overall message would be available to all.

Hume combined with Kant to temporarily dismiss the traditional arguments for the existence for God (i.e. cosmological, teleological, onto arguments) hence he concentrated on the philosophers interpretation of religious life and practices to the conclusion that these were based on false premises anyway and self-deceiving.

Schleiermacher posited that the kernel needs the husk although it can do without it but we as experients need more than just the immediacy of religious experience and its feelings, but to anchor it in life through rituals and practices. He felt that all people who had these experiences belonged together what he called finding the ‘religion in the religions’ and felt that religious experience was more pantheistic i.e. the divine spirit was in all features of the world and therefore God would not be experienced personally since he was not a personal being but could be experienced in e.g. a sunset etc. These experiences would unite us all. This is similar to…

Spinoza who believed that God was in all things and that god and nature were but two words for the same thing.

Marx’s change in perspective was to blame religion for the oppression of people and explained that to his mind religion had basically been invented as a tool to dupe the masses into believing that they could endure oppression and exploitation in this life so long as there would be a better life after this one.

And Nietzsche went a stage further to criticise religion for its generation of a slave morality i.e. one which meant that oppressed people let the oppressors take responsibility for their behaviour which meant that they were not guilty of their own sin, the masters were. Both these philosophers believed that religion had stunted mankind’s growth and that now was the time to start taking responsibility for it ourselves. Hence Nietzsche’s claim ‘God is dead’ meaning we no longer need the crutch of religion and should have grown up enough to stand on our own feet.

Finally Kierkegaard criticised bourgeois Christianity because it said we are living in the Kingdom of God on earth (when we’re not) and that all that was needed to belong to this k was to be good people. The need for Christ’s sacrifice was gone as were God’s gifts of grace and mercy.