Religious Studies 2LL3 (Fall 2018) - God and Philosophy

This course website and online syllabus is located at It can also be accessed by way of my home page (see below, or google "Dana Hollander" to find it) or by way of the Department of Religious Studies website ( Information about assignments and any scheduling changes will be posted to this online syllabus, announced in class, and/or e-mailed to participants. (Please make sure to keep me up to date on your e-mail addresses!)

Attention! This course is not on Avenue To Learn. This course website is your online information source for this course.

CLASS MEETING: Thursdays, 2:30-4:20 p.m., BSB 136

TUTORIAL: Mondays, 10:30-11:20 a.m., BSB 136

INSTRUCTOR:  Professor Dana Hollander, Department of Religious Studies,** University Hall 113.

 (905) 525-9140, ext. 24759**

*in your phone and e-mail messages, please let me know how I can reach you by phone

**Staff in the office of the Department of Religious Studies will not date-stamp or receive written assignments.

Office Hour: Mondays, 12:00-1:00 p.m. Further details on how to reach me will be communicated in class.

"I will suppose," Descartes wrote, that "some malicious demon . . . has employed all his energies in order to deceive me."

by Joost Swarte, from the New Yorker (Nov. 20, 2006), used with permission

updated November 24, 2018

Course Description / Course Readings / Course Requirements   |  ☛ JUMP TO SCHEDULE: September / October / November / December


In this course, we will read some key works in modern Western philosophy and religious thought that propose different ways of conceiving God and approaching religion.  We will begin with René Descartes (1596-1650) whose philosophy helped establish a tradition in which the task of thinking about God is directly related to the question of what can we know in general - and thus to the problem of "skepticism."

Next we will look at three important challenges to the tradition of seeing God as something we can "know": 

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) describes God not as something to be known theoretically, and instead links the idea of God to morality ("practical knowledge")
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) considers what it means for God to be an "illusion" and critically explores the moral function of religion
  • Martin Buber (1878-1965) views religion as an experience wholly unlike knowledge, but as a "relation" or "dialogue" between an "I" and a "Thou." 

We will conclude with a pair of texts by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the contemporary scholar of religion, Robert Orsi, which will allow us to consider the relationship between mind, body, and "belief."

By engaging with the ideas conveyed in these works, and in the work we do on them in class and tutorial, in this course you will learn skills of textual analysis, conceptual argumentation, and effective writing.

  • All the required readings, as well as some optional supplementary readings, are also on reserve at Mills Library - e.g. for personal photocopying. To find items on reserve for a course, select "Course Reserve" from the drop-down menu here.
Throughout the course and at the exams, you must use your own paper copy of all the primary works we are studying--in the same edition selected for the class (whether in book or xeroxed form). This will allow you to mark your text as you read and to be prepared to refer to specific passages in class and tutorial and when you write the exams.

  • Attendance of all class and tutorial sessions.

  • One Text Summary (1-1.5 pages) - see detailed assignment to be handed out in class and to be posted below.* This assignment is to be completed in conjunction with attendance of the full class session at which it is due, and to be handed in at the end of the class session on those days. Please complete either Text Summary 1 for September 20 or Text Summary 2 for September 27, which will be on the readings you are preparing for those days.
    *Please allow sufficient time to acquaint yourself with the specific instructions for this assignment (and to contact me for clarification if necessary) before beginning your work on it!

  • One Text Preparation (2-3 pages) - on the assigned readings for Oct. 18, Nov. 1, Nov. 8, Nov. 15, or Nov. 22, in conjunction with attendance of the full class session, and to be handed in at the end of the class session on those days. Specific assignments for each week will be posted to this online syllabus the week before (see under the due dates below). Please wait to receive your marked Text Summary assignment and review the feedback on it before completing the Text Preparation assignment.

  • Note: Text Summary/Text Preparation assignments are designed to help you prepare the reading assignment for a particular class meeting, in conjunction with your participation in that class meeting.  Therefore, these assignments consist of the written assignment to be handed in at the class meeting at which it is due plus attendance of the full class session.

    Submissions at other times will not be accepted. Preparation of an alternate assignment for a future session will always be an option (until we run out of class sessions).

  • Midterm Exam and Final Exam will consist of essay questions involving textual analysis.  The essay questions will be made known in advance and the exams will be open-book.

Grades will be based on the following: Text Summary (7%), Text Preparation (15%), Attendance of Class Meetings and Tutorial Sessions (5%), Midterm Exam (33%), Final Exam (40%).

To arrange an academic accommodation for a disability, please contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS), Tel. 905-525-9140 ext. 28652,, to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. For further information, see McMaster University’s policy on Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.


Please do not eat during class.

You are advised to retain copies of any written work you submit for this class, and all your research notes, until you have received an official grade.


At certain points in the course it may make good sense to modify the schedule outlined below. The instructor reserves the right to modify elements of the course and will notify students accordingly (in class, by e-mail to participants, and by updating this online syllabus).

September 6


No tutorial meeting on September 10.

September 13, 17

DESCARTES: Skepticism and the Existence of God

Both works are included in René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Hackett) [purchase book]

September 20, 24

Descartes, Meditations 1 and 2

Text Summary 1 due in class on September 20 from students with last names beginning in A-L.

September 27, October 1

Descartes, Meditations 3 and 5

Text Summary 2 due in class on September 27 from students who did not complete Text Summary 1.

Optional Supplementary Reading: Bernard Williams, chap. 5 ("God") of Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978) [book on reserve]

October 4, 15  (Midterm Recess: Oct 8-12)

KANT: Religion and Morality

Immanuel Kant, selection from Critique of Practical Reason (1788), trans. Mary Gregor, from: Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1996) [selection in coursepack]:
  • Read closely Part III ("On the Primacy of Pure Practical Reason") and Part IV ("The Immortality of the Soul as a Postulate of Pure Practical Reason")
  • begin reading Part V ("The Existence of God as a Postulate of Pure Practical Reason")
Additional resources:

Emil Fackenheim, "Kant's Philosophy of Religion" (1985) in The God Within [book on reserve]

German edition of Critique of Practical Reason.

October 18

finish Kant: read closely Part V ("The Existence of God as a Postulate of Pure Practical Reason")

Text Preparation 1 due in class on October 18 from some students.

Midterm Exam Preparation Sheet distributed in class on October 18.

October 22 - Optional Exam Review Session

October 25


No tutorial meeting on October 29.

November 1, 5

FREUD: The Value of Religious Ideas

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927), trans. Gregory C. Richter (Broadview Editions, 2012): I, II, III, VI, VII, VIII  [purchase book]

Supplementary: Peter Gay, "Sigmund Freud: A Brief Life," in Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (Norton) [book on reserve]

Text Preparation 2 due in class on November 1 from some students.

November 8, 12

conclude discussion of Freud

Text Preparation 3 due in class on November 8 from some students.

November 15, 19

BUBER: Religion and Dialogue

Martin Buber, selections from I and Thou (1923), pp. 53-64, 68-69, 82-85, 123-31, 148-50 [purchase book]

Supplementary: Tamra Wright, "Buber, Martin," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) [online and in the Reference Section of Mills Library]. To read the online article, be sure to click on the headings in the table of contents in the upper-left corner!

Text Preparation 4 due in class on November 15 from some students.

November 22, 26

Buber, "Religion and Philosophy" from Eclipse of God (1952) [essay in coursepack]. See also my list of Errata for this translation

Text Preparation 5 due in class on November 22 from whoever has not submitted a Text Preparation.

November 29

Mind, Body and "Belief"

Robert A. Orsi, "Belief" from Material Religion, vol. 7, no. 1 (2011), pp. 10-16 [essay in coursepack, or print out your own copy of the PDF version from here] Be sure to click the green "PDF" button to access a printable version of the article.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Donald A. Landes (2012): 403-8 [selection in coursepack].

Eric Matthews, The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (2002): 67-71 [selection in coursepack].

Final Exam Preparation Sheet to be distributed in class on November 29.

December 3

Final Exam Review Session Cancelled; will be rescheduled. See your e-mail for details




McMaster University has a strict policy concerning Academic Integrity: "You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process.  Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity. Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty.  For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, specifically Appendix 3.

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty: 1. Plagiarism, e.g., the submission of work that is not one's own or for which other credit has been obtained. 2. Improper collaboration in group work. 3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations."

Please let me know if you have any questions on how this policy applies to your work for this course.

Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work (McMaster Student Absence Form [MSAF]). In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar "Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work."

Privacy of Information. Some of the communications among the instructor and the students in this course will be over e-mail. Students should be aware that, when they access the electronic components of this course, private information such as first and last names and e-mail addresses may become apparent to all other students in the same course. Continuation in this course will be deemed consent to this disclosure. If you have any questions or concerns about such disclosure please discuss this with the course instructor.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous or Spiritual Observances (RISO). Students requiring academic accommodation based on religious, indigenous or spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the RISO policy. Students requiring a RISO accommodation should submit their request to their Faculty Office normally within 10 working days of the beginning of term in which they anticipate a need for accommodation or to the Registrar's Office prior to their examinations. Students should also contact their instructors as soon as possible to make alternative arrangements for classes, assignments, and tests.

Extreme Circumstances. The University reserves the right to change the dates and deadlines for any or all courses in extreme circumstances (e.g., severe weather, labour disruptions, etc.). Changes will be communicated through regular McMaster communication channels, such as McMaster Daily News, A2L and/or McMaster e-mail.

Copyright © Dana Hollander