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Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition

Embark on one of the most intellectually satisfying plunges into philosophical and theological thought you will ever take.
Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 97.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hard to hear We are using this as a group discussion. I have a hearing problem particularly when people drop the sounds at the end of a sentence. The information is good but I get frustrated when my colleagues have to restate what the professor said. Dropping the voice sound to inaudible is bad communication for anyone, but it is particularly distressing from a teacher/lecturer.
Date published: 2024-03-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not for Beginners This is a hard course for me to rate, because much of my difficulty – exactly how much I cannot say – lies with me, not with Dr. Roberts. My undergraduate background included a few courses in the basic beliefs of western civilizations, but nothing sufficient to get me through this course. Although I did complete the course, very little in it either spoke to me or stayed with me afterwards. That has not been my experience with most lecture series from The Great Courses. Perhaps one way to encapsulate Skeptics and Believers is to characterize it as an undergraduate 300 or 400 level course, definitely not a 100 level offering for beginners. It is hard work. It presupposes a solid background in philosophy and religion and requires a deep interest in the topic to see the student profitably through to the end. I give this course a middling rating not as a reflection on the professor or the course content, but because I cannot recommend it to anyone who lacks that deep interest in philosophical and theological disputation or a sound background in the topic. If you have the interest and the background, your evaluation may well be higher than mine. If you don’t, it might be time well spent to browse other courses in the philosophy and religion section of The Great Courses catalogue. I bought this course hoping it would help me understand the ever present disputes between believers and those who doubt or do not believe. I now realize, in my 70s, that Graham Greene had a point when he wrote, late in life, “With the approach of death I care less and less about religious truth. One hasn’t long to wait for revelation or darkness.” Rather than listen to Dr. Roberts’ course again, I think I’ll just wait it out.
Date published: 2024-02-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Summary of Western religious thought When I first got this lecture series I was disappointed. I expected a tightly constructed review of the various positions supporting and rebutting atheism and theism. This lecture series is not that. However, when I returned to the lectures at a later date, I realized it is a very good summery of religious thought (mostly Christian) within the Western intellectual tradition. And I would recommend it as a supplement to other Great Courses programs on Western thought like Lawrence Cahoon’s outstanding course entitled The “Modern Intellectual Tradition.” I would have enjoyed what I thought this course was. But, nevertheless, it is a very good survey of Western religious thought which includes, of course, a summary of the arguments of the atheists within that tradition.
Date published: 2023-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superbly thoughtful and insightful If you are looking for a thoughtful, balanced, and probing look into some of the major questions raised about religion and faith since the Reformation, I believe you will be very pleased with this beautifully presented, thought-provoking series of lectures. As one who has studied Hebrew and Christian Scripture for a good part of my life with a curious and critical eye, I assure you that Professor Roberts in these lectures did a superb job of raising points of view with which I was less familiar and presenting perspectives and questions that found me pondering many points of view many hours later. The approach of this thoughtful and conviction-challenging course was to examine: 1. Notable ways in which principal thinkers who adhere to, or affirm the importance of, religious traditions and faith – including from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions – have analyzed, questioned, and wrestled with doubts about central tenets of their respective belief systems in order to justify or explain them in light of unfolding challenges posed by those who embraced the scientific method which shunned illogic and “unprovable myths.” 2. The reasons and thinking of those who found in science – including the social sciences – what they believed to be a solid basis for exposing faith and religion as being: a. illusory, a kind of escapism from the real world that comforted them, or b. a false explanation for why so many were oppressed by others by masking the true causes for the poverty and hardships so widespread in the 19th century, or c. a method by which “the priests” gained and maintained control over others, or d. not only illogical, but dangerous because faith and religion were the cause of so much violence. 3. The reaction of defenders of traditional religion to these critiques, ranging from those who saw great value and some truth in modern criticisms of religion to those in the Catholic Church after mid-century and in the modern formation of Protestant fundamentalism. 4. The conversation between thoughtful persons within and without religious traditions regarding the wisdom – and even commonalities – that could be discerned from both those who “believed” and those who were “skeptics.” Indeed, it is this very ongoing conversation that is yielding new depths of understanding on what Professor Roberts says is the need for recreating a civic sphere in which non-believers, skeptics, and believers of all traditions can respectfully speak and listen to each other. In the last half-century, Dr. Roberts says, he believes the US has erred in creating what he calls “strict secularism,” that is, a public sphere in which everyone is welcome to express their views and exchange ideas as long as they refrain from introducing religion or religious views. The unintentional result, he says, is that religious believers have found themselves relegated to a secondary position. To counter this, and to re-enrich the public sphere, he proposes a “soft secularism” in which people of faith can present arguments and reasoning based upon their belief system which others must respectfully listen to and consider while resisting the imposition of either renewed silence upon religious believers or of forced compliance of non-believers to the wishes of believers. This balance, this admitted tension, will of course be difficult to sustain, since it is not only believers who can insist on the rightness of their point of view. But the important thing is that the conversation takes place! Tyler Roberts, the professor of this course, was consistently lively, informative, fair and balanced throughout, allowing me to become fully engaged with, and looking forward to, each lecture. Because I was so taken by his work, I attempted to contact him by email to thank him for it, something I have done previously with other Great Courses presenters whom I found did an outstanding job. Thus it was that I learned in great sorrow that this young man – in his later 40s when this course was filmed – died tragically young in 2021 at only 61 years of age. How I had been hoping he had prepared other courses for The Teaching Company!
Date published: 2022-12-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots of material but somewhat confusing at times This was not one of my favorite Great Courses although the Professor obviously was quite familiar with the material. I just found myself getting confused although I think one of my problems was the fact I listened to the lectures while driving daily in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. How can anyone truly concentrate on much when driving in Dallas/Ft Worth. So my two suggestions would be: 1. If you purchase the course have a basic understanding of the topics Professor Roberts addresses rather than being a novice in this subject area. 2. Buy the video version where you will have more time to consider more deeply the subjects covered. I must admit part of my problem was not the Professor but my lack of depth on the subject matter. This was not a course that made me want to run out and study more deeply the philosophers presented in the lectures. Yet, this was a fair overview of the subject presented in the lectures.
Date published: 2022-08-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Almost too much but worth taking I'm torn between a 4 or a 5. I originally took this class years ago. After recently taking Williams' class "Reason and Faith" I re-took "Skeptics and Believers". The two classes go well with each other. This class has almost too much information in one class. The professor covers a large number of deep thinkers in the world of religious debates. You have to follow the lectures and read the guidebook. The complaint is too much, and therefore, not enough discussion of the various people discussed (4 stars). The fact it covers so much and points out the huge number of opinions on religion and "God" gives it a 5-star. Either way I recommend it. Just be prepared to "study' not just casually listen.
Date published: 2022-07-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Strong on Believers and weak on Skeptics. This professor gives a good overview of all the religious thinking and changes up to today. But he does confuse religious reasoning as reason. Reason must be based on fact and science, not on theologians "reasoning" about religion. Facts can't be confused with revelations.
Date published: 2021-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Skeptics and Believers Well presented overview of the development and history of religious thought in the Western tradition.
Date published: 2021-08-27
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In Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition, noted scholar and Professor Tyler Roberts leads you on a fascinating 36-lecture journey that will help you understand the more than 300-year-long debate about the nature of religious faith and its compatibility with reason. It's a debate that increasingly swirls around the role of religion in the public arena in fields such as politics, education, medicine, and other sciences. Now is your chance to embark on one of the most intellectually satisfying plunges into philosophical and theological thought you will ever take—one that will add significantly to your grasp of some of today's most far-reaching issues.


Tyler Roberts

Is religion so inherently intolerant that it will always be a source of violence in the world—or can religious faith be part of an intellectually vital, engaged, and realistic view of the world?


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 Harvard University, where he earned his M.T.S. and Th.D. at the Divinity School. His research interests include the intersection of religious and philosophical thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, the history and politics of the secular, and the nature and purpose of the academic study of religion. In 1998, he published Contesting Spirit: Nietzsche, Affirmation, Religion, which explores Nietzsche's criticisms of religion and Christianity. Since then he has published a number of essays in leading journals, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and The Journal of Religion. He also has published on philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanley Cavell. His second book, Encountering Religion in a Post-Secular Age, will be published by Columbia University Press.

Religion and Modernity

01: 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.

32 min
From Suspicion to the Premodern Cosmos

02: 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.

29 min
From Catholicism to Protestantism

03: 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.

33 min
Scientific Revolution and Descartes

04: 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.

30 min
Descartes and Modern Philosophy

05: 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.

31 min
Enlightenment and Religion

06: 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?

31 min
Natural Religion and Its Critics

07: 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.

32 min
Kant—Religion and Moral Reason

08: 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.

31 min
Kant, Romanticism, and Pietism

09: 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.

33 min
Schleiermacher—Religion and Experience

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.

33 min
Hegel—Religion, Spirit, and History

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.

30 min
Theology and the Challenge of History

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.

29 min
19th-Century Christian Modernists

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.

31 min
19th-Century Christian Antimodernists

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 evangelica (especially fundamentalist) ideas.

33 min
Judaism and Modernity

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.

30 min
Kierkegaard's Faith

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.

30 min
Kierkegaard's Paradox

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.

31 min
19th-Century Suspicion and Feuerbach

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.

30 min
Marx—Religion as False Consciousness

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.

31 min
Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Morals

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.

32 min
Nietzsche—Religion and the Ascetic Ideal

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.

29 min
Freud—Religion as Neurosis

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.

32 min
Barth and the End of Liberal Theology

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.

32 min
Theology and Suspicion

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.

32 min
Protestant Theology after Barth

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.

32 min
20th-Century Catholicism

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.

31 min
Modern Jewish Philosophy

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."

32 min
Post-Holocaust Theology

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.

29 min
Liberation Theology

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.

30 min
Secular and Postmodern Theologies

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.

31 min
Postmodernism and Tradition

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.

33 min
Fundamentalism and Islamism

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.

31 min
New Atheisms

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.

31 min
Religion and Rationality

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.

32 min
Pluralisms—Religious and Secular

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?

32 min
Faith, Suspicion, and Modernity

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.

30 min