Study Guide


by Leszek Kolakowski

Religion Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Czesaw Miosz, the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, once described Poland as a land of “faith in the impossible.” Leszek Koakowski, the 2003 winner of the first John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, a million-dollar Nobel-like award, has often tackled impossible ideas in his life and in his many works on history and philosophy. In the Polish phase of his life, as a Marxist, he became convinced of the material and spiritual devastation caused by Stalinist Communism, and during his later career in North America and England, he has emphasized such themes as human freedom, tolerance, and the quest for transcendence in his ardent defense of individual dignity. In Religion, his aim is to explore the philosophy of religion, but since neither he nor, in his opinion, anyone else truly understands what religion and philosophy really are, his task is daunting. Nevertheless, because God, if he exists, and the world, if humans can actually comprehend it, are important subjects, Koakowski thinks that an examination of the ideas of those who sought to justify their belief or disbelief in God will help clarify a pivotal issue of human existence.

After the introduction, Religion contains five chapters on the following subjects: theodicy, the God of reasoners, the God of mystics, immortality, and religious language. Though his book is not without humor and irony, Koakowski, a critic of dogmatic absolutizing in religion and science, seriously tries to understand the philosophical and religious approaches to God before concluding that true communication between rationalists and believers is all but impossible and that both are “illusion hunters.” However, the clash between the sacred and profane is real, not illusory, at least in a cultural sense. Koakowski admits that when people speak about the sacred, they may be saying something about their social context or psychological state, but throughout his book his basic assumption is that religious and rational people mean what they say. This in turn illustrates his “law of the infinite cornucopia”: There exists no shortage of arguments to support whatever a person wishes to believe for whatever reason.

From pre-Christian times to the present, various thinkers have tried to reconcile God’s goodness with the many evils in the world. Theologians such as Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas developed privative explanations, asserting that evil is the absence of good rather than a thing in itself. Augustine and Aquinas also attributed evil’s entrance into the world to the “Original Sin” of the first humans. Koakowski is critical of this traditional doctrine because it contradicts a basic moral principle that the innocent should not be punished for the sins of others. Koakowski also disagrees with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who introduced the term “theodicy” to describe his defense of God’s...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)

Religion Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Frankenberry, Nancy K., ed. Radical Interpretation in Religion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Ten scholars offer several new interpretations of religious belief, which some contrast with Koakowski’s radical separation of religious and rational approaches to God. Index.

Koakowski, Leszek. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Koakowski’s critical analysis of Pascal’s influential attempt to solve the problem of evil. Notes and index.

Pierson, Stanley. Leaving Marxism: Studies in the Dissolution of an Ideology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. The author of this work on the decline of Marxism devotes an entire chapter to Koakowski.

Roberts, Richard. Religion, Theology, and the Human Sciences. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A collection of essays exploring the religious consequences of the so-called triumph of capitalism and the end of history. Like Koakowski, Roberts is concerned about Marxism and Christianity. Index.