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Subject specific vocabulary: Philosophy of religion and ethics

The following subject specific vocabulary provides definitions of key terms used in our A-level Religious Studies 7062, Component 1: Philosophy of religion and ethics. Your students should be familiar with and gain understanding of all these terms.

Section A: Philosophy of religion


Analogy is an inference where information or meaning is transferred from one subject to another based on similarities or comparison. An analogical argument relies on analogy to show that due to similarities between the two subjects some further conclusion can be inferred.

A priori

Claims that rely on a logical deduction and not on sense experience, they are ‘prior to’ or ‘before’ sense experience. For example, the truth claim of the statement ‘a triangle has three sides’, follows from the definition of the term, not from knowledge of things in the world.

Contingency & necessity

A contingent truth or being depends on some other factor it could have been otherwise. Necessity implies that something is required, or always true; a fundamental and essential thing.


Evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of a statement. In philosophy, this means there is sufficient evidence or argument to support the truth of a proposition.


That which is contrary to God’s will; cause of suffering; the moral opposite of good.

Natural evil

Cause of suffering within the natural world including disaster, disease, decay and death. Sometimes referred to as suffering, this is evil which is not the consequence of specific human action and humans generally have little or no control over it.

Moral evil

Intentional human action (commission) or inaction (omission) that results in suffering, eg murder.

Soul making

A concept that describes how suffering helps humans develop morally.


A defence of the justice and goodness of God in the light of evil.

Free will

The ability to act at one’s own discretion. This results in having moral responsibility for our free choices.

Corporeal vision

A form of empirical religious experience, ie they are experienced through the senses (eg sight, touch, and hearing).

Imaginative vision

Vision seen in the mind, usually through a dream experience.

Intellectual vision

A vision without any visual image, an ‘illumination of the soul’ which is seen with the ‘eye’ of the mind. Those who experience them claim to ‘see things as they really are.’ They are hard to describe using language as they are a form of mystical experience.

Numinous experience

An experience of the holy; something wholly other than the natural world and beyond comprehension. Involves the power or presence of a deity. Otto describes them as ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ (‘a tremendous and fascinating mystery’).

Mystical experiences

Mystical experiences or systematic meditation, which cause a heightened awareness of the divine or an ultimate reality.

Religious experience

A personal experience of the divine.


The willingness to believe in something in the absence of reasonable proof.


The reports of witnesses.


A belief in something or somebody. In terms of religious faith can also imply an attitude of trust or assent to unproved assertions.


The use of logic to come to a conclusion.

Cognitive language

Language which conveys a knowledge claim or factual information which can be shown to be true or false depending on evidence.

Non-cognitive language

Language about which it is inappropriate to ask whether it is true or false in a factual sense. This includes, for instance, statements of emotions or moral claims.

Verification principle

Idea that the meaning of a statement lies in the method of its verification—so that any statement that cannot, even if only in theory, be verified, is meaningless.

Falsification principle

Belief that the meaningfulness of a statement lies in the method of its falsification. A sentence is only factually significant if there is some evidence to falsify it.


A view of religious language which sees the words representing a reality to which they point, and in which they participate, but which they cannot describe.

Eschatological Verification

A phrase coined by Hick for the idea that some statements will be proved true after death, such as claims about an afterlife. ‘Eschatological’ refers to the end times or ‘eschaton’.


An unexpected event demonstrating the specific power of the divine or supernatural. For Hume, this always entails a breach of the natural laws of physics, but Aquinas and others, emphasize the religious meaning of such events saying that there is no requirement for natural laws to be broken.


Scientific theories can give us true descriptions of the world and knowledge of things that we believe to exist but cannot observe. The world is ‘mind-independent’ and exists in and of itself regardless of our beliefs. about it.


The view that we cannot have knowledge of a mind-independent world, as any phenomena we observe are then interpreted through the mind. Therefore to speak of an unobservable ‘something’ such as the power of the divine has no cognitive content.


The ‘essence’ of the person. The nature of the soul is much debated but it is generally considered to be spiritual rather physical and it is usually distinguished from the body and the mind.

Via negativa

The ‘negative way’, mainly associated with Thomas Aquinas. He argues that human language is inadequate in describing God; therefore we can only speak of him in terms of what he is not.


Term used by R. M. Hare to describe a religious frame of reference within which everything is interpreted

Language games

The name given by Wittgenstein to his claim language has meaning within a particular social context. Each context is governed by rules, in the same way that a game is governed by rules. The meaning of a statement is defined by the context in which it is used.

Section B: Ethics and religion


This term comes from the Greek word ethikos, which in its root form (ethos) means custom or habit. It refers to a branch of moral philosophy that aims to determine the meaning of right and wrong, and subsequently the correct way to act.

Applied ethics

The application of normative ethical principles to practical situations and moral dilemmas.

Normative ethics

Ethical theories which inform people how they should act and which ethical norms to follow.


Any ethical theory which argues that the rightness or wrongness of an act lies in doing the right thing because it is the right thing in itself – regardless of any consequences. It is judged by whether the act adheres to specific duties, rules and obligations.


Any ethical theory which argues the rightness or wrongness of an action according to its consequences. The term is derived from the Greek ‘telos’ meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose’.


Idea based on the premise that the Natural Law could be laid aside if there was a proportional reason for doing so, eg greater good could be served by doing it, in that particular scenario.

Embryo research

Scientific research using embryonic cells, for example stem cell research.


The process produces genetically identical individuals of an organism, or copies of cells or DNA fragments which is also known as ‘somatic transfer’.

‘Designer’ babies

Common term used to describe a human embryo which has been genetically modified. This would be following guidelines set by the parent or scientist, to produce desirable traits such as eliminating a genetic disorder.


A medical procedure to terminate a pregnancy, normally before the foetus can survive independently.

Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide

Euthanasia literally translates from the Greek meaning ‘a good death’. It describes a medical procedure by which either a person terminates his or her own life because of extreme pain or suffering, or the life of another person is either allowed to come to an end or is brought to an end with the assistance of others, because of a critical medical condition. ‘Voluntary’ means there is consent and a choice made by the person.

Capital punishment

Punishment for a crime via the death penalty.

Animal experimentation

The use of non-human animals in experiments for medical or scientific progress.

Intensive farming

Also known as factory farming, this is a production-focused approach towards farm animals which aims to maximize output, while minimizing production costs. Often associated with intensive breeding programmes, hormone modification and cramped conditions.

Blood sports

A sport involving the hunting, wounding, or killing of animals.

Meta ethics

Considers the meaning and justification of ethics. Meta ethics considers the meaning of terms such as ‘good’ and ‘right’.


A meta-ethical view that morality is defined by facts about nature or human nature.


The meta-ethical view that knowledge is a factual property known through means outside ‘naturalism’, for example by intuition or God’s commands.


A form of ethical non-naturalism. The meta-ethical view that moral knowledge is a property known by intuition.

Moral responsibility

To be morally responsible requires freedom of choice. It is the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission, in accordance with moral obligations.


Belief that human beings are ultimately free moral agents despite environmental and other limitations.

Hard determinism

Belief that as all events are causally determined and the result of previous events, choices and actions, therefore human free will is an illusion.


Idea sometimes called ‘soft determinism’ as it maintains that human free will is to differing degrees compatible with determinism.


The faculty said to enable us to make moral decisions, by giving us a sense of right and wrong.


A married person engaging in voluntary sexual intercourse with a person who is not their spouse.

Doctrine of the Mean

Aristotle’s belief that developing the moral virtues depended on determining the ‘middle way’ between the vices of excess and deficiency.

Free Will

The ability to decide choices freely without that choice being predetermined. Therefore, the moral agent is responsible for those choices.


A teleological, normative ethical theory. An example of ethical naturalism that identifies the ‘good’ in human experience is what causes pleasure and ‘wrong’ is what brings pain.