Taking a Philosophy of Religion A-Level is hard. Remember this. Don’t be fooled by your friend taking three science subjects, who assures you that “you’ll be fine” because you “basically just talk about your opinions on stuff” – this, unfortunately, is not the case.
A Philosophy of Religion A-Level syllabus certainly does encourage you to engage with, and debate the issues it brings up; a strong candidate will work in their interpretation of ethical theories, or theological perspectives within a well constructed context of other established theories. However, this is certainly not to say that the examiner wants your opinion – you are not chatting to them in a coffee shop and putting the world to rights. What you should be doing is presenting a clear, compelling argument based on academic evidence. Personal opinions or beliefs that have no basis in academic fact have no place in an A* exam answer. Probably the most important thing to keep in mind before even starting your revision is this; you are writing an academic essay, in the context of Theology, the oldest subject in the world. Approach your revision with the same scientific rigour that your friend would give to a lab report, in weighing the strength of different arguments and coming to a conclusion.
With this in mind, you may begin. Firstly, break your revision down topic by topic. Philosophy of Religion is a subject built on inter-relationships, and your teacher will, rightly, have encouraged you to draw links between the different areas you have studied. However, by treating each subject separately in your revision, you come to appreciate the technicality and detail of arguments that may have been lost during enthusiastic class discussion. You want to make sure that you’re clear on the exact content of a theory before you go on to assess its application or links to other areas. Treat, at this stage, your revision on the Telelogical Argument as an isolated issue; exam questions require a thorough knowledge of specific areas of the course, and the best way to gain this in Philosophy revision is to remove all confusion, and start from first principles. Albert Einstein himself once said that “any fool can know; the point is to understand.”
There is a good test for this – try writing down a clear paragraph summary on what a certain theory actually means. Many candidates find that they can quite happily discuss the strengths and weaknesses of, for example, Aquinas’ theory of natural moral law, but when asked to describe what it actually is, they falter. The albeit valid arguments for its strengths are no good if they are not based on a sold understanding of what the theory actually gets at. Once you understand this, you’re prepared for any curveball questions an exam might give you. Don’t fall into the temptation of learning essay plans, or neatly constructed tables on “strengths or weaknesses” – 70% of your revision should be focused on truly getting to grips with the theories themselves. Be logical and work upwards – as with your arguments, so with your revision!
I found that mind maps are a very helpful way of bringing a theory together – a philosophical theory is not something you should learn in a “list”. It is not something that should be underestimated, and laying out its logical progression is not something that is always neat and “linear” – I challenge anyone to put Plato’s theory of forms into a “neat list” and to do it justice!
Once you’re comfortable with the theories themselves, then, and only then, should you move on to consider criticisms. Your textbook gives you a wealth of criticism to use, neatly overviewed and divided into sub-headings. Ideal. By the time you come to learn these, you should have a good understanding of the theory itself, and be able to see where the criticisms should naturally come. There are many valid and interesting criticisms provided by exam boards, which you must certainly learn and consider in order to get a higher mark. My only note of caution would be to apply these too trustingly; yes, often valid points are made which challenge prominent parts of theories…but consider whether this criticism is enough to undermine the whole thing? Use your understanding of the theory to consider whether the weakness you consider is firstly a valid one, and secondly (if it is) whether its validity is enough grounds to dismiss the whole theory? Again, be wary of lists. You may have a long list of modern theorists eager to undermine an ancient theory…but do they really get to the heart of the issue? They might do…but there is certainly no shame in sticking up for Aristotle. Take a moment to consider that, despite the propensity to criticise, theories that have been successfully and completely undermined are not still studied over 2000 years after they have been written…
Your final stage of revision should come through practice essays. Practice, practice, practice is the best advice that I can give. Get your hands on every single past paper you can find, and plan out all of the essays (you won’t have time to write them all!) – find out which subjects you are most comfortable writing about in the exams, and focus your revision most closely around those – as much as it’s dangerous to predict questions, a shrewd candidate can certainly choose their 5 favourite topics for each paper and focus their revision most closely around them. Practice writing introductions – these should set out your interpretation of the question – and learn to answer the question in your introduction. You should of course provide counter arguments, but 9.9/10 essays which open strongly with a clear statement of intent are easier to write, and certainly to follow under timed conditions. Practice essays also highlight areas you don’t understand or haven’t learnt – in this case, go back, learn it, and try again.
Finally…enjoy it! Philosophy of Religion A-Level is a challenging, confusing and often frustrating course. Resist the temptation to spurn it as “pointless” and enjoy the opportunity of getting to discuss, debate and truly engage with issues that concern our very existence. Have pride in your subject, and strive to be that “annoying philosopher” who the poet Robert Zend hailed as having a “problem for every solution.”