Coming to terms with the big questions

Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions - Philosophy of Religion: A Critical Introduction - Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction
October 8, 1999

These three books nicely illustrate the range of textbooks on offer for the philosophy of religion. One question, to which these books give different answers, concerns the scope of the subject. Are we to focus on the traditional triad of monotheistic religions or cast our net wider?

The Big Questions is a big anthology that addresses most of the central issues likely to be covered on a course that focuses on monotheism. There are sections on God's attributes, arguments for His existence, the problem of evil, faith and reason, morality, and more specific aspects of religion.

The selection of articles is what you would expect from the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Most extracts are from recent academic publications, with just a few pieces from earlier writers.

The one mildly adventurous note is struck in the final section with the less than punchy title: "How should religious, gender and ethnic diversity influence our thinking about religion?" Even this assumes that most readers will be unfamiliar with non-analytic literature. In that context, Grace Jantzen's piece is especially helpful as a guide to recent continental thought. For any one teaching the subject employing the Anglo-American approach, this anthology could scarcely be bettered.

A Contemporary Introduction boldly goes where few in the Anglo-American tradition have gone before. Though never diluting the rigour of the analytic approach, it expounds and critically assesses the main doctrines of monotheism and many non-monotheistic religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. It brings to this task the full panoply of tools available to the modern logician and is a fine proponent of what the Philosophical Lexicon defines as "chisholming": making repeated small alterations in a definition. The philosophically sophisticated student (and teacher) will be stimulated by this crisp argumentation, but the less capable student (especially those for whom logic is anathema) will find it terrifying. At times the book labours the point, especially when arguing against the kind of soggy relativism that is not confined to the student body, but generally there is little fat.

Although very fine of its kind, it carries to extremes the approach that sees religions as merely metaphysical systems. Thus the chapter in which karma is discussed could serve, virtually without alteration, as the chapter on personal identity in a textbook of metaphysics.

If the first two books are for senior-level students, the third is aimed at beginners. A Critical Introduction is also keen to remind us that there is more to religion than monotheism. It is not over-impressed by traditional theism. But it offers in its place a reheated hash of Wittgensteinian fideism, the least appetising, least nourishing dish on the philosophy of religion menu. Too briefly, at the end of the book, the authors approach the fascinating question of whether it is possible or desirable to retain a religious attitude to the world in the absence of belief in a God or in life after death, exploring the work of Iris Murdoch and Dennis Potter.

This work is accessible, and there is much here that a tyro would find helpful. But it is, regrettably, sometimes rather sloppy. Complexity and subtlety are out of place in an introductory book, yet students need a model that exhibits the virtues of accuracy and rigour, and these are sometimes lacking here.

David McNaughton is professor of philosophy, Keele University.

Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions

Editor - E. Stump and M. J. Murray
ISBN - 0 631 20603 5 and 20604 3
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £65.00 and £15.99
Pages - 485

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