Taking God beyond the sixth form

September 18, 2008

Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues

Editors: Paul Copan and Chad Meister

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Pages: 296

Price: £60.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9781405139892 and 9908

These are promising times for the philosophy of religion. Courses in this area tend to recruit well among undergraduates, and it looms large in Year 12 and 13 religious studies.

Undergraduate textbooks in this field can be excessively narrow in two main ways. Firstly, the fact that the bulk of work in philosophy of religion tends to be done within a "Judaeo-Christian" framework means that other faiths are often sidelined. Secondly, there is a strong bias towards the Anglo-American version of the subject so that recent developments in, for example, Francophone phenomenology or feminism often do not get a look-in.

This volume is rooted predominantly in the Anglo-American tradition, while acknowledging others. It is divided into four main sections. The first, on religious experience and knowledge, includes essays on the epistemology of religious experience, religion and science, reformed epistemology and religious pluralism and exclusivism.

Next comes the existence of God. Those old favourites, the natural theological arguments for the "God of the philosophers", are considered, alongside arguments against, such as the problem of evil and the alleged superiority of a naturalistic account of the universe.

The essays aim to be more than merely historical, incorporating recent work in these areas, so that student readers who have been guided through stock versions of the arguments by an accommodating A-level teacher will, it is to be hoped, be less likely to claim that they have "done" the cosmological argument.

The third part addresses the nature and attributes of God, mostly asking about the coherence (or otherwise) of aspects of theism. This section also includes a quirky essay by Paul Moser on death and divine hiddenness which preserves the idea of religion as a quest for meaning.

Finally, the fourth part addresses emerging themes, with essays on contemporary continental, "Eastern" and feminist philosophy of religion. (On the second subject, it is ironic that religious traditions predating all three "Abrahamic" faiths can be called an "emerging theme".)

The essays are of manageable length, typically around 14 or 15 pages, and are mostly very good introductions to their topics, although some expect far more of their student readers than others. Particular commendation should be given to John Polkinghorne and Bruce Ellis Benson, who manage to explain complex ideas in the relationship between religion and science and contemporary continental philosophy of religion, respectively, with admirable clarity. Each essay ends with several "questions for reflection", which have very varying degrees of potential as useful foci for seminar discussion.

Overall, provided it is used alongside a good reader of primary texts and the tutor is happy with the Anglo-American bias, this has considerable potential as a course textbook. But should the editors do a second edition, they might consider two points: firstly, there is the concern mentioned in the feminism essay that religious practices, and not just beliefs, should be given more airtime. Secondly, they might expand part four in order to give a clearer sense of the sheer range and vitality of contemporary philosophy of religion.

Who is it for? Potential course text for philosophers of religion who focus on the Anglo-American tradition but who realise there is life outside it.

Presentation: Essays are about the right length; further reading suggestions are useful.

Would you recommend it? Yes. Handy route map for middle- to upper-level undergraduates.

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