book review

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion

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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion
William J Wainwright, ed.
Oxford, 2005, 550 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

R eligion is not just about turning the other cheek and resurrection in the afterlife. It asks difficult philosophical questions, such as: how could a supernatural being—a being outside our universe—affect ours? What properties would a deity need in order to create and sustain the world? If religion is not just a myth, it must have answers to these questions.

In Abrahamic religions, the answers depend on the presumed attributes of God, namely immortality, omniscience, and infinite power and goodness. In a true philosophical debate, these are the only valid starting points. To argue from religious texts, as valuable as they are, would be to make a circular argument, reminiscent of that Internet meme about the holy napkin on which is written “The napkin religion is the one true religion because it says so right here on this napkin.”

The authors here all have different styles and approaches. Some bias their arguments in favor of their conclusion. In the chapter on proofs of the existence of God, for example, we get a very gentle treatment Saint Alselm's arguments in favor of religion and a brusque dismissal of Kant's rejection of Descartes' argument. Another chapter dismisses criticisms that religion lacks an empirical basis by saying that logical positivism is now out of fashion. That is undoubtedly true, but not, I think, a particularly compelling objection.

But most chapters confront fundamental questions about religion with refreshing honesty. The claim, made by fundamentalists, that religious teachings are absolute truth, seems to be assumed less often than before, even among believers, especially in areas where science has raised doubts. The authors ask: what sorts of predicates can be attributed to God? How can we evaluate the truth claims on various statements? (Yes, these are mostly analytic philosophers here.)

Some chapters deserve particular praise. The chapter “Faith and Revelation” by C. Stephen Evans has a good discussion of Aquinas, and it's the only one that mentions Kierkegaard. The chapter “Divine Sovereignty and Aseity” by William E. Mann is one of the most interesting, with a great discussion of aseity, which is the idea that God does not need anything beyond himself to maintain his existence, while the universe would dissolve instantaneously if God were not present. Paul J. Griffiths in “Nontheistic Conceptions of the Divine” talks about non-Western religions.

The core idea in religion is, of course, the presumed existence and innate goodness of God. Someone like myself who treads closer to atheism can treat this deity as a hypothetical being; philosophers can ask how religion can know anything about his properties, and believers are interested for obvious reasons. God is said to be able to do anything, as long as it (a) is logically possible, (b) doesn't conflict with his essential goodness, and (c) doesn't conflict with his presumed omniscience or existence. It would be impossible, for example, for God to commit suicide, commit murder, create a round square, or be created by somebody else. There are vigorous arguments on these topics going back centuries. The goal is to derive information about God by deduction from the assumptions of omnipotence and omniscience, which religious people take for granted.

Omniscience creates the most problems. If God knows the future, and knows all the results of every decision that could be taken, what does this say about the existence of evil and about free will? If, on the other hand, God doesn't know the future, then how is he omniscient?

One reason these basic properties are still up for debate is, of course, the lack of empirical information. But another may be that deviation from approved dogmas has historically been frowned upon. In earlier times, skeptics were threatened with becoming an afterlife BBQ post-apéritif—and sometimes with being sent there in a pre-charbroiled state.

Another interesting chapter is Z. D. Phillips “Wittgensteinianism.” Phillips speculates about whether God might be pure consciousness, and discusses the philosophical difficulties this creates. A consciousness, he writes, is said to entertain thoughts; being unique, God would have to think them alone. But Wittgenstein considered a logically private language to be impossible. Phillip also grasps the problem about the afterlife that religions face when he writes:

“When theodicies rely, in the end, on massive compensations in the eschaton, they half-recognize the emptiness of the general claim that suffering leads to improved character. Would that they wondered more at the terrible lack of economy in such a conception of the divine plan.” [p. 464]

These dilemmas reveal the difficulty in trying to deduce what a being infinitely smarter than oneself is thinking. It seems to me that, if God existed, we would have no more chance of understanding his actions or his reasoning than an ant would have of understanding string theory. Indeed, despite centuries of effort, there still is no compelling reason to assume any but the most basic properties about God; the Deists, who believe only that he exists, came closest to accepting this. Paul Tillich believed that even existence is too constraining for a transcendent God.

One might think that theists, of all people, would be immune from political correctness. Alas, that is not the case—even God Himself, despite His omnipotence, undergoes a couple changes of gender in this book.

Even though this isn't a comprehensive history of religious philosophy, the theists here generally discuss the arguments on both sides fairly. Everybody—Christians and Jews mainly, but scientists as well—would benefit from an acquaintance with these ideas. Religion is clearly something that people have thought deeply about. Even atheists can recognize that religion raises our sights above our daily struggle for survival by asking what a hypothetical perfect being would do.

And that makes it valuable even for those of us engaged in the one true struggle: the eternal battle between the great Cthulhu and the minions of Nyarlathotep, and those foolish idolators who believe all that tosh about the so-called Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Reviewed on this page

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion
William J Wainwright, ed.

See also

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Between Naturalism and Religion by Jurgen Habermas

The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology by Adam S. Miller

Religion Without God Ronald Dworkin

The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

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may 18, 2015