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Religion reasoned about

04 September 2015

Duncan Dormor considers philosophical arguments

Philosophy of Religion: Towards a more humane approach
John Cottingham
CUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A manifesto
Kevin Schilbrack
Wiley Blackwell £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.90


CONTEMPORARY philosophy, to its impoverishment, has increasingly sought, in its pursuit of rigour and certainty, to emulate the approach and methods of science. Such a move away from the traditional humanistic approach has reduced the breadth of vision of philosophy, and left philosophers of religion, in particular, caught in the frustrating position of being asked to play a game using a set of rules which precludes their ever having possession of the ball.

The “rules”, that is, operating with an epistemology of detachment, effectively outlaw a proper consideration of imagination, of the emotions, of the will, and of commitment and involvement — in short, much that makes religion religion.

This is the central argument of John Cottingham’s compelling introduction to, and defence of, philosophy of religion, which helpfully but gently takes the reader through the central issues at stake in the area. It is a fair account: it fully acknowledges the cogent challenges to theism, but equally it prods hard at the difficulties the non-theist has, for example, in providing a reasonable account of moral obligation, or in trying to articulate a meaningful world-view without recourse to teleology. In passing, he is critical of the quasi-scientific “reframing” of philosophy which rewrites history, pointing out also that many thinkers enshrined in the reductionist canon, like the “arch-rationalist” (but Roman Catholic) Descartes, have been rigorously fileted and significantly misrepresented.

Cottingham touches on familiar issues, but with a freshness born of rigorous engagement with the latest scholarship. At the heart of his account lies “the primacy of the moral dimension”, as he describes it. This leads him to place a much greater emphasis than is usual in such texts on contemplation, habit, and the practices associated with religious observance.

Kevin Schilbrack echoes the criticism of narrow and excessive intellectualism, but is more radical. He seeks to move the goalposts, or, perhaps, relocate the pitch: his manifesto involves a more thorough-going attack on the hegemonic methodology of Western philosophy, and issues a call to philosophers to move beyond a “focus on the rationality of traditional theism to become a fully global form of critical reflection on religions in all their variety and dimensions”.

This is ambitious stuff (to put it mildly), and there are many philosophical nits to be picked in what is ultimately a slim volume. Some of Schilbrack’s points hit home hard, however: perhaps the most obvious is the lack of critical attention paid in traditional Enlightenment-influenced philosophy to key terms and categories that have all too often been reified: most obviously, “religion” and “belief”. Here, informed by the work of a wide range of social theorists, anthropologists, and others, Schilbrack seeks to draw philosophers of religion out of their cultural insularity, through a consideration of concepts such as “embodied knowledge”, to contemplate what “religion” might be, feel like, and mean in “the rest” of the world.


The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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