In this book J.L. Schellenberg offers a foundation for work in the philosophy of religion by defining some of the key concepts and clarifying the methodology used in this discipline. He begins with a chapter on the nature and scope of religion, followed by chapters dealing with belief (both religious belief and religious disbelief), religious skepticism, religious faith (both “faith-in” and propositional faith as a nonbelieving state), the aims of the philosophy of religion, and finally the principles of evaluation in the philosophy of religion. The content and style of the book will make it interesting and informative for graduate students and instructors in the philosophy of religion, although it may be not be accessible for a general audience.
Schellenberg’s chapter on the definition of religion deals with some of the difficulties involved in giving a precise definition, although he seems to settle on two aspects that such a definition must contain: “religion entails an emphasis on meaning or value” and that it involves beliefs about a transmundane world (11). The implication of the first aspect is that all persons are religious since all persons have beliefs they use to give meaning to (or interpret) their experiences. Schellenberg says that the nihilist is an example of someone who does not believe in meaning and so is not religious (11). However, this may be a shift in the definition: the nihilist’s belief is that there is no ultimate meaning or goal in life, but this belief is used by the nihilist to interpret (give meaning to) his/her life experiences. The second aspect of the definition is that it involves belief in a transmundane reality, which seems to exclude the naturalist. This aspect of the definition appears to be problematic, however, because if some religions believe “all is one,” then the distinction between the mundane and the transmundane does not apply. If the naturalist’s belief is that “all is one” and “all is material,” and the spiritual monist’s belief is that “all is one” and “all is spirit” these seem to function in a similar fashion in the respective believer’s lives and so it is hard to see why one is religious and the other is not.
Schellenberg next considers the nature of belief. He defines it as follows: “Applying to the nature of belief this idea of something x being apprehended under the concept y, we may say that my experiencing a belief amounts to my having a thought concerning what is objectively a way things might be (or might be said to be) in which that item is apprehended under the concept reality” (49). What is beneficial about this approach is that Schellenberg preserves the propositional nature of belief, and this continues into his discussion on faith. If religion has to do with meaning, and persons find meaning in their beliefs about reality, then the implication is that religion is cognitive and can be analyzed in terms of true and false.
In the final two chapters Schellenberg considers the aims and principles of evaluation in the philosophy of religion. He calls the aims concerning justification and meaning “lower-level aims,” similar to the aims of a prolegomena, and suggestions that there are also higher-level aims such as “investigating the theoretical value of religious claims in relation to problems in other areas of philosophy” (184). For example, “the insights of Buddhist thinkers will turn out to be helpful in untying the knots in which philosophy can become entangled where issues of self-hood and free will are concerned” (187). This leads him to propose four aims for the philosophy of religion (two lower-level and two-higher level): a comprehensive study of prolegomena issues; a study of the justification of religious claims; a study of the bearing of religious claims on other areas of philosophy; and rational examination of religious practice (191).
After this he proceeds to consider the principles of evaluation in philosophy of religion. This involves an analysis of what a justified religious response would be at a given time in specific circumstances. It also includes his argument for rejecting justificational pluralism. He asserts that the philosopher who is seeking to apply a truth-oriented criterion should “consider whether there is sufficient evidence that is overall good evidence of the truth of the proposition that would be believed in a belief response, or of the truth of the proposition that would be believed in a disbelieving response, or whether instead – as I put it – the available information does not permit such a judgment” (218). His affirmation of the propositional nature of belief and faith, and his concern to find a truth-oriented criterion for evaluation of religious responses, is one of the best features of this book.
However, his definition for how to evaluate a religious response involve words such as “sufficient” and “good” which will be understood differently in different religious frameworks. What would have been interesting is an evaluation of the structure of religious belief (or worldview) in terms of less basic and more basic beliefs. Then, having identified the most basic beliefs that constitute the difference between the various religions (or “worldviews” to include the naturalist), it would have been valuable to propose a criterion for determining which should be accepted. The implication seems to be that if worldviews are systems of belief relating to given basic beliefs, then the most essential difference is the difference in basic beliefs. If the philosophy of religion is to help in answering the question of which religious proposition should be believed or disbelieved, it seems that it must be able to help us in deciding which basic belief to believe.
Schellenberg ends his book by saying that there is much more to explore in future books, and if they are as interesting as this one then such books should be eagerly anticipated.