In Philosophy of Religion, part of the Oxford University PressVery Short Introduction series, philosopher Tim Bayne addresses a series of questions that center around the coherence and compellingness of what he calls “classical monotheism” and its tenants, by which he means the classical theological understanding of God developed primarily in Western Christianity—although he makes occasional references to Jewish and Islamic thinkers, and less frequently, to Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I call attention to the narrow focus of this book not as a criticism necessarily, but as a warning to readers who may be expecting a broader introduction to the discipline that might include, for example, any discussion of what is meant by the term religion, consideration given to religious traditions that do not fit into the category of classical monotheism, or a philosophical analysis of religious epistemologies that question the assumptions of the logical positivism that shapes Bayne’s writing.
“The philosophy of religion,” writes Bayne in the opening line of the first chapter, “is concerned not with religion as a social, cultural, or political phenomenon, but with philosophical questions that are prompted by religious faith and experience” (1). With this succinct description, he signals to the reader the parameters of his discussion. These parameters are helpful, but I am concerned about the self-evident tone of such a claim. It is certainly not the case that every scholar who locates themselves within the discipline of the philosophy of religion would accept that philosophical concerns exclude the spheres of society, culture, and politics. In fact, throughout the book it feels as though Bayne is making a tacit argument as to what the proper parameters of the discipline should be rather than presenting the state of the field in its broad contemporary expression. I do not take issue with this argument, but in the context of an introduction for non-specialists it borders on disingenuous to not at least acknowledge that many thinkers within the field would take issue with this description.
In chapters 2 through 5—the bulk of this short work—Bayne focuses on questions regarding the logical coherence of certain theological propositions concerning the classical monotheist God, such as: What does it mean to say God is perfect? Is it reasonable to believe that God exists? And, if God is good and powerful, why does evil exist? It is in the context of these discussions that Bayne shows his talent for combining succinctness with nuance in a manner that remains quite accessible. His brief discussion, for example, of the philosopher David Hume’s objections to standard intelligent design arguments in chapter 3, “Arguments for the Existence of God,” cuts straight to the heart of the problematic assumptions that many of these arguments rely on. Likewise, chapter 4, “Divine Hiddenness and the Nature of Faith,” concludes with a helpful and appropriately simple mapping of Søren Kierkegaard and Thomas Aquinas as contrasting options for thinking about the compatibility between faith and reason, which positions William James’s ideas on their compatibility as a more sustainable middle ground. Chapter 5, “The Problem of Evil,” offers a thoughtful introduction to “the most serious challenge to belief in God” (78): the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a good God has absolute power. Bayne offers a brief survey of the variations of this problem and the most common responses offered by monotheists and makes clear the stakes involved in questions of this kind.
In the remaining chapters, Bayne discusses explanations for the origins of religious belief (chapter 6), issues and limitations of human language when speaking of God (chapter 7), and the logical coherence of belief in the afterlife (chapter 8). While these chapters all have thoughtful moments, they lack the compelling argumentation of previous ones, and given that they take up only about half the number of pages as the previous three chapters, they feel as though they may have been tacked on as afterthought.
Altogether, Bayne has produced a well-written introduction to theological and philosophical discussions regarding the reasonableness of belief in the classical conception and tenants of monotheism. While readers looking for a broad introduction to the diversity of the discipline philosophy of religion may find the book rather narrow in its focus, believers and skeptics alike who are interested in the specific discussions that Bayne wrestles with will find critical resources to sharpen their thinking and will likely be exposed to questions they had not considered.
Ryne Beddard is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Date Of Review:
September 17, 2018
Tim Bayne is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University (Melbourne), having taught previously at Macquarie University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford. He has published widely in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of religion, and is the author of The Unity of Consciousness (OUP, 2010) and Thought: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013).
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