Defining Religion

Essays in Philosophy of Religion

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Robert Cummings Neville
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , January
     363 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religionis no shrinking violet. At a time when many scholars are loath even to use the word religion as an analytical term (preferring the more empirically friendly religions, or simply dispensing with the term altogether), Neville states his case on page 1 that “inquiry proceeds more fruitfully by defining religion in a certain way.” This should not, however, be seen simply as an attempt to be provocative or outlandish. Rather, it stems logically from Neville’s philosophical commitments to the American pragmatist tradition and in particular to the “pragmatic thesis that philosophy is inquiry, in continuity with inquiry in other fields such as science” (304). The purpose of defining religion is not to reveal the putative essence or truth of religion; rather, it is to promote and guide inquiry. Defining Religion, then, is fundamentally a book about inquiring into religion by means of philosophy.

Like all of Neville’s books, Defining Religionpossesses a distinct architectonic structure. It is divided into five sections, and each section has four chapters. A brief preface addresses the book as a whole. Each section is introduced by short preliminary remarks, which performs the dual function of setting up each individual section as well as connecting that section to others in the book. While the individual chapters have been written over a period of years (though revised, sometimes substantially, for this publication), the careful organization of the book’s contents makes Defining Religiona sustained meditation on philosophical inquiry into religion rather than an ad hoc collection of essays and conference presentations. 

Heuristics is the title of the first section. In chapter 1, Neville examines some of the problems encountered in defining religion, while in chapter 2 he provides a working definition. Chapters 3 and 4 embed this definition in a theory of religion. This is, in a manner of speaking, a Boston Confucian definition of religion, insofar as the definitional operator is neither Aristotelian substance nor Wittgensteinian family resemblances, but rather harmony. Harmony is a technical term in Neville’s systematic metaphysics. It denotes all determinate things—monkeys, Yosemite National Park, a circle, the Big Bang theory, three seconds of time, the practice of bartering, sweet honeysuckle nectar on my tongue, and on and on. Harmonies are unified forms or patterns of essential and conditional components. Essential components provide integral unity (so the thing cannot be reducible to something else), while conditional components connect the thing with other things (so as to make one thing different from other things). A harmony possesses an existential location as well as a value-identity that derives from the unity of its components with its particular form in its place relative to other things in the existential field. The advantage of a Boston Confucian definition of religion quaharmony is that the definition “includes its environment as well as those essential components that give it a real position in the environment, and the form by which it unifies the conditional and essential environment” (9). That is, the Boston Confucian definition of religion promotes testable inquiry into religious phenomena while at the same time avoiding vicious reductionism. As such, religion quaharmony is one of the notable contributions Defining Religion makes to ongoing method and theory discussions in the field of religious studies.

In the second section, titled Pragmatics, Neville demonstrates how Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory can be used to investigate the human experience of religion. Chapter 5 develops Peirce’s views and chapter 8 contrasts Peirce’s position with Kantian approaches. Chapters 6 and 7 develop a Peircean schema for distinguishing religious experience from other similar types of experience. Chapter 6 takes phenomenology as its foil, while chapter 7 examines the hermeneutic dimensions of religious experience.

Section 3, Religious Studies, considers various ways to study religion. As such, these chapters should be read as applications of the theory of religion developed in Pragmatics, which itself stems from the definition of religion developed in Heuristics. One notable claim advanced by Neville in this section (and worked out in chapters 9, 11, and 12 in particular) is that non-confessional theology can provide resources for studying religion. This is in sharp contrast to the prevailing tenet that theologians supply content for religious studies scholars to study, but do not study religion themselves. Chapter 10 describes the usefulness of philosophy as a means of inquiring into religion.

The fourth section, Philosophical Theology, is closely related to the preceding section. Chapters 13 and 14 are the latest installments in Neville’s long debate with process theologians regarding their understanding of God and creative activity vis-à-vis his conception of the ontological creative act. Chapters 15 and 16 return to the theory of religion developed in Heuristics, applying it to the existential crisis caused by worldviews breaking apart and suggesting ways that ultimate realities, understood ontologically and cosmologically, can be studied in multidisciplinary fashion.

Players, the fifth and final section in the book, examines four philosophers whose work intersects with Neville’s in different ways. Chapter 17 is a personal reflection on John E. Smith, who was Neville’s mentor. Chapter 18 sets out in detail four areas distinguishing Neville’s pragmatism (described elsewhere as “paleopragmatism”) from Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism. Chapter 19 considers the work of William Desmond and the importance both invest in systematic philosophy. In Chapter 20, Neville considers the similarities and differences between his understanding of pragmatism and that of Nancy Frankenberry, especially regarding her high evaluations of Donald Davidson and Rorty.

Defining Religion is the fourth book of collected essays Neville has published. These works function as a sort of critical philosophy in Neville's oeuvre. Here we find Neville at his most accessible, interrogating his influences, engaging his contemporaries, and demonstrating  the ways his philosophical system can be utilized, for instance, to push back against modernist and postmodernist dismissals of metaphysics, to inquire into religion, and to push theological truth. For readers familar with Neville's sometimes formidable monographs, these essay collections provide helpful commentary; for readers unfamiliar with Neville's technical works (or chary of diving in), they provide the closest thing we have to a comprenensive introduction. Defining Religion demonstrates the importance of philosophy for critical inquiry into religious phenomena while not excluding questions of truth about first-order issues (such as the nature of ultimate reality). I highly recommen it to comparative theologians, philosophers of religion, and religious studies scholars working in the areas of theory and method.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religous Studies at Lynchburg College.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Cummings Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology and Dean Emeritus of the School of Theology at Boston University. He is the author of many books, including The Good Is One, Its Manifestations Many: Confucian Essays on Metaphysics, Morals, Rituals, Institutions, and Genders, also published by SUNY Press.


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