A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion

Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary

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Mikel Burley
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mikel Burley's A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion is a timely, provocative call for a dramatic revision to both the methods and subject matter of philosophy of religion. Burley's ostensive starting point is the desire to find a philosophical framework to do justice to the enormous variety of religious phenomena in the world. He writes, "As knowledge of multiple religions and cultures becomes ever more readily accessible, and as the recognition grows that parochialism and cultural myopia in philosophy is no longer an option, exploration of alternative methods is urgently needed" (65). This popular sentiment has motivated a number of attempts to forge a pluralistic philosophy of religion starting no later than the 1970s, but Burley finds those attempts lacking in various ways and he pleads for a new approach. 

Burley's program is grounded in the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his disciple D. Z. Phillips, who insist that philosophy of religion should eschew theory and instead take the form of detailed, nuanced descriptions attentive to context. This is an extension of Wittgenstein's famous dictum that meaning is use. According to Wittgenstein, words are fundamentally actions that have significance only because they have a role to play when woven into larger patterns of human endeavor. Philosophical theories are born to answer puzzlements that arise when we imagine that the complexities of a word signal the complexity of an imaginary singular referent. The word “time” has many complicated, overlapping uses, for example, and many misguided theories of time have been invented to try to describe the metaphysical something the word seems to denote. The way out of this nonsense is to patiently describe the many social contexts and patterns in which the word is employed and to realize that the strangeness lies in our lives, not in a metaphysical dimension. Phillips expands this method to religious vocabulary and religious life quite broadly, but Burley goes much further still and recommends a new, subversive program for all of philosophy of religion.   

The book is divided evenly into two parts. In part 1, "Critique and Methodology," Burley respectfully argues that several important attempts to establish a pluralistic philosophy of religion fall short in one way or another. Burley carefully engages John Hick, John Cobb, Victoria Harrison, Kevin Schilbrack, and a few more scholars from whom he both picks up good ideas and identifies mistakes he wants to avoid. In the end, what Burley proposes is not a method but rather "a plurality of methods, unconstrained by conventional disciplinary boundaries" (2). Indeed, Burley's own descriptive studies look so much like cultural anthropology that the reader might wonder if they really count as philosophy at all. For Burley, that is not a problem but simply an indication of what a productive analysis of religious phenomena might look like.  

In the spirit of Wittgenstein, Burley's methodology is characterized by two interrelated dimensions: "attentiveness to heterogeneity" and "thickening of description" (43). The first principle simply says that philosophers should consider a wide variety of examples and details. The second deserves more explanation, but Burley cautions that he "is content to refrain from stipulating a tight definition of thick description" (63). The essential matter is that a thick description is so artfully written, so detailed and nuanced, that the reader will see things anew and understand them for himself without the need for explicit interpretation (62). A thick description of human sacrifice would allow the reader to sympathetically imagine a life in which the practice makes sense, much as a thick description of the word “time” would show you how a native speaker employs it. To understand why a people might practice human sacrifice just is to see it from their point of view, so to speak, and theoretical explanation is beside the point.  

In other words, the aim of thick description is to let the reader understand "possible ways of being human" (192), which Burley regards as the proper aim of philosophy of religion.  

This is just the sort of description that Burley illustrates in part 2 of the book, "Exemplifying a Radical Pluralist Approach." His case studies are long, detailed, and gripping. In chapter 4, Burley takes us inside the complex and contradictory ways that Buddhists think about the nature of compassion, and then into a discussion about how the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in protest of the war in Viet Nam might have been motivated by a compassion revered by Buddhists but it might also have sprung from a rage that would be morally self-defeating (113). In chapter 5, we enter the Warí worldview wherein the social and conceptual boundaries between people, animals, and food are such that mortuary cannibalism makes sense. In chapter 6, Burley relates how the grotesque and the comedic meet in a gruesome ritual of spirit possession and animal sacrifice practiced in Assam in Northeast India. In chapter 7, we learn to think like those Native American tribes for whom animism seems obvious and intuitive. 

Burley's book is well written, provocative, and engaging, and it certainly deserves to be read by anyone who is serious about developing a pluralistic philosophy of religion. Furthermore, since it includes generous summaries and critiques of some other important attempts, the book would be well suited to a class or to anyone wanting to get caught up on the subject. If the book has any shortcoming worth mentioning, it is that Burley too often employs terms and ideas borrowed from Wittgenstein without adequately summarizing or justifying them. He makes extensive use of the concept of a "form of life," for example, without ever defining or explaining it, and this might be a problem for readers with little or no background in Wittgenstein's philosophy. However, this approach has the benefit of avoiding some well-worn debates, and it should invite in a wider variety of readers interested in this important project.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Hoyt is associate professor and head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University and specializes in Wittgenstein. 

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mikel Burley is associate professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. His previous books include Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (2016).


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