What is This Thing Called Philosophy of Religion?

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Elizabeth Burns
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book, the author attempts to simplify and explain a complex topic. Philosophy itself can often seem convoluted; adding religion to the mix usually serves to complicate matters further. Elizabeth Burns covers linguistic issues as well as tackling subjects such as the nature of the divine, arguments for, as well as challenges to, the existence of some type of god. These are thorny, age-old topics to be sure. Burns addresses concepts such as life after death and reincarnation. Clearly she has undertaken a daunting task. One interesting approach that she takes is to include references at the end of each chapter, footnotes, and resources for further reading. This is a clear and concise format, and neatly wraps up the topic of each chapter.

On page 39, Burns addresses the contemporary issue of gender usage. The author notes the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” adopted in Sweden, and the usage of “ze” by Oxford University students. Applying gender neutral pronouns to the Divine is solved in this way: “I will use ‘Xe’ as a substitute for ‘He’, but ‘God’ for ‘Him’, ‘God’s’ for ‘His’, and ‘Godself’ for ‘Himself’” (39). This awkward substitution is then used throughout the book. She (perhaps “ze”?) seems unaware that this ungainly replacement feels more distracting than helpful. 

In her chapter on “The Divine as Personal and Impersonal,” Burns ponders whether Divine personhood is a metaphor, and postulates that “God is good is an analogy because the speaker is claiming the God’s goodness resembles human goodness” (38). She seems to reach conclusions hastily considering the complexity of her topics. She does draw on a broad range of resources, and provides provocative questions in her reflection sections. This is helpful to the reader and again attempts to focus attention on salient issues being addressed in each chapter.

Chapter 5 considers the issue of divine power. Clearly this is a hotly debated topic (something that is probably true of almost all the contents of this book). Her introduction is clear and concise. Burns poses opposing positions, such as, “omnipotence does not include the ability to perform logically impossible actions” (44), and later, “omnipotence could possibly include the ability to perform logically impossible actions” (46). Her approaches leave readers open to various possibilities, and presumably myriad conclusions. 

There are chapters on divine wisdom, divine action, petitionary prayer, and as previously referenced, the existence of God. Each of the topics could no doubt comprise an entire book; Burns attempts to present each succinctly, allowing one to make up one’s own mind on such weighty matters. In her exposition of arguments for the existence of the Divine, she draws from other authors’ theories and beliefs, such as those of William Paley, who notes that a bird’s wings are made in such a way that it is able to fly, and the fins of a fish enable it to swim, which leads him to conclude that there must have been a designer of the world, the designer must have been a person, and that person is God (95). She then immediately presents some opposing views. 

This same procedure is followed by moral arguments for the existence of God. In this chapter she draws heavily upon the writings of Immanuel Kant, which is heavy reading indeed. The author always seems to be fair in presenting reasonable sides to each argument. This is more helpful than “stacking the deck,” as many authors do in attempts to bolster their own presuppositions. By offering strong counterpoints, readers are enabled to either solidify or challenge their own positions. 

Chapter 12 discusses religious experience, which is diverse to say the least. Once again, Burns outlines arguments for and against experience as it relates to the existence of the Divine. It is difficult to argue with another’s experience, and Burns provides some helpful material for intelligently approaching this topic, such as the principle of testimony and the principle of credulity. 

Ontological arguments can be perplexing. In a concise way, Burns introduces the thoughts of Descartes, Kant, Malcolm, Plantinga, and Murdoch in chapter 13. Her conclusion is intriguing: “The Buddha appears to have thought that questions such as those which we have considered in this chapter are of little value if they involve only metaphysical speculation, since they are not helpful in the search for salvation” (130). 

One huge obstacle for faith is the problem of evil. This reality challenges not just Christians, but people of many faiths and even non-believers. The horrors of the 20th century, notably the Holocaust and the murderous regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, cause many to doubt the existence of a good God in the midst of inexplicable evil. Burns examines this issue from many perspectives, Christian thoughts, atheistic approaches, and Hindu and Buddhist accounts of evil and suffering. Her conclusion is necessarily open-ended. C. S. Lewis offers cogent observations on this issue in his classic book, The Problem of Pain (Centenary Press, 1940), and many other authors have attempted to explain the inescapable existence of pain, evil, and suffering in this world. Burns does a decent job of outlining significant thoughts on the topic.

Burns has accomplished her goal in this book of defining, in graspable terms, what the philosophy of religion entails. She includes thoughts from five major world religions, thus providing a diversity of views in a condensed and readable form. Conclusions tend to be open-ended, providing ample food for future thought, and fodder for discussion. Much, much more could be, and has been written on each topic introduced in the book. As the apostle John writes at the end of his gospel, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did, were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). While there are many more things which could be written, Burns’s slim volume provides a valuable synthesis of the philosophy of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathan 'Jack' Read is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Ryokan College.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Burns was a Reader at Heythrop College, University of London, UK where she taught philosophy of religion from 2000—2017 and was, for five years, Dean of Undergraduate Studies. She is now a Reader and Programme Director of the University of London International Programmes in Theology at the central University of London and Director of Taught Programmes at the Cambridge Theological Federation, UK.


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