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The Philosophy of ReligionReview - The Philosophy of Religion
An Historical Introduction
by Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski
Wiley-Blackwell, 2007
Review by Brad Frazier, Ph.D.
Jan 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 5)

Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski has done some fine work in philosophy.  So as an instructor who has frequently taught philosophy of religion, I approached this introductory text with high hopes, suspecting that it might supplant some secondary texts I've used.  Below I'll get to the fate of those hopes.

In the preface, Zagzebski notes that she seeks to offer an historical and topical, rather than chronological, approach to philosophy of religion.  She wants to give students a much better feel for the range of philosophy of religion and the enduring importance of its central questions.  She also deliberately opts to leave loose ends in her analysis of the various positions that she considers.  Her goal is to provide an historical and philosophical background that helpfully sets the stage for philosophy teachers and their students to proceed with informed grappling with the issues where the text leaves off.  Zagzebski also hopes to broaden some of the standard topics in philosophy of religion.  These are refreshing and very commendable aims for an introductory text in analytic philosophy of religion.

The book is fairly concise and accessible, consisting of ten chapters that cover nearly all of the traditional topics.  Zagzebski begins by clarifying what she refers to as "the" philosophical approach to religion.  Then she moves on to arguments for God's existence, the concept of God, the problem of evil, and other standard issues.  She concludes with discussions of the "problem" of religious diversity, faith and reason and the ethics of belief.  Perhaps the most helpful chapter comes midway through the book in Zagzebski's discussion of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge.  However, she doesn't even mention a version of libertarian freedom that is relevant to her discussion, as its adherents reject the principle of alternative possibilities and compatibilist views of freedom.

Compared to other introductory texts in this field, Zagzebski's book is more historically informed.  I tallied over twenty-five block quotations or arguments sketched out in block form from historical figures ranging from Cleanthes and Plato to Ramakrishna and Al-Ghazali.  But on that score and in general in the book, (Zagzebski's) Aquinas wins in a landslide.

To her credit, Zagzebski does not try to hide this fact.  At the end of chapter one, for instance, she concedes that some remaining chapters do not make sense, if there is no God.  Furthermore, she admittedly assumes that God exists in her discussion of the concept of God.  One senses from these passages and others that it must be difficult to write a balanced and non-partisan introduction to philosophy of religion, given the issues at stake and their interrelations.  I applaud Zagzebski for trying and for succeeding in some respects.

My hunch is that this book may be most appealing to certain traditional Protestants and evangelicals and some Thomists; others not so much.  Reluctantly I confess that I was very disappointed with it.  I will try briefly to explain.

While Zagzebski's writing often displays the virtues of her discipline, unfortunately in this book its vices also come to the fore, particularly its insularity from other disciplines and penchant for Pyrrhic solutions.  Warning signs began flashing for me in the preface, where Zagzebski lists as other fields only other areas of philosophy after noting quite rightly that philosophers of religion "ask questions in many fields."  They intensified in the second section of chapter one, at the end of which Zagzebski notes, "philosophy can flourish without input from the outside" (13).  This claim comes on the heels of a surprisingly sharp distinction posited by Zagzebski--a virtue theorist who surely has read her MacIntyre--between the "academic field" of philosophy and the "practice" of religion.  This narrowness and failure to acknowledge more that academic disciplines, such as philosophy, are constituted by complex practices turn out to be a harbinger of things to come.

From the beginning and throughout the book, Zagzebski makes almost no effort to bring in or even mention sociological, psychological, phenomenological, and evolutionary perspectives on religion, where these might be relevant to her discussion.  Freud manages to get a brief hearing, not so that Zagzebski may help us see what might be instructive or worth preserving in his account of religious belief.  Rather, the point seems to be to uncover the questionable assumptions Freud "must" make to sustain his critique.  The defensive posture of Zagzebski's brief treatment of Freud is striking, especially when juxtaposed with the approach of Merold Westphal, another Christian philosopher of religion, but not an analytic philosopher, in his Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism.

Also, Zagzebski helpfully notes in several passages that arguments for God's existence are almost entirely ineffectual in promoting religious belief.  Yet she fails to explore how this insight might shed light on the need to study religion as a human phenomenon and in an interdisciplinary way.  Instead, she uses the occasion to denigrate philosophers who "never tire of" these arguments (54).  But there are plenty who are tired of them and tired of analyzing them as if they occur in a bodiless, bloodless Platonic realm.

Zagzebski rightly tries to broaden the scope of analytic philosophy of religion by noting the centrality of emotion in the practice of religion, the formation of belief and the defense of a religious way of life.  Early on she argues persuasively that it is necessary to get some purchase on the emotions that a religion cultivates, in addition to its history and teachings, to understand it fully.  But she never seizes on the opening this creates for dialogue with theorists in other disciplines and feminists and phenomenologists, for example, in her own discipline.  As a result, her discussions of religious emotions, although welcome departures from standard analytic approaches, tend to be shallow and one-sided even for an introductory text.  For instance, in the first chapter she argues that one must have experienced reverence to understand the sacred.  She also concludes the book with a discussion of the centrality of the emotion of admiration in discerning whom to imitate intellectually.  But there is no corresponding recognition of the complex and dynamic social and psychological factors that are at play in developing and cultivating reverence and in coming to admire a person--factors that can make reverence a symptom of psychological dysfunction and admiration a mindset to be exploited by authoritarian religious figures.  Indeed, Zagzebski does not even mention the problem of religiously-inspired guilt and the witting and unwitting manipulation of fragile human psyches that repeatedly has occurred and continues to occur in many different traditions of religious formation.  In general, she is blithely and shockingly silent about the dangers of religious exploitation of certain emotions.  It is as if focusing on the emotions that religions cultivate will serve merely to put skeptical philosophers who are narrowly fixated on arguments in their place.             

When Zagzebski turns to the thorny question of the relation of religion and morality, she claims that religions teach a code of morality because they usually view ethical life as part of the cure for the miserable state of human existence.  Never mind that there could be something more going on beneath the surface here, like stability-providing cosmic legitimations of highly contingent and idiosyncratic moral codes.  For Zagzebski, digging deeper involves plumbing the metaphysical ground of morality, which is constituted by God's virtues, in her view (137).  Philosophers will be perplexed that it takes Zagzebski about fourteen pages into the chapter to get to Plato's famous and incisive "Euthyphro dilemma."  Many also will be less than satisfied with Zagzebski's divine anti-realist theory as a response to it, as I was.  According to this theory,

God loves what he loves and has the other emotional attitudes he has, because of features of the object and God's relation to the object, but not because those features are good or bad.  God does not respond to the good or bad of the object per se.  Rather, God has the attitude he has because it is what it is, and it is related to him in a certain way.  Because God is the perfectly good being, that attitude determines the goodness or badness of the object (159).

Many students and their philosophy teachers alike, faintly echoing Socrates, will wonder then what exactly Zagzebski has in mind when she refers to God as the "perfectly good" being.  But Zagzebski thinks she has located in her theory a position that "eliminates the problem of evil at the level of the metaphysics of value" (158).  I would not want my students to think that this is the sort of solution, insight or wisdom that studying philosophy of religion, in its better moments, is apt to yield.

For a book that aims to be an historical introduction, Zagzebski's text also has a problematic "battle of ideas" ahistorical bent in certain passages.  For instance, she completely ignores the wild contingencies and all too human politics at play in Christianity's eventual triumph over other philosophies of the Roman empire.  In her view, the philosophical hegemony of Christianity came as a result of Christian philosophers "confronting" various Greek philosophies after adopting some Greek philosophical categories (11).  Furthermore, Zagzebski suggests that atheism "broke out" in the modern world (like a contagion) because new forms of certain arguments for God's existence were wrongly employed.  She states, "The problem arose when the arguments were used to answer a different kind of question, a challenge from the skeptic rather than a bolster to a pre-existing belief" (29).  Later, Zagzebski notes that by the seventeenth century Catholic theologians were using these arguments to answer people she labels "atheist attackers"--atheists always come across as aggressive and chippy in the book--"before these people even existed" (56).  Again, the discussion would benefit a great deal from a broader approach to the study of religion.  In this case, Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History and Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity immediately come to mind.

An objectionable and puzzling kind of foundationalism surfaces in Zagzebski's discussions as well.  For example, in her chapter on the concept of God, she claims, "if a person is a being with a special moral status, that must be grounded in some metaphysical feature of a person he or she shares with other persons with a different nature" (95).  This passage comes in a section in which Zagzebski uses the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation to clarify what is involved in being a person.  In a subsequent chapter on death and the afterlife, moreover, she makes a clunky appeal to Aristotelian metaphysics to explain why an untimely death is a bad thing (170).  Then she argues that the primary reason for skepticism about the existence of a soul is that there isn't a convincing answer to the question, "What makes a soul at one time the same soul as at a later time?" since this implies that "we wouldn't know how to identify souls in the afterlife," much less in this life (177).  For some analytic philosophers, it is true that this is a decisive question about the soul.  For many others, soul skepticism turns crucially on the mind's overwhelming and obvious dependence on the brain and other local entities.  As for Zagzebski's claim about the necessity of metaphysical grounds, Susan Neiman's comment in her Evil in Modern Thought seems apt: "Resolving to take responsibility for some piece of the world in the absence of convincing metaphysical grounding is part of what it means to grow up in it" (Neiman 270).

Finally, I cannot let some of Zagzebski's metaphors go without comment.  In her discussion of personhood, she states, "A person, I suggest, is what is left over when their qualitative features are exhaustively described" (96).  She might want to rethink the "persons as leftovers" metaphor.  In her introduction to the problem of evil, moreover, while addressing the difficulty of understanding God's motives in allowing human suffering, she compares humans to dogs (143).  Furthermore, in the concluding section of her final chapter, she utilizes Plato's very regrettable analogy between tethered slaves and tethered beliefs to clarify and commend critically reflective faith (231-32).  Cue up Nietzsche.

© 2008 Brad Frazier

Brad Frazier currently teaches philosophy at Lake Michigan College.  He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He also has published articles in The Daily Show and Philosophy, Journal of Religious Ethics, Philosophy and Social Criticism, International Philosophical Quarterly, and History of Philosophy Quarterly.


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