Review of Kevin Schilbrack, Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto - Mar 2015

This is a pre-publication version. The finalandofficial version can be found in the Philo journal,Volume 16, Issue 2 (2013), Pages 216-218.


Kevin Schilbrack,Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto.Wiley-Blackwell, 2014; xx + 226pp. ISBN: 978-1-4443-3053-3.

In this important and ambitious monograph, philosopher Kevin Schilbrack adds to the growing voices against the insular nature of mainstream Philosophy of Religion, and attempts to clarify what religion is and what the academic study of religion should entail. Chapter One describes Philosophy of Religion, noting that it largely consists of theists (and atheists to a lesser extent) trying to determine the rationality of belief in God (pp. 3-9), and supposing that a more appropriate label might be ‘philosophy of theism’ (p. 14). Finding this inadequate, Schilbrack agrees with my own position, that alternatives such as pantheism should also be considered (p. 11). The following chapter argues that philosophers of religion should not only concern themselves with the regular topics like God’s existence, but also religious practice. After all, religious practices can have cognitive functions, making them ripe for philosophical inquiry (p. 48). The third chapter has Schilbrack pondering the importance of orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Recognising that scholars can observe the actions of the religious, but can never be certain about what they believe, and also that believing as such may be unimportant (pp. 56-70), Schilbrack nevertheless recognises that religious people do take certain things to be true (p. 72). So while the academic study of religion should cover more than religious beliefs (in the taking true, rather than the creedal, sense), the latter cannot be altogether ignored (pp. 76-79).

In the subsequent two chapters, Schilbrack attempts to clarify what religion is and is not. Realising that the term is multiply flawed (pp. 86-87), he attempts to refine the term, rather than to abolish or simply retain it (pp. 88-89). Aware of attempts to abandon the term due to its possibly inherent racism and fallacious attempts to divorce religion from other spheres (pp. 96-98), Schilbrack concludes that there is no singular definition, and argues that the word should be retained – despite its lack of innocence – as all of our thinking carries with it some ideological baggage (pp. 103-105). Purely substantive definitions seem hollow. A purely functional definition (i.e. Tillich) has its uses, but could dilute the usefulness of the term, and seems to naively overlook that certain pragmatic aspects of religions are in accord with how the world is believed to operate (pp. 123-126).

Hence, Schilbrack favours a mixed approach. Atheistic Buddhism – the litmus test for all good definitions of religion – need not be excluded, as it does entail beliefs about reality (p. 128). Sifting through the many ways religion and non-religion can be differentiated (the Christian god, the theistic philosopher’s God, spirits, and so forth), Schilbrack settles on the involvement of the ‘superempirical’, rather than the supernatural (pp. 129-134). Seemingly influenced by the work of William James and Christian Smith, Schilbrack defines religion ‘as forms of life predicated upon the reality of the superempirical’ (pp. 135-136, 145-146). A useful definition that incorporates what most laypeople consider religion to be, and includes the likes of Buddhism and Daoism. It also allows scholars to hypothesise about secularisation (essentially impossible with a purely functional definition), and further avoids the futility of labelling many ordinary tasks as religious; as Martin Riesebrodt observed, if soccer is seen as religious and Buddhism is not, ‘something has obviously gone wrong’ (pp. 139-141).

The sixth and penultimate chapter sees Schilbrack partially addressing a clear problem with defining religion superempirically. This sort of religion relies purely on faith, and can thus be seen as irrational. As he says, studying religion may be an attempt to ‘make sense out of nonsense’ (p. 153). Summarising the development of philosophy as initially concerning the study of things, then the study of our experiences of things, then the realisation that linguistics can shape these experiences, Schilbrack seems to support the idea that we cannot really know ‘the truth’ (pp. 156-158). He then disappointingly asserts that we can access things qua things, without convincing argument, generally appealing to scholars who agree (pp. 159-167). The final chapter continues the theme of defending the study of something that may be meaningless, by arguing that the evaluative or normative approach (which is dominant in Philosophy of Religion, while often seen as vulgar in the greater Religious Studies) to studying religion is worthwhile (pp. 178-179).

After describing the tripartite method of description, explanation, and evaluation, Schilbrack raises the empiricist rejection (religion is superempirical, so is cognitively meaningless) of evaluating religions (pp. 180-190). Again he disappoints, appealing to the possibility of non-empirical evaluations and the fact that many other disciplines employ non-empirical approaches (pp. 192-193). My additional defence of these challenges revolves around the fact that many religious claims, while ultimately appealing to superempirical realities, are actually empirical (though the link may be unprovable), and can be judged as such. For example, an argument that God created the universe 6,000 years ago contains an empirical claim; the evaluation of which effectively refutes the empirical claim and the overall superempirical argument. The latter work would undoubtedly be meritorious. This could highlight a deficiency in Schilbrack’s definition, which seems to have the air of naturalistic assumption about it, and could fail if one of the examined religions can be observed as being ‘true’ (it would cease to be a ‘religion’). His handling of a second objection, that academics should be critics and not caretakers of religion (i.e. McCutcheon) is better, partly relying on the observation that religious people themselves disagree on whether such evaluation should be done (pp. 193-196). I would also add that such work, competently done, often results in anti-religious conclusions. Schilbrack goes on to successfully argue that evaluation can often affect description and explanation, and justifiably bemoans the theistic presuppositions held by many prominent Philosophers of Religion (pp. 197-200).

Philosophy and the Study of Religions provides a workable definition of ‘religion’ and highlights that Philosophy of Religion should be just that, and not merely a repository for the best arguments for the existence of the Christian god. In seeking the expansion rather than elimination of this field, and in defending evaluative approaches, Schilbrack convincingly makes a case for its continued existence as a key component in the greater academic discipline of Studies in Religion.

Raphael Lataster

University of Sydney

Raphael Lataster 2018