Q&A with Mikel Burley about his new book, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Religion and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. His new book, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary, was published by Bloomsbury in January 2020. For readers of Religion in Public, he answers some questions to introduce the book.

How has this book come about?

The book synthesizes and builds upon ideas that I have been developing for several years. Central among these is the basic idea that the subdiscipline known as philosophy of religion would benefit from expanding its purview beyond the relatively narrow confines of what philosophers commonly call ‘theism’. In itself, the term ‘theism’ is fairly innocuous; it can mean simply a belief in God (or in a god). In practice, however, philosophical inquiry into theism has tended to fixate on questions concerning the justification of a rather thin mode of belief in a god that is conceived of in ahistorical and decontextualized terms – the ‘God of the philosophers’, as it is sometimes called.

My own approach is one that seeks a reorientation, away from rarefied abstractions and towards the messy complexities of religion as it is lived ‘on the street’ (to borrow a phrase from my colleague Mark Wynn) – or in the temple, on the prairie, in the mountains or in the depths of the Amazon rainforest, for that matter.

The book thus came about as a consequence of my wishing to bring my recent work on these themes together into a single volume that would, I hope, contribute towards a broadening of scope of philosophy of religion, both in terms of methodology and with regard to the array of subject matter that is covered.

What is the key argument that your book develops?

The book’s overall argument is composed of two parts. Part One comprises a critique of some existing philosophical treatments of religious diversity plus the exposition of an alternative approach, which I (adopting a term from the philosopher D. Z. Phillips) call radical pluralism. Part Two involves the application of this approach to a selection of exemplary cases. The critique is targeted at approaches that, despite being styled by their proponents as forms of religious pluralism, either result in a homogenized picture of religious diversity or, alternatively, exaggerate the purported incommensurability between religions by assuming that they each operate with mutually incompatible ‘conceptual schemes’. To replace these tendencies, the approach that I argue for emphasizes attention to particularities (to guard against oversimplification and homogenization) while also recognizing the possibility of mutual understanding between members of different religions.

This mutual understanding may, in some instances, lead to greater harmony between religions – or between religious believers and nonbelievers – but not necessarily so: sometimes the more deeply one understands another tradition, the more objectionable one is liable to find it. The crucial point, as far as a radical pluralist approach to philosophy of religion goes, is to bring out the variety of ways of being human without prematurely jumping to conclusions about what they ‘must’ consist in.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

The book does not argue for a single thesis concerning the relation between religion and public life; rather, it directs attention towards a number of ways in which religious impulses are expressed in public contexts that have, hitherto, rarely been the subject of sustained philosophical inquiry. Its insight derives from its interdisciplinary engagement, utilizing works of ethnography and literature to supply thicker descriptions of religion that disrupt overgeneralizing philosophical theses.

For example, Chapter 4 rebuts simplistic conceptions of compassion, especially in interpretations of Buddhism. Across diverse Buddhist traditions, acts of public self-immolation, giving away one’s children and killing a would-be murderer to save him from the torments of hell are among those that have been regarded as compassionate or generous, depending upon the context. I argue that the very understanding of what constitutes a compassionate act is contestable both within and beyond these traditions.

In other chapters, the topics include: how cannibalism has been conceived of as an act of respect towards both the deceased and his or her blood relatives in the mortuary rituals of a small-scale Amazonian society; how the concept of the grotesque illuminates features of rituals involving divine possession and animal sacrifice in a Goddess-worshipping festival in Northeast India; and how, or whether, the notions of animism and environmentalism might be applicable to certain indigenous peoples, especially some Native American communities. In each case, the principal insight to be gained is one that requires us to look for the possibilities of sense within the practices, as opposed to assuming that we already know what the meaning of these practices must be.

Give us one quotation from the book that you believe will make us go and read it.

I cannot guarantee that it will make anyone go and read the book, but the following passage from the introductory chapter encapsulates the gist of my approach:

“By prioritizing the recognition of heterogeneity and nuance over the rush to pigeonhole and evaluate, in both religious and nonreligious matters, a radical pluralist approach enables us to loosen up our lives and loosen up our minds to possibilities that had previously been neglected or underappreciated. Far from losing or softening its critical edge, the approach sharpens and radicalizes that edge, but does so by focusing it upon the presuppositions we bring to the inquiry” (pp. 7–8).