Brian Davies has written an excellent introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. He concentrates on theism, the doctrine of God as defined by the three major religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His discussion incorporates all the main issues arising from the subject, the nature and qualities of God, arguments from cosmology, design and ontology, question of omnipotence and omniscience, the problem of evil, miracles, morality and life after death. Each topic is discussed with balance, arguments for and against are marshaled, discussed and debated in a thoughtful manner which contrasts sharply with the nonsensical hysteria which passes for rational debate between theists and their opponents.
Davies's starting point is to differentiate between classical theism and theistic personalism. The former was developed from both Biblical and philosophical arguments which saw everything as being dependent on God for its being and existence while the latter is associated with process theology which denies individual immortality in favour of oneness with God eternally. In considering the philosophical concept of God Davies notes the argument that belief needs to be justified by reason but, citing Wittgenstein's distinction between surface and depth grammar, concludes that there are differences in believing in God and believing in a hypothesis which can be verified by evidence.
In brief, while the concept or existence of God is a hypothesis which can neither be verified nor falsified by empirical evidence, it is possible, as Alvin Plantinga suggests, " that it is entirely right, rational, reasonable and proper to believe in God without any evidence of argument". It is not necessary for theism to be based on arguments for God's existence and "those who think that thesists need evidence for their position do not generally state what sort of evidence is needed. In general they are only suggesting that it is irrational to believe God exists without any evidence or reason at all". However, empirical evidence is neither a sufficient nor a complete justification for dispensing with the concept of God any more than it is required for many beliefs held by human beings.
Davies examines the cosmological, design and ontological arguments for belief in God. These arguments and the questions which they seek to answer have not changed for centuries. Why is the universe as it is? Does it have a teleological purpose? What can be inferred from such empirical evidence as we have and, by implication, is the scientific method relevant to the search for God? The implications of the idea of omnipotence, omniscience, morality, the problem of evil and life after death are discussed in a thoroughly balanced manner with all the main thinkers, Aquinas, Anselm, Hume, Descartes, Kant from history and more recently Flew, Phillips, Hick and Mackie explained. It is the ideal antidote to the simplistic rantings of Dawkins et.al.
The book is as complete an introduction to the subject as any on the market. Each chapter includes excellent references, provides detailed advice on further reading and is followed with a series of searching questions for discussion. In this respect Davies has not written an updated version of earlier editions but a completely new book. As a text it is ideal for an introductory undergraduate course, raising issues and interest for anyone who wishes to move beyond the slap happy populist approach to philosophy or religion. I finished the book with a keen sense of how superficial discussions of the subject have often been and with the profound impression that, whatever we do know, we are missing something fundamental by seeking to describe God in our own terms.
I recommend this new edition to anyone who wants to consider the subject in depth. It is an ideal introduction to other sources of information which will cause the reader to think deeply about a subject which tries to get to the heart of who we are, what are we doing here and whether there is a purpose to it all. Five stars, no question.
on 16 December 2011
I am not a professional philosopher or theologian but I have more than a passing interest in philosophy. My views on God do not need to be described in detail, suffice to say I am more atheist than anything else. However, I do find the ideas around religion interesting and, seeing the second edition of this text in a bookshop, I thought I would give it a go. Any agnostics or atheists that are not quite as fanatical as Dawkins may well consider giving this a read. I would suggest approaching with caution.
The problem is something that Davies alludes to in a sense and that is something I would describe as an 'unbridgeable chasm'. I can't exactly recall where he discusses the idea, it might be in the morality and religion section, that there are two contrasting views that cannot really be reconciled or have one idea supersede the other. I would say there is a similar chasm for atheists/strong agnostics and theists. The two groups can debate the fundamentals of religion - its value,its arguable flaws, its viability as a theory etc. - but once you start looking deeply at explicitly religious concepts, it can get tiring for the non-believer. Therefore, the first half has a relevance to the non-religious - the different arguments surrounding the ideas of God - are fine. They hold a clear bias and some ideas are given a bit of an easy ride while others bear a great deal of criticism. However, the critical reader should find the ideas stimulating though, most likely, not persuasive. It's probably worthwhile, at this point, mentioning that the discussions in this edition are somewhat out of date and I imagine that this could be a criticism laid at the latest edition. With the burst of the New Atheism, these ideas may well need reviewing in the light of arguments of Dawkins, Dennett and the like. If the 3rd edition was 2004, it was probably just as the New Atheism movement was really taking form and so another review is probably necessary. I would also hope the newer edition would consider in greater detail scientific theories regarding the nature and the origins of the universe, possibly considering multi-verse theories. Something perhaps to check before purchase.
It is with the second half of the book, looking at morality, eternity and the like, that the book becomes tedious. It assumes that we accept certain possibilities of God and so hearing various contrasting theories founded on suppositions that a non-believer would not suppose makes for tiring reading. I am not saying that there can't be discussions between the two groups - though I believe the arguments would be cyclical rather than conclusive - this book does not provide the forum of that debate. It is very much within the context of religion, of classical theism and, more specifically, Christian concepts. This is fine for a believer or a strong sympathiser of Christianity but, for anyone else, this is likely to often seem daft, if not irritating.
This is not meant to be a criticism of the book, as such. The book itself is reasonably well-written, although it does seem to sympathise with a logicistic (if that's the right term) way of thinking and structuring of argument. However, I think a casual reader or, more likely, a non-Christian one, may well consider looking at this subject and I would certainly recommend checking the other books available for a more even-handed read. For someone studying theology, the philosophy of religion, religious ethics or anything else along these lines, however, if they are sympathetic to the views of this book, they would do well to have it for total reading or even simply for reference. In conclusion, atheists beware.
on 2 August 2011
I bought this book about fifteen years ago, but did not get round to reading it until last week. The edition I have is the second edition, of 1993. I think that the current amazon (uk) advertisement for the book should have made explicit mention of the fact that it is a third edition, published in 2003, which is now on sale. I looked up the Table of Contents and the Introduction to this 3rd edition on the website, and was informed there that chapters 1 (Concepts of God), 8 (Divine Simplicity), and 9 (Omnipotence and Omniscience) are new in the 3rd edition. Chapter 8, 'Eternity', from the 2nd edition, is the only chapter that does not reappear as such in the 3rd edition. All the other 10 chapter headings of the 2nd edition reappear as such in the 3rd edition, as Chapter 2, Philosophy and Religious Belief; 3. Cosmological Arguments, 4. Design Arguments, 5. Ontological Arguments, 6. Experience of God, 7. Talking about God, 10. God and Evil, 11. Miracles, 12. Morality and Religion, and 13. Life After Death. All these have been updated for the 3rd edition, which adds about another hundred pages to the 234 pages of text of the 2nd edition.
My review here is for the 2nd edition.
My feelings about the book altered radically during the week that it took me to read the book.
The first 8 chapters, dealing largely with God, the arguments for his existence and the study of the attributes that go with the 'classical' concept of God, I found to be very satisfying. The author, of course, gives space to the sceptics as well as to the convinced believer of the traditional (Christian) view of God, and I found his method of treating the positives and the negatives, in turn, to be very illuminating and very convincing. He carefully outlined, say, some of the proofs from Aquinas for the existence of God, then pointed out what seemed to be weaknesses in Aquinas as proposed by, say, Anthony Kenny or Hume. Having conceded that at first sight the objectors might have a point, he then goes on to show that the case made by the attackers is never any more water-tight than the case which they are attacking. This is a simplification, but it is the constant impression conveyed by the author. Although the author leaves the final thinking to his (undergraduate) reader, I found his constant deconstruction of the deconstructors to be very satisfying.
I quote from a comment I made on a review of a book entitled `New Proofs for the Existence of God', by Fr Spitzer. The reviewer said, "I hate the word "proofs" when it means "evidence" for the existence of God." I replied: "Well, I have been doing a lot of reading recently on the topics addressed by Fr Spitzer, and I am becoming increasingly convinced both (i) that the type of 'evidences' advanced for the existence of God would often be accepted as 'proofs' in any other academic discipline (history, geography, literature, art, philosophy, psychology, religion, textual criticism, ... ) not tied to the limited field studied by the microscope and the geological and fossil records, and secondly (ii) that the 'proofs' against the existence of God, or against the need for there to be a God, as proposed by the experts in that limited 'scientific' field, are increasingly being shown to be themselves no more than 'evidences' which are also increasingly being shown to be invalid for their purpose."
So far so good, but then in the last three chapters Brian Davies began to talk about religion and the human being, and he lost my allegiance.
I am making rather a campaign of what I have to say here, and it is this: it is empty talk to discuss religion without concentrating on the historical records of the New Testament and the historical person of Jesus Christ, as observable `secular' realities, not only as objects or constructs of faith. I simply will not accept, that we do not know what religion is, that we either have no ideas about it, or else that we have to talk about the priest-king of Frazer's Golden Bough, or the Polynesian `cargo cults' of the 19th and 20th centuries, or African animist religions, or the Buddha, or whatever or whoever.
No, and no. St Thomas Aquinas identified Aristotle simply as `The Philosopher', so we know what a philosopher is: Aristotle, or someone who shares something of the qualities of Aristotle (thus Aquinas himself). In exactly the same way, we know what religion is: it is the Christian religion founded by Jesus Christ (and for me it is in fact Roman Catholic Christianity), and secondarily, other movements that share more or less fully in the qualities manifested in the Christian religion and its founder. In other words, we have a perfect paradigm of what religion is: its sources, its personalities, its beliefs, its historical context. Davies never even begins to introduce this point.
What I am insisting on is that the New Testament and Jesus Christ must be put into the centre of every discussion of religion. To discuss the nature of the soul by some smart maxim from Descartes or Wittgenstein, and to leave out what Jesus and Paul and the whole New Testament have to say about the soul, and morality, and eternal life, is to me simply farcical. To deny that the out-of-the-body soul exists after death puts on the denier not only the burden of disproving the New Testament's historical witness to this, but also the burden of disproving every one of the surely tens of thousands of apparitions of saints to people for the past two thousand years. And what better discussion of morality, of full human living, do we find anywhere outside of the New Testament?
I leave it there for now. Five stars for Davies on God, but one star on man and his religion. Two stars overall.