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Book review: Philosophers on God: Talking about existence, edited by Jack Symes

24 May 2024

John Saxbee welcomes an illuminating array of essays and interviews

THIS is a very useful book. If, as one contributor puts it, philosophy is “an argument-oriented discipline that aims to discuss fundamental questions about the ultimate nature of things, how (if at all) we can gain knowledge and how (and why) we should live”, then, at its best, philosophy certainly has its uses.

Twelve chapters on a judiciously chosen range of topics alternate between essays by individual authors and remastered interviews. The editor, Jack Symes, of Durham University, asks the questions, and tops and tails each chapter with a foreword, some “afterthoughts”, a few pertinent questions, and recommended reading. He has a light touch, and a gift for providing concise “info-boxes” to explain ideas that might be unfamiliar.

A punchy opener by David Hill invokes Pascal’s wager to challenge readers inclined to “pass” on the God question. Next, in a penetrating Q&A session, Richard Swinburne demonstrates why he is the ultimate advocate for theism as a simple belief predicated on the probabilities of an omnipotent being whose nature both explains and justifies human existence and the universe that we inhabit. He effectively throws down the philosophical gauntlet to those who insist that we have to look elsewhere for such explanations.

Meanwhile, William Lane Craig gives the ontological argument, long out of fashion, a new lease of life, alongside the moral argument for the existence of a Christocentric Trinitarian God.

Mohammad Saleh Zarepour is a Muslim philosopher who builds on Avicenna’s advocacy for Allah as the necessary existent who holds the key to all forms of theism, while Jessica Frazier makes the case for Hinduism to bridge the gap between theism and atheism.

Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett rehearse arguments for atheism which now feel rather tired and passé. Theist philosophers such as Peter Vardy are no less alert to the fallacies of bad religion than they are; Dawkins’s trust in the exclusive explicatory power of science is somewhat disingenuous; Daniel Dennett’s patronising condescension is rather tiresome. So it is with some relief that we turn to Sylvia Jonas’s essay on the rationality of theism. She makes the case for religion to have a place in contemporary philosophy alongside atheistic naturalism, and so opens a door to constructive dialogue.

Yujin Nagasawa intriguingly probes “the problem of evil for atheists”, while Stephen Law expounds “The Evil-God Challenge”, which asserts that classic arguments for the existence of God can be just as well used to support a case for a god who is evil and not good. This challenge requires theists to show how and why their theodicies work any better, and is inescapable.

Finally, Asha Lancaster-Thomas sees the potential for pantheism to take us beyond the religion-and-atheism divide. This may well appeal to modern minds, but is it at the expense of such mystery and transcendence as many might believe to be essential to the integrity of theism?

This book is promoted as a “short, engaging and accessible guide to the mystery of existence”, and on none of those counts does it disappoint.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Philosophers on God: Talking about existence
Jack Symes, editor
Bloomsbury Academic £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89

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