November 12, 2009

Best Recent Books For and Against Religious Belief

Right now there are two very active comment threads on this blog: the first discussing whether or not I should read The God Delusion and the second listing philosophical science fiction stories. As such, I thought I would combine the religious discussion with the successful attempt at blog bibliography by asking readers to list the best recent books for an against religious belief. I will admit that I actually haven't read any of the books below all the way through; I list them because they are commonly excerpted in philosophy of religion readers (I have read excerpts of most of them) and discussed in philosophy of religion papers. My goal here is to get a sense for what the best material in the field is, and then perhaps I will pick a few of these up (especially the 'against' ones).

For

  • William P. Alston, Perceiving God
  • Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief

Against

  • J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism
  • Jordan Howard Sobel, Logic and Theism (recommended by Brandon; also given a positive review by infidels.org)

What other works would readers recommend?

Posted by Kenny at November 12, 2009 9:14 AM
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Comments

On the Against side, Martin's Atheism is fairly good, if a bit pedestrian; and, while I haven't read it myself, I've heard good things about Gale's On the Existence and Nature of God.

Posted by: Brandon at November 12, 2009 9:46 AM

Perhaps change the button above to "view with colors that don't cause my eyes to bleed".

Recent books no, but "Mere Christianity", by C.S. Lewis, which I am sure you have read twelve times already, is a good book for belief.

Perhaps a better question is why you care about religious belief. What will be different if you have it or don't. Will it change how you act? One could make a good case these days that as the minority fundamentalist fringe groups in the various world religions (Christin, Muslim, even Hindu, if you can imagine) get more press than any of us moderates get, the whole idea of believing or being associated with believers becomes distasteful.

Posted by: Richard at November 12, 2009 11:52 AM

I would consider Mere Christianity to be perhaps the best work of "pop apologetics" of the twentieth century, and I do recommend it for popular audiences (i.e. people without philosophical training). However, it doesn't approach the level of rigor and precision of the works listed above. Of course, the works listed above are correspondingly more difficult to read and understand, which is why I do indeed recommend Lewis ahead of Plantinga or Alston for popular audiences.

Posted by: Kenny at November 12, 2009 12:23 PM

Richard,

I think two responses could be made to your question about the purpose religious belief. Regarding the ethical life, I think the main difference would be that it makes possible a radical self-denial, for instance, to the point of death. In contrast, the most altruistic non-believer would often need to preserve his own life, not because he's selfish but out of the belief that he could do more good alive than dead. For the believer, such is not necesssarily the case. This is not to say the non-believer would never sacrifice his life, but that the non-believer and believer would certainly disagree about when such a sacrifice and similar radical sacrifices are appropriate.

My second response is simply that of joy. If Christianity, for instance, were true, the idea that God himself is your friend is quite appealing.

Of course, these aren't reasons for belief, but merely an attempt to answer the question of why one should care about the question at all.

Posted by: Louis Tourtellotte at November 12, 2009 2:28 PM


I'm an agnostic Englishman. I found reading Richard Swinburnes's 'Revelation' extremely rewarding. There was a passage in it that seemed to be about club membership—for me it nicely laid out some things, about epistemic/justificatory circularity etc.; Alston and Plantinga. And it starts off with a nice, tight semantics. So that makes it a book for?

Posted by: Matthew Arnatt at November 13, 2009 4:39 AM

Matthew - That, actually, is my favorite work of Swinburne's. There are two reasons I didn't put it on the list to begin with: (1) I don't think my opinion is widely shared, and (2) it is not top of my list to recommend to atheist philosophers. But it is definitely worth reading.

Posted by: Kenny at November 13, 2009 10:02 AM


Kenny, I have a more general but related question.
If I imagine being a believer, I also know that I imagine that as some sort of consequence of finding the isolated phenomenon of the elegance and insularity of types of reasoning highly appealing—can one retain that—I don't know what to call it ... aestheticized—sense and actually or authentically be a believer? (I just looked back at Louis Tourtellotte's post, and that's the kind of thing I have in mind. When I say 'isolated' I mean other than general apologetics.)

Posted by: Matthew Arnatt at November 16, 2009 1:56 AM

Matthew,

I'm not entirely sure what your question is. If the question is, does theism (or Christianity) provide an elegant metaphysical system for explaining the world, I think the answer is yes. If the question is can Christians engage in work in particular specialized domains of inquiry (is this what you mean by 'isolated'?) using much the same methodology as an atheist would, I think the answer is often but not always yes. Domains of inquiry are not actually isolated from each other. Sometimes, however, we can form what political philosophers call an 'overlapping consensus' where we all hold the same basic beliefs, but not all for the same reasons. For instance, theoretical physicists for some reason or other seem to believe that the most mathematically elegant theory is most likely to be correct. Christians can also believe this and, furthermore, they have good reason to believe it. So theoretical physics already proceeds by a method supported by Christianity, despite the majority of its practitioners today being atheists. I also think that Christians can believe in the causal closure of the physical (see my paper on miracles).

Does this answer your question?

Posted by: Kenny at November 16, 2009 10:13 AM

Thank you Kenny,

I don't want to sidetrack, but I'm not sure you did follow me, although I take your points. I was asking: Does a particular kind of consciousness about one's motivations (e.g., consciousness of something like an aesthetic sense of the elegance of patterns of reasoning, of a type for instance that philosophers or theorists, as you rightly point out, might feel) count against the stock one should set by believing (where I guess I'm thinking about something more direct seeming). The question stems from what I thought was an assumption that was being made—that a general atheistic audience would find a more general approach to Christian or theistic apologetics,in a literature, rewarding. I find the density of technical arguments charming, and so I work at understanding them and dislike it when I fail, which brings me somehow into contact, again, with the issue of motivation. I associate insularity with particular depth in reasoning. In a way I like it and I don't want people to abbreviate for me. It might even be that the subject-matter is appealing just because it resists abbreviation ...

Posted by: matthew arnatt at November 16, 2009 11:39 AM

So the question is whether the fact that one has aesthetic appreciation for a certain type of reasoning or simply enjoys a certain type of reasoning should lead to suspicion about one's belief in its conclusions?

Well, you might worry that this hinders you from objectively evaluating the matter, I suppose. There are some big epistemological questions here. Since the failure of classic foundationalism, philosophers have been struggling to figure out what we should believe and why. When there is no clear evidence to actually prove a question one way or another, I try to adopt the simpler or more elegant answer. I think most philosophers (and scientists) usually do the same. It seems clear to me that this practice is justified, but I don't do much work on epistemology, and I don't have much of an answer to the question of why it is justified.

Posted by: Kenny at November 16, 2009 11:57 AM


I guess more worrying would be the prospect that one was identifying—or even identifying with—patterns, almost as though there was some perceptual element in one's relation to some instances (as it were) of reasonings (on the basis of something like pattern recognition).I don't really mean anything like that by 'aesthetic', I think your reading of 'aesthetic' suggests the above worry. And I think it would suggest all sorts of skeptical responses which would immediately devalue any worth that one saw in any such appreciation, too.

Posted by: Matthew Arnatt at November 26, 2009 5:03 AM

I'm currently reading The Planet of Mortal Worship by Templeman. This story is not so much against religious belief as against religious practice.

Posted by: bob at November 29, 2009 2:52 AM

I read the Alston and Plantinga books several years ago, and as far as I remember, they're both defensive works: the former argues that there's no good philosophical objection to the possibility of perceiving God, and the latter argues that given the right account of knowledge (namely, the "proper function" account given by Plantinga in *Warrant and Proper Function*), there's no reason to think that Christians couldn't have knowledge of the central claims of Christianity if those claims are true. Neither book contains a positive argument in favor of religious belief.

Posted by: Eden at December 24, 2009 9:13 AM

Eden -

Nice to hear from you! Like I said, I have not yet read these books. I do think, though, that if Alston is successful in his endeavor then he opens up an argument from religious experience for religious belief. This would be a positive argument, but it wouldn't be universally applicable; it would only apply to those who have actually had religious experience.

Posted by: Kenny at December 24, 2009 11:05 AM

A couple more books for: The Epistemology of Religious Experience by Keith Yandell and The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology edited by Craig and Moreland

Posted by: Greg at January 20, 2010 9:07 PM

I don't suppose that you're still checking this, but I recently finished the late Barry Miller's From Existence to God, which was quite good (if you include an argument in favour of the existence of a unique, necessary, simple first cause as a defence of religious belief).

Posted by: Leo Carton Mollica at April 2, 2011 7:35 PM

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