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God for Beginners

Anthony Thorpe reviews An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Brian Davies.

I came across the original version of this book, published in 1982, as an undergraduate who was not so much perplexed as baffled by the philosophy of religion. I found Davies’ introduction a valuable read in making clear the main issues of the subject. However, this new edition includes substantial changes and additions to the original text.

The book starts by looking at the relationship of philosophy with religious belief and asks whether there is any merit in pursuing the discussions of philosophers in this field. Davies feels that such a quest is worthwhile. “The upshot would therefore seem to be that it is by no means improper to consider whether belief in God can be defended by means of argument, reasons, evidence, or the like.” (p.19)

Here some people might cry, “Well he would say that wouldn’t he”, because Brian Davies is a Dominican Monk who lectures at Blackfriars, Oxford. Yet surely we are past the stage of thinking that agnostics or atheists have a more objective view of such matters. Davies, himself, points out that he expects that his own views will come through because, “it is hard to discuss any philosophical issue without taking sides, or seeming to do so.” (p.iv) Davies’ openness should be welcomed as one can expect no more of any writer than for them to make clear their own views as they see them. Yet he sets himself the task of presenting the arguments from all sides and this he does with some success.

Within the first few pages, the challenge to religious believers issued by the falsification theory of Antony Flew is explained. He draws upon the verification principle of the Vienna Circle which held that statements can only be proved to be true if they were verifiable through the senses or else were mathematical statements, tautologies or logical necessities. Any statement that failed to come within these categories was by definition meaningless. Flew applies this with regard to the verification or falsification of God’s existence. For him, any discussion of the existence of God is meaningless because religious people never make it suitably clear what would count as proof for God’s existence or, more crucially for Flew, what would count as proof for non-existence of an Ultimate Being.

Davies then counters this view with those of people such as D.Z. Phillips and Alvin Plantinga. Phillips is influenced by Wittgenstein and argues that it is not the task of philosophy to assert or deny the existence of God. Instead philosophers should try to explain what people mean when they say that God exists. Plantinga takes a different approach by claiming that belief in God is ‘properly basic’. By this he means that it is not something to be proved before one can go on to discuss religious issues but belief in God is a starting point for those discussions. Davies follows up these views by providing criticisms of Phillips and Plantinga.

So in the first chapter he has laid out the basic positions regarding belief in the existence of God. These themes are returned to in the next ten chapters which cover issues such as religious language, the problem of evil, various arguments for the existence of God, morality, miracles and life after death.

The text moves the reader along at some speed. The usual outline of each chapter is that the problem is identified then some solutions are given. These solutions are then criticised, followed by criticisms of the criticisms. So a sense of the dialogue between views is created which engages the reader and carries him or her on to the next issue for discussion.

The book itself looks different from the first edition as it is presented in a larger format with bigger print which helps with the reading. There are frequent subtitles to break up the text which make clear the issue to be discussed. Also care has been taken to make the language more accessible to the novice of the philosophy of religion.

Whilst there is much to commend in Davies’ book, there are some criticisms that might be levelled at it. There is no reference to other religions apart from Christianity so perhaps an “An Introduction to the Philosophy of the Christian Religion” would have been a more appropriate title. Davies draws the reader’s attention to this omission and says it is due to the constraints of space. However, a person from another faith background might find much that is pertinent in the discussions of philosophers writing in a Christian context.

The more serious problem is the absence of a feminist perspective in the debates. Only four female writers are mentioned in the index. Mary Midgley and Elizabeth Anscombe are quoted as criticising established views on evil and belief respectively. The other two are Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna who both appear in a list of mystics without further comment. This, for many feminist theologians, would be an example of the important contributions of women being ignored or belittled. However, the lack of any feminist views, from either female or male writers, in the chapter on religious language is most surprising. It is central to many feminist critiques that the language used about of God is the misleading product of a patriarchal society. In the 1990’s these interpretations are ones that the reader needs to be made aware of.

Those people who have read the first edition would probably approve of most of the changes in this new book but there are perhaps some loses. The chapter dealing with God’s omniscience has gone, though the concept is alluded to in other places. In simplifying some of the terminology perhaps a certain precision has been sacrificed. For example, the term a priori is replaced by the word intrinsic. This change might annoy some readers but at the same time prove a more helpful term for beginners. However, it is worth buying the new edition even if you already have the original because of the significant additions and changes to the text.

This introduction is aimed at students, philosophers and general readers according to the back cover. It succeeds in providing a readable introduction covering most of the major issues and arguments in the field in a style that would appeal to the student and general reader looking at this branch of philosophy for the first time. However, for the person who feels confident regarding their grasp of general philosophical issues, a meatier read might be Basil Mitchell’s Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1971).

© A. Thorpe 1993

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Brian Davies is published by Oxford University Press (£8.99)

Anthony Thorpe is Head of Religious Studies at a secondary school in Bedfordshire and is doing research for a Ph.D. in his spare time.

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