Is it Reasonable to Believe in God?

Written by J. Houston, ed. Reviewed By Michael Alsford

It is never easy to review a book consisting of a number of essays produced by different authors and this one is certainly no exception. Nine papers have been brought together here dealing with such issues as ‘Arguments for the Existence of God’, ‘The Claims of Religious Experience’, ‘God, Good and Evil’ and ‘Petitionary Prayer’. The contributors are notable philosophers among whom are R. G. Swinburne and A. Flew to name but two. This is an attractively presented volume which precedes each chapter with a few pages of ‘Introductory Groundwork’ and concludes with ‘Questions for Further Discussion’.

However, having said this I am afraid that it has little else in its favour. Without doubt all the papers are meticulous examples of British empiricist philosophy, every argument painstakingly rehearsed, and there is certainly nothing contained within the entire volume that could be considered damaging or even aggressive towards a conservative Christian position. However this is not the only point to be considered. The introduction to the book claims that, ‘One purpose of this volume is to make easily available some of the excellent and distinctively different philosophy of religion which has been published more recently.’ Despite this laudable sentiment there is little within the book that could be considered in any way ‘different’ from the sort of empiricist fare that has been the staple diet of philosophers in this country since as far back as Hume. As an example of this type of thinking it is faultless, but it is tired and uninspiring stuff. It is significant that the bibliography contains no references to continental scholarship, confining itself almost completely to the British academic ethos. This in itself is a notable deficiency in a work which claims to be making a serious examination of belief in God. It is a pity that, at a time when the church is crying out for a deeper understanding of what it means to believe in a transcendent God, thinkers in this country continue to produce works which cover the same old ground, albeit using the latest terminology.

Christian theology should have long since passed the stage at which it felt obliged to present its religious claims at the altar of empirical thought. The philosopher Michael Polanyi, among many others, has demonstrated the absolute centrality of faith for human knowledge and points out the many inconsistencies inherent within traditional philosophical scepticism. Greater steps forward might have been taken by this present volume were it to have devoted one or two chapters to the perennial debates concerning arguments for the existence of God and spent the rest of its time on developing newer models of religious knowledge based upon post-critical thought. As it is the book stands as something of an anachronism.

Stylistically it will prove to be a difficult read for the undergraduate who would be better served by seeking out one of the original classics of this type of thought, for example, A. Flew and A. Maclntyre (eds.) New Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: SCM, 1955), and that only by way of an exercise in the history of ideas.

Michael Alsford

London Bible College