Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: Philosophy of Religion by C. Stephen Evans

Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith by C. Stephen Evans is part of the “Contours of Christian Philosophy” series. This book in the series deals with philosophy of religion, defined as critical reflection on religious beliefs.

The book begins by exploring various approaches to philosophy of religion. These include the opposite approaches of fideism (the claim that faith is the precondition for any correct thinking about religion) and neutralism (the insistence that thinking about religion must be presuppositionless). The author settles on an approach to philosophy of religion viewed as a process of critical dialog, where reason is employed with a willingness to test one’s commitments.

Chapters two and three discuss theism and natural theology. Theism is defined among the other “isms,” such as polytheism, henotheism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, dualism, deism, absolute monism, agnosticism, atheism, and naturalism. The theistic concept of God and His attributes are discussed, culminating in Evans’ brief definition:
God is an eternal, self-existent spirit, unchangeable at least in his basic character and purposes, who exists necessarily. He is a personal being who is omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect. God is the Creator of all things other than himself, and he is omnipresent in his creation, though without a body.1
Before moving on to the arguments of natural theology (the attempt to see what can be known about God independent of any special religious authority2), the author discusses the use of proofs for God and what makes them successful.

Evans surveys the classical arguments for God’s existence: ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral – noting that there is no such things as “the” cosmological argument, or “the” teleological argument – these are just kinds of arguments. There are many specific cosmological arguments, as well as many specific teleological and moral arguments, etc.

Evans presents interesting angles when discussing the arguments, showing their merits, weaknesses, and uses that go beyond their main goal. For instance, he admits that the ontological argument may hold little sway with most, but it still can serve other purposes:
The argument also serves the function of “smoking out” the atheist. If the argument is valid, then the person who wishes to deny that God exists must claim that God’s existence is impossible. That may be a stronger claim than the person may initially have wished to make.3
He goes on to explain how this same principle can be applied to all the theistic arguments:
The arguments can be rejected, but the person who rejects them pays a price. For to deny a proposition is logically equivalent to asserting another proposition. To deny p is to assert not-p. In some cases the assertions required to reject theistic arguments may be troublesome ones.4
The author does an excellent job in summarizing the arguments by explaining their history briefly, outlining examples and objections, and showing their merits. He ends this section by discussing the value and limits of natural theology.

Evans switches gears and moves on to discuss religious experience, revelations, and miracles. He explores what religious experiences are and how they are experienced. Are they direct? Are they mediated? Are they veridical and how can they be verified? He notes the evidential value of religious experience:
Indeed, the existence of the community of religious believers who claim to have experience of God provides evidence of God’s reality even for those who personally do not have such experiences. A good deal of what humans know is not gained through firsthand experience but through the testimony of others. Why should not this be the case for religious knowledge as well?5
After investigating various views on revelation, the author tackles the question of miracles: Is it reasonable to believe in miracles? He sufficiently counters Hume’s two classic arguments against the belief in miracles before looking at the topic of special revelation.

At this point, the remainder of the book (the last quarter) deals with some main objections to theism. These include modernity, certain questions of science (and scientism), the argument from evil, the issue of religious language, and pluralism. Although these will not be summarized here, Evans’ succinct presentations of these issues and his subsequent critiques are to the point and excellent. One notable sidebar includes a discussion of the difference between logical doubt and existential doubt – and this book contains many such nuggets.

For those interested in philosophy of religion, C. Stephen Evans presents an excellent introduction. For the apologist, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith will serve as useful resource on the existence of God, the rationality of belief, the main objections to theism. Evans' writing style is very readable and the length of the book (less than 200 pages) makes it very accessible to the student. This book is recommended along with the rest of the “Contours of Christian Philosophy” series.

1 C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 37.
2 Ibid., p. 38.
3 Ibid., p. 50.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 95.


Jonathan West said...

Indeed, the existence of the community of religious believers who claim to have experience of God provides evidence of God’s reality even for those who personally do not have such experiences.

It provides nothing of the sort. It merely provides evidence that the community of religious believers have had a experiences which they interpret as having come from God.

To make and substantiate the claim that the experiences actually are from or of God, one would have to see that the interpretation is valid, and that no other interpretation is reasonably plausible.

And that - if you are prepared to abandon preconceptions - is actually a much harder process than it sounds. I wrote about this a while back in Personal Experiences of God.

Ross said...


I agree that this is a great book. FYI, I'm in a couple of classes w/ Dr. Evans currently, and he told us that he and one of his former students have updated the book and that it's coming out in a 2nd edition soon. Here's a link

Chad said...

J. West,

I would not be so quick to hand-wave this argument away.

Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan explain it well:

"We may reverse the tables on unbelief and say that to deny the reality of the Transcendent is unbelievable. For it must assume that one of humanity's most basic needs is being completely mocked by the world, leaving people with the real need for God but without a real God who can fulfill that need.

Further, the denial of the reality of the Transcendent entails the assertion that not only some people have been deceived about the reality of God but that indeed all religious persons who have ever lived have been completely deceived into believing there is a God when really there is not. For if even one religious person is right about the reality of the Transcendent, then there really is a Transcendent.

It seems much more likely that such self-analyzing and self-critical men as Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and Kierkegaard were not totally deceived than that total skepticism is right. It is simply unbelievable that every great saint in the history of the world, and even Jesus Christ himself, was completely deceived about the reality of God. Unless it is true that no person in the history of the world has ever really been truly critical of his religious experience, then it follows that the reality of God has been critically established from human experience.

Experience -- hard, critical experience -- indicates that people are not being totally deceived. There is a reality basis for at least some religious experience. And hence there is a God (or Transcendent) to fulfill the human need to transcend."[1]

1. Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 76.

Jonathan West said...


Your first four paragraphs contain the logical fallacy known as the Argument from Numbers. i.e. the idea that lots of people believing in an idea is of itself evidence for the truth of that idea. It isn't. Lots of Christians believe that Christ is the Son of God and rose from the dead, while lots of Muslims believe that he was a prophet, was never crucified and ascended alive to heaven. Since these arguments are mutually contradictory, we know beyond any doubt that at least one set of beliefs held by hundreds of millions of people is untrue - even if we don't know whether is the Muslim beliefs, the Christian beliefs or both.

The fifth paragraph contains the fallacy known as the Argument from Admired Historical Figures, i.e. that it is inconceivable that all these wise people could have been mistaken. This is a variant on the Argument From Numbers, but where you are being a bit more selective as to who you are believing.

The sixth paragraph is the Argument from Repeated Assertion. No matter how many times you talk about experience, unless you provide a way of distinguishing God-provided experiences from other kinds that are merely interpreted as being from God, you are merely asserting your position,not providing evidence for it.

Chad said...

J. West,

Whether willfully or not, you misinterpret the purpose of the argument provided.

The argument is not:

1. Many people believe in God or claim to have experienced God.
2. Therefore, God exists.

This is a simple inductive argument that's main point is to hightlight that if even if one out of the millions and millions of people (past, present, and future) have actually had an experience with God, then naturalism is false.

One is certainly free to assert that every single one of the millions upon millions of people who believe to have experienced God are deluded, as Dawkins does; however, they cannot know that.

So, I guess the question is this:

Is it more likely that just one of the millions and millions of people (past, present, future) have actually experienced God, or that they are all deluded?

While there exists much stronger deductive arguments for the existence of God (of which I'm sure you are familiar), this argument certainly provides one with something to think about. That was my main point.

Take care

Chad said...


'main point is to highlight...'

my apologies

Jonathan West said...

Lots of people have had an experience that they interpret as having come from God. The question is whether that interpretation is correct.

In such a case, the mere number of people who have had similar experiences is entirely irrelevant. I'm perfectly willing to accept that these kinds of experiences are relatively common - after all, they appear in the accounts of all major religions and many others which are no longer widely followed.

So the question that needs to be asked is; Is the interpretation of these experiences as coming from God justified?

So if we are truly to be able to distinguish experiences of God from mistaken interpretations, then there is a need to find some additional evidence external to the experience which allows us to explain how the experience came to pass, and how it differs from other experiences of a similar nature which have natural origins.

Unless and until that external evidence is provided, then there is every reason to think that the interpretation of religious experiences as having a divine origin is mistaken.

Chad said...

J. West,

I believe we agree here.

I wholeheartedly agree that the experience must be confirmed by external evidence. Otherwise, it's a simple assertion.

When you say "eternal evidence," what kind of evidence are you thinking of? In other words, what kind of evidence would you find to be sufficient to verify an individual's claim to have experienced God? I'm honestly curious.

Thank you for the well-thought out replies and your time.

Hope you are well

Jonathan West said...

Obviously, the mere fact that the experience is interpreted as having come from God is insufficient. In the article I linked to in the first comment I've described at more length the kind of evidence that might be appropriate and why the evidence so far available is unpersuasive. Did you have a chance to read that?

Chad said...

J. West,

No; but I will when time allows.

Thank you

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive