Review of "The Miracle of Theism"

The Miracle of Theism: arguments for and against the existence of God, by J L Mackie. ISBN 0-19-824682-X.

Books arguing for or against the existence of God tend to have a rather high bluster-to-reasoning ratio. This is (or at least seems to me to be) an honourable exception. Mackie covers quite a lot of ground, thoroughly, and he does a good job (again, as it seems to me) of being fair to those with whom he disagrees.

There are some holes. This book was written before the "cosmological fine tuning" argument was popular, and Mackie doesn't discuss it. Likewise for the strategy of meeting the argument from evil with epistemic skepticism and (on the other side) the argument from "divine hiddenness". It's hardly fair to criticize Mackie for these lacunae, since the arguments in question weren't around when he was writing. One can't anticipate everything.

I have a more general complaint, which applies to many books on this subject. Mackie writes as if the issue were between atheism and a sort of generic philosophical theism. In reality, of course, it very seldom is; the argument is between atheism and Christianity, or between atheism and Hinduism, or whatever. And there are plenty of arguments available to, and deployable against, individual religions that have little to do with generic philosophical theism; it's generally these that lead people to convert or deconvert.

For this reason, it seems unsatisfactory to me that Mackie's chapter on miracles consists almost entirely of a discussion of Hume's famous argument that it's never appropriate to believe a miracle happened on the basis of testimony. Pace Hume (and, with some qualifications, Mackie), it's easy to imagine a series of apparently miraculous happenings that would suffice to convince any rational skeptic that something extraordinary was afoot; I think a book of this sort would be strengthened by an examination of the alleged miraculous evidences of a particular religion (Christianity would be the obvious one, in Mackie's and my social context).

I am cavilling. This is a fine book; Mackie's thinking and writing are generally very clear, and he gives his opponents a fair hearing. He considers some matters generally ignored in books like this, such as attempts to ground theism in the alleged need to escape from nihilistic meaninglessness. And I agree with his conclusions. What more could anyone ask for?

(The "miracle" of the title is the fact that theism persists despite the predominance of evidence the other way; Mackie is echoing Hume, generally a good move for any atheist and for any philosopher.)