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Saving GodReview - Saving God
Religion after Idolatry
by Mark Johnston
Princeton University Press, 2009
Review by Dan O'Brien, Ph.D.
Apr 6th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 14)

Johnston's book is ambitious. He accuses monotheism of idolatry and presents an alternative religious approach in the form of panentheism, a variant of pantheism. Idolatry takes many forms: the worship of false Gods, the assumption that God has a special concern for us, and the servility practised by devout believers. Such idolatry is also manifest in our attitude towards, and belief in, supernatural agents; beings we must appease and worship. Idolatry is seen as a feature of polytheistic religion, but, Johnston argues, "the problem was with the pantheon, and not with its number of inhabitants" (123) The worship of one supernatural God, a God who is especially interested in us, is idolatrous. The three major monotheisms are indicted. Christians, Jews and Muslims share an assumption that "builds superstition and supernaturalism into the very meaning of religion." (40) This is not true religion.

Johnston offers an alternative. There is not a supernatural realm; nature is causally closed. Pantheism is therefore explored. God, however, cannot be identified with simply the natural world or with the laws of nature. God also includes the world of intelligibility. There are objects in the world and there are the ways those objects appear, or are presented, to certain other (minded) objects. The white sphere on the floor can be seen as a ping pong ball, as an object of simple beauty, and perhaps by my cat as potential prey. These 'modes of presentation' are objective features of the world; ways the world can be seen if there are certain kinds of perceivers. God (or the mind of God) is the sum total of these modes of presentation, and "our respective mental lives are just particular idiosyncratic histories of accessing objective modes of presentation." (148) Johnston calls this a form of panentheism.

Such a picture is not devoid of religious significance. Johnston develops analogical conceptions of salvation, original sin, the Fall, how we love God, how God loves the world, and God's will, and he gestures towards a non-supernatural account of the afterlife that he will develop in a sequel to Saving God, Surviving Death .

Johnston's style of writing is striking. It is not the typical output of an analytic philosopher who writes on the philosophy of mind (as Johnston is). It is poetic, abstruse; in places it has the ring of sacred text. God, for example, or the "Highest One", is "the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existences for the purpose of the self-disclosure of Existence Itself." (120) Such a writing style will not be to everyone's taste.

As well as targeting monotheism, Johnston also has so-called new atheism in his sights. He calls their spokesmen -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris -- "undergraduate atheists", and one knows what he means. They occasionally come across as arrogant (a suggested name for themselves is "the Brights"), and their position is not new (David Hume was there three centuries earlier), but Johnston seems to want simply to trade insults with them (he mocks Sam Harris for recently actually being an undergraduate). There may be higher ground here to take, but Johnston does not take it. The undergraduates are criticised for ignorantly not understanding what religion is, but this is hardly fair. Their primary target is religion as it is practised -- and not how it is perhaps seen by certain theologians or philosophers of religion -- and their claim is that religion has been a force for evil in the world. Johnston agrees with this and with their rejection of the supernatural.

We can judge the morality of religion because we can measure the behaviour of the God of monotheism, and his followers, against our own common sense of morality. We know that "[n]othing indifferent to justice, nothing open to hearing a plea for the vengeful slaughter of the innocents, could turn out to be the Highest One." (57) The phrase "the Highest One" may suggest that some kind of traditional notion of God will be in the offing, but no: the Highest One is just the natural world plus the way that parts of the world appear to thinkers. Dawkins et al. would not disagree with the content of this claim, only with the tone. Johnston recommends "a return to the God before the gods, namely, being continually making itself present on the holy ground we have always in fact inhabited." (124) -- but this holy ground is the natural world. This is not so very different from the view of the militant atheist, Daniel Dennett, who agrees "[t]his world is sacred" (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, 520).

Johnston's analogies between features of the panentheistic picture and religion are loose. "God is love" translates into "there is an analogy between self-giving love and the outpouring of existence itself by way of exemplification in ordinary existences". This certainly sounds religious, but what does it mean? God's love just is the ongoing flow of nature, the lawlike unfurling of patterns accompanied by the way some of these patterns present themselves to minded creatures. This is not love in any recognisable sense.

Johnston also considers the problem of evil, or the "large scale defects of human life". Salvation -- his non-supernatural version -- addresses these defects. Again, one has to work to see through the language to the naturalistic picture beneath. Salvation involves becoming less self-driven and altruistic. Good advice. But here there is no salve for those who feel the problem of evil. To say that the "holiness of the world" consists in its "sheer givenness", and to ask us to acquire a "new orientation" on this world, does not help. The natural world contains suffering and this is how the world appears to us natural beings; on Johnston's account, the "Highest One" does slaughter innocents!  

Johnston does not only write in, one might say, a religious register, he also takes religious texts very seriously. This is a curious feature of the book. Johnston must cherry pick: much scripture is, on his own account, idolatrous and immoral. He himself offers natural histories of some of these misguided features of scripture: Yahweh is "an idolatrous projection onto the Highest One of the insecurities associated with the patriarchal psychological structure of ancient near Eastern tribal life." (63) Elsewhere, however, he measures his own view against passages from the Bible, Aquinas, and papal pronouncements. This is a peculiar strategy given Johnston's views on monotheism. Why should idolatrous Christianity, for example, be seen to have any authority in matters of true religion? This would seem akin to basing one's philosophy of science on the writings of, for example, parapsychologists.

On the face of it, this book has a very wide potential audience. Virtually everyone is either an idolater or an "undergraduate" and thus in need of illumination from Johnston and release from the shared assumption that religion involves supernatural agents. Johnston claims that "[o]ne kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but who feels that his or her genuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe, on less than convincing authority, about the nature of reality" (preface). It is not clear, however, how Johnston's naturalistic world view could be religiously nourishing. Conversely, the religiously "tone deaf", or those taken by new atheism, will find the tone difficult and will perhaps see his view as merely a version of their own naturalistic atheism by another name, albeit dressed up in religious language.


© 2010 Dan O'Brien


Dan O'Brien, Ph.D., Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University, UK


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