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A Review of J. L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism
Why this Review?
Our aim at Solomon’s Corner is to help our readers become better thinkers. One of the ways you do this is by reading outside of your comfort zone, but it can be difficult to know where to start. A Christian who decides to read up on Atheism may start with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and think he is getting the best arguments that atheism can muster, but this popular work is far from the best.
The following is a review of J. L. Mackie’s book, The Miracle of Theism. I wrote this in my time at seminary to help other readers. Surprisingly, it became the most upvoted review for the book on GoodReads.com, and at the time of this writing is still in the number 1 position. When I wrote it, my hope was that Christians would see that not all atheists are bad, and that atheists would know that not all Christians just want to throw a Bible verse at them.
The Review: J. L. Mackie and The Miracle of Theism
As a Christian, I have been tired of the neo-atheist movement and its caustic rhetoric. Mackie is definitely not in that class of atheism. After reading Mackie, I suspect he would distance himself from such characters of Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I could be wrong about this but based on his writing, he seems to at least have respect for fellow academicians who hold to theism.
It should be noted that this book is first and foremost an academic treatment of atheism and theism. Atheists and theists who are used to the popular neo-Atheistic writings of Dawkins and his ilk will find this book challenging. In order to really appreciate Mackie's thought, as well as his mistakes, one must have extensive knowledge of the history of theology and philosophy (with some chapters being exempt from this observation i.e., the Problem of Evil, Chapter 9), especially knowledge of modern and medieval eras. In terms of contemporary theists, Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga are given special attention throughout this work, especially Swinburne. Again, if you are not up to date on their writings, you will feel as though there are holes in your understanding, and you may find it difficult to grasp the significance of Mackie's objections to theism.
Where I agree with J. L. Mackie
Regarding the actual content of the book, I found Mackie's aggressive approach combined with an admirable respect to be a refreshing mixture in an atheist writer. He admits that atheism has challenges in the areas of consciousness and that there are ways to evade his famous problem of evil arguments, should one modify his definitions of evil. Today's atheists are as dogmatic as many of their theistic opponents and this is frustrating for those searching for a constructive dialog on the issues. As a theist, I particularly enjoyed his treatment of William James and Blaise Pascal. In an era of fideism, it was great to see myself aligned with a respectable thinker's responses to Pascal's wager and James’ pragmatism. Although, I do wish Mackie would have more explicitly discussed James' pragmatism and its influence, or lack thereof, on his views of religious experience.
Where I disagree with J. L. Mackie
Compliments aside, I found that Mackie doesn't appear to offer any positive arguments for atheism. He offers polemics, but these are not the same as demonstrations of naturalism philosophically. In my humble opinion, and I don't mean that sarcastically, he fulfills the stereotype that atheism could not exist without theism. Meaning, he doesn't seem to have any chapter that argues for naturalism as such. All of his arguments for atheism are completely dependent on arguments for theism.
Secondly, while he does bring good arguments against James on religious experience, his views on morality seem to fall prey to the same arguments. Since Mackie believes in an evolutionary view of morality and admits that this leads to relativism (chapter 14), it is hard to see how one will not just adopt a morality based solely on the pragmatic or damaging 'moral experiences.' In addition, one of the major objections to atheism is its lack of objectivity in morality: thus, creating a toss of up for atheists to be nihilist or moralists. I don't think that Mackie avoids this, but he could if he adopted an Aristotelian view, or even as he described it, a Kantian view of morality. But, to his credit, Mackie does provide a sound rejection of communism and Marxist political theories as being too oppressive and overly optimistic. He also admits that although he does not like the closed-minded Catholics, they have done more to stand against oppressive regimes and communist governments than atheists have.
I wish that the popular atheists of today would recognize what it means to be respectable, courteous, and possess academic integrity rather than resorting to rhetoric and ad hominem arguments (insulting one’s character to discredit their position). I think this was an excellent book; it is especially helpful if you are looking for authentic atheists who have truly thought through atheism and theism and reasoned to atheism. But Mackie has several problems unaddressed:
He concludes on a self-defeating position (i.e. relativism).
He assumes naturalism as a viable philosophy without proposing arguments for it, which seems to ultimately reduce to nihilism.
He concludes that atheism is merely more probable than theism. This seems to be a bit of a leap of faith, especially for those who will believe atheism based on authority and not on demonstration.