Book Review: Atheism & Theism by Smart and Haldane

Atheism and Theism (Great Debates in Philosophy)Atheism and Theism by J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane is part of the Great Debates in Philosophy Series by Blackwell Publishing. Now in its second edition, this book is an exchange between theistic philosopher J.J. Haldane and atheistic philosopher J.J.C. Smart. This brief synopsis will outline the general content and the angles presented by the authors.

The book is structured so that each author contributes a chapter laying out their position, a chapter critiquing the other’s position, and then further reflections for the second edition. Smart’s atheistic chapter is first, where he defines his position: “Atheism I take to be the denial of theism and of deism.” (8) He discusses such issues as teleology, fine-tuning and design, ethical principles, religious experience, Pascal’s wager, miracles, the New Testament, and the problem of evil. He offers his philosophical critiques of theistic arguments as surveyed above and explains where he sees their shortcomings.

Smart explores the design question: “So the question surely arises: what designed the designer?” (23) He also doubts the existence of a God based on the apparent way he apparently created man:

…the hypothesis that God designed this huge material universe so as to produce consciousness seems to be ad hoc. What a long-winded and chance way of creating conscious beings. Surely an omnipotent being could have created happy spirits directly, rather than a universe which might produce entities like us, or higher than us, as a result of long and chancy evolutionary processes. (25)

When it comes to the issue of evil in the world, Smart seems to reject God on the grounds that he simply would not allow the chance of evil whatsoever: “…even if we ignore the natural evils the free will defence does not work. This is because an omnipotent, omniscience and benevolent being would make a universe in which everyone chose in a morally perfect manner.” (62) Smart’s philosophical objections against theism don’t keep him from admitting the possibility of God existing – but Smart’s conception of God’s actual existence would, puzzlingly, have to look something like atheism:

I concede that theism is an emotionally attractive doctrine. Perhaps it even is true. But if it is true then the problems that I have put forward in the case of traditional theism make it likely that such a theism would have to be understood in such a way that it would differ little from what we at present regard as atheism. (70)

Haldane’s theistic chapter rests on three main lines of argumentation, as he spells out: “I think there are three places, or points of transition, at which such reasons may be found. First, the step from non-living to living entities; second, the step from basic ‘life forms’ to reproductive species; and third, the transition from mindless to minded life.” (89) Haldane’s inference to the best explanation takes this general form: “Where an explanation is available that renders an improbable outcome more likely one should prefer it to an explanation that preserves the improbability, and the greater the differential the more one should favor the probabilizing hypothesis.” (112) 

Haldane explores Thomas Aquinas’s “five ways,” spelling out clearly the differences between necessary and contingent things. In addition, Haldane sheds helpful light on the use of theistic arguments for God, properly delineating their limits:

Thus it is with the causal proofs of the existence of God. They aim to establish the existence of a Transcendent Cause of being, change and order and so on, from its effects in the world. They do not claim to show more than what is implied by this. It is not in general an objection, therefore, to argue that they fail as theistic proofs in not demonstrating the existence of God as-He-is-conceived-of-by-Christian-doctrine, say. Oversimplifying, one might observe that they attempt to prove the thatness and not the whatness of God. (129)

Haldane also defends his case for theism against arguments from evil, defining evil as a lack or privation, not a thing that exists in of itself: “It is the thought that evil is not something in the world along with other things but a condition of them involving some deficiency or limitation; it is a ‘privation.’” (139)

The philosophical intricacies presented by both sides in this book are abundant; far beyond what can be covered in this brief synopsis. Neither author is particularly intent on proving their case. Instead, this is more of an exploration of the philosophical issues that are implied on each view, with thoughtful follow-up critiques presented by both sides. The tone is congenial and academic, with both authors acknowledging areas of agreement while respecting areas of disagreement. This book will not be very accessible to the novice. However, Atheism & Theism can be recommended for the student of philosophy of religion or those deep into philosophical apologetics, as it explores many of the deep philosophical arguments at play between these two views.

1 J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane, Atheism & Theism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Written by

Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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