The Miracle of Theism

The Miracle of Theism

Is there reason to believe in a god? Philosophers and theologians have debated this question for centuries, offering arguments and counter-arguments taking many different forms. More recently scientists and historians have joined the fray to weigh in on things from their own perspectives. Still, well over two millennia later, and in spite of a bounty of examples of religiously-inspired violence, we find the question persists. According to some, the survival of theism – the belief in god(s) – is nothing short of miraculous; it testifies to the power and value of faith. To others, its survival is a miracle of another sort, a testament only to the continuous credulity and irrationality of humankind. J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism (1982) is a comprehensive look at a variety of answers to the question of god’s existence, from this latter sense of miracle.

J.L. Mackie was a 20th century philosopher best known for his critiques of religion and meta-ethics. Like David Hume, his greatest critical work on religion was published posthumously, following his death in 1981. The Miracle of Theism is regarded today as one of the most influential and forceful analyses of religion, particularly coming from an atheistic position. At 262 pages in length, it manages to be thorough and concise, tackling the classic arguments for god, more modern variations and arguments put forward by Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie, and others, as well as the problem of evil and some non-traditional theistic claims. It is, without a doubt, an essential text for those interested in philosophy of religion.

I. God, Miracles, and the Universe

Mackie begins with a definition of god borrowed from Swinburne: a person without a body, creator/sustainer of the universe, all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, perfectly good, a free agent, the source of moral obligation, and the necessary being worthy of worship. This seems an apt description of the monotheistic deity conceived of during the Middle Ages, which served as the focus of theological musings like those of Anselm and Aquinas, whose arguments and beliefs greatly helped to shape what is often called traditional theism. Of course, it remains in dispute to what extent (if any) the god portrayed in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an fits this traditional definition, but it is nevertheless the case that many of the philosophical arguments for god seek to establish a being possessing some or all of the attributes listed.

Interestingly, though, the first chapter takes a more down-to-earth approach, looking at miracles and testimony through the arguments of David Hume. Mackie’s elucidation of Hume is quite compelling, dividing the discourse on miracles into two parts, a central argument and five points made against miracles that underlies the central argument. A number of theistic critiques of Hume that I have come across fail to distinguish these parts, frequently even omitting the central argument, and so make the mistake of thinking that Hume intended to build an a priori case against miracles. However, as Mackie explains, Hume’s main argument seems to be that we should only accept a miracle report when it is less likely that the report is false than that the miracle occurred. The five points Hume makes about the insufficient attestation for miracles, our propensity to believe the seemingly absurd, how miracle reports derive from comparably ignorant ancestral cultures, the conflict of diverging religious claims, and our tendency to desire objects of religious belief, must be applied to any miracle report to ascertain the likelihood of it being true or false. Hume believes, as does Mackie, that no miracle claim has survived such rigorous evaluation. Most theists will surely disagree with this conclusion, but the burden is then on them to either meet the standard of evaluation, or show that the standard is an unreasonable a posteriori judge of testimony.

Chapters two and three examine some of Descartes’ meditations, including his ontological argument, as well as the ontological arguments of Anselm and Plantinga. Mackie is hesitant to accept Kant’s criticism of the argument, that it incorrectly considers existence to be a predicate, yet he endorses another of Kant’s positions, that the ontological argument makes an unwarranted leap from conceptual to metaphysical necessity.1 In chapter four, the author addresses Berkeley’s immaterial realism (the idea that this world is like a dream in god’s mind) by noting the strangeness of the detail we perceive and the changes we appear to instigate in the world, which seem to have no explanation if they’re nothing but ideas in the mind of god.

Mackie engages with the cosmological argument in chapter five, responding to the contingency arguments of Leibniz and Aquinas, as well as the Kalām argument defended today by William Lane Craig, and a cosmological argument made by Swinburne. To Leibniz, Mackie objects that the principle of sufficient reason – that nothing occurs without a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise – has too high a demand of explanations, that satisfactory answers must be “through and through”. This is not how science works or how ordinary causal inquiry works, though. In response to Craig and Swinburne, Mackie argues, among other things, that there is no reason why a “sheer origination of things, not determined by anything” should be seen as less acceptable than god, especially when we have no experience of disembodied intentions acting directly without any materials or instruments, as is supposed to be the case with god.2

II. Morality and God

The moral argument is the subject of chapter six, where Mackie’s principle objection is that of moral subjectivism. I found this to be one of the weakest chapters in the book, not because of the defense of subjectivism, but because of all that is conceded to proponents of the moral argument. Mackie claims that objective moral values that supervene on natural features must be intrinsically action-guiding, that is that they give reasons for action that are independent of an agent’s desires or purposes. But then this means that the natural features cannot themselves be intrinsically action-guiding.

My problem with this understanding of objective moral value is that it’s incredibly difficult to see what exactly is moral about it. What does it mean to suggest that god has given us obligations that are intrinsically action-guiding? As best as I can see it, it simply means that god has given us reasons to avoid certain actions and to engage in other certain actions, and these reasons are independent of what we want. This creation of supervenient value, as Mackie terms it, is indistinguishable from the creation of supervenient value undertaken by many dictators and monarchs down through human history, imposing their own codes of conduct onto their subjects. One can rightly ask what it is about god’s reasons that makes them moral reasons. If the response is that god’s nature is perfectly good, or that god is the Good in the Platonist sense, this raises the problem of evil. If there is no good grounds to think a perfectly good god exists, there is no reason to accept the moral argument.

On the other hand, if these obligations are independent of our desires and purposes, how are we motivated to observe them? Any robust ethical theory will have prescriptive or normative statements that are not just action-guiding, but action-motivating as well. It not only tells us what we should do, but gives us reasons that are of a particular sort that they stand a better chance to make us want to do what we should do. Attempting to erect a monarchical government in the United States would be very unlikely to succeed these days, in part because people recognize that one individual is not going to have all our best interests in mind. Instead, we have created a government where multiple people are elected from different areas and different walks of life, and they are held accountable by us in an effort to ensure that our interests are better represented in legal decisions. Now, of course, a dictator could motivate people to obey his will by issuing threats of violence, but this would just return us to the question of why such reasons should be considered moral reasons. The idea that a single being – even a perfectly good one – is able to provide obligations that are both moral and motivating is far from established, yet it is entirely necessary to the moral argument.

III. Design, Evil, Reason, and Experience

Chapter seven addresses the argument from consciousness, noting how theism takes the physical connection between intentions and their fulfillment (i.e. nerves) as unnecessary for consciousness, and how it fails to explain why consciousness is found only in matter of certain complexity. Eight discusses the argument from design, where Mackie argues, in essence, that “we have no good empirical reason for taking the ‘marks of design’ as marks of design.”3 Since Darwin, even the appearance of order and complexity cannot be used as evidence for design, because design is itself an inference based on shaky ground, stemming from a distinction between natural objects and man-made objects, as Hume pointed out.

Chapter nine shifts from theistic arguments to the atheistic argument from evil. Mackie claims that god, by any reasonable definition, has power over causal laws. Yet if this is so, then god has no need to use any means to attain his ends. The free will defense against evil presupposes that having creatures with free will is a greater good than preventing evil. However, if god has created us with uncontrollable choices, then to control any of our choices would be logically impossible. This Mackie identifies as being the same sort of answer to the omnipotence paradox that’s rejected by theists. If god can create beings with truly free will, in that our choices are uncontrollable, then it seems like god can make some things so that he can’t control them. Nonetheless, what seems possible still is that god could make creatures that are free and always choose the right action (a humorous example of this is in NonStampCollector’s video Genesis (take #1)).

In chapter ten, Mackie covers religious experience with reference to William James, as well as the social and psychological explanations for it offered by Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, and Freud. He concludes that although religious experience cannot serve to show the existence of a being possessing any of the traditional attributes of god, neither can any of the alternative naturalistic theories of religion account for all religious experience without committing a genetic fallacy. For chapter eleven, Mackie critiques Pascal’s wager, William James’ principle of the will to believe, and Kierkegaard’s emphasis on passion, as ideas for gaining some access to religious truths without the use of reason.

For the remaining three chapters, Professor Mackie entertains the notion of religion without belief, possible replacements for god, and the conclusion and implications of atheism. On the first, the central question is: can religion be meaningful even if it’s not making empirical claims? Mackie suggests that if god is not conceived of as an object, no real sense can be made of religious sentences like ‘god is love’, ‘trust god’, or ‘worship god’. On the second, Mackie considers views like John Leslie’s axiarchism, and on the last of the three, he encourages a “fundamental trust in reality”, despite moral subjectivism, arising from the need to keep us social and peaceful with each other.

IV. In Summation

While reading through The Miracle of Theism, I was repeatedly struck by why so many philosophers and students of religious studies consider it to be such an important work of its kind. Many of the criticisms leveled by Mackie are concise and challenging, not to mention unique in the way that he systematically lays out arguments and objections that rarely appears in modern popular writings against theism. This review has necessarily been a brief exploration of some of the arguments and ideas in the book that most peaked my interest, but I will very likely be taking up excerpts of it for additional discussion in future articles and reviews on this site. In my opinion, The Miracle of Theism is more than deserving of its esteemed reputation, despite a couple of weak areas, and ought to be required reading for philosophy of religion students.


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1. For further discussion, see my article on The Ontological Argument for God.
2. For further discussion, see my article on The Cosmological Argument for God.
3. J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, 1982), p. 144.