Dr. Graham Oppy On the Five Best Atheist Philosophy of Religion Books

The team at Five Books interviews experts on their five best book choices on anything from language, sport, and art, to science, philosophy and the environment. I love this site and encourage everyone to subscribe to its bi-weekly updates, where they "ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview." The site has over a thousand interviews.

They decided to ask Dr. Oppy to suggest and talk about the five best atheist philosophy of religion books. Specifically he was asked to suggest and discuss the five books "that have been the most influential" to him in his work as an atheist philosopher of religion. I've previously said what five books changed my life right here, and none of them were philosophy of religion books, even though I basically majored in that area of study for three of my master's degrees. [I'll not begrudge Oppy for failing to suggest my book in his list, Why I Became an Atheist, even though at least one informed atheist ranked it as the best atheist book of the past decade over some other top philosophy of religion books. Hey, don't shoot me, as I'm just the messenger! ;-)

Here are Oppy's choices. There are some surprises to be had in them. I have five important questions to ask him. See below for them and a link to his interview:

1) Given your book choices and the dismal view you have of philosophical arguments converting people, what do you now think of the philosophy of religion? You say it's not going away anytime soon, okay. But why not treat it as if it's dead or dying, by calling for it to end in the same way Dr. Hector Avalos has called for his own discipline to end? I'm calling for the same end to the philosophy of religion in Unapologetic: Why Philosoophy of Religion Must End.

2) If you were seeking to convert people, what approach is the best way to do it? What do you think of The Outsider Test for Faith? You should weigh in on it. Given the fact so many people are saying it has the best chance of succeeding, you probably couldn't spend any better time by familiarizing yourself with it and promoting it.

3) You mentioned "theism". What is that specifically? Is there such a thing? Who decides? Why not disregard this agreed upon arbitrary definition, dependent on one's cultural upbringing in the western world, and focus instead on the irrationality of faith itself? It's the unrecognized, as yet, mother of all cognitive biases.

4) Given that Jean Meslier's criticisms of religion are "extremely ferocious" and typical of the anger and ridicule we find among "new atheists", are you now ready to fight for atheism with a harder hitting rhetoric? Meslier's criticisms don't seem to be new to us. What is there about Mesiler's atheism that's so influential to you? Are you ready to tell it like it is, or will you continue treating religious ideas with an undue undeserved amount of dispassionate respect, as religion continues to march humanity toward extinction?

5) Given that Scot Atran's book was influential to you, should the focus of philosophy of religion be stressing what science is finding about the brain and its evolution as the best explanation for the need for religion, rather than treating the arguments of religion seriously in the university? And if so, what does that do to the philosophy of religion? Don't we already know what we need to know from science, that all faith-based approaches to reality, along with the arguments concocted in defense of it, are delusional?

Quotes from Oppy's interview:


I would think that if what you’re really interested in is the virtues of the arguments, then you’ll probably come to the view that I have which is that there are no arguments on either side that are particularly compelling. There are very well-informed philosophers on both sides of the fence still. If there were these compelling arguments, that would be extremely hard to explain.


I do have a view about what philosophy of religion should be, which is a bit at odds with what many of the Christian philosophers in philosophy of religion think because their primary interest is in the philosophical study of questions that arise for Christians, whereas I’m interested in questions that arise in general about religion. That makes the focus different.

Having said that, I spent a lot of the early part of my career just arguing with Christians especially, discussing arguments for and against the existence of God. But I have come around to the view that it would be better to have a more inclusive discipline that spends more time focussing on other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the focus on the Abrahamic religions.


About the book, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier:

Pick any kind of line of attack that the New Atheists have made on religion and you can find it there in Meslier. There’s a line that goes something like, ‘Common folk will not be free until the last of the nobles is strangled with the intestines of the last priest’ — that’s one of Meslier’s lines. It’s a very famous line, and many have repeated it, but the first person to put it in writing — and probably its inventor — was Meslier. He was very radical politically, and quite important for the French Revolution, as was Holbach’s coterie — all of whom were familiar with Meslier’s work.


One thing I would like to see is much more emphasis on other parts of philosophy of religion, partly trying to come to grips with what the cognitive anthropologists and other scientists interested in this study of the origins, development, and spread of religion have got to say. But also, I think, having a much more careful look at all of the religions of the world, so that we aren’t obsessively focussed on the Abrahamic religions and, in particular, on Christianity. I think that we will learn all kinds of interesting things if we go and study Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, and all the other major religions. Many of these have very long and rich philosophical traditions as well, but, at least in the West, we just ignore them largely.


There are interesting studies of religion in anthropology, politics, sociology, and so on, and I think philosophers should pay more attention to what’s going on in those disciplines as well. In fact, I included one of the books on this list as partly aspirational [In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran]. It’s actually a book in cognitive anthropology as much as it is a book in the philosophy of religion.


Cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, Scott Atran argues that religion is a by-product of human evolution just as the cognitive intervention, cultural selection, and historical survival of religion is an accommodation of certain existential and moral elements that have evolved in the human condition