Philosophy » Philosophy of...

The best books on Atheist Philosophy of Religion

recommended by Graham Oppy

From the work of an 18th century atheist priest, to recent research in the cognitive anthropology of religion, atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy discusses the books that have been most influential to him.

Buy all books
  • 1

    Why I Am Not a Christian
    by Bertrand Russell

  • 2

    The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God
    by John Mackie

  • 3

    Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier
    by Jean Meslier

  • 4

    Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and The Natural History of Religion
    by David Hume

  • 5

    In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion
    by Scott Atran

From the work of an 18th century atheist priest, to recent research in the cognitive anthropology of religion, atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy discusses the books that have been most influential to him.

Graham Oppy

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University. As well as the Chair of Council of the Australasian Association of Philosophy, he was elected Fellow of the Australian Academcy of Humanities in 2009. Having written extensively on arguments for the existence of God, as well as the divine properties, Oppy is recognised as a world-leading philosopher of religion. His books include Ontological Arguments and Belief in God; Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes; Arguing about Gods; Reinventing Philosophy of Religion; and Atheism: The Basics (forthcoming).


Save for later

You are one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion working today, but you’re also an atheist. Many very prominent philosophers of religion like Brian Leftow, Brian Davies, and Eleonore Stump are all Catholic Thomists.

We’re a small group, that’s true. Certainly, there have been lots of active Thomists in the last twenty to thirty years, but there’s another branch of philosophy of religion based primarily in the United States which has a much more Protestant focus. These are people going for Reformed epistemology, like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Lane Craig. There are a lot of people running that kind of line. There are a decent number of atheist philosophers of religion but we are greatly outnumbered by the theists.

Do you think that it’s an advantage or an obstacle to come to the philosophy of religion without faith-based commitments?

It’s not really an advantage or a hindrance. 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.

“There’s a sort of battleground between theists and atheists trying to mount arguments that will somehow force the other side to convert. I think there’s very little prospect in succeeding in an enterprise like that.”

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.

With your view of the direction that the field should go in, would that mark a clearer dividing line between philosophy of religion and something like philosophical theology?

There are various fuzzy lines. There’s one between apologetics and philosophy of religion; there’s another one between certain kinds of theology and philosophy of religion. But there are other boundaries as well. 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. It’s actually a book in cognitive anthropology as much as it is a book in the philosophy of religion.

Let’s have a look at the books that you’ve chosen. Your first choice is Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell.

There’s a lot that Russell had to say about religion over the course of his career. He wrote an enormous amount of stuff and, like his writings on everything else, it’s not all consistent. He changed his mind about lots of things as he went on. The thing that I was interested in really with this book is the title essay, ‘Why I am not a Christian.’ This was a public lecture that he gave in about 1927. When I read that as a teenager, I was very impressed by it. I came back to it many years later and wrote a much more critical piece about it, thinking about how I — if I had been in Russell’s shoes — would have said a lot of things differently than what he said. But it was very influential for me in informing my early views.

The essay title is ‘Why I am not a Christian, rather than ‘Why I am not religious.’ Can you outline some of the lines of criticism that he’s advancing against specifically Christian doctrine?

Russell’s attitude towards religion has two different parts to it. Even in this essay, he sometimes says that religion is a vile institution that’s responsible for most of the worst evils that we see in the world. But at the same time, he was interested in secular substitutes for religion, putting something in place that could play some of the social roles but also the psychological roles that religion plays for believers. Sometimes, when he’s talking about religion, he really is just talking about Christian religion. Often, he’s just talking about the Catholic Church. We have to pay careful attention to the context to work out what he’s talking about. When he starts talking about arguments for the existence of God, he’s really just engaging with Christians at that point. So, in ‘Why I am not a Christian,’ a big part of it is why I don’t believe in God, but another part of it is why I don’t believe that Jesus was the greatest and best of men. So, there are two parts in the essay that run along together. There’s another part of the essay where he’s saying critical things about the church, and there he’s talking about the Catholic Church.

Why is it that he doesn’t think that Jesus is the greatest of all men?

He picks up these little things in the gospels. There’s an occasion where Christ curses a fig tree because it’s not in fruit at the time. It’s not the right season, so it’s not surprising that it’s not bearing fruit. Russell says that this is bizarre behaviour; it’s clearly not the behaviour of someone who was fully rational and fully in control of their emotions. And there are other little stories like that that are scattered. But he also picks on some of the bigger doctrinal teachings as well. I’m now trying to remember whether he agrees with them or disagrees with them. He says that there are some good things about the Christian teachings as well. There are some important principles—one that he mentions is the principle of turning the other cheek. I think that Russell was in favour of that, whereas I’m inclined to be sceptical that that’s a good principle.

You mentioned that the book had a profound influence on you as a teenager but later, as a more intellectually mature philosopher, there are things that you would have written differently. Can you give an outline of these differences?

I think that the discussions of arguments for the existence of God in that essay are quite unsatisfactory. Russell is presenting to a public audience, but I think he simplifies the arguments to a point where they’re not really recognisable of worthy targets of attack. Of course, it’s difficult. There are many arguments and some are very complicated. If you just want to do a public lecture, it’s quite hard to do justice to all of them. I would have been inclined, if I were Russell, either not to talk about the arguments at all, or to go about it in a rather different way. I would say something much more general rather than saying here’s an argument and here’s what’s wrong with it, when the argument that he puts up is one that no Christian philosopher would never have defended.

Russell gives an argument where he says if you suppose that the universe needs a cause and you postulate God, then why do you not need to postulate a cause for God as well? How can postulating God help with having something that doesn’t have an explanation? I’m guessing that many theists would say that God exists of necessity. So, there’s an explanation of why God exists: because it’s necessary that God exists. As for why it’s necessary that God exists, well, necessary truths — by their very nature— have no explanation. It’s true no matter what.

The version that Russell gives of that argument is still somewhat unsatisfactory. I have more sympathy for Russell’s position, but I just think that what he should have said is: to the extent that you think that God exists of necessity, your opponent should just suppose that the initial state of the universe exists of necessity. Then, you’re no worse off in terms of having an explanation of what’s there at the very beginning, but you’re postulating less because you’re not postulating God. But that’s not how Russell says it.

In the essay, Russell writes: “What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.” I’m hugely sympathetic to this. To what extent do you think people can be rationally persuaded to —or dissuaded from — belief in God?

People can certainly change their minds. The extent to which it’s rational is a bit unclear. I think it’s very hard to suppose that, when people are persuaded by being given arguments, it’s the virtues of the argument that are doing all the work in persuading them. It’s certainly possible for some charismatic evangelical to talk to someone and present them with an argument and make them change their mind by the force of their personality or for other reasons having to do with cultural circumstance. But 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 think it’s very hard to suppose that, when people are persuaded by being given arguments, it’s the virtues of the argument that are doing all the work in persuading them.”

That doesn’t mean that people go around having irrational beliefs. I’m inclined to think that you can be a rational believer on either side of this issue. You can be well informed and have thought about it a lot. It’s just that argument is not very important in whether or not you’re rational. That’s my view. It’s not a requirement for my being rational that I can persuade you to accept the things that I believe. We can just reach a point where we each recognise that there’s a whole lot of things that we disagree about. We’ve both thought hard about these matters but we just agree to disagree because further pursuit of the argument is not going to get us any further. Of course, we’ll both go away still thinking we’re right and the other person is wrong in the sense that I am the one with the true beliefs and you’re the one with the false beliefs. But you shouldn’t mix up that kind of consideration with questions about rationality, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, intelligence, and so on.

Would you say that’s analogous with political debate as well?

Yes, I think similar things about politics.

With Russell’s quote about most people believing in God because they’ve been taught to do so since infancy, he’s mainly getting at social and cultural circumstances. But there’s been a seismic social shift in terms of attitudes towards religion. Do you think that the argument could be run in the opposite way, where you say that a lot of people take atheism to be their default position without consciously entertaining these abstract questions?

I think that would have to be right. When we acquire beliefs, with lots of them we don’t even notice that we’re acquiring them. For some things there is explicit instruction, but lots of them you pick them up by making inferences from what your parents taught you about and the kind of behaviour that your parents — and later on, your kids — engage in. It’s not anything like being given a bunch of arguments with conclusions and you’re accepting the arguments on the basis of the premises. That’s got to be true for everybody.

“Argument is not very important in whether or not you’re rational. That’s my view.”

It’s also got to be true that you can after the fact reconstruct a set of arguments that could have been the ones that got you to the position that you’re now in. I certainly accept those points. It helps to make it understandable why there were no Christians in China three thousand years ago. If there were really were people somewhere that have a kind of direct line from God, and they’re acquiring their beliefs from God, the distribution of religious belief around the rest of the planet over the past fifty thousand years starts to look pretty mysterious.

Your next book is John Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism.

After I finished high school, I enrolled in a medical degree at Melbourne. I did one year of the medical degree, spending a lot of my time writing philosophy, and I figured I was probably in the wrong place. So, I swapped to doing an undergraduate in philosophy. In the second year of my philosophy degree, I took a course in the philosophy of religion and the two textbooks were Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God, and John Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. When I read Mackie’s book, I was way way more impressed than I had been even when I read Russell’s.

Mackie’s book is terrific. For its size, it gives you the best coverage of a very wide range of important arguments on both sides of the debate about the existence of God. It packages it all up in a way that many atheists will find quite convincing. Mackie had spent many years thinking about these questions. There’s lots of lots of really good stuff in that book. That’s why it’s the second one on my list.

Can you give a sense of the scope of topics that he talks about?

The primary focus is arguments about the existence of God. We get traditional stuff like ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, design arguments, Pascal’s wager, and the problem of evil, but we also get discussions of religious experience and miracles. We also get some discussion of theories of religion, including debunking theories of religion that seek to explain why it is that people have the religious beliefs that they do even though those beliefs have no connection to a reality that corresponds to them. It’s a very broad-ranging book.

He’s got interesting discussions of many of the nineteenth-century critics of religion and some of the defenders as well. There’s a discussion of people like Kierkegaard but also Marx, Feuerbach, Freud, Durkheim etc. There’s a whole lot of stuff in there. While it’s not as accessible as either Russell’s book or one of the ones we’ll discuss later, it’s a really important work in philosophy of religion from the standpoint of contemporary atheistic philosophers of religion.

This came out in the 1980s, just after Mackie died. As an expert in the contemporary field of philosophy of religion, I’m curious to know what you consider to be the most interesting arguments—either for or against the existence of God—that have come out since the publication of this book.

What tends to happen is that you get repackaged versions of arguments that came before, but are improved in various ways. Sometimes they have new twists to them that are quite hard to unpack and work out what to say in response. Mackie, for example, doesn’t discuss Gödel’s ontological argument which, actually, was circulating in note-form at the time that Mackie wrote The Miracle of Theism, but he obviously didn’t encounter that argument. There’s been a big discussion of that since. With cosmological arguments, there’s been lots of developments and lots of discussion by people like Robert Koons, Alex Pruss, and Joss Rasmussen. Of course, Mackie has nothing to say about those arguments, and it’s not straightforward to take what Mackie says and figure out what he would have said about these newer forms of arguments.

Similarly, for design arguments, the whole intelligent design movement had hardly started to take off — maybe it hadn’t at all — when Mackie’s book came out. There might be something about fine-tuning, but if there is then it will be from the very early days of fine-tuning design arguments. So, it’s not that there are lots of new areas —though perhaps there are some — where arguments have been developed and Mackie has said nothing about any arguments from that area. It’s just that there are new and better arguments which he couldn’t consider because they hadn’t been developed yet.

But it depends. There are people who think that there are arguments from things like the existence of abstract objects to the existence to God. From memory, Mackie doesn’t even consider that kind of argument. So, there are some areas where new ground has been turned over, at least as far as Mackie’s discussion goes. But I would say it’s much more significant that there are just new better versions of arguments that belong to the families of arguments that he discusses.

Your next book is Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier. Tell me about this one.

This is a book I only learnt about fairly recently. I’ve been doing some work recently on atheism, writing a book that will be out in September called Atheism: The Basics for Routledge. One of the things I wanted to do was to do some pen portraits of atheists for one of the chapters on the history of atheism. When I was researching that chapter and reading up on some other people, I discovered that Meslier is actually a very important figure in the history of European atheism and probably isn’t discussed as much as he ought to be.

Jean Meslier (1664—1729) was a Catholic priest in a small, quite isolated village. He lived his whole life as a Catholic priest. He was in some respects slightly idiosyncratic, but never to the extent that any of his superiors thought that it warranted serious attention. He did the kind of things that you might expect a priest to do: for example, when he had spare cash at the end of each financial year, he would give it away to his parishioners.

There were many things that made it hard to guess that he was leading a kind of double life. For the last ten years of his life, he was working on his ‘Testament’ in which he was developing a series of very radical ideas. It turns out that the ideas he was developing were atheism, materialism, a kind of political internationalism, and a kind of hedonism. The whole book is a mess. It’s extremely difficult to read. I wasn’t sure whether I should include the book in this list or not, but what’s important about it is its influence.

“The criticism is extremely ferocious. Pick any kind of line of attack that the New Atheists have made on religion and you can find it there in Meslier.”

After he died, he’d left four copies of his ‘Testament’. Somehow or other the church didn’t capture all of the copies; more copies were made and they were circulated in Paris in the late 1720s and 1730s. And over the next sixty years, there were a number of publications that drew on his work. Voltaire published an extract in which he made it out that Meslier was a deist, rather than an atheist, and that he shared Voltaire’s political sympathies. So, he wasn’t exactly true to the original text. But Voltaire did pick out the good parts in the arguments that Meslier had that could be used to support deism. In about 1770, Holbach published a book called The Good Sense which was, again, a kind of synopsis of Meslier’s work but it didn’t include everything. In the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, all the philosophy in that work is basically taken straight from Meslier.

Across the eighteenth century, Meslier was enormously influential. Holbach published a whole lot of stuff, much of it owed quite a bit to Meslier, but published it anonymously because it wasn’t safe for an atheist to put their names to pamphlets that they published. Holbach had very reasons why, throughout his life, he didn’t want to put his name to the forty or fifty atheist books that he wrote. It wasn’t until about 1860 that a full edition of Meslier’s work was published. The first English translation only just appeared a couple of years ago. So, there are reasons why he’s not particularly well-known. Going back to the original text is not all that rewarding because it’s so hard to read.

This is an incredibly subversive document, written by an atheist priest—which sounds like an oxymoron. How ferocious is his criticism? And why do you think he remained working as a priest if he held these beliefs?

The criticism is extremely ferocious. 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. He didn’t hold back at all in his criticism of either religion or politics. He attacked the church on many different fronts.

Why did he remain a priest? I think because he quite liked the life that he was living. It was pretty comfortable, and he was quite happy working in the service of his parishioners. I have no idea how he coped with preaching and that side of things during the last part of his life. That’s really odd.

One of the things that struck me was just how modern some of his lines of criticism are. He asks how we know that the New Testament texts haven’t been corrupted or falsified in stages of their transmission. That’s such a modern approach and anticipates a lot of nineteenth-century criticism.

Meslier dies in 1729, and Strauss isn’t writing his stuff until a hundred years later. It’s a very important book in the history of atheism, one whose importance — I expect — has become more deeply appreciated over time.

One contemporary philosopher who’s trying to lead a revival of interest in the work is Michel Onfray.

Onfray has some really interesting things to say about what’s in the Testament. He has written a couple of fairly lengthy articles expounding it and also complaining about the way that, for example, Voltaire treated the text.

Your fourth choice is the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and The Natural History of Religion by David Hume.

There will be lots of people who disagree, but I think that the most important contributions — the best books — in the philosophy of religion are these two little books that David Hume writes. Some mid-twentieth century editions of these works in English would often start by saying that the philosophy of religion begins with Hume and begins with these two works — that all of the subsequent philosophical discussion of religion comes afterwards.

In some ways, that’s probably not really fair to the medieval tradition. There were many people working inside the Catholic Church who, in various ways, were doing philosophy of religion. Nonetheless, there are lots of things about Hume’s works, and I’ll focus on the Dialogues, that make them particularly attractive. The first thing is their readability. If you’re a modern reader, you have to make an allowance for the language as the language is a bit dated now, but they’re enormously readable and the literary execution is fantastic. Hume was a great writer. It’s very hard to write philosophical dialogues. Plato was pretty good at it, and the next best philosophical dialogues are Hume’s. The only comparable work in English is Berkeley’s Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.

“It’s a bit hard to tell what Hume’s own view was. Was he an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a deist? He covers his tracks pretty carefully in the Dialogues.

When you think about what Hume was doing in the Dialogues, he’s engaging with his contemporaries, primarily in the United Kingdom, and there are lots of them in the wake of Boyle and others, who hold that you can kind of read off your theology from the universe. They take the design argument is the centrepiece of theology. I think that Hume does a fantastic job of demolishing the arguments that were around at the time. He’s enormously imaginative. He also does a good job of presenting things from different points of view and of obscuring what his own opinion is. There are all kinds of ways in which I just think the Dialogues is a superb piece of work.

And The Natural History of Religion? This is obviously very different in form and genre.

Yes, but very important in the history of studies of religion. Hume’s speculations are a bit from the armchair; he didn’t have a lot of data to work with. But what he has to say about the origins of polytheistic religion—the kind of psychological benefits you might expect you can get from piecemeal polytheistic or popular religions (as opposed to the kind of benefits that you might get from the highly theological conceptions of doctrine)—still ring quite true today.

His importance is not just for philosophy of religion, but for the anthropology and cognitive science of religion as well. He’s a distant starting point for a whole lot of subsequent investigation of religion. I assume, though I haven’t checked this, that he had some influence on Kant — not just in the ways that we know he did in other areas of Kant’s thought — on Kant’s views on religion and for other subsequent figures as well. Many people refer back to Hume in their discussions of religion.

How does he characterise the propensities to religion that he sees people as having?

I think that he would probably say something like this, though I’m going to update him a little. There’s a range of existential anxieties that people have. There are different kinds of anxieties: death, loneliness, deception, disease, injustice, pain, loss, want, and I guess there are some around sex though I doubt Hume talked about those. Organised religion helps people to deal with those anxieties. Maybe it doesn’t do it well in all cases, but it helps people to get on with their lives in the face of those kinds of anxieties. Roughly this is the kind of view that Hume has of religion.

With Hume’s wider philosophical project, he often investigates the source of beliefs that we have in—for instance, the enduring self, or mind-independent objects, or causation. He seems to think that we have beliefs that we can’t resist having, even if we are aware that they don’t have a strong rational basis. With Hume’s criticism of religion, how far do you think there’s the suggestion that these beliefs should be abandoned?

Here’s one interesting thing. Hume went to one of Holbach’s parties. Holbach inherited a lot of money when his uncle died, when Holbach was about thirty, so he devoted his life to running a salon in Paris. All the famous intellectuals and politicians came to Holbach’s salon. One time when Hume was there, he asked Holbach “do you think that there really is an atheist somewhere in the world?” The story goes that Holbach said to him “I know there are. There are twelve of them in the room.”

Now, Hume could have just been dissembling. But it may be that Hume really did think that our propensity to believe in God and religious belief was just so hard to resist that you just wouldn’t find people doing it, even though he thought that the intellectual arguments for believing in God were pretty shaky at best. As I said before, it’s a bit hard to tell what Hume’s own view was. Was he an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a deist? He covers his tracks pretty carefully in the Dialogues, which makes it hard to tell. He also made sure that the Dialogues weren’t published until after he died. But that may have just been protecting his social reputation up while he was living. I would like to think he was an atheist, but I really don’t know.

What does Hume mean by a natural history of religion?

I think Hume imagined that, although he was doing it from the armchair, he was saying: this is what properly-conducted natural, human, and historical science would tell us about what happened. Way back, our early ancestors were polytheists and formed these beliefs about the gods in response to things like the forces of nature. They assumed that there were gods of the wind and so on because there were all these forces that they couldn’t explain. The later emergence of monotheism is explained by other political, social, and psychological factors. Of course, not everyone will accept this kind of account. Even in ancient times, say when you get to the Greeks and the Romans, there are people that are supposed to be initiates — that are supposed to have some direct epistemic access to the gods.

One distinction that one might draw is between natural theology and revealed theology. So, there is stuff that you can only know by the basis of revelation. You get this kind of distinction in somebody like Aquinas between the things that you can know just by the light of reason, for example, that God exists, but you can’t know just by the light of reason that there was a creation at a fixed point in the past. It’s only on the basis of God having revealed to us through Scripture that the world has a finite past. That would be the kind of natural/revealed distinction as it applies to theology. But, of course, Hume doesn’t think that anyone has ever had a direct line of epistemic access to the gods. He wants to explain the origins and maintenance of religion in purely naturalistic terms.

Would you say that the sorts of arguments that Hume is running in the Dialogues are principally concerned with natural theology?

His main target is definitely the design argument, which is natural theology. He has one chapter where he has this argument that has aspects of cosmological and ontological arguments mixed into it, though it’s not a hugely satisfactory part of the whole. But then he has this other discussion in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding about miracles which is getting much closer to testing the claims of revealed theology.

Your last book is In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran. Why have you picked this one?

This is more aspirational, as I said. I think that there’s a whole lot of really interesting work that’s been done in the last twenty-five years on cognitive science and cognitive anthropology of religion. People are really interested in working out why certain kinds of religious beliefs, including, in particular, beliefs in gods and supernatural agents are so widespread; and how has it come about that we have these beliefs? Atran’s book is representative, but there are other people like Pascal Boyer and Stewart Guthrie who have written books in this similar tradition.

There are various live lines of argument and live theories being developed by different people trying to explain why certain bits about religion seem to be more or less universal. There’s a sense in which religion just seems very natural to human beings; you find it in all cultures. So, these people look at what it is about our minds and the way that we’re related to the universe that make it so natural for us to form these beliefs. I think Atran’s book is a really good example of this kind of work. Some people think that maybe it is part of their evolutionary inheritance, that we have certain cognitive mechanisms that give us this propensity to religious belief that we are selected for. So, they hold there are evolutionary advantages in believing in supernatural agencies.

There are other people who think that’s not right and that, really, we have cognitive mechanisms that evolve for other reasons. It’s a kind of by-product; it’s not directly selected for. Here’s the standard example that’s been quite widely discussed: it’s evolutionary advantageous to have a kind of tripwire mechanism for detecting other agents. It’s not so bad if you think there are other agents around when there aren’t any, but it’s really bad if there are other agents around and you don’t realise that they are. So, we have a propensity to over-ascribe agency. One part of what leads to widespread belief in gods is looking around for agents — when you think there are agents around but you can’t find any. That’s one part of it.

Another part of it is that when you look at the beliefs about the supernatural that people have, it turns out that the kinds of things that are believed in are a lot like us but they just differ from us in one or two rather spectacular ways. They might be invisible or they might be immensely powerful or something like that. That makes the stories about them really memorable. You would imagine that over time people came up with all kinds of things when their agency detection was activated but they couldn’t find any agents around that were responsible for the shivers up their spine or the feeling they were being watched or whatever it was. But some of those turned out to be particularly memorable, and they’re the ones that religions got formed around. So, you can think of the gods as being much like us but narrowly different from us in certain kinds of ways — and those beliefs were the ones that got culturally transmitted. So, that’s the kind of story that you might get out of cognitive anthropology which I think is really quite interesting.

“The kind of theory that you’re going to have about religion is going to be complicated and will appeal to a lot of different factors that include evolutionary heritage over time, but also factors about the environment as well. That’s why Atran’s book is interesting.”

It’s not necessarily a story that can only be accepted by atheists. You might think that there’s a story about selection, that we’re actually selected to have beliefs in God, that is ultimately directed by God. You can find theists arguing that kind of line. But the idea is that there’s got to be some way that we can explain the commonalities across time and place, of these cross-cultural similarities in the responses that we have towards the world. There is probably more to this story than I’ve just given, because so far I’ve only been talking about us, but there are also factors about our environment.

I say that because if you look across cultures, you find lots of stories about cosmic eggs, sky fathers, and earth mothers. Why would that be? Well, one thought is that, when it rains, things grow. There’s a kind of natural analogy between insemination and the rain falling. That’s why that kind of myth arises independently in a whole lot of different cultures. That’s not something that’s inherent to our brains, but is more to do with the fact that the environment is similar; it rains everywhere that we flourish. It’s not going to be that there’s a really simple one-line story to tell here. The kind of theory that you’re going to have about religion is going to be complicated and will appeal to a lot of different factors that include evolutionary heritage over time, but also factors about the environment as well. That’s why Atran’s book is interesting. It’s in that kind of genre.

I find it interesting that there are atheists who try to pinpoint evolutionary advantages of religious belief. Many prominent atheists like Nietzsche, possibly Hume, and Russell see religion as somehow inimical to human flourishing. On what grounds are these people arguing that it might be an evolutionary benefit to select for religious belief?

One thing is that it might be that religious belief makes in-group/out-group markers. Back when we lived in very small groups, being strongly identified with your group may have given the group some evolutionary advantage. That would be one kind of suggestion. This is quite compatible with the idea that as we’ve become city-dwellers, and as we’ve ceased to live so tightly in unified tribes, that religion becomes a problem. But when it arose and became deeply entrenched, it may have actually helped with the survival of the groups that had religion. That’s the kind of idea that you might have. Just because something was evolutionarily advantageous when we lived on the savannah, or whatever, doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing now.

To bring the discussion to an end, what do you think of the state of contemporary philosophy of religion? You’ve suggested that there are directions you would like to see it moving in. Do you think that we’re at a stalemate in terms of arguments for or against God, or the nature of the divine attributes, for instance?

There’s a lot of smart people working away on arguments for the existence of God. And you can expect that there’s going to be lots of new arguments that will require lots of work to figure out what to say in response to them. I don’t think that that’s going to stop anytime soon.

I expect that there’s going to be a part of philosophy of religion that goes on for a long time as a sort of battleground between theists and atheists trying to mount arguments that will somehow force the other side to convert. I think there’s very little prospect in succeeding in an enterprise like that, and that it’s perhaps not the most profitable way of spending your time. But, nonetheless, that’s a part of philosophy of religion; it’s been a big part of it recently and it will go on being a big part of it.

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.

Interview by Charles Styles

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by buying some of our most recommended books from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.

Graham Oppy

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University. As well as the Chair of Council of the Australasian Association of Philosophy, he was elected Fellow of the Australian Academcy of Humanities in 2009. Having written extensively on arguments for the existence of God, as well as the divine properties, Oppy is recognised as a world-leading philosopher of religion. His books include Ontological Arguments and Belief in God; Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes; Arguing about Gods; Reinventing Philosophy of Religion; and Atheism: The Basics (forthcoming).