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Saving God: Religion after Idolatry Hardcover – July 26, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Saving God is a rich and provocative book. . . . I found Saving God to be original, complex and insightful. However one reacts to Johnston's naturalistic reinterpretation of Christianity and the other monotheisms, one may still applaud his rejection of idolatrous uses of religion to serve human ends.
( Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews )

The non-fiction book I most enjoyed this year might be a stocking-stuffer for both atheists and believers (it is slightly more likely to appeal to the former, but would certainly intrigue believers willing to think about their belief). It is Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (Princeton University Press), by the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston. This book demolishes, with far greater precision and elegance than anything by Richard Dawkins.
(James Wood New Yorker )

This witty and philosophically subtle book is . . . very Maimonidean in its thoroughgoing rejection of superstition and idolatry as an offense to true religion.
(Menachem Kellner Jewish Review of Books )

From the Back Cover

"This book is a brilliantly conceived contribution to natural theology. Taken together with Johnston's forthcoming Surviving Death, it constitutes the most interesting and provocative elaboration of religious naturalism since Santayana."--Jeffrey Stout, author of Democracy and Tradition and Ethics after Babel

"This is a remarkable, fascinating, and important book, one that exhibits rich philosophical erudition--which it wears lightly--and startling philosophical insight. It is, at its core, a work of natural theology, a distinctly philosophical endeavor, but the book neatly sidesteps all the dead ends that such a project has created for itself in the last couple of centuries."--James C. Edwards, author of The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism

"This is one of those rare works in philosophical theology that presents a complex, novel view in a manner accessible to the general reader. This is an exciting book."--Andrew Chignell, Cornell University

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691143943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691143941
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,232,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Steve on March 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Johnston constructs an interesting if idiosyncratic argument which arrives at a Spinoza-like destination. Johnston is a philosopher at Princeton; this work, however, is not a philosophy book per se, but an extended essay (with some philosophical and theological elements). In it, Johnston's goal is to try to criticize traditional religions on their own terms and see where this leads him. He assumes there is a God (a "highest one") worthy of our fealty and the source of a path toward some kind of salvation. He then wants to strip away everything from traditional religious practice which can be criticized as arbitrary, idolatrous, or inappropriately focused on ego or worldly interests. He finds this eliminates supernatural entities and interventions, idiosyncratic historical trappings, the afterlife, and on and on. What's left is a panentheistic vision of reality. This is a provocative and interesting book. (To a previous reviewer's point, it's not a very easy read, but if you have read some academic philosophy and theology, I think you're OK).
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Bess on March 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A friend of mine suggested Johnston to me after I told him how I was converted to atheism by reading the likes of Dawkins, Harris, etc. Now I see why he did after having read it a few weeks back since he addresses them as naive...representing the 'new atheism' but recycling old arguments and holding an ignorant view of 'religion'; a version of religion which Johnston calls 'idolatry'. He condemns all the major monotheisms as idolatrous because they incorporate to some degree an element of superstition in the form of supernaturalism. He instead advocates a 'religious naturalism'. He elaborates this as panentheism (not 'pantheism', but similar): 'It is by encouraging its adherents to attend to the self-disclosure of Being rather than placate another god, that panentheism distinguishes itself from the idolatrous religions.' [125] In his view there are no random incursions into the natural realm made inexplicably by nonmaterial beings. This 'legitimate naturalism' means just that there are no 'gods of the gaps'. The 'doings' of non-spatiotemporal entities have their own nomology that works in and through the physical world. This doesn't mean that there is only physical reality, but that beyond it is 'the realm of sense, the realm of that in virtue of which things are intelligible.' [127] Chapters 3 and 8 and 11 are among the most important.

There are probably many things to find disagreeable with his thesis, but I think it's something worth looking into, especially for 'Richard-Dawkins-rules!' kinds of atheists. The sequel, Surviving Death, is probably worth a try after reading this too.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By chaliapin on September 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mark Johnston reveals himself to be a brilliant philosopher in this very unique and spirited critique of religion. He sets forth a thoroughgoing religious naturalism that leads to a quite original conception of the Divine, which is termed panentheism. I am no theologian myself, and while I gather that the term "panentheism" itself is not new, and Johnston seems to arrive at a place that is very reminiscent of Heidegger and Tillich in many respects, what sets this book apart for me is the quality of the philosophical argument. He is obviously a master of the philosophical canon, not only able to bring to bear themes from nearly every branch of philosophy, but also able to radically break from the philosophical traditions when he feels it is warranted. Johnston also has an uncanny ability to find exactly the right way to precisely phrase a philosophical view or objection, even when dealing with very abstract concepts. Throughout, the writing is lively and fresh, and the arguments are continually surprising and insightful.

Many without philosophical training may find sections of the book tough going, even though the book does not aspire to full philosophical rigor and Johnston tries to avoid jargon. However, for those with some background I would hold this up as a paragon of style. Even if you don't agree with the overall conclusions of the book, there are valuable insights to be gained in every chapter. I myself found much of it quite compelling and plan to re-read many chapters in it.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Philonous on November 17, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mark Johnston's book "Saving God: Religion after Idolatry" is a critique of the idolatrous notions of God which many believers give credence to because of personal convenience for "spiritual materialism". According to Johnston, God is someone believers worship in order to satisfy their desires and aspirations, which amounts to "spiritual materialism" in which the goal of worshipping God is hedonism. What is also problematic in the Judea-Christian culture is that believers have the tendency to anthropomorphize God into a being that literally posses qualities that resemble human psychological traits (Anger, Jealousy, Regret, Love, etc). This popular view of God, thus, is no different from idolatry since the pagans have also had anthropomorphized deities whom they worship as a way to bargain for their personal interest.

Johnston critique's the "idolatrous" or supernatural view of God in favor of the panentheistic notion of God as "Being-Itself" or "Existence" from which all existences flow from to manifest the ultimate existence. God, in the Tillichian sense, is the Ground of Being for Johnston. Such a God is not only a source of existence, but also a source of transformation for the believers who desire to transform their lives rather than fulfilling their hedonistic pleasures. Johnston's view of God was in part influenced by Aquinas, whom most scholars of medieval philosophy would not regard as Panentheistic (John Dun Scottus, however, could be panentheistic).

While Johnston rightly criticizes the "spiritual materialism" in conjunction with the anthropomorphic view of God that many believers (though not all) cherish, Johnston seems to assume that the problem would vanish if believers were to believe in the panentheistic view of God. Why is this so?
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