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Saving God: Religion after Idolatry Paperback – July 31, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2010 Award for Excellence in Religion: Constructive-Reflective Studies, American Academy of Religion

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2010

"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

"Outstanding."--Alan Wolfe, National Interest

"This accessible, sophisticated, and thoughtful work will be an important addition to collections of both philosophy and theology."--Choice

"[A]n astonishing book. . . . [A] daring blend of human depth and philosophical originality."--Tony Coady, Australian Book 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."--Lynne Rudder Baker, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"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

"Surviving Death and Saving God both provided me with intellectual pleasure of a high order, even though I found many of the author's conclusions false and some morally repugnant. Johnston is the kind of atheist it's good for Christians to read, because he is intelligent, intellectually energetic, and serious about what he engages, and because he shows very clearly just where fastidiousness leads."--Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal

"Saving God: Religion after Idolatry is a brilliant book: erudite, intriguing and inventive. Anyone interested in the concept of God and the relationship between religion and naturalism will want to read it."--Allen Stairs, Philosophy in Review

"[Surviving Death and Saving God] constitute a remarkably thorough and convincing treatment of two extremely important religious issues, those of the perennial allurements of idolatry and the deeply menacing fact of death, to say nothing of the books' endorsement and defense of an arduous but richly inspiring ideal of the religious life. The books are a welcome corrective for some of the most seductive and prevalent distortions of religious thought and practice. I heartily recommend them to the reader who relishes a bountifully laid, religiously nourishing, and deeply satisfying philosophical feast."--Donald A. Crosby, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion

From the Inside Flap

"This book is a brilliantly conceived contribution to natural theology. Taken together with Johnstons 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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691152616
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691152615
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #681,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By DCCHEF 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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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By E.L.B. 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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7 of 8 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 3 people found the following review helpful By B. Rdzak on July 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My philosophy professor recommended Johnston's books to me. I'll try not to repeat what the others below have already pointed out.

"Saving God" really is a provocative book, filled with arguments that are not exhaustive, but do get very important points across about his "ban on religious idolatry" with the space provided him. The majority of his chapters are fairly accessible, however, the remaining display deep "philosophical trench-warfare" (Ch. 9) as Johnston puts it. These can be very challenging to those who are not familiar with philosophical argumentation, religion itself, and philosophy of mind, in order to take out the very most of the book -- but if not, my advice is to just read carefully, and take your time rereading paragraphs in order to fully grasp the magnitude of his chapters. The book really brought out many hidden aspects of my own philosophical theology, which I suspect would also happen of anyone whose understanding of God is in a deism-type of way. In hindsight, I wondered if the traditional religious would find any of his argumentation "coherent" due to the radical transformation that is Johnston's naturalistic-theological conclusion. One reviewer below said it did little to save his concept of God, and in many ways, that's the point. Johnston shows that this panentheism gives us no type of personal or anthropomorphic-conscious being to placate, no afterlife as a sort of bribe or reason to be virtuous, no "spiritual materialism" (selfish hopes and prayers to be materialized by God) --no supernaturalism. Instead, we have "The Highest One = the outpouring of Being by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the sake of the self-disclosure of being". Hence Johnston's conclusion and interpretation of Jesus' life, mission and message as an exemplification of true agape, selfless-love.
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