Saving God: Religion after Idolatry

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry


In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms themselves, Johnston shows that much in these traditions must be condemned as false and spiritually debilitating.

A central claim of the book is that supernaturalism is idolatry. If this is right, everything changes; we cannot place our salvation in jeopardy by tying it essentially to the supernatural cosmologies of the ancient Near East. Remarkably, Johnston rehabilitates the ideas of the Fall and of salvation within a naturalistic framework; he then presents a conception of God that both resists idolatry and is wholly consistent with the deliverances of the natural sciences.

Princeton University Press is publishing Saving God in conjunction with Johnston's forthcoming book Surviving Death, which takes up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.


What follows is an essay, a sustained attempt to get something across, written more or less extempore. It uses the limited range of literary forms the author has at his disposal: quotation, argument, exegesis, midrash, mythic framing, the via analogica, readings against the grain, and the interrogation of the reader. (A poem would do so much better; there your man is Hopkins, and before him Rumi.)

The essay begins, dryly, with a simplified review of the semantics of names; and it gradually evolves into a sort of jeremiad. It contains some philosophy but is not a work of philosophy. My fellow philosophers will all too readily recognize the many places where I have declined the philosophically interesting pathways that branch off from what I say. Still less is it a work in academic theology, and I beg the forbearance of professional theologians as they read what must be, at so many points, glaringly at odds with their creedal commitments and their standard ways of explaining those commitments.

The work is offered simply as the expression of a certain sensibility. I give expression to it, at whatever risk, only because I hope that it has not entirely passed from the world. One kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but who feels that his or her genuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe, on less than convincing authority, about the nature of reality. Such a person could begin with the postscript in order to see if what comes before might be in any way helpful, and so be worth the effort.

For those who are looking for a philosophical defense of the spiritual irrelevance of supernaturalism, one place to look is in my Hempel Lectures, entitled Surviving Death. Those lectures take up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.

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