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Book Review: “Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question” by W. David Beck

W. David Beck’s Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question is a remarkable historical survey of some of the best-known arguments for the existence of God. In a crowded field of books about the existence of God, Beck’s work sets itself apart by providing both an historical survey of the ways these arguments developed and working explanations and analyses of the arguments into today.

The first chapter introduces readers to the origins of theistic arguments, providing a broad background for the rest of the book. After that, the chapters act as a kind of typology of theistic arguments, dividing them into chapters on cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, moral arguments, and ontological arguments, respectively. A final chapter closes the book with a look ahead at the prospects and possibilities for theistic arguments and conclusions based upon the same.

Each chapter on a type of argument traces the argument from its earliest clear example into the modern day. It is important to note that these chapters are necessarily broad and plural. What I mean is that the chapters end with the plural “arguments” rather than “argument” for a reason–each type of theistic argument has numerous ways of presenting the argument and several different proponents and detractors through history and into today. Thus, for example, the cosmological argument can be traced back to the earliest known writings on philosophy both East and West and into today with sophisticated arguments based (in some cases) upon modern cosmology or physics.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on ontological arguments, which are surely the more opaque but hotly debated theistic arguments today. As with every other chapter, Beck doesn’t shy away from showing both theistic and atheistic takes on the argument. He gives the atheist philosopher Graham Oppy quite a bit of space and somewhat amusingly quotes Oppy to the effect of saying ontological arguments may work but it’s difficult to know whether they succeed. That is, due to the amazingly confusing nature of the multifarious questions any ontological argument raises (such as “is existence a property?”), it is possible the arguments work but don’t succeed–they don’t convince people due to the many trails and red herrings they raise. As someone deeply interested in the ontological argument, I found this a great way to end a thoroughly thought-provoking chapter.

Each chapter has its own issues raised. It’s already been mentioned, but bears repeating that Beck includes both theists and atheists in his survey of arguments. Many objections are noted, for example, in a lengthy section on the analysis of Aquinas’s version of a cosmological argument from the philosopher Paul Edwards (1923-2004). Over the course of several pages, Edwards’s objections to cosmological arguments are noted, but Beck also shows how several of these objections fail, even by Edwards’s own admission. Such introduction of modern debates, often featuring back-and-forth discussion edited for succinctness by Beck, make the book highly readable despite often heady subject matter. Again, each section must be brief, so the book provides more of an overview than it does anything in depth, but it’s clear how easily readers could pursue additional reading based on extensive, annotated bibliographies Beck provides section-by-section.

Does God Exist? is a fascinating read, even for readers like myself who are veterans of apologetics training or who have read hundreds of books on the subject. It could easily be used as a springboard for more discussion, as a reference with bibliographical data, or a grab bag of discussion. Beck has provided an invaluable resource to help spur additional discussion, and doesn’t shy away from highlighting powerful objections to theistic arguments even as he concludes it is reasonable and justifiable to believe God exists. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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