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Five Books a Smart Atheist Should Read

The overwhelming majority of atheists have no idea where to find the best arguments for God’s existence. The same can be said of many theists as well, which may be part of the problem.

Many atheists, when they want to argue against the Christian God’s existence, set about attacking the Bible, as though Christian Scripture had a list of proofs for theism that atheists could refute. The Bible is a great book, and justly important to Christians, but if you go searching through the Christian Scriptures for a list of the great philosophical proofs of God, you’ll surely be disappointed.

The best arguments for God’s existence also have little relation to the theistic arguments familiar to students of philosophy in our day. Today, a beginning philosophy student will learn about the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments for God’s existence and perhaps some sort of argument on the basis of human morality. And however many years of post-secondary philosophy students may take today, the majority will never move beyond this limited approach, although they may at some point study the question of God’s existence in more detail. These aren’t bad arguments, though they’re often badly presented. My point, however, is that they are not the best.

Below, I recommend five books, all available in good and inexpensive English translations, which will introduce the contemporary reader to what is in my view the most convincing proof of God ever formulated, an argument that is furthermore (as Neoplatonists have claimed) the necessary basis of all philosophy, of all thought. It is a difficult proof, which is why I recommend five books in order to make sure the argument is adequately explained. But it is a powerful proof.

Read these five books in their entirety. Read all five, carefully, repeatedly, for understanding. It’s difficult, boring, exhausting work, but you should do it anyway, because these might be some of the most important books you’ll ever encounter. Read them all, read them in order, and don’t skip any of them. Each writer on the list would want his readers to be as familiar as possible with the works and arguments of the writers preceding him.

Plato’s Parmenides: This is the book where it all starts. It is very short, but very difficult. I remember the professor who taught me this book relating how he had seen students reduced to tears before this book in the past. Read slowly, reread, and don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t make sense quite yet. The reason for having four more books on the list is that there’s a lot to mine from this text, and most of us won’t be able to extract and understand those insights without a bit of help.

Plotinus’s Enneads: Here is the soul and center of the argument. It’s the longest book on the list, but it is also the most important. If you have to choose just one of these books to read—and I don’t recommend doing so—choose this one. Read the whole thing. It will be a big challenge, especially for those not familiar with Aristotelian terminology, but if you can grasp it, you’ll have grasped the basic argument for the existence of God.

Dionysius the Areopagite’s Divine Names: (Pseudo-)Dionysius may help you understand the Platonic argument more clearly, but also, he’ll help bridge the gap from the terminology and tradition of the monotheistic pagan Platonists, to the terminology and tradition of the monotheistic Christian Platonists, a gap all too difficult to traverse for most of us on our first engagement with Platonic literature.

Aquinas on the simplicity of God (Summa Theologica, First Part, Q3): Aquinas explicates a further (important) step in the argument, and he shows how the entity discussed by the Platonists can be identified with the God of the Abrahamic tradition.

Ficino’s Platonic Theology Books 1–3: The first three books of Ficino’s Platonic Theology will step back and survey much of the ground covered by the foregoing authors. If you must skip one of these five books—and I don’t recommend doing so—this is the one to ignore, especially since it will be the most expensive to purchase, at about $35 for the Harvard University Press translation. It will, however, be very helpful in cementing the argument picked up in the preceding books.

An atheist, after studying these books, probably won’t become a Christian. I admit it. But no intelligent atheist who gives these books a fair read can fail to become a theist.

Few atheists who read this article will act on the recommendations here offered, I’ll wager. But I hope that, in rejecting the reading list, there will appear a small seed of doubt in their thoughts—doubt of that mastery they supposed they’d already acquired of all the important theistic proofs, and doubt concerning the real reason why they first became, and more so why they still remain, atheists and agnostics.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • tom faranda

    John, a much better option is Mortimer Adler’s book “How to Think About God. “

  • zebbart

    “But no intelligent atheist who gives these books a fair read can fail to become a theist.” So it follows that no intelligent atheist ever has read those books and failed to become a theist. Do you think that is true?

    • John Ottens

      On the face of it, I would say the statement appears untrue. For example, Bertrand Russell, though he admired and appreciated the Enneads, still called himself an atheist.

    • John Ottens

      However, the sentence (in the sense I intended it) is self-evident, if the argument of these books is valid, as I contend. In that case the person who reads them and remains an atheist lacks one of three things–either (1) the person may appear intelligent yet in fact lacks the capacity to grasp the argument; or (2) may have seemed to read the books fairly and intently yet in fact read them too superficially; or (3) the person may accept the argument of these books and yet still deny that the One who is proved should be called God, and so be an atheist in name only.

    • John Ottens

      Now, if the argument of these books is untrue, or even if it is true and yet fails to prove what it sets out to prove, then my “self-evident” statement is of course perfectly false. I think, however, that the argument does not fail, and I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who says that it does.

    • Clark Wilson

      I know you asked John whether *he* thought this is true. But to do a historical test of the claim we would have to identify intelligent atheists who studied the five books very carefully. The important place of Ficino in John’s claim makes, I think, our test sample extremely small, at least in the last couple of centuries, though perhaps I am only displaying my own ignorance by saying that.

    • jottens

      Hello Zebbart. I tried posting a reply to you a couple minutes ago and it seems to have become jumbled. Here’s what I meant to say, in order:

      On the face of it, I would say the statement appears untrue. For example, Bertrand Russell, though he admired and appreciated the Enneads, still called himself an atheist.

      However, the sentence (in the sense I intended it) is self-evident, if the argument of these books is valid, as I contend that it is. In that case, the person who reads them and remains an atheist must lack one of three things–either (1) the person may appear intelligent yet in fact lacks the capacity to grasp the argument; or (2) may have seemed to read the books fairly and intently yet in fact read them too superficially; or (3) the person may accept the argument of these books and yet still deny that the One who is proved should be called God, and so be an atheist in name only.

      Now, if the argument of these books is untrue, or even if it is true and yet fails to prove what it sets out to prove, then my “self-evident” statement is of course perfectly false. I think, however, that the argument does not fail, and I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who says that it does.

      • zebbart

        It is possible for the arguments to be valid but the premises to be false, and that is usually how I see atheists contesting the best theistic arguments. In the end (or beginning actually) arguments must start with premises that are either supposedly self evident or that are taken on faith. I am not familiar with the line or arguments that Plato launches in Parmenides; I usually see theists rallying around cosmological arguments starting with Aristotle’s Prime Mover argument, and that is the type of argument that I personally hold as my rationalization for believing in God). The cosmological arguments always have some premise like “everything that is not necessary must have a cause.” That’s an unprovable intuition, and so the atheist has plenty of room to object in principal. I’d shoot back that rejecting such a principal makes rationality itself irrational and reduces life to an incomprehensible cacophony, but the atheist can shoot back A) so what, maybe that’s just how it is and/or B) just because we little humans can’t get our brains to work without using that premise doesn’t mean it’s actually true of all that exists or could possibly exist. And he’d be right on both counts. So it comes down to an aesthetic choice in the end. Now maybe the Platonic line of argument is truly so slam-dunk irrefutable that all the thousands of atheistic philosophers who’ve study these things are simply failing to honestly engage it, but I honestly can’t imagine how it, or any argument for anything, gets launched without recourse to contestable premises.

        • jottens

          I’m sure there must be atheists who engage the Platonic proof of God—but I’ve never found them; certainly I don’t hear atheists arguing against (or even signalling awareness of) the argument in any treatment of theism I’ve encountered.

          Ultimately, every argument will fail against someone who is so committed to their conclusion that they will give up reason itself to keep their beliefs. But then, there’s no point arguing with someone who doesn’t think argument can bring us to knowledge.

          • Signaling awareness that I’ve read Plotinus, Aquinas, and Plato, and am an atheist.

            Sure, I haven’t read Ficino, but due diligence need only stretch so far, methinks. Of course, given your taxonomy above, this means I’m either stupid, superficial, or malicious. *Shrugs* Atheists say much the same thing about theists. Generally I think such statements reflect a failure to adequately project oneself into the thoughts of other people far more than they reflect actual states of affairs.

          • jottens

            It sounds like you read some excellent books! You say you have read Plato and Plotinus and Aquinas; do you mean you’ve read the totality of their collected works?

            You’ve diagnosed me as failing “to adequately [sic] project” myself into the thoughts of atheists. What I have actually said though, amounts to the claim that atheists are incorrect in their main conclusion. You may call that a lack of imagination on my part, but I call it a positive assertion.

            You deny the One of Neoplatonic philosophy. On what grounds? (This is a huge question, and if you prefer not to try and talk it through here in the comments section, I’ll understand.)

            John

          • I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t read the totality of their collected works, just like you haven’t. I’ve read mostly metaphysical chunks of ST, SCG, De Ente, Super Sententiis, the Compendium, and a few other things, for Aquinas; a bunch of dialogues for Plato, including the Parmenides; and a semester’s worth of Enneads for Plotinus. That was in decreasing order of familiarity. I’ve read a bunch of Aquinas in Latin–nothing in Greek, so I’m no expert on either of the latter.

            It’s hard to give a specific answer for why I deny the One without replying to a specific argument, because even a single one of the authors above have been interpreted in hundreds of ways, and I cannot respond to each interpretation. But the quick and predictable answer would be that the kind of arguments used argue for the One misuse language in pretty fundamental ways, as evinced by the fact that the kind of arguments used to argue for the One fail everywhere where they conclude to anything you could empirically observe. I realize that’s vague, etc.

          • jottens

            Does someone have to be a professional Plato scholar to have read the complete works of Plato? It took me a year and a half to get through them, and that was reading during evenings and weekends when I wasn’t at work. If you had claimed to have read everything written by Aquinas, I’d have been skeptical; he wrote such a massive quantity of works, so many of which are not translated into English, that reading his complete works might be more the province of the professional scholar. But Plotinus is another matter altogether. We don’t have an incredibly large corpus from him, and what he wrote is readily available in good English translations. You talk about the hundreds of different interpretations of these authors, but I imagine that if you’d spent your time reading the primary sources rather than reading about the hundreds of different interpretations of them, you might be finished Plato and Plotinus already. This may sound like a tangent, but it relates to the question of whether your reading of the Enneads was superficial (a suggestion at which you seemed to take some offence). Before we can even get to the matter of how slowly and carefully and thoughtfully you have read the Enneads, we confront the fact that you haven’t actually read them. I don’t think you need to be an expert on them, to read them in Greek and consider every scholarly analysis, but a partial reading of the main work I recommended does qualify as a superficial engagement, I would think.

            Your criticism of Plotinus’s “kind of arguments” was a bit vague, I agree, but interesting. Would you be able to give an example of what you mean when you talk about Plotinus’s kind of arguments failing with respect to empirical facts?

          • Well, when I said that the “kind of arguments” fail when applied to empirical matters, I actually had in mind Aquinas. So for instance Aquinas’ continually says God is to being as the Substantial Form of Heat would be to heat… if there were a substantial form of heat. But there isn’t–er, although I don’t know your metaphysical commitments, so I can’t really say whether you think there is or not. Leaving that to the side–no one has ever been able to say how the world would look different on the hypothesis that a substantial form of heat (or an archetype of unity, etc) than on the hypothesis it doesn’t. And I follow MacIntyre, Popper, etc, in thinking that if your theory doesn’t restrict the world at all it isn’t much of a theory.

            The reason I didn’t have in mind Plotinus re. arguments–he doesn’t even argue in a semi-rigorous fashion for God’s existence, so far as I can tell. Granted, my experience with arguments given qua rigorous comes chiefly from scholasticism, analytic philosophy, and math, but still.

            More specifically, if you take something like the last tractate from the last Ennead, Plotinus starts off by asking where unity comes from. Then he ascends an analogical chain, which of course concludes in the One as the source of all unity. But he even says he isn’t arguing against materialists who deny the existence of soul, explicitly; he explicitly says he’s just trying sort of point things out, to lead people to see the Unity that lies at the center of all things, that all the intelligible realities sort of dance around. It’s quite beautiful, but I don’t know if it’s really right to call it an argument. If you do want to treat it as a rigorous argument–do you think that there are the subordinate hypostases, beneath the One, which truly exist? If Plotinus is arguing rigorously, do you think the rest of his metaphysical baggage also exists?

          • jottens

            Hi again! Thanks for your reply. In answer to your first paragraph, there are so many things I want to say that would probably divert the conversation too far. I will restrict myself to saying: I do indeed accept such distinctions as form and matter, substance and accident, essence and existence. And in fact, I would go so far as saying that if you don’t think they refer to anything real, I can hardly imagine that you’re able to read any ancient philosophy at all. When you do, it must seem like some elaborate game, to watch the authors keep all these nonsense words connected in arbitrary ways to one another and chase down possible conceptual connections between them for scores of pages, hundreds of pages. That doesn’t sound fun, or profitable, at all.

            To continue the list of things I accept that you apparently do not–yes, I do say that there are “the subordinate hypostases, beneath the One, which truly exist.” Not only are they important steps in the Platonic proof of God, they are furthermore testified to in our own experience–especially, I would say, the second hypostasis, objective intellect.

            I completely disagree with you about the last tractate of the Enneads. I reread it this evening before replying, to make sure I hadn’t somehow gone crazy and forgotten something huge. I hadn’t. (By the way, I should thank you for inspiring me to reread some Plotinus this evening.) It’s true, Plotinus isn’t speaking to materialists–in that final tractate. That is not to say he has nothing for materialists in the Enneads, that before the materialist he is speechless. He might indeed have been justified in saying (with Anscombe), “if someone really thinks [etc] … I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind”–but he never does say so. Rather, a materialist beginning with the last tractate is like someone trying to teach advanced mathematical theory to a child who hasn’t learned to count. As for your “he explicitly says he’s just trying sort of point things out,” I wonder if you might point out to me where he explicitly says anything of the kind. He may not lay out his arguments in the form of “rigorous argumentation” with which you are familiar (premise one, premise two), but that doesn’t mean it is any the less rigorously argued. It only means you have to work a little harder to pick up the thread of the argument. That is part of why the question of how carefully or superficially someone has read the Enneads is really quite relevant.

          • I was referring to section four, where he speaks about how what he is doing is urging people on, bringing them towards vision, and of course unity with the One is beyond knowing, etc.

            Nah, I’ve read ancient philosophy; I just don’t accept it. We (obviously) belong to different traditions of thought as regards the place of ancient philosophy in the overall tradition of human thought, thought, though. I can’t introduce the entirety of my tradition in a comment, just like you can’t introduce the entirety of the Enneads in a comment, so we’re at somewhat of an impasse.

            If there’s a spot where someone takes Plotius’ arguments and does make them rigorous and evidently rigorous, I’d be happy to read it. I think Plotinus is quite beautiful, just like I think Rumi is beautiful. But my current estimate of the expected value of reading through the entirety of the Enneads is just too lower to justify the time it would take. I mean, obviously I think you should read Popper, Yudkowsky, Khaneman and Tvsersky, Jaynes, Hume and some others. I could claim that you probably aren’t an educated theist unless you don’t ;-). But you probably won’t anyhow.

            To begin to open a window to my viewpoint: To someone with no philosophical, theological, or scientific training at all, a natural question when someone claims to have truth is what follows from this claim. Does it allow you to make anything? Does this claim allow you to predict any observations about the world? Does even restrict any of the observations you can make about the world? (It seems reasonable for the good of truth to be diffusive of itself, which is why these questions are reasonable; surely actually knowing something about how the world is impacts your knowledge of how the world acts.) The answer to all of these, re. neoplatonism, is no, so far as I’m aware. And I think it reasonable under those circumstances to ask if the claim that someone has knowledge is credible.

          • swigutow

            First: an intriguingly provocative article, and a highly interesting thread here. And to identify my sympathies, I am a theist (Catholic, in fact), a Plato enthusiast , and a sympathizer with NeoPlatonism, both on its own terms and in broad strokes as an interpretation of Plato (although to qualify this I must note that my direct experience of Plotinus is limited to having read 4 or 5 tractates). I also like the idea of turning more to Platonic ways of arguing for God than to the more hyped “Five Ways.”
            However, in spite of these inclinations on my part I am also inclined to agree with the previous commentator here that it the case for the One is more of an intuition than a rigorous syllogistic argument–as is indeed the case, I would suggest, for many if not most interesting or substantial philosophical claims. This is in part because trying to argue from effects to (not-directly-known) causes always retains at best a speculative or hypothetical element, and becomes more speculative the more precise one tries to be. This can be seen in Descartes, I believe: all one is really entitled to conclude strictly from the Meditations is that the self is a thing that thinks–any other claim positive or negative about the self–including Descartes’ own implication that thought is the only definitive attribute of the self–is not deductively certain.
            I think a similar thing holds for theories about the One (although I find Platonism much more compelling than Cartesianism as a whole): it’s fine to assert that pluralities tend to ultimately derive from unities, but since a perfectly simple unity is not a being we have clear experience of–certainly not through the clearest of the senses, sight (cf Plato’s Phaedrus and, of course, the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics I)–positing such a being is a tentative move, because the more claims of substance (whether positive or negative) one tries to make about it, the less verifiable it becomes. I suppose I agree with Hume about the difficulty of reasoning from effect to cause deductively, but differ from him in considering inductive argument and speculative hypothesis to be an appropriate way of doing philosophy in acknowledgement of the mysteriousness of being–and the “big questions” that we can’t really do anything with without using induction. I would argue this applies as well to nearly any large-scale scientific theory, which almost always requires scientists to make working assumptions that are tough to verify if they are to make the sort of categorical claims they tend to be fond of.
            On a less important note, I would also question whether a reading of the Parmenides is the best introduction to Platonic “arguments” for the existence of God. Yes, I know there is a venerable tradition of reading the second half of the dialogue as a discourse on what came to be known as the NeoPlatonic One; and I have no wish to deny out of hand that the One of that dialogue had any connection in Plato’s mind to the Good of the Republic which he was said to identify with the One; but the Parmenides as a whole is so problematic to read on several levels. For one, it is dominated by two philosophers whom Plato, even if he respected them greatly, did not entirely endorse; consider, for instance, the dismissal in the Phaedrus of Zeno’s abilities to use wordplay (more or less) to cause confusion about things, their identity and plurality, and, more generally, the Platonic conviction that contra Parmenides, multiple things DO exist, and the realm of becoming has a share in existence. In light of these considerations, among others, I think perhaps the most natural way to read the Parmenides–especially for someone new to the dialogue, which I certainly have not studied as thoroughly as I hope to do at some point!–is as either a reductio ad absurdam of the radical Eleatic philosophy, and thus by extension of Parmenides’ critique of the Forms; or at least as a broad picture of what sort of metaphysical consequences, for better or worse, an Eleatic objection to Forms might carry with it. Of course, Platonic dialogues work on many levels, and I’m not denying that there’s some more positive teaching buried here–but I do suspect that the paradoxes of the Parmenides are meant to appear somewhat fishy, at least at first glance. I mention this in part because I think there is much good fodder for NeoPlatonism to be found perhaps more easily elsewhere in the Platonic corpus-there is of course the partial account of the Good in Republic V, and the sense one draws from many of the dialogues that cognition paradigmatically operates by moving from pluralities to unities, and that if one is looking for truth it is important to at least assume as a working hypothesis that one’s ultimate object of inquiry is something simple and unified. I think that the “autobiographical” section of Phaedo, in fact, gives a very compelling and relatively clear account of the nature of the Socratic/Platonic methodology of the search for truth, and I also think that it offers one of the most directly compelling intuitive Platonic-flavored “arguments” for something like the existence of God. Why not start with the Phaedo or Republic?

          • jottens

            InterestedInTruth,

            It sounds like you and swigutow have a similar point to make about Plotinus’s argument for the One. I think my reply to him will be relevant to your objections as well. For now I’ll leave your epistemology untouched—there’s a lot I’d want to say about it, and once again, I fear it would take us pretty far afield.

            swigutow,

            Nice to meet you. As you can probably guess, I like your intellectual résumé a lot.

            I suspect that your proposed interpretations of the Parmenides aren’t unfounded—there is some truth in what you’re saying. I’d caution against assuming that what you’ve seen is everything that’s happening in the dialogue. I read and reread the dialogue a couple times a year for several years, and every time I returned to it I found something new, or even another layer of meaning. There really is a ton of stuff going on in the dialogue, which is part of why I recommended it: the basic point is pretty accessible (as you said, that the composite and complex always assumes the single and the simple); but there is so much more to find in it than a first glance reveals, and it rewards repeated visits.

            As for the more important point, I am not in full agreement with you and InterestedInTruth about the nature of Plotinus’s argumentation for the One, although it’s a tricky question and I think I see where our disagreement arises. You are keying in on some of the things that Plotinus says about how the One is beyond knowing, beyond existence. But those passages don’t mean the One is just a possibility, something we can posit for the sake of a thought experiment, an idea that might be true but just as easily might not.

            When Plotinus denies existence to the One, he isn’t saying that the One lacks existence as, say, a circle with corners, or a winged horse, lacks existence, or even that he’s worried the One might possibly lack existence in that sense. The One is not one part of existence among many; it is rather the only possible explanation for existence. The One does not have being precisely because is the necessary and only “wellspring” of being. It exists (in the sense that it is not a nothing or a lack), but in the same breath we must allow that it does not exist, because it is above existence, because it is not part of a class of things called beings—it is the condition for the possibility of beings. (You’ll hear echoes of the Parmenides dialogue in this apparent paradox.)

            Likewise, Plotinus isn’t saying that we can’t know the One in the sense that we will have to be agnostic about whether that perfect Simplicity is or isn’t real. We are able to know that if anything exists, it cannot exist without the One. The One is not a metaphor, or an intellectual experiment, or a possible explanation of why the world is what it is. The One is a certainty if anything is. According to Plotinus (and I realize it’s a separate question whether Plotinus is correct, but just now the point at issue is what Plotinus himself even says), the One is beyond knowledge in this sense: that we can only mentally approach it in a way that is entirely unlike any other kind of knowing. Knowledge of the One is not like knowledge of beings. We can have something like a direct “view” of the One, but that sort of knowledge is only possible through what we would call mysticism, when we begin with our highest knowledge and then ascend from there. Bottom line: knowing that the One is a metaphysical necessity and “knowing” the One (in a mystical experience) are two separate things. We can understand the metaphysical necessity of the One without having had a full and direct mental union with it.

          • swigutow

            JOttens,
            Thank you for the thorough reply. I am happy to defer to your knowledge of the Enneads, which far exceeds mine; and to the amount of time you have spent with the Parmenides. I would certainly never want to restrict that elusive creature known as the Platonic dialogue to a single level of meaning! (I had a friendly debate with a very Straussian Platonist not long ago in which I suggested that much of the irony in Plato works on two levels–i.e., that Platonic characters often say thing with their tounge in their cheek yet earnestly at the same time, akin to the ability to laugh at oneself; and thus that Plato’s giving a certain claim an ironic hue doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t mean it in the end. In keeping with this, I like the idea of thinking of the discussion in the Parmenides as something that leaves a deep mark on the young Socrates. I accept the old story about Plato’s lecture on the good and the one; and I think it’s telling, and in keeping with the to my mind uniquely Platonic identification of ethics and metaphysics that in the Republic, Socrates expresses the “ontological status of the One” by saying that the Good is “beyond being.”)
            Point taken about the dependence of complexity on simplicity. My only question is how you would argue with someone who thinks this is a trivial or non-informative fact–that the whole cosmos is nominally a single entity, or something like that; that saying that the One is beyond being means it’s essentially a necessary but empty concept, without any interest–a sort of Nietzscheian denial of the significance or value of the permanent, the one. For what it’s worth, I do believe–and I think this is basically a version of the traditional Platonic claim–that pantheism is the only real alternative to traditional theism, because if God didn’t exist then the cosmos itself would need to have some of the attributes traditionally associated with God. I think this also means it’s not s big a jump to theism as many atheists make it out to be–as Chesterton might say, isn’t it strange enough or improbable enough that the world exists to begin with?

          • jottens

            I really like what you’re saying about Socratic irony.

            You said you have one question about the Neoplatonic argument for the One, but I’m not exactly sure which of two possible questions you’re asking, so I’ll give my best shot at answering both (because I think they’re both good questions).

            1. You might be asking whether someone could agree with Plotinus but then say that the One is in fact identical with the universe, or something within the universe. I know that objection is given sometimes with the theistic proof from contingency; it doesn’t work so well with the proof from simplicity. The universe cannot be the One, because it is not simple–it is complex. It is a whole, and although a whole is a kind of unity, a whole is a unity with parts, and so is nothing like the perfect unity of Plotinus. Likewise you can’t locate the One within the universe (as the atoms or monads or singularities of which everything is composed), because those atoms would have to be multiple; they add together to make up other composite things (as every line is compose of an infinite series of points), and so again, what is multiple cannot be the One or the Simple of Neoplatonism.

            2. You may be saying, what if somebody accepts the logical necessity of the One but then says it doesn’t matter? “Maybe the One exists, but I don’t care, and I won’t change how I live.” In this case, notice, we are dealing no longer with an atheist, but with a theist, and the question becomes, what kind of theism are we now talking about? (Probably we’d call it a deism.) There is more to be said to such a person about why the One does matter according to Neoplatonists, why nothing should matter more to a human being than the One … but I don’t want to go too far down a rabbit trail if this wasn’t even the question you meant to ask.

  • weston

    jottens as in John Ottens. Dude…. I think I went to college with you! lol. Briercrest college and seminary?

    • jottens

      Weston,

      Yes, that’s me. Great to hear from you! Thanks for the book recommendation.

  • weston

    Yeah, that’s you. Wow, small world. Dude, I love this site! Fancy seeing another B-crest grad. on here! :).

  • weston

    Or, perhaps better than all of these: The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. Best that I know of.

  • Bryne

    I’m a bit confused by the recommendation of Plotinus as giving the “soul and center” of the “basic argument,” given that a great deal of the Enneads explicitly deny to his “entity,” as you’ve put it, many of the aspects that not only Christianity but even simple theism attribute to God.

    • jottens

      Bryne,

      That is where the third and fourth book recommendations become relevant (the Dionysius and Aquinas readings)—they will help to show how it is that the theism of the Neoplatonists is completely compatible with Christian theism.

  • Thanks, John! This is great. I hadn’t read these in college, but I will add them to my list now 🙂

  • Daniel Taylor

    John, I think linking intelligence (“no intelligent atheist”) to arriving at a specific belief (of almost any kind) is a mistake. Reason is extremely valuable but both subjective in application and highly variable in the outcomes it can produce, even with the same starting point and accepting the same ‘facts.’ Reason can get you pretty much wherever you want to go. We should neither exaggerate nor dismiss its capabilities.

    • jottens

      Daniel,

      That’s probably fair. I agree with the main thrust of your comment. To be clear, I’m not saying that intelligent people cannot be atheists; I believe atheism is false, but there are many reasons why intelligent people can accept falsehoods. In the sentence you quoted from me, intelligence was meant as the condition for being able to understand the books on the list — and not the only condition, by any means, but doubtless an important one.

      • cody woody

        Firstly, thanks for turning me on to more things to consider when arguing the lack of a will, outside the human sphere. It is material I started a month ago, based on this recommendation list. Considering falsehoods is something humans have done for the entirety of our existence. Believing in what you believe, in my opinion, is a falsehood. Like you said, there are many reasons intelligent people can accept falsehoods. Also, it is very ordinary for someone to naysay what they either do not, or could never begin to understand, or for ever will deny themselves the manner of thinking it would take, to change their stone carved mindsets, no matter which side of any argument one falls. Most people with belief in God, cannot keep a calm structured argument without them resorting to name calling. I also believe there are a lot of blind atheist who do the exact thing uneducated believers in God do in name calling or other worthless methods of ignorance. Uneducated humans love to interject their random, meaningless opinions when they don’t understand what you are talking about. Striking a good argument is hard in the world we live. Sorry, I drifted there for a sec. Thanks man.

  • ABC

    I think Summa theologica alone can knock a person out of his socks.