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Publisher's Summary

These 36 intellectually challenging yet remarkably clear lectures take you on an intellectual journey to explore the questions of divine existence, not from the standpoint of theology, but as an issue of epistemology, the classic branch of philosophy that concerns itself with knowledge theory: how we can know things and how we can know we know them.

If you enjoy wrapping your mind around questions for which every potential answer triggers a new set of questions and issues, you will find this course particularly enjoyable, regardless of whether you define yourself as a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic. Professor Hall lays out many of the fundamental questions and issues related to the philosophy of religion: What do we mean by "God"? Consider the many characteristics of a monotheistic deity - including omnipotence, omniscience, omniperfection, and asceity.

Can we know if there is a God? Examine the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments for the existence of God and the problem of evil. Weigh the arguments and counterarguments for whether the existence of evil - sometimes natural and sometimes human - is compatible with the existence of a god.

You won't be surprised to discover that the issue of divine existence remains undecided after the arguments for and against have been put on the table and analyzed. This provocative course will hold the attention of believers, skeptics, and agnostics alike. While your mind may not be changed, it will definitely be put to work.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2003 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2003 The Great Courses

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Exceptional

Professor Hall' has created a series that gently and steadily equips the student to critically assess not only arguments in favour or against the existence of God, but also to challenge their own personal faith with the tools of philosophical analysis. He shows how faith is a choice one can make rationally.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Slow...Often Irrelevant...Incomplete

What would have made Philosophy of Religion better?

I have always loved the Learning Company's courses, but this one did not work for me. The focus of the course is a philosophical evaluation of monotheist perspectives, especially but not exclusively arguments for and against a monotheistic God. While there is some good information here, I found the entire course deeply, deeply flawed. The course has three major problems.

First, the lecturer is extremely slow in regards to both his speech and the amount of information he covers per lecture. The professor's delivery is plodding, at best. There are excessively long gaps of silence in the middle and at the end of sentences, and an unusually long spacing between words. I finally increased the reading speed to 1.5x normal, which brought the speaker's meter to something close to a normal range, but even then, there are gaps of 1 or 2 seconds that are overly long given their context in the sentence. Don't believe me? Download the sample and see for yourself. This might not be such a big deal if it wasn't for the extremely slow pace at which information is given. The author is prone to giving multiple (generally 3) detailed examples to illustrate even minor points. These examples are often overly detailed relative to what the author is trying to illustrate, especially given that the author generally illustrated the point after the first example. The remaining examples are completely unnecessary. For example, in Chapter 32 we get an 8 minute discussion of marriage ceremonies in Virginia and how he offered to marry a pair of friends as an example of how the use of language in sealing a marriage differs from the descriptive language scientists use. I got the point that the use of language to say something like, "I now pronounce you man and wife" is different than other uses of language such as, "Close the door" or "The Earth revolves around the Sun" after the first 30 seconds of the discussion. The remaining 7.5 minutes or so was completely unnecessary and didn't add to the discussion in any way. Going to another example, all of the information in Chapter 31 could have been reduced to two pages of text, which would correspond to only three or four minutes of reading. Instead I listened to 20 minutes (because I was listening to the 30 minute lecture at 1.5x reading speed) of how various examples of personal and societal change (e.g., civil rights, women's rights, views towards war and the US, changing views of college students) demonstrate that people's perspectives can change. I again understood the author's point after about 1.5 minutes. The rest of the extremely long discussion was just a waste of time. Nearly every chapter of the book suffers from this problem at some level. All of the relevant information could have been presented in a course about half as long. Heck, it even took the Professor Hall about four minutes to say that he grew up in a deeply religious family but was now a big city, liberal agnostic. My criticism here isn't with what he was saying, but is with the excruciatingly slow pace at which he presented it.

The second flaw is that much of the information is irrelevant. Again, the use of three examples to make what were often tangential points often got in the way. Using my example from above, all of the additional examples were unnecessary after Professor Hall established that people's perspectives can change in Chapter 34. We did not need the overly long discussion of the civil rights movement or popular views of war in the US to understand his point. Another example of this is that the first *8* chapters were basically an introduction to philosophy course that didn't deal specifically with religion at all. I fully accept that it might be worthwhile to introduce relevant philosophical issues before tackling the main focus of the course, but 8 chapters was extreme, especially given Professor Hall's slow approach. There were few chapters (4 of the 36 total) where I felt that Professor Hall did not get side tracked on irrelevant issues for at least some of the time, but several chapters have large sections that were ultimately irrelevant. For another example, the discussion of Thomas Kuhn could have been completed in about half of a chapter, instead of being stretched out over 2.5 chapters. The reason why it took 2.5 chapters is because of the inclusion of a lot of irrelevant discussion (relative to the topic of the philosophy of religion) and excessive illustrative examples.

The third flaw is that the author often glossed over important and truly relevant issues. For example, in his discussion of the nature of God's relationship to humans, he simply says that he is uncomfortable with a position that holds that the natural state of humans is hell without divine intervention. Now his discomfort could serve as the basis for an interesting philosophical discussion about humans' relationship to the divine and its implication for the problem of evil. The world looks very different if one considers humans as creatures that are born innocent and then corrupted, or if one considers humans to be inherently corrupted individuals who can gain salvation through the acceptance of the Divine. It fundamentally changes one's perspective on the problem of evil depending on whether one thinks of humans as "saved" beings who must be kept from sin or as "lost" beings who must be brought to God. Instead of exploring this issue, Professor Hall simply rejects one of the perspectives out of hand, because he is "uncomfortable" with it, despite his own acknowledgement that it is a perspective common to Christian denominations.

Another example is his discussion in Chapter 27 of the issue of the human inability to relate to God, because He is wholly transcendent. Professor Hall asserts that is this is the case, then it must also be true God cannot relate to use, because we would be just as transcendent to him. This is a false equivalency, as is illustrated by the fact that Professor Hall has to use Plato to justify it. (No matter what else, Plato didn't write an insightful commentary on monotheism.) There is no reason why the creator cannot understand his creation better than the creation understands the creator. I understand a pot I make on the potter's wheel even though I myself am not a pot, right? There is not logical reason why God couldn't understand (and empathize with) humans better than humans understand (and empathize with) God. Further, one of the central precepts of Christianity is that God has a perfect understand of humans given that Christ himself is a wholly human/wholly divine entity. C. S. Lewis dealt with this very issue when he observed that Shakespeare could have easily written himself into Hamlet and held a discussion with the main character. While Hamlet may not understand the writer, Shakespeare certainly understood Hamlet and could have interacted with him seamlessly in the context of the play. Christ likewise provides the three-in-one Christian God with a perfect understanding of humans. I understand that the course wasn't about Christian theology, but this is a very big issue if one is trying to make a point about the philosophical requirements of a monotheistic God. This is especially true given that the author's argument about the reciprocal transcendence of God and humans is his final point in the chapter and in some ways the chapter's central point given that its acceptance is central to his argument for the difficulty using a transcendent God as a solution to the problem of evil.

The failure to consider the asymmetry in transcendence between humans and God is a big error, in my opinion, but is only one example of such issues. Another is the author's odd failure to even attempt to define certain central terms/concepts. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about the problem of evil but he never defines the term. Evil is instead defined in context as anything that causes pain, I think. Thus, a parasite eating a deer's brain is evil, a fire killing a family in their sleep is evil, and the killing fields of Cambodia are evil. He does distinguish between natural evil and evil caused by humans, but nowhere did he clearly define evil. Is the parasite eating the deer's brain really, truly evil? If so, in what way/why? Likewise, is giving my son a vaccine, which causes pain, evil? Perhaps not, because it has (hopefully) a positive effect, but what if it doesn't (e.g., the vaccine was improperly stored so is no longer effective, the vaccine is in fact a placebo). Along the same line, Professor Hall says we are "simply awash" with evil in the world. Really? I can imagine a lot worse worlds with a great deal more evil. As bad as the killing fields of Cambodia are, we are shocked by them because they are extreme as opposed to common place. A meaningful philosophical discuss of what constitutes evil and its prevalence in the natural and human worlds might be interesting, but we don't get it (despite the fact that such discussion are available). We instead get some general assertions and then the author's evaluation of what makes sense to him.

Bottom line: In my opinion, this lecture series was overly long and not worth the effort, especially if you are really interested in the subject.

24 of 30 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Fell somewhat short of expectations (ups and downs

Is there anything you would change about this book?

Pluses:
• Lecture 4 & 5’s descriptions of how different religious contexts define “God” (Dynamism, Animism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Henotheism, Deism, Dualism/Bitheism, Monotheism, and Ethical monotheism) and how some individuals (some Buddhists, many agnostics, and all atheists) reject worship at all
• Discussions on the various theodicies on the problem of evil were very thought-provoking and the highlight of the course


Minuses:
• The introductory lectures could have been shrunk: Nine lectures on introducing terms seemed to be overkill (especially those on defining knowledge and evidence)
• The definition of the Ontological Argument was not explained clearly
• While explaining concepts (the arguments against the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments are examples) the Professor seemed to spend too much time on odd examples/stories and wandering somewhat off topic instead of hammering home the succinct main points of the argument and the relevance of the arguments
Too much time seemed to be spent on paradigms and language games; Perhaps I missed the point as to how important or relevant they are to this course discussion but seemed like they should have been discussed in passing or in much less time (the most interesting topic they spurn: religion involving hidden interests---think Freud and Marx---wasn’t explored in depth enough)

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A Feast, but...

I really enjoyed listening to Professor Hall, and found his open-mindedness to be refreshing. If he hadn't disclosed the fact that he's an episcopalian at the start, I would almost have described his as agnostic about the existence of God, but he did. He's a self-described Christian agnostic.

I found his dissection of the standard arguments for theism objective enough, and he admits that none of them are conclusive regarding the existence of one deserving of worship. The latter half though was more interesting as it delved into the usage of storytelling and the characteristics of cultural and scientific paradigms.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A Study on the Philosophy of Religion

This is a unique piece of work: A work that analyses religion on its own terms, using philosophy to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each general argument without trying to spoon feed you what to accept and what to reject. Listen, think and make your own conclusion.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Evangelization of Agnosticism

This was purely an attempt to advocate for Christian agnosticism, which is absurd. I expected to learn more about applying philosophical principles to the study of Religion and instead, I listened to 24 lectures about how we can't "know" the rightness of any religion and we are only justified in being agnostic. While the presenter makes his claim early on of Episcopalian agnosticism, I did not expect the last 24 lectures to be him doing nothing other than advocating for that one position. I have come to expect very little in the way of fairness from the Great Courses because it is apparent that what they value more than education is atheism. This, however, was a disgusting spew of watered down, relativistic Christianity. The first 12 lectures are okay and worth listening to. After that, it's a running oxymoron of Christian relativism.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 03-03-18

An inquiry about the inquiry of religion

I always get particularly irritated by people who belittle philosophy. It’s as if they really don’t want to get at the truth or the understanding. I’ve seen scientist such as Lawrence Krauss ask what good are philosophers? And politicians such as Marco Rubio finding it is incredible that a philosopher can make more money than a welder, as if salary is the standard for worth. But, if you really want to understand a subject let a philosopher explain it to you. (And it seems to me, that both Krauss with his sexual accusations against him and Rubio with his inability to think his way out of NRA funding, both of those thinkers need the help of a philosopher!).

I’ll tell you why I think philosophers add value. They know that real understanding comes about through the second order (or ‘meta’) understanding. That is the understanding about the understanding, or as Professor Hall will say ‘the inquiry about the inquiry’ and the analysis of the ‘ideas and concepts that go into the making’ of the subject under consideration.

The Professor wants to consider a religion with a God (not all religions have a ‘God’) and he defines it as something ‘deserving of being worshiped’ with some transcendental characteristics. He’ll illustrate the ‘equivocation trap’ that we so often fall into when we use words like ‘transcendental’. First, he’ll illustrate the danger of equivocation by giving a hilarious comic vignette about ‘Lola’ and ‘Brute’ going on a date after Lola has been warned to be ‘good’ and when asked after the date she’ll say ‘yes I was good, and Brute will say I was very good’. Second, he’ll show how ‘transcendent’ takes on multiple meanings such as we can ‘transcend’ ourselves to be like Charles Atlas, or we can subscribe to the National Geographic and transcend our local world, or the final sense of the word to be ‘something that is outside of space and time or beyond normal human experience’ a characteristic we often attribute to a God.

The Professor looks at traditional proofs of proving the existence of God: the Ontological, the Cosmological and the Teleological. The first is ‘a priori’ (without experience and with reason alone), the last two are ‘a posterior’ (from experience). The God the Professor is most interested in is an ‘ethical monotheistic’ God. He’ll show what each proof entails, but also show the counter-arguments to each approach. He’ll conclude for each proof that even if one were to grant the assertion the proof doesn’t necessarily lead to an ‘ethical monotheist’ God. The argument of Theodicy (‘why is there evil’) can actually just as easily apply equally to a non-benevolent being of some kind. Leibniz (who is frequently mentioned in this lecture) is unmercifully mocked by Voltaire in ‘Candide’ for his ‘best of all possible world’ explanation for evil.

You ever wonder why some cretins claim that some city was punished by God such as New Orleans with Katrina because they allowed Gays to exist and enjoy life? I have. If one buys into their world view of the teleological and accept a principal of sufficient reason and project their hate on to the world of others as those cretins do, and ignore the Euthyphro paradox on morality, one can conclude such nonsense. This lecture will show how those hateful connections can be made by hateful cretins but yet make sense when their premises are accepted.

Descartes showed (according to this lecture) that the formal structure used in going from defining a triangle by three points in a plane means that triangles must have three angles totaling 180 degrees is equivalent to St. Anslem’s Ontological proof because the ‘form’ can be shown to be the same therefore the conclusion must be valid for both if either is shown to be true. Obviously, today we realize that space is not always Euclidian and non-Euclidian space exists within Einstein’s General Theory and also near a black hole, and that a conclusion is always dependent on its premises for its validity.

There’s this really healthy amount of philosophy of science within these lectures. Wittgenstein and Kuhn and why they matter for understanding the world, and both are often quoted, and the logical positivist are shown to be not relevant. The constructs we create limit our world view. There was a marvelous example of St. Teresa having thought she had seen Holiness and knew it was blue. Her only concern was if it could have been from the devil instead. The only constructs she was capable of making where from her own Christian World View, never even considering it could have been Ahura Mazda or Ganesh or 10000 other possibilities, because after all she was not willing question her faith based beliefs or to deny her experience of what she thought she had seen. The mind can only construct from the tools that the mind has within it. It never ceases to amaze me, the number of people who I’ve met who have had beliefs derived from an emotional experience and will always put it into a construct based on their family of beliefs based on their faith never quite realizing that there could be equally as valid other explanations from the pantheon of Gods or even possibly based on their own mental desires or whims, or they could be better explained by extra-terrestrial aliens or identical twins playing tricks or a thousand other possible explanations which would most surely be more probable than attributing the phenomenon to a supernatural demon or saint of some kind.

I really enjoyed these lectures. The Professor says he is no longer a believer who can sign on to the dotted line, but still participates in religion and loves providing a fair inquiry about the inquiry of the ideas and concepts that make up religion.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Excellent and fair intro

James was perfect for this lecture. His position as an agnostic gives him the ability to be truly fair to both theists and atheists in this book. Very well done.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Best Course I've taken.

Great lecture... Professor James Hall was a treat to listen to. Very thought provoking. I highly recommend this.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Long and convoluted.

Professor Hall has a nack for taking relatively straightforward Concepts deconstructing them and making them incomprehensible.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Neil Green
  • 12-07-17

A well balanced course.

A difficult subject well explained, the professor covers a lot of ground and is even handed in his treatment of the subject matter. Most of the chapters are very interesting although the latter chapters about stories did not seem so interesting or critical to the subject . Well narrated.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 12-06-13

Interesting listen

Where does Philosophy of Religion rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Religions and their various aspects are an area of interest for me. The fact it is actually a lecture given by an academic, not just an audiobook, makes it even more attractive to me. It feels more authentic and at certain points I felt like sitting in a lecture hall listening.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Philosophy of Religion?

It is hard to say. There are many interesting points throughout all the book. It is a lecture, not a movie.

Have you listened to any of Professor James Hall’s other performances? How does this one compare?

It has been my first and so far only encounter with Professor Hall. One of the reasons I did purchase this book was the fact his voice felt well comprehensible and comfortable to listen.

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

Not a film, but perhaps a documentary. Tag line? "Anything you ever wanted to know about Philosophy of Religion but were afraid to ask." ;-)

Any additional comments?

A book for anybody who wishes to educate her/himself.

0 of 2 people found this review helpful