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Meaning and Mystery: What It Means To Believe in God

ISBN: 978-1-4051-9344-3
256 pages
January 2010, Wiley-Blackwell
Meaning and Mystery: What It Means To Believe in God (1405193441) cover image


Meaning and Mystery offers a challenge to the way Philosophy has traditionally approached the issue of belief in God as a theoretical problem, proposing instead a form of reflection more appropriate to the practical nature of the issue.
  • Makes use of abundant illustrative material, from both literature, such as Les Misérables, Edwin Abott’s Flatland, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, and popular culture, such as advertisements, the television series Joan of Arcadia and the film Stranger Than Fiction
  • Uses imaginative scenarios to offer explanations of central concepts
  • Incorporates theories on human thought and behavior in exploring the formation of religious belief
  • Written in a style that is accessible to readers with little background knowledge of philosophy
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Table of Contents



Introduction: Does Anyone Actually Believe in God?

1 Life-Orienting Stories.

2 God of the Philosophers.

3 Reasons for Believing in God.

4 Resistance and Receptivity.

5 Belief As a Practical Issue.

6 Anthropomorphism and Mystery.

7 Naturalistic Stories.

8 Theistic and Naturalistic Morality.

9 Meaning and the Limits of Meaning.

10 Conviction, Doubt, and Humility.

Suggestions for Further Reading.


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Author Information

David M. Holley is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi. His previous book, Self-Interest and Beyond (1999), develops an account of the proper use and limits of self-interested thinking. His articles on topics in philosophy of religion, ethics, and moral psychology have appeared in numerous professional journals.
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The Wiley Advantage

  • Challenges the standard approach of reflecting upon the question of God as a theoretical problem
  • Makes abundant use of illustrative material, including examples drawn from advertisements, television shows such as Joan of Arcadia, from films such as Stranger Than Fiction, as well as from literature such as Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Flatland, and Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession
  • Uses imaginative scenarios to offer explanations of central concepts
  • Incorporates theories of human thought and behavior in its exploration of the formation of religious belief
  • Written in a style that is accessible to readers with little background knowledge of philosophy
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"With these minor criticisms in mind, Holley's work should be commended for its unique and provocative approach of defending religious belief in the age of modernity which, at the same time, defends naturalism and atheism. He has revealed to us that one need not be legitimized at the expense of the other." (International Journal For Philosophy of Religion, 8 January 2011)

"Holley makes strong but subtle arguments for a transcendent agent conception of God, and the need for this image for a coherent morality, the value of revelation-bearing traditions, and the priority of practice for discovering belief." (CHOICE, September 2010)"The question of the existence of God has been part of the philosophical debate ...with arguments advanced for and against it. In this heartfelt ... argument for God’s existence, the author studies the subject from every perspective. Echoes of ancient thinkers as well as more contemporary observers of the religious scene are well represented herein. Holley is clearly well versed in the arguments on both sides of the question. And he shows some insight into those who find belief in God to be a thing devoutly to be avoided even while espousing belief as part of his own life. In the end, Holley chooses faith over doubt and offers guidelines for those seeking an experience with the divine. His observations are well worth reading." (Publishers Weekly, January 2010)

"This book achieves something very difficult: it provides a fresh and innovative way of looking at the age-old questions about religious faith that philosophers have argued about for centuries. Written in a clear and engaging style, Holley shows the role 'life-orienting stories' play for both believers and atheists, and, without dogmatism or minimizing difficulties, he shows how religious faith might be possible in the contemporary world."
C. Stephen Evans, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Baylor University

"The epistemic bearing of all-encompassing narratives on religious belief and disbelief has been largely neglected by philosophers in the English speaking world. Holley's lucid and well-written book is a welcome corrective."
William J. Wainwright, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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Press Release

January 04, 2010
Meaning and Mystery: What It Means to Believe in God

David Holley offers a fresh interpretation of the impetus behind spirituality and personal faith in MEANING AND MYSTERY: What It Means to Believe in God (February 2010 (U.S.); January 2010 (UK)).  He challenges the widespread assumption that we should treat God’s existence as a theoretical hypothesis that can be considered at arm’s length.  Such an approach, he claims, distorts the issue and shields us from the intensely personal considerations involved either in accepting or rejecting this kind of belief.

The book’s preface describes an encounter with a student who was trying to decide whether to continue believing in God.  To Holley’s chagrin, the student thought about the matter with an attitude of detachment, as if he were dealing with an intellectual puzzle, oblivious to how altering his belief would mean a fundamental upheaval in his thought and life.  Holley characterizes the shift being contemplated as “less like deciding you were mistaken about whether you kissed your spouse goodbye this morning and more like deciding you were mistaken in thinking you had a spouse.”

Holley urges us to view the question of belief in the context of deciding about a life-orienting narrative.  Coming to believe or to disbelieve, he claims, is not a matter of judging the truth of an isolated proposition, but arriving at a background story that is comprehensive enough to shape an understanding of how to live. 

Neither theism nor atheism, claims Holley, becomes convincing apart from the larger narratives in which the experiential meaning of either position is fleshed out.  We do not decide about God and then decide whether to accept a particular narrative; we come to accept or to reject the idea of God through finding some narrative viable as a guide to life.  Embracing either a narrative of belief or a narrative of unbelief involves a level of personal engagement that is missing from standard ways of discussing the existence of God.

In moving the question of God’s existence to the practical context of seeking a narrative to live by, Holley endorses a broader and less detached kind of reflection than typical arguments for and against God’s existence permit.  To be viable a life-orienting narrative must do more than fit with the facts; it needs to illuminate our awareness of what is valuable and connect with our aspirations to live a worthy life.  This kind of narrative cannot become our own without appealing to us at a motivational level.

Without trying to settle the question of belief, Holley provides a guide for the person who wants to think seriously about God.  Steering a course between unbelievers who cannot regard belief as an option worth considering and believers who cannot entertain the possibility of being mistaken, this book presents the issue in a way that makes central our receptivity or lack of receptivity to narratives with or without God that might structure a way of life.

Also included:

  • A window into some of the great literary minds: Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, Edwin Abott’s Flatland, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables
  • References to popular culture, advertisements, and television including the series Joan of Arcadia and the film Stranger Than Fiction
  • Observations from sociology, linguistic theory, behavioral, and cognitive psychology to illuminate the nature of religious beliefs, and how removing religious questions from their larger practical context distorts our thinking about them

 Written in a style that is accessible to readers with little background knowledge of philosophy, as well as philosophers who want to approach the question of God’s existence in a new way, Holley provides a path to deciding about the fundamental convictions that will shape us.

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