The author, a Protestant minister, holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Notre Dame. As he indicates (p. 57) he seeks to focus not on the philosophical (and scientific) attacks on God’s existence, say, as done by both old and new atheists. His goal rather is to describe and respond to the social, psychological, and political critiques of religion, as well as the general disenchantment of the world due to modernity. His scholarly skills are evident in the first ten chapters which provide a history of critical attitudes towards religion, beginning with prophetic critiques from within Judaism but including criticism from the outside as in ancient Epicurean thought. Chapters 5 through 10 form the heart of the book, reflective analyses of positions of Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Durkheim, Freud, and Russell. These central chapters include useful sections on both the historical context and the personal biography of each person.
Jacobs combines clarity and precision with sympathetic readings. He generously defends Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, for example, against complaints about his use of unreliable anthropological data, by arguing that Durkheim already had a coherent and legitimate theory of the social function of religion, and was then just using Australian (and North American) examples to illustrate the theory more than to support it. Jacobs teases out what he sees as valid aspects of modern – ie., Enlightenment and later – criticism of religion in general. He articulates and admires the humanism which propelled many critics of religion.
According to Jacobs, all of the modernist critiques, originally part of the Enlightenment project of producing a humane and peaceful world through reliance on rationality, can point religions towards greater humility and mutual tolerance. They open the way to a somewhat postmodern appreciation of the ambiguities and human creativeness in religious traditions. The penultimate chapter focuses precisely on postmodern justification of greater flexibility of ideas, including religious ideas and practices.
The final chapter then veers into Jacob’s own program for religion today, guided a bit more by what might be called pastoral than scholarly concern. Jacobs argues for a Schleiermachian-Otto foundation of religion in a sense of the sacred mystery, but with a clear emphasis on the social expression of religion and the need for community. Tillich provides “ultimate concern” and a warning against idolatry by “letting go.” A general liberal openness in the face of transcendence, combined with a sense of solidarity with humankind caps off the ten recommendations of what religion is like at its best or truest.
The central chapters (5-10) on various critics of religion would work very well in an undergraduate course, though the price of the book makes it uncompetitive with, say, Daniel Pals' Eight Theories of Religion (2006), which covers many of the same thinkers The combination of setting the scene in ancient beginnings, followed by good historical and philosophical analyses with religiously guided reflections in most chapters, as well as the final defense of faith and religion in the last chapter could make this a very good book for an initial course on the relation of social theory and Christian belief, with perhaps primary source readings added.