Religion and the New Atheism by Edited by Amarnath Amarasingam (Studies in Critical Social Sciences: Studies in Critical Research on Religion 1: Brill Academic) The term "new atheism" has been given to the recent barrage of bestselling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and others. These books and their authors have had a significant media presence and have only grown in popularity over the years. This book brings together scholars from religious studies, science, sociology of religion, sociology of science, philosophy, and theology to engage the new atheism and place it in the context of broader scholarly discourses. This volume will serve to contextualize and critically examine the claims, arguments and goals of the new atheism so that readers can become more informed of some of the debates with which the new atheists inevitably and, at times unknowingly, engage.
Contributors include Richard Harries, Reza Aslan, Amarnath Amarasingam, Robert Platzner, Jeffrey Robbins, Christopher Rodkey, Rory Dickson, Steve Fuller, William Sims Bainbridge, William A. Stahl, Stephen Bullivant, Michael Borer, Richard Cimino, Christopher Smith, Gregory R. Peterson, Jeff Nall, Ryan Falcioni, and Mark Vernon.
In his history of the church in the nineteenth century Alec Vidler pointed out that many of the great Victorian atheists turned against religion not because of the rise of biblical criticism or the rise of science but because what Christianity called upon them to believe with a sense of its moral superiority struck them as morally inferior to their own beliefs and standards. If that is true, as I believe it to be, why then has it taken 150 years for the conviction of a few people then to become the cheering crowds of today. One of the strengths of Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal is that whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the arguments put forward in the new atheism, it is a truly remarkable phenomenon and therefore needs to be understood from a range of perspectives. This book tries to do just that.
There have of course always been atheists. What distinguishes the attack dogs of the new atheism from their more philosophically inclined predecessors is that they believe religion to be not only untrue, but also pernicious, an evil or poison that needs to be eliminated from the bloodstream of society. The new atheism's predominant tone is one of intellectual righteousness— new atheists like to call themselves 'The Brights'—and it is something of a moral crusade. Such a widespread explosion has only now ignited the fuse lit by the Victorian unbelievers referred to by Alec Vidler, I think, because of two main factors. One is that until fairly recently in the Christian West morality and religion were virtually synonymous. To be a Christian and to be a good person were thought of as the same thing. It was entirely natural, at least in Britain, to strive to be, 'a good Christian' without being a strong believer. It is that nexus that has now been broken and today's atheists bring their own moral critique to religious faith; in doing so they often mimic the religion of the past in claiming the high moral ground.
The second factor in atheism's delayed ignition was the wide acceptance and indeed fashion in the 1960s of making institutions and roles that had previously attracted respect as a matter of course the object of satire, mockery, and abuse. Since then the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable in the way of mockery have grown ever wider. With the decline in status and prestige of all traditional institutions and roles, it was inevitable that organized religion would become an object of derision. People's negative feelings about religion (who does not have at least some negative feelings?) so long held down, are now allowed free expression.
The new atheists arouse irritation and exasperation on all sides. One distinguished philosopher said that they made him ashamed to call himself an atheist. Liberal religious believers see in the debate only the meeting of two fundamentalist stances. The new atheism and religious fundamentalism seemingly need to feed off one another in order to fuel their polemics. But this book tries to get beyond those feelings to consider the phenomenon in a much wider perspective in relation to Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity; and in relation to science and sociology. I believe many will find this approach fresh and helpful. ---Richard Harries
One cold spring day in London, as I crossed the bustling square at Piccadilly Circus, I looked left instead of right (a typical American tourist) and was nearly run down by a careening double-decker bus with a flash of letters emblazoned along its side:
THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.
The slogan is now ubiquitous and not only in London. When I first saw it I laughed, amused that atheists in the United Kingdom were miming propaganda techniques perfected by evangelical groups in the United States, whose billboards dot the American landscape ("Having truth decay? Brush up on your Bible!"). I likely would have thought no more of it had not a friend not informed me that the driving force behind the London bus ads was none other than the dean of the so-called new atheists—Darwin's Rottweiler, himself—Richard Dawkins. If you are wondering what an esteemed evolutionary biologist and respected Oxford University professor is doing placing billboards around London proselytizing atheism, this book is for you.
There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement. The new atheists have their own special interest groups and ad campaigns. They even have their own holiday (International Blasphemy Day). It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism—an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore. This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name). Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. This is, rather, a caricature of atheism: shallow scholarship mixed with evangelical fervor.
The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism—and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism—is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied, as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist). Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence—by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented—and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god. One should, for example, be cognizant of how the human experience of transcendence has been expressed in the material world through historically dependent symbols and metaphors. One should be able to recognize the diverse ways in which the universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae. One should become acquainted with the unmistakable patterns—call them modalities (Rudolph Otto), paradigmatic gestures (Mircea Eliade), spiritual dimensions (Ninian Smart), or archetypes (Carl Jung)—that recur in the myths and rituals of nearly all religious traditions and throughout all of recorded history. Even if one insists on reducing humanity's enduring religious impulse to causal definitions, dismissing the experience of transcendence as nothing more than an anthropological (e.g., Edward Tylor or Max Muller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (a la Sigmund Freud, who attempted to locate the religious impulse deep within the individual psyche, as though it were a mental disorder that could be cured through proper psychoanalysis), one should at the very least have a sense of what the term 'God' means.
Of course, positing a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if it did? What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations—separated by immeasurable time and distance—seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi'i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse? Then again, maybe the patterns of religious phenomena signify nothing. Maybe they indicate little more than a common desire among all peoples to answer similar questions of 'Ultimate Concern: to use the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich's famous phrase. The point is that, like any researcher or critic, like any scientist, I'm open to possibilities.
The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; but if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion's name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics. The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid—the stock response of any absolutist. Some argue that the religious impulse is merely the result of chemicals in the brain, as though understanding the mechanism by which the body experiences transcendence delegitimizes the experience (every experience is the result of chemical reactions). What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims—be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth—are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect. ---Reza Aslan
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. - Richard Dawkins (2006, 31)
One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). -- Christopher Hitchens (2007b, 64)
It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Hurricane Katrina struck shared your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These people died talking to an imaginary friend. - Sam Harris (2008, 53)
The term 'new atheism' has been given to the recent barrage of anti-religion and anti-God books written by Richard Dawkins (2006), Sam Harris (2004, 2008), Christopher Hitchens (2007b), Daniel Dennett (2006), and others. Statements like those above can be found in abundance throughout their writings. They are characteristically petulant and provocative, challenging yet cranky, urgent but uninformed. The new atheist writers and their respective books have been selling extremely well; they have conducted conferences dealing, largely uncritically, with their own material, and have had a significant media presence discussing and debating their ideas with journalists and other scholars. A rigorous academic treatment of their ideas, however, as well as an exploration of how their arguments are important for larger debates in religious studies and the social sciences, remains wanting. The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed their writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance. As such, most of the work dealing with the new atheist corpus has tended to be equally crude, mocking, or dismissive. Instead, this book brings together eminent and rising scholars in the fields of religious studies, sociology of religion, sociology of science, philosophy, and theology in order to engage the new atheist literature and place it in the context of larger scholarly discourses and debates. It will serve to contextualize and critically examine the claims, arguments, and goals of the new atheists in order that the scholarly community and educated general reader can become more informed of some of the debates with which the new atheists inevitably and, at times unknowingly, engage.
When I mentioned to colleagues that I was preparing an edited book on the new atheism, there were generally two responses. First, I was told that there was in fact nothing new about the new atheism. Everything that is said by the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett had already been said, and said better, by Russell, Paine, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and others. There is, of course, much truth to this. As Damon Linker (2008, A14) writes, the new atheism is "not particularly new It belongs to an intellectual genealogy stretching back hundreds of years, to a moment when atheist thought split into two traditions: one primarily concerned with the dispassionate pursuit of truth, the other driven by a visceral contempt for the personal faith of others." Although much of the content of the new atheism may have precedents, what is original is the newfound urgency in the message of atheism, as well as a kind of atheist social revival that their writings, lectures, and conferences have produced. In other words, the `new' atheism is not entirely about new ideas, but a kind of evangelical revival and repackaging of old ideas. One only needs to peruse the Converts' Corner on RichardDawkins.net to get a sense of the influence of the new atheism. The thousands of reader comments posted on the site state ad nauseum that The God Delusion had given them the arguments and the courage to confidently profess their atheism (see also Bullivant 2008a). To provide just one example: "Thank you, Dr. Dawkins, for giving me the words to explain, in clear, convicted and coherent voice, that which I have always felt. I have never felt so empowered, so humbled, so awestruck or so electrified as when I read The God Delusion. All of the pieces, which I had been clumsily trying to fit together for a long time, slid into place with an easy grace."
Second, I was told that the bookshelves are already littered with responses to the new atheism. What is the purpose of yet another? Although there have been more than twenty responses to the new atheism,' largely from Christian scholars, there has been little attempt to understand the significance of the movement as a whole. The purpose of this book, for example, is not to provide a defense of theology. This has been done by John Haught (2008), Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath (2007), and others. This book will also not be a traditional response to the new atheism. As McGrath and McGrath (2007, 13) have noted: "Every one of Dawkins's misrepresentations and overstatements can be challenged and corrected. Yet a book that merely offered such a litany of corrections would be catatonically boring." Instead, this book, although containing some corrective chapters, approaches the new atheism more broadly. I also did not want this to be another work dealing with the interplay between religion and science (although this is at times unavoidable), simply because there is already an abundance of literature in this area. Rather, this book places the new atheism within a larger context of debates going on in academia in fields as diverse as cognitive science, sociology of religion, philosophy of religion, and ethics.
So who are the new atheists? Richard Dawkins (1941— ) was the Charles Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University (he is retired as of September 2008). He has gained repute as a prolific author and popularizer of science. His most famous book before The God Delusion was The Selfish Gene published in 1976. Some of his other books on the topic of religion have been The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). Christopher Hitchens (1949- ) is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. He is the author of seventeen books, and has gained prominence as an acerbic polemicist and critic. He has published biographies of Thomas Jefferson (2005) and Thomas Paine (2006), has called for the prosecution of Henry Kissinger for war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor (2001), and has launched a caustic criticism of Mother Theresa under the double entendre title, The Missionary Position (1995). Daniel Dennett (1942- ) is currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University. He has authored many books, including the famous and controversial Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1996). Sam Harris (1967- ) has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is currently a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is studying the neural basis of belief with functional magnetic resonance imaging. He is also a Co-Founder and Chairman of The Reason Project, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.
Some sample titles of these books are: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart; Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton; The Truth Behind the New Atheism by David Marshall; The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser; Deluded by Dawkins? by Andrew Wilson; Atheism is False by David R. Stone; Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell; Is God a Delusion? by Eric Reitan; The God Delusion Revisited by Mike King; What's So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza; God is No Delusion by Thomas Crean; The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day; Delusion of Disbelief by David Aikman; I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges; Answering the New Atheism by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker; The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias; Beyond the God Delusion by Richard Grigg; The God Solution by James A. Beverly; The Godless Delusion by Joe Egan; Doubting Dawkins by Keith Ward; The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski; The Dawkins Letters by David Robertson.
This book is divided into four parts. The first part contains three chapters, and explores the relationship between the new atheism and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively. Robert Platzner's chapter argues that the Western Enlightenment offers the Jewish community in Europe (and subsequently America) the possibility of a secular revaluation of Jewish values and beliefs. He notes that Baruch Spinoza is the first of a succession of Jewish intellectuals who distance themselves from a traditionalist worldview, and more specifically who undertake a humanistic redefinition of Judaism's God-concept. Platzner argues that the increasing secularization of Jewish discourse in the modern era can be measured by the gradual abandonment of both the personal deity of biblical and rabbinic tradition and the increasing rejection of a teleological view of Jewish history. This pattern of denial and subversion becomes especially clear after the Holocaust in the writings of such figures as Richard Rubenstein and Sherwin Wine, for whom the idea of a beneficent and controlling God is simply incompatible with any intellectually coherent view of human history.
Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey begin their chapter by introducing Paul Tillich's argument that the problem with most religious conceptions of God, especially within Christianity, is that they are a form of 'theological theism'—that is, their understanding of God only works as a piece of a metaphysical puzzle within a particular metaphysical system of thought or belief. So given, Tillich concluded, atheism is the proper, if not Christian, response to theological theism. Atheism, however, also errs by itself, trapped within the logic of theological theism whenever it is expressed as a categorical rejection of God and any sense of ontological understanding of the world. In other words, atheism replaces one flawed puzzle for another with different pieces. Consequently, many Christian responses to the new atheism are an argument among and within theological theisms. Their chapter argues that the new atheists are guilty of the same problems that Tillich predicted of future atheism. Robbins and Rodkey propose a radical theological critique employing the theology of the American 'death of God' movement and recent continental philosophy of religion. They argue, in other words, that the new atheists do not go far enough in their critique of traditional Christianity; the new atheism is insufficiently radical and has little argument upon which to stand against a radical Christianity.
Rory Dickson argues that Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, presents a woefully inadequate picture of Islam, caricaturing the religion in terms of its most pathological manifestations. Dickson highlights key elements of Islamic history, law, and spirituality that Harris fails to adequately deal with, and concludes that Harris's failure to appreciate these central elements of Islam leads him to provide a two-dimensional presentation of the religion.
The second part of the book, containing two chapters, deals with the relationship between science and the new atheism. The section begins with a chapter by Steve Fuller who notes that until the advent of the new atheists, self-professed atheists have typically opposed religion more on moral than epistemological grounds. Thus, today's new atheism is distinctive in its claim to a scientific and not simply a libertarian basis. But, he asks, what exactly is this scientific basis? In surveying Western intellectual history for an answer, Fuller distinguishes 'atheism: an anti-clerical philosophy associated with the Enlightenment that basically secularizes key Abrahamic theological concepts in the name of human progress, and 'Atheism, a more thoroughgoing anti-theistic worldview that descends from Epicurus and denies any cognitive privilege to humanity or, indeed, any purpose to history or the universe. He notes that although the arguments of the new atheists vacillate between these two senses of atheism, their intent is clearly to promote the latter view, which explains the talismanic significance of Charles Darwin. However, Fuller intriguingly argues that had such Atheism been as widespread in history as the new atheists would have it be today, the science on which they base their views would never have developed.
William Sims Bainbridge argues in his chapter that while atheism is often defined as disbelief in God, the recent atheistic school of thought in cognitive science attacks religion's basis more broadly. He argues that this school of thought also debunks the notions of soul and faith, because both concepts are based on naive notions of how human mentality actually functions. His chapter begins with a survey of the origins of cognitive science, an academic discipline that emerged from a multidisciplinary social movement encompassing cognition-oriented work in philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology. Bainbridge then examines how cognitive scientists have critiqued the supposed unity of an individual human mind, stressed the provisional and probabilistic nature of belief, and applied the same scepticism to God's mind and God's own beliefs.
The four chapters in the third section of the book provide a more sociological treatment of the new atheism. In addition to critiques, the chapters in this section explore the movement as a whole and attempt to gauge its social significance. William Stahl's chapter argues that the new atheists are often dismissed as fundamentalists in their own right, and the new atheists just as quickly dismiss this criticism as flawed. His chapter attempts to explore the sociology of this symmetry in more detail. Stahl notes that beneath superficial stylistic similarities lay deeper structural and epistemological parallels. He argues that both the new atheism and fundamentalism (using Creation Science as an exemplar) are attempts to recreate authority in the face of crises of meaning in late modernity.
Stephen Bullivant's chapter argues that, from a sociological point of new, the new atheists' remarkable publishing and media successes are surprising and puzzling. He notes that the socio-religious cultures of neither Britain nor the United States (the new atheism's twin epicentres) seemed to be ripe for such a phenomenon—but for very different reasons. His chapter suggests a number of social and cultural factors, present in either one or both of Britain and the United States, which may cumulatively help to explain the new atheism's rise. More speculatively, Bullivant makes some tentative predictions concerning the phenomenon's lasting effects.
Michael Borer's chapter examines the debates surrounding the rise and decline of the 'secularization thesis' and attempts to show how the emergence of the new atheists provides evidence that both supports and contradicts many precepts of the thesis. Placing the new atheists within the historical and ongoing debates about secularization sheds light on new atheism as a minority 'movement' that aims to show how and why religious faith is an inferior form of knowledge that, in turn, fosters misguided worldviews.
Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith's chapter addresses how the new atheism has created new space for 'freethinkers: They note that the space for atheism in America has been and continues to be cramped, particularly as many atheist leaders and activists claim that their personal and social identities have carried a fair degree of stigma. The appearance of the new atheism may signal a weakening of the `atheist taboo' in American society, especially as atheists themselves see the phenomenon as a harbinger of advancing secularism. Cimino and Smith argue that the new atheist books and the responses, debates, and criticisms they have generated create a new space where atheists are empowered and mobilized through their interaction and contention with each other and with their antagonists.
The final section of the book, containing three chapters, explores some of the philosophical arguments put forth by the new atheists. Gregory Peterson's chapter notes that a central plank of the new atheist attack on religion is the claim that religion leads to immoral behaviour and that the atheist accounts of morality provide a superior undergirding of moral norms, including specifically norms of out-group altruism and compassion. However, many of the new atheists' critiques of religious ethics are highly problematic. Peterson argues that there is good reason to believe that support for out-group altruism and compassion is better given in a theological framework than a naturalistic one. Although his chapter focuses on the Christian case, the arguments have more general implications as well.
Jeff Nall draws attention to the recent birth of atheist parenting literature that implicitly challenges the assumption of many in the American public that children are better served when raised in a religious environment. Moreover, he notes, the literature explicitly critiques religious approaches to parenting, a minority of which express concern that religious indoctrination harms children. In particular, Nall's chapter tests the prevailing wisdom about the differences between atheist and Christian approaches to parenting. He argues that while the overarching aim of these parenting approaches is fundamentally different, both Christian and atheist parenting approaches are enthusiastically committed to instilling in their children a deep appreciation of honesty, consideration of others, and honest living. His chapter also shows that emerging leaders within the atheist movement are highly critical of the ridicule and abuse of religion exerted by the new atheists.
Finally, Ryan Falcioni's chapter attempts to demonstrate the fundamental philosophical confusions involved with the methodology of the new atheists. He argues that these same confusions are in play in the works of many contemporary philosophers of religion. The new atheists as well as many 'serious' philosophers of religion tend to treat religious beliefs as putative hypotheses about the world. For them, the existence of God is a broadly 'scientific' hypothesis that is in need of clear, analyzable evidence for its truth to be confirmed. Falcioni attempts to unpack this assumption and show how it is confused. Put simply, it fails to do justice to the nature of religious beliefs. He argues that it is only through paying close attention to the forms of life in which religious claims occur that we can begin to make sense of their meaning and thus understand how best to go about analyzing or critiquing them.
The book ends with an afterword by Mark Vernon, who begins his exploration by asking a broader question, which also runs through all of the new atheist writings: how are we to navigate the plurality of worldviews that is characteristic of the modern, secular, age? For the new atheists, tolerance of intolerance (often presented in the guise of relativism or multiculturalism) is one of the greatest dangers in contemporary society. Disagreements abound, but what cannot be denied about the new atheists, is that they have brought these important discussions into the public sphere with force and vigour. It is my hope that the essays in this book will further contribute to the conversation.
Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life edited by Louise M. Antony (Oxford University Press) Atheists are frequently demonized as arrogant intellectuals, antagonistic to religion, devoid of moral sentiments, advocates of an "anything goes" lifestyle. Now, in this revealing volume, nineteen leading philosophers open a window on the inner life of atheism, shattering these common stereotypes as they reveal how they came to turn away from religious belief. These highly engaging personal essays capture the marvelous diversity to be found among atheists, providing a portrait that will surprise most readers. Many of the authors, for example, express great affection for particular religious traditions, even as they explain why they cannot, in good conscience, embrace them. None of the contributors dismiss religious belief as stupid or primitive, and several even express regret that they cannot, or can no longer, believe. Perhaps more important, in these reflective pieces, they offer fresh insight into some of the oldest and most difficult problems facing the human mind and spirit. For instance, if God is dead, is everything permitted? Philosophers without Gods demonstrates convincingly, with arguments that date back to Plato, that morality is independent of the existence of God. Indeed, every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong. Moreover, they contend that secular life can provide rewards as great and as rich as religious life. A naturalistic understanding of the human condition presents a set of challenges--to pursue our goals without illusions, to act morally without hope of reward--challenges that can impart a lasting value to finite and fragile human lives. Collectively, these essays highlight the richness of atheistic belief--not only as a valid alternative to religion, but as a profoundly fulfilling and moral way of life.
Who are atheists? What do they believe? Can life be meaningful
without religious belief? Is belief in God necessary to be moral? Should
we respect religious views we don't agree with? Is religion dangerous?
Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life is a collection of essays by twenty leading philosophers from the United States and Britain, all of whom reject traditional religious faith and endorse the secular life.
In the Introduction, editor Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writes, "A naturalistic understanding of the human condition reveals a set of heroic challenges--to pursue our goals without illusions, to act morally without hope of reward--challenges that, if taken up, can impart a durable value to finite and fragile human lives."
Permit me to coin a word: "anthropodicy." Whereas theodicy is "the defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil" (Meriam-Webster Dictionary), anthropodicy is the rational defense of non-theistic, secular humanism. The philosophers in this volume present anthropodictic arguments for living without "gods."
Liberal theologians argue that there is no real conflict between science and religion, reason and faith. Many of them also accept the Darwinian theory of evolution and reject the claim made by Fundamentalists that the world was created by God some six thousand years ago.
Many traditional Christians, however, subscribe to a literal, fundamentalist creed that accepts Scripture as verbally inspired and infallible, and that seeks to excuse their God for the evil and suffering in the world, or, even worse, justify the God who perpetuates infinite evil by punishing billions of unbelievers eternally in the fiery, smoke-charred pits of hell.
"Religious faith," writes Jonathan E. Adler in his essay "Faith and Fanaticism," is fertile ground for fanaticism." History has revealed such fanaticism in the tortures inflicted by the Inquisition, the witch hunts, and the cruelties of slavery, all endorsed by religious fanatics. In the present day, we witness religious fanaticism in the form of suicide bombers encouraged by radical Islamic fundamentalists.
Fanatical religious beliefs breeds fanatical political and military actions. Some extremist fundamentalists even look forward with joy and rapture to an imminent Armageddon, and savor the sword-rattlings and military imperialisms as "signs" of the coming desired end--an annihilation of the forces of evil infidels.
"The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture," Gore Vidal once wrote, "is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved--Judaism, Christianity, Islam." And Havelock Ellis wrote, "The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum."
The best chapter in the book is the essay by Elizabeth Anderson, "If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" The implications of such a question are that atheists are arrogant intellectuals, antagonistic to religion, devoid of moral sentiments, and advocates of an "anything goes" lifestyle.
On the contrary, writes Anderson, "If we take the evidence for theism with utmost seriousness, we will find ourselves committed to the proposition that the most heinous acts are permitted." She gives a lengthy list, a scathing indictment, of the atrocities sanctioned by Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. Hard-core fundamentalists who accept biblical inerrancy should be appalled by blood-curdling accounts of such an evil, sadistic God.
"I see the celebration of irrationality everywhere in popular culture," writes Louise Antony. "Our struggle as a species [is] to claim our rationality, to confront the harsh realities that constrain us, and to acknowledge our own responsibility." In other words, we need to become clear-thinking individuals, rather than sheep who blindly follow the alleged authority of a book that is more than two millennia old.
If one listens carefully, one can hear these professors of philosophy crying out, "For goodness' sake, people: Think! Get a mind of your own! Grow up! Get a real life! We're living in the 21st century, not the superstitious Dark Ages. Get rid of your bizarre, incredible dogmas, miracles, and prophecies, and adopt a rational, scientific world view.
More than an attack on theism, Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life is an effort to describe the non-religious view of the well-lived life. The writers challenge us to become adults in our thinking and living, to put aside our childish hopes and fears, and to conduct ourselves with intellectual honesty and moral integrity.
The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville (Author), translated by Nancy Huston (Viking) Can we do without religion? Can we have ethics without God? Is there such thing as “atheist spirituality”? In this powerful book, the internationally bestselling author André Comte-Sponville presents a philosophical exploration of atheism—and comes to some startling conclusions. According to Comte-Sponville, we have allowed the concept of spirituality to become intertwined with religion, and thus have lost touch with the nature of a true spiritual existence. In order to change this, however, we need not reject the ancient traditions and values that are part of our heritage; rather, we must rethink our relationship to these values and ask ourselves whether their significance comes from the existence of a higher power or simply the human need to connect to one another and the universe. Comte-Sponville offers rigorous, reasoned arguments that take both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions into account, and through his clear, concise, and often humorous prose, he offers a convincing treatise on a new form of spiritual life.
Religion, whether it's Jewish, Muslim or Christian, is embedded in Western tradition and has nurtured and inspired individuals as well as societies throughout history. For these cultures, spirituality has become synonymous with a belief in God. Yet in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Andre ComteSponville asks whether we can do without religion and explores the possibility of leading a fulfilling and spiritual life in the absence of faith.
Comte-Sponville references Eastern systems of belief which he considers to be a mixture of spirituality, ethics, and philosophy that are centered more on human beings and nature than on a transcendent God. He also examines the way that democratic societies can live peacefully, respecting powerful principles, without reference to God. He does not urge us to reject our ancient traditions, rather to rethink our relationship to these customs and values, and ask ourselves whether their significance comes from the existence of a higher power, or simply the human need to connect to one another and the universe around us.
Comte-Sponville uses his own experience as a child raised in a Catholic home to illustrate how he came to discover the possibility of an "atheist spirituality" because as he argues—morality, ethics, and spirituality are human inventions. He reveals that we can question our need for faith without surrendering the deep-seated values that we have mistakenly associated with religion and offers reasoned arguments informed by some of the most influential philosophers in our Western tradition like Rousseau, Kant, Montaigne, Wittgenstein, and, surprisingly, the Old and New Testaments.
At the same time, his prose is infused with lightness and humor making The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality an accessible and straightforward treatise on the question of God's existence. Given the controversy in America over religion and belief, Comte-Sponville presents timely and convincing arguments that add new perspective to the concept of atheism that will interest fans of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett while also providing an ideal introduction to the topic for those who are curious.
The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality is the perfect antidote to
the fiery rhetoric that dominates our current national debate on
Interview with André Comte Sponville by Antoine Audouard, Paris,
Atheists are often described as "angry"
people. Do you see yourself this way?
Recently, a young French philosopher I was corresponding with
reproached me for my moderation. He was himself an apostle of a hateful
brand of atheism, such that his talent seemed to me inextricably linked
with his anger. This is not the emotion that drives me. As is true for
many, I rebelled against my father; but I forgave him long ago, and if
you can forgive your father, it is relatively easy to forgive the
Catholic Church! Joke aside, it really seems to me that in this case
anger is of poor council. It draws a line in the sand between believers
and nonbelieversl sending all believers into the camp of undeserving
fanatics. In my view this is a tragic error! Confronted with the
essential questions, this divide is better drawn between free spirits,
open, tolerant—whether they are believers or non-believers—and dogmatic
spirits, fundamentalists, fanatics. My book is one of peace, and at the
same time of combat. It is a message of combat against the two principle
dangers which threaten us: fanaticism and nihilism. But it is a message
of peace for all free and tolerant spirits, regardless of their
religious, or irreligious, beliefs. It is of crucial importance that
they form an alliance, to fight together against the barbarity which
All the same, are there not certain
questions where the fact of believing or not believing is, in effect, a
point of division, and even of fracture?
On the questions with which I am principally concerned—the dual
danger of fanaticism and nihilism, to which I would add a preoccupation
(perhaps more European) with a resurgence of fascism—I do not think this
is so. There are questions of sexual morality, of course, and debates on
euthanasia, which are important issues, but I do not consider them to be
decisive. As for the debate in certain American schools surrounding the
teaching of evolutionary theory, this seems to me an attempt at
obscurantism, though marginal. An attempt at which I know that America
has not yet succumbed, thankfully! Many Christians, including Christians
in the United States, refuse to confuse matters of faith with matters of
How about abortion?
That is a much more complex question than we often give it credit
for. For my part, I favor the Veil law, which legalized abortion in
France thirty years ago. But I understand that the death of thousands of
embryos each year is a moral problem. It is a form of European hypocrisy
to cry horror at the death penalty, when we accept abortion with a light
heart: I would like to say, in more general terms that for these
questions disagreement is natural and acceptable, so long as the liberty
of the individual is guaranteed, which seems overall to be the case in
European countries and in the United States. The State, in a democracy,
is there to guarantee the freedoms of individuals, and not to support
the conscience of its citizenry. If a Christian, for example, considers
homosexuality to be a sin that is his right. As it is my right to
disagree with him. This does not hinder either of us from defending the
rights of homosexuals. In matters of morality, we should be humble
enough to limit ourselves to saying "I"; for when it comes to society as
a whole, what we need are the boundaries of the law and a general spirit
of mutual tolerance.
You seem to say in your book, in departure
from other atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, that
what separates atheists from believers is not really important...
It's true, in any case, from the point of view of morality and politics. On my way out of one of my conferences, a catholic priest approached me to congratulate me: "I agree with everything you say," he commented. As I pointed out to him that we were separated by faith in God, he observed with a smile that this difference wasn't all that important. And I agree. As far as politics are concerned, in the face of current dangers, I tend to find myself in the same camp as many moderate Christians—as well as with many Muslims who call for democracy and tolerance. As for morality, what makes the value of a human life is not belief or disbelief in God; it is the capacity for love, for justice and courage. What believer, if he lost his faith, would say to his children, "I recommend that you lie, rather than tell the truth; to steal, to betray, to kill"? None, obviously! I am particularly sensitive to this, not only because common morality unites most religions, but also because I was raised in Christianity, and I do not feel the need in any way to reject that cultural, moral and spiritual heritage. The Gospels remain for me, as for Spinoza or Camus, a source of constant inspiration. Among the dozen great philosophers who have marked western history, the majority were Christians. The first philosopher I read—and perhaps the last that I will read—was Pascal. Would it be necessary to say that Helvetius, a contemporary of Kant, is more important than him because he was a materialist? Would it be necessary, since I no longer believe in God, to spit on three thousand years of Judeo-Christian civilization? This would be ridiculous. I am an atheist, but a faithful atheist.
A fidelity which others might qualify as
I would like to illustrate my point with an anecdote. A short time
ago I was reunited with a friend who I had not seen since my days as a
student. At that time he was an atheist. We went for a drink, and he
told me that he was Jewish and that he had since started returning to
the synagogue. I asked him, "So, now you believe in God?" He answered me
with a smile. "You know, for a Jew, to believe in God or not is not
really the important question." It wasn't reasonable, he explained to
me, to base his entire existence on the answer to a question which was
unanswerable in terms of absolute knowledge (does God exist or not?). If
my friend feels and desires to be Jewish, it is not because he believes
in God, but because he feels linked to a certain history, a certain
community, a certain tradition—not in the name of faith, but in the name
What is the nature of your own fidelity?
I am faithful to the tradition and culture that are mine, because I
find in them a continuing source of inspiration and wisdom. For singers,
poets and writers with whom I feel an affinity, I do not ask they are
card-bearers in religion or irreligion. I believe that between religions
and atheist philosophies there may be a human convergence: it is the
same essential values which drive us and allow us to live together. When
I say that I do not believe in God, I am simply saying that the
hypothesis of a creator God, transcendent and exterior to this world, is
not necessary to my life, my morality or my spirituality. But I do not
think that the opposite hypothesis, provided that it is free of
dogmatism or fundamentalism, is in itself a threat to the world.
Is your use of the term spirituality not
The third part of my book is devoted entirely to this question. I
believe it is necessary to avoid all confusion on this matter. It is
erroneous to say that a non-believer cannot have spirituality. What is
spirituality? It is the life of the spirit. Atheists do not have any
less spirit than others. Why would they have less spirituality? Why
would we be less interested in a spiritual life? Spirituality is too
important to abandon it to religion. If someone asked me, "Does the
spirit exist?" my response would obviously be yes. Spirit is the power
to think, to love, to laugh. If it did not exist, we could not question
its existence! As the French philosopher Alain, who was an atheist like
me, used to say, "the spirit is not a hypothesis"; a hypothesis can only
be formed within a being endowed with a spirit. And simply because I am
an atheist, should I "castrate my soul" ? Obviously not. The real
question, therefore, is not whether the spirit exists or not (which it
clearly does), but whether it is a metaphysical substance or a product
of the brain. I believe in the second hypothesis, with takes nothing
away from the greatness of the spirit, or the depth of the spiritual
experience, as witnessed by ancient wisdoms: for example the Epicureans
or Stoics, or oriental spirituality, especially Buddhism and Taoism.
You recall in your book a personal mystic
The strongest experience that I have lived, one of an unparalleled intensity, happened during a walk in the forest. I lived an experience of fullness, of serenity, of simplicity, of eternity, of beatitude, as if I was suddenly at the heart of the absolute, at the heart of mystery and of clarity, at the heart of everything. I have lived nothing since either as strong or as happy. Under one form or other, one name or other, the mystical experience is a fundamental human experience, with or without religion—some even go as far to say that mysticism is an enemy of religion. The feeling of being one with the world, that which Freud calls "the oceanic feeling," is an experience that is open to everyone.
Richard Dawkins declared, in all seriousness, that to be an atheist today is a bit like being gay twenty years ago.
I believe in this case there is a big difference between Europe and
the United States. Atheism (and even more, declared atheism) is still
very much in the minority in the U.S., which might explain this
statement. But in many European countries, it is just the opposite. In
French universities during the 60's and 70's, the real handicap was to
admit to being a believer. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud were kings in that
era. The philosophers we were reading, those who exerted an enduring
influence on my generation, were Sartre and Camus, then Foucault,
Deleuze, Althusser: all atheists! The tendency today is the other way
around; atheists themselves recognize the importance and influence of
religious philosophers, whether they are Jewish, like Emmanuel Levinas,
or Christian, like Paul Ricoeur. To me, it is a sign of accrued
tolerance in the intellectual sphere, and a reason to rejoice.
This greater European tolerance seems quite
desirable. Does it harbor any dangers?
Yes, without a doubt. The principal danger is that of nihilism.
Certain individuals, because they no longer believe in God, draw the
conclusion that nothing has value, that "everything is false, everything
is permitted", as Nietzshe said. Others, who tolerate everything, have
concluded that everything has value. But, if everything has value, then
nothing is valuable: it is no longer tolerance, but nihilism! My friend
Nancy Huston, who was an inspiration for this book and who was kind
enough to translate it into English, wrote an excellent book on this
subject. We run the risk of being overwhelmed by what she calls
"professors of despair"; people who are often talented who put
themselves to the service of sadness, disgust, cowardice, and despair.
It is, if you like, the opposite and twin danger of fundamentalism. I
prefer authors who inspire us to live and to fight! And if there is, for
the atheist, something desperate in the human condition, let us have
rather what I would call a joyful despair. Just because death will have
the last word, this is no reason to stop enjoying life!
What was your reaction to the cartoons of
the prophet Mohamed?
I regretted, as I still do, that they were not published more widely,
and that for political/religious reasons, freedom of expression was
limited. I saw the cartoons, and to be honest judged them to be
relatively mediocre. But they were not scandalous, in and of themselves;
they did not attack the dignity of man. It was a deplorable act of
self-censure. Another example which was undoubtedly less talked about in
the United States, was the "Redeker affair" in France; Professor Redeker,
a French philosophy teacher received death threats because he criticized
Islam in an article published in Le Figaro. The article itself, which
provoked these threats, seemed to me, once again, mediocre. But I was
deeply shocked by the threats and I voiced my solidarity with Professor
Redeker. By nature, I am not a blasphemer, but I consider blasphemy to
be a right. One has the right, in our country, to be anti-fascist,
anti-communist, anti-liberal. Why do we not have the right to be
anti-clerical, anti-Muslim or anti-Christian? We are threatened by the
danger of "phobo-phobia", the phobia of phobias, the refusal of refusal,
the hatred of all hate. We have the right to not accept everything! In
France, a catholic member of Parliament was sentenced by a court of law
because he declared that, according to his religious convictions,
homosexuality was morally inferior to heterosexuality. I do not share
his ideas, as you can imagine, but the idea that the law would interfere
in this, or that he does not have the right to express this opinion, is
not acceptable to me. If one no longer has the right to be Christian in
our countries, where are we heading? We must take care not to sacrifice
liberty of conscience and opinion in the name of political correctness.
Atheist philosophers and scientists, like
Spinoza or Einstein, have used the term "God" without believing in it.
What do you think of this?
I believe that it is more complicated than that. You do not find for
either one a clear affirmation of their atheism. When Einstein wrote
that "God does not play dice", when Spinoza wrote that "God is a
thinking thing", these are not declarations of atheism. I believe that
their "God" is not—in contrast to the God of believers—of a transcendant
nature. It is an imminent intelligence, but not a creator God, a
transcendent being. Let us say it is a form of pantheism. My belief – or
shall I say disbelief? – is of a different kind. I do not believe in
God, nor do I believe in a Nature endowed with intelligence. If Nature
had the ability to think of itself, it would be another name for God.
The fact is, Nature is intelligible; but this does not mean that it is
Is your book directed to believers or
I do not proselytize. I do not wish to convert anyone. I ask only
that I be left to not believe in peace, and that my arguments be
submitted to discussion. For this reason, I humbly think that my book
may appeal to believers, especially the first two parts, as well as
non-believers, particularly the third part. I do not seek to sap belief
from the first group, but I want to show them that non-belief is also
based on serious philosophy, and that religion is not necessary for the
balance of civilization or for the existence of collective or personal
morality. As for nonbelievers, I want to tell them there is nothing
scandalous, quite the contrary, in accepting the religious traditions
from which they have often come, in sharing the values of the
civilization to which they belong, and that they can have a spiritual
life, regardless of all dogma and all religion. To each I propose a form
of tolerance, of mutual moderation, but also a spiritual adventure.
If love does not come from God, then where
does it come from?
Why do we love? Because once we were loved. The grace of being loved precedes the grace of loving and creating love. We were loved first, most often, by our parents, enough to understand that love is of supreme value, enough to understand that without this love we would be perpetually frustrated, perpetually at a loss. We have been loved by our mother, by our father, who did not know us, who owed us nothing, and who loved us, for the first and last time in our lives, unconditionally. God, from my point of view, is a sublimation of this love. It is that which renders him at once illusory and respectable, a sort of "transfigured father" (an expression of Freud) that humanity invented in order to reassure itself, to console itself, to control itself... For me, love is so strong that I do not need to believe in anything else, and yet is too fragile for me to believe in its immortality. I love it all the more: this strength and fragility, it is the most moving part of humanity.
Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers by Bruce E. Hunsberger, Bob Altemeyer (Prometheus Books) Hunsberger is one of the few researchers to look deeply into the soul (or should I say mind?) of an atheist, and what his studies show will be both pleasing and disturbing to nonbelievers and believers alike. The authors descriptions and conclusions are clear, brief and to the point.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear. Surveys show that atheists are
the most disliked people who log into the American debates on religion,
so much so that it will be hard for any researcher to accurately gauge
the attitudes of the ordinary American disbeliever. But Hunsberger, who
is highly respected for his research on right-wing authoritarianism,
comes to some fairly high and complimentary conclusions, and he does
this by studying 253 "active" atheists who are affiliated with atheist
clubs in the San Francisco area. He compares these politically motivated
protectors of our separation-of-church-from-state laws with a small
group of 28 atheists belonging to clubs in Alabama and Idaho and to an
equally small group of "ordinary" atheists and fundamentalists in
Of the active atheists, he found with great surprise that they can be as dogmatic and close-minded as the staunchest bible-thumping Protestant. Of course, it isn't surprising that members at opposite ends of any religious, philosophical, scientific, or political belief system would tend to dismiss those who strongly disagree with them. However, they are far less authoritarian than fundamentalists, and far more likely to encourage a wider variety of religious beliefs throughout the world. They have less racial and ethnic prejudice when compared to agnostics, non-church-going believers, and fundamentalists.
More than 70% of the fundamentalists expressed hostility toward homosexuals but I was dismayed that nearly a third of the atheist group did the same (they were only slightly less hostile than agnostics). Atheists, however were far less interested in converting other people to their way of thinking than fundamentalists, who believed that Christian beliefs should be taught in American schools, but didn't believe that Muslim beliefs should be taught in Middle-Eastern schools. Hmm, a little hypocritical, yes?
The Cambridge Companion to Atheism by Michael Martin (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy: Cambridge University Press) In this volume, eighteen of the world's leading scholars present original essays on various aspects of atheism: its history, both ancient and modern, defense and implications. The topic is examined in terms of its implications for a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, religion, feminism, postmodernism, sociology and psychology. In its defense, both classical and contemporary theistic arguments are criticized, and, the argument from evil, and impossibility arguments, along with a non religious basis for morality are defended. These essays give a broad understanding of atheism and a lucid introduction to this controversial topic.
This is really a superb introduction to atheism. What gets
my attention is that it includes a number of essays that contextualize atheism
in its particular historical instances.
The first chapter, "Atheism in Antiquity," details how naturalism and similar concepts central to atheism were advocated long ago. Due to the prevailing influences of Christianity and other voices and powers in the ancient world, however, they didn't "catch on" like other metaphysical notions did.
The next chapter, "Atheism in Modern History," is a superb supplement, and is worth the price of the entire volume in my estimation. In it, Gavin Hyman argues persuasively that modern atheism is a reactionary phenomenon to a modern conception of God, which was different from more ancient conceptions. Hyman says that the advent of modernity made the rise of atheism inevitable. Modernity and atheism are inexorably entwined. What might atheism do, then, in our postmodern context?
Much later in the book, the Derridean scholar, John Caputo, shows how the matrix of postmodernity alters the strength of atheism. His conclusion: postmodernity is just as unfavorable to theism as it is to atheism, and there is the paradoxical attempt to move beyond the binary oppositions of the Western tradition (in this case, between theism and atheism) into a new and unforeseen option. It is difficult to say exactly how this tertium quid should be described. A kind of Levinasian mysticism of sorts, tempered by a learned ignorance? What we can say is that there is a reluctance to affirm naturalism or a supernaturalism too strongly. While a "weak" conception of God predominates, the language of theology remains in use.
Phil Zuckerman and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi give sociological and psychological profiles of atheism. Zuckerman's sociological chapter is quite dry, with little more than statistics. What else should I expect, though, I suppose. Beit-Hallahmi's psychological profiling is much more interesting, and makes the case that atheists are generally male, married, well-read and committed in various ways to the academic world, less dogmatic (which seems ironic in some cases, no?), less prejudiced, more tolerant, compassionated and conscientious, but oftentimes distanced and unhappy.
The Analytic tradition gets a sizeable representation here, which is what could be expected. Daniel Dennett, too, gets a chapter to argue for the Darwinian variable that supports atheistic non-belief. I wanted to be convinced of it more than I was. Other contributions include the relationship of atheism to feminism (the author argues that all consistent feminists should be atheists), religious freedom, and anthropology. William Lane Craig is allowed one chapter to give the other side a voice (theism). Some of his arguments are laughable -- literally. Others are more convincing, until one reads the subsequent rebuttals. Anyone, though, it must be said, could refute such a summary as W. L. Craig's. It is simply too short to argue convincingly for anything. That being said, it is, after all, only an introductory text. It's quite nice that a contrary position was included at all, actually.
The Impossibility of God edited by
Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier (Prometheus Books)
Most people, believers and nonbelievers alike, are unacquainted with the variety
and force of arguments for the nonexistence of God. In fact, the very mention of
such an argument is usually a source of amusement, if not derision. Indeed, how
can there be a serious argument for the nonexistence of God, let alone for the
impossibility of God, when so many people "simply know" that God exists?
Since 1948, a growing number of scholars have been formulating and developing a series of arguments that the concept of God – as understood by the world's leading theologians and major religions – is logically contradictory, and therefore God not only does not exist but cannot exist.
In this anthology, Michael Martin,
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at
Part one, definitional disproofs, comprises arguments for the impossibility of God based on a contradiction within the definition of God. Startling contradictions are found, for example, by J.N. Findlay, when God is defined as the adequate object of religious attitudes, and by Douglas Walton, when God is defined as a being than which no greater can be thought.
Deductive evil disproofs – based on a contradiction between the attributes of God and the existence of evil – comprise part two. J.L. Mackie formulates and develops the famous logical argument from evil for the impossibility of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God. Several scholars, such as Quentin Smith, explore and further develop this argument.
Part three contains doctrinal disproofs, each based on a contradiction between God's attributes and a particular religious doctrine or story. For example, Christine Overall shows that a God with the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence is inconsistent with the doctrine of miracles. Richard Schoenig demonstrates that this God is inconsistent with the theistic reward/punishment doctrine regarding the postmortem fate of humans.
In part four, multiple attributes disproofs expose a variety of unexpected contradictions between different divine attributes. Theodore Drange, Matt McCormick, and many others offer arguments for the incompatibility of such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omnipresence, agency, and immutability. Michael Martin, for instance, argues that omniscience and omnibenevolence contradict one another.
The last part comprises single attribute disproofs, each based on a self-contradiction within just one divine attribute. For example, J.L. Cowan formulates and defends an argument that omnipotence is self-contradictory, and Patrick Grim presents a battery of arguments, including indexical, Cantorian, and Godelian arguments, that omniscience is self-contradictory.
Finally, in the appendix, there is a remarkable selection written by Paul Thiry d'Holbach in 1770 that anticipates many of the insights in this anthology.
The editors provide a valuable
general introduction and helpful summaries
of the crucial issues involved. By providing a diverse collection of arguments
for the conclusion that God cannot exist,
The Impossibility of God is an invaluable resource for anyone who
ponders the nature and existence of God. These arguments will challenge the
general reader, as well as students and teachers of philosophy and religion, to
think deeply and critically about the coherence of an idea that has preoccupied
much of humanity.
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