I. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, with Occasionally Relevant Commentary in Two Parts

Julian Baggini’s book, A Very Short Introduction to Atheism, was published 2003 by Oxford University Press. It is, as the title might indicate, a very short book;  111 pages to the references, easily read in a single session. It’s curious that I’ve been oblivious to this book till now, as I’ve been familiar (by title and association at the very least) with popular books on atheism for the last several years. Before I begin, let me clarify that this post is not strictly a book review, although I will be reacting directly to what Mr. Baggini writes and making a recommendation at the end. I say this so that I may have the freedom to ramble.

It should be said that Mr. Baggini has an amicable style, approaching the languid grace of C.S. Lewis in places. Indeed, I think that if it were not for such an easy-going demeanor, Mere Christianity would have long ago been lay’d to rest. But that way lies digression…

Baggini’s personal story is presented at the outset, a prudent move given the severe accusations of bias with which actors in the God-debate are regularly presented. His story is similar to mine in important details, save for the Roman Catholicism (pg.1):

When I was a child I attended a Roman Catholic primary school. It would serve the cause of militant atheism well if I could report beatings by nuns and fondlings in the sacristy by randy priests, but neither gaudy tale would be true. On the contrary, I was raised in what could be seen as a gentle, benign religious environment. Neither of my parents were Bible-thumpers and none of my teachers was anything other than kind. I do not feel I bear any deep scars brought on by the mild form of indoctrination practised there, where beliefs were instilled by constant repetition and reinforcement rather than any overt coercion. Indeed, in many ways the power the Church exerted over me was very weak.

My parents were and are rather more devout. My father is the theological leader in our house, and he is a powerfully-convinced believer in predestination. So far as I can tell, he has no other leanings toward Calvinism, this tenet being a singular defining foundation of his religious belief and arrived at privately, by examination of the Bible and a certain experience years ago. My experience of childhood was happy and inseparable from my experience of non-denominational Protestant Christianity. Encountering personal failure in adulthood and returning, chastened, to the fold is one of my secret fears. It is one reason to educate myself as deeply as possible about Christianity, atheism, and the philosophy of religion, that I may protect myself from the irrational urge to return, and, if I should (hopefully with the requisite rational reasons to do so, emotional/spiritual factors notwithstanding), to do it with self-respect intact. Perhaps this is a foolish, youthful hope, given the power of human emotion.

Baggini continues with his casual autobiography, taking the opportunity to note the widespread suspicion of atheists and to encourage the reader to step back from personal biases. Of course, he does this graciously: no insult here to theists and Christians. It’s a fair and true point that the move from theism to atheism does not automatically confer the property of rationality, as so many assume. For what it’s worth, I have found this last point confirmed in my experience with online forum debaters.

Back to Baggini (pg.3):

Atheism is in fact extremely simple to define: it is the belief that there is no God or gods.

In my mind, the section from which this is taken, “Defining Atheism”, is the weakest of the book. He observes that atheism is often occasioned by a skepticism which, to be consistently applied, must also cut out the whole of the supernatural realm. Thus, this skepticism would lead to naturalism. Curiously enough, although Baggini acknowledges here that atheism and naturalism are not semantically equivalent, in later chapters he does  refer to them as such in a few critical spots.

I like that he spends time differentiating between naturalism and physicalism. Critics of naturalism, particularly Christian apologists, often attack atheism with anti-naturalistic arguments, and attack all naturalists with arguments against the hardest naturalism. It is often said that atheists have no basis for morality, supported by the implication that naturalism has none of the ontological tools required by traditional moral theory.

I like to think of atheism and theism as being simple “yes/no” responses to the question, “Is there a god or Gods?” If this characterization is correct, then the moral question posed above misunderstands atheism as being naturalism, which while often bed-brothers, one does not logically lead to the other. In other words, one can be an atheist and furnish one’s self with the most extravagant moral phenomena, and “souls and ghosts” (pg. 4) besides, without self-contradiction. Naturalism limits this, of course, but there is no reason to think that naturalism cannot provide us with a satisfactory account of, say, moral obligation on the grounds of a few arguments against eliminative materialism.

Although Baggini does not mention the varieties of atheism, I should state them here. I understand my current position as “weak” or “agnostic” atheism, the belief that there probably is no God with an emphasis on my lack of knowledge in this area. There is “strong” atheism, which simply answers, “No, there is no God.” If we go by this definition, I would think there are very few of this sort, since most all atheists will admit at some level that there is a possibility they are wrong. Baggini does refer to “militant” atheism, which I take mean the anti-religious movement populated by atheists, but of course that usage of “atheism” does not refer to his or my definitions.

A thought: materialism and theism are compatible. Perhaps this isn’t true, but it occurred to me recently that there is no reason to think that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being could not be an entirely material. This is related to another question: are the natural and supernatural categories real, or merely convenient labels for what we can and cannot observe? Time to read some introductory philosophy of science, I suppose.

Baggini’s points on atheism being an independent, non-parasitic philosophical position, and his defence of atheistic “sobriety” are well-placed. This is the sort of book which eases into the subject matter via a more personal route, by defending the character and labels of atheists first. Ideal for a Christian desiring a gentle introduction, I think. The second chapter does the same thing, introducing a naive (read: common sense) empirical epistemology that’s acceptable to Christians and atheists.

His arguments for atheism are fairly weak. The argument from evil and divine hiddenness are the strongest in my view, so I would have made those the keystones, but he begins with one that isn’t relevant to God’s existence: the falsity of substance dualism. Perhaps this would be a knock-down argument, if we could be assured that God does not exist anywhere without disembodied souls or something also existing. Such is not the case, however: substance dualism is only genetic to Abrahamic monotheism, not theism at large. Nevertheless, any argument showing that humans do not consist of anything non-material is bound to be damning to Christianity, I think, so no harm done.

He does mention the argument from evil in passing (pg. 29) as better explained by atheism than theism, but spends few words on the matter. This is curious, as the various arguments from evil are hugely significant for atheists, often figuring in deconversions and the continuation of disbelief. The main theodicies are all questionable, and the currently most popular, skeptical theism, has major issues which are rarely addressed. If I were writing a book to atheism, I would have expended an entire chapter on the matter. It’s that important.

Chapter Three, “Atheist Ethics” is about as good a reply an atheist could give. The strength of its chapter lies in its address to divine-command theory and Baggini’s presentation of the Euthyphro Dilemma. He doesn’t simply throw the dilemma out there as if it were knock-down, but acknowledges the common theistic reply and presents a new version. With regard to establishing an atheist ethic, many atheists defer to their (usually obscure) personal moral theory, getting bogged down in specific debate, when it would have sufficed to point out that non-theistic ethics are as old and venerated as the alternatives, and that theistic morality is at least as controversial. A little course on normative ethics rounds things out nicely.

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