What is Atheism ?
Atheism eliminates the need for intermediary aid to interpret the world for us and to make prescriptive demands for moral and ethical practices based on supernatural and superstitious premises. Atheists have made up their minds there is no god, no heaven, no immortal soul that lives on after death and therefore no punishment or reward in an imaginary afterlife. Atheists are both intelligent and brave. They are intelligent for having thought their way out of a false religious concept in which our American culture is saturated and brave because of the social penalties exacted by a religious society on non-believer. There is a premise that atheism is not a philosophy, that it is simply not a belief in god. That is true. But why should atheists stop with that designation and define atheism with one more negative? Theists denigrate us by attempting to characterize atheists as immoral, unhappy, and adrift. Such obstructionist myths need to be contradicted. We are people who have left behind, as children leave toys and fairy tales behind when they grow up, false comfort, myth and confused moral mandates. Atheists are free, non credulous, and capable of making choices based on logic, reason and reality. We are thinkers who exercise the faculty of thought every day and face the challenges of life with joy and resolve.
Free choice is a complex, nuanced endeavor. We make our own meaning in a world we comprehend with our reason. Some have charged that our stance has brought about a “disenchantment” of the world. We can answer such a fatuous phrase by admitting that yes, we see the world as it is. There are earthquakes, tsunamis, predatory creatures, great social injustice and suffering, and people who die terrible deaths. We know that blind chance can cut us or our loved ones down.
Atheists do not have the necessity to be comforted for such evils by believing that an all powerful, all knowing, all loving, all beneficent god will justify them on the day of judgement. We do not need to believe that when we die we will achieve understanding of the creator’s motives and all evil will be answered for. We know that there is no justification for the evil and inequity in the world. Many atheists, instead, do their part in trying to make this world, the only one we have, and their lives, mortal and limited, flourish and reach their full potential. We attempt to bring this condition about by giving our full attention to helping create a civil society in our countries and to making a world beneficial to all the species on the planet. We are not distracted by thoughts and actions supporting a theistic fantasy.
Our skepticism is invaluable for seeing all the ways we have been seduced, cajoled and educated into believing that the correct stance is one of acceptance of the majority opinion. In the United States the majority retains a belief in god and the afterlife. But no group can decide what is best for individual people. It is an insidious position that society and certain religious groups and people take- acting as though they are parents or lawgivers to other adults. What to some fear-filled minds are considered “forbidden,” or prohibitive things, atheists consider rationally and decide to do or not to do based on reason. We do not see people as “bad” or with wicked natures, but rather as people who have strong competing wants and the desire to reach the truth in their own fashion and in their own time.
We do not need to accept other conceptions of truth that we believe to be incorrect, but we do not find it necessary to humiliate people for beliefs that we consider archaic, confused and superstitious. Our reliance on science and naturalism need not preclude an interrogation of the human heart, what love and tenderness are, and how we are to behave with regard to our fellow man and other species. Atheism is more powerful than the impulse to humiliate. It is important to put our ideas forward in a manner that dispels confusion rather than adds to it. Atheists can relate to their contemporaries with kindness, tolerance and reason. We can be examples in a world of darkness and chaos.
Atheists determine what the good life is for ourselves, and the means by which we achieve it. Some of us devote our lives to bringing up children with minds full of the joy of life, unfettered by theistic biblical tales of blood, guilt and fear. Some of us teach our young people, bringing them to an understanding of the workings of our planet and the evolution of our human species. Some of us are doctors, computer programmers, auto mechanics, physicists, and philosophers. Whatever means we choose, we respond intelligently and compassionately to the imperatives of our society. Many of us devote time and money to atheist organizations which promote a naturalist worldview and work to keep a wall between our country’s church and state. We are atheists and we know that every goal and every resolution is right here, right now.
It is not only theists who have a monopoly on faith, hope and charity. We atheists live our lives with such premises as well. Our faith is in the ability of human beings to fashion their own moral codes, based on reason and human well being. Our hope is that each individual will achieve the highest potential of meaning and happiness. Our charity is in working toward helping humans and other species in less fortunate circumstances. By living our lives with an understanding of science, and with compassion and hard work, we atheists believe we can someday bring about societies where all beings will reach their finest capacities and where lives and minds will flourish.
Definitions of atheism
Michael Martin, the pre-eminent atheist philosopher, defines two types of atheism in his volume, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. (1990.)
There is negative atheism, which is the position of not believing a theist god exists. (26)
There is positive atheism, the position of disbelieving a theistic god exists. (26)
In a broad sense, negative atheism means an absence of belief in any god or gods.
In a broad sense, positive atheism is a belief in no gods. (Martin, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to atheism. 2007. 2.)
Here are the definitions used by Douglas Krueger in What Is Atheism? (1998) for types of belief stances:
Theism is the belief that there exists exactly one god, and this god is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and transcendent. This god is also active in the world. The traditional god is the god of theism.
Deism is the belief that there exists one god with all the attributes stated in theism, above. But this god is not active in the world.
Polytheism is the belief that at least two gods exist, none of which is the god of theism.
Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. (18-19)
Richard Dawkins, the well known atheist and biologist, defines strong theism to strong atheism on a numerical basis of 1 to 7.
Agnostics fall in the middle, at numbers 3, 4 and 5.
The impartial agnostic stands at exactly 50% and believes that god’s existence and non existence are exactly equiprobable. (Dawkins, The God Delusion. 2006. 50-51.)
Arguments for and against the Existence of god
There are three consequential arguments concerning the existence of god, and a fourth argument that is a serious challenge against god’s existence. The first three arguments are the ontological, cosmological, and the teleological. The Kalam argument is a variation on the cosmological. The fourth is the argument of evil in the world, both moral and physical. The Preface will discuss the above arguments, with a glance at the additional array of assertions about god’s existence. The somewhat dated ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments have been defeated by atheologists many times, but as with the tenets of the creationism movement (See Creationism), theist philosophers dust the dated ideas off, revise them slightly, and bring them back again and again. The Problem of, or from, evil, is defended by theists with new twists and turns to their propositions. They are quite aware of the formidable challenge of justifying an all powerful, omniscient, and all benevolent god who is concerned about and active in a world, and yet allows it to contain evil.
The extensive books and papers, as well as the intellectual prowess of the opponents on both sides of the philosophical debate over god’s existence, demonstrate the intense interest and the high stakes involved. Yet the opinion of Julian Baggini, author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (2003- see the Book List) is both contrarian and thoughtful. Baggini describes the god existence propositions as a form of argument called apologetics. The function of such arguments is not to prove that god really exists but to demonstrate that the belief that he does is not irrational or unwarranted. Theologians try to establish that belief in god is consistent with logical and philosophical evidence. The Preface will not only discuss the major arguments for the existence of god, but glance at some of the lesser theories. The Book List suggests some volumes for the atheistic scholar, ranging from the most accessible for beginners, to the more technically complex books for readers who have some background in philosophy.
The ontological argument has a long history. (The edited propositions used to describe the ontological concept below are indebted to Peter A. Angeles’ inimitable essay in the original Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 1985.) Michael Martin, the pre-eminent atheist philosopher of our time, plots a course for its beginnings from Anselm in the 12thCentury to its continuance up to Alvin Plantinga, arguably the most sophisticated and knowledgeable contemporary theist philosopher. The general argument consists of (1) god is a completely perfect being; (2) existence in external reality is necessary for god to be the completely perfect being because if he did not exist externally he would be lacking something, actual existence, and would not be the completely perfect being, which he is. Therefore, god exists.
The terms used to describe the god of the ontological argument generally consist of all powerful, omnibenevolent, omniscient, and so on. Colin McGinn, the famous atheist philosopher, has pointed out that one problem with the ontological argument is that the term perfect and all attributes used to describe god need to be defined. What do they really mean and what properties would they entail? In reality the only way we can apprehend god’s perfection is through our cultural sources and our psychological predilections. Why would humans worship a god that is not perfect, yet who is ostensibly perfect by definition? God could not be called god if he were not the completely perfect being. There is circularity to the argument, too, as it begins with the assumption that a god exists and circles back to the original proposition. Michael Martin has pointed out that any word could be substituted for god, such as fairy, elf, or island. Plantinga and other theist philosophers assert that their propositions for the existence of god need only be rationally acceptable and not contrary to philosophic reason. Martin rather humorously states that declaring the word fairy, island, or elf as a perfect being is as rationally acceptable and not contrary to philosophic reason as the word god. Arthur Schopenhauer, the well known atheist philosopher (See Philosophy), thought the ontological argument “at best, a charming joke.”
The ontological argument fails.
The Preface’s discussion of the cosmological argument will refer to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica,The Second Way, which is generally considered Aquinas’ strongest argument or “proof” of god. Here is a concise summation of the rather complex argument, which is often stated with five or six propositions. Everything had a beginning. Everything that began has a beginner. Since the universe was beginning it had to have a beginner and we call that beginner god. A variation on the cosmological argument is very popular with some contemporary theologians. It was revived from the formulations of Arab medieval theologians. It is known as the Kalam cosmological argument, which involves the idea of a necessary being. The Kalam argument states that there are now contingent beings. Either they always existed, going back to the past infinitely or they began at some point. Since it is impossible that there was a chain back to the past infinitely, being had to begin at some point. If something begins to exist it has a cause. The only possible cause is a necessary being and therefore a necessary being exists, which is god.
Another way of stating the cosmological argument is (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause. (2) The universe began to exist. (3) Therefore the universe has a cause. This definition of the cosmological argument is used by William Lane Craig. Craig is a well known theist proponent who published The Kalam Cosmological Argument in 1979. Quentin Smith states that there have been more articles in the philosophy journals concerning the Kalam concept than any other contemporary philosopher’s formulation of god’s existence, including the concepts of Plantinga and Swinburne.
There are many objections to the cosmological arguments. Infinite regress is logically possible, and despite their claims, theist theologians have not proved its impossibility. Even if the premise of a first cause is accepted, that does not prove the first cause needed to be the theist god. Logically, even if there was a first cause, there is no reason to necessarily believe that first cause still exists. There could have been some finite god that has ceased to exist. The first cause need not be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient or even conscious. The cause could be the universe itself.
Another buttress of the theist philosophers is the Principle of Sufficient Reason, from Aristotle, the 5th Century B.C.E. Greek philosopher. The Principle of Sufficient Reason, or PSR, is invoked in defense of cosmological arguments, particularly the Kalam. The simplest definition of the PSR is that there must always be a reason that suffices to explain anything that is. Leibniz, in his Monadology (1714, 32) states that there is a PSR and “that most frequently the reason cannot be known by us.” The PSR today is in serious trouble. Quantum mechanics and the PSR would seem to be in conflict. Indeterminacy is characteristic of many quantum physics’ processes. Douglas Krueger maintains that the PSR cannot be shown to be true, by either observation or experience.
The cosmological argument, including its subsidiary, the Kalam cosmological argument, fails.
The last of the three consequential arguments for god’s existence is the teleological, or the argument from design. Michael Martin maintains that there is a great deal of similarity between the teleological and the cosmological formulations, and that there is no sharp distinction between them.
The teleological argument is very weak. First formulated in its present form by William Paley (Natural Theology, 1802,) it claimed that when one sees a complex mechanism such as a watch, one assumes it had a maker. Therefore, since the universe is complex, we can assume it also had a maker. We can therefore assume the universe’s maker is god. But the universe is natural, not a machine, and has natural causes. If one reads Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (1987) one will learn how evolution accounts for the design we find. Recent attempts to find design, such as concepts concerning a “fine-tuned” universe have been unconvincing. The eminent physicist Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007) is an excellent account of natural processes. Stenger consistently demonstrates that the universe behaves very much as one can expect if there were no divine being guiding it. Stenger states: “Indeed, Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God.”
The argument from design fails.
Other arguments for and against the existence of god-
It is apparent from the arguments for god, and the failure of the propositions, that theists begin from the position that god exists. From that point, intelligent theists, such as Alvin Plantinga, develop arguments for god’s existence that do not try to prove the arguments are true, but instead, rationally logical. Unfortunately, even though the new formulations prove to be as unsound as former ones, atheologists must deal with the most current theist arguments and defeat them.
There is an array of lesser arguments of interest to many atheists, and the Preface will list some of the ones that still have some currency in the debate between the proof or disproof of god’s existence.
More arguments for the existence of god-
There is the argument from mind, or the concept that since humans have consciousness it was bestowed by god. Some theists believe materialism does not give a true account of mental phenomena and this failure is implicit proof of their position. Their contention is easily struck down by the contemporary findings of biology, psychology and neuroscience. There is the moral argument, which states that since everyone agrees on right and wrong, god exists as he has created objective moral values. There are other factors that account for objective morality, if indeed such objective morality proves to be the case, which is not clear. (See Atheist Anthropology) Moral Argument fails.
There is the argument from miracles. Since there are only eyewitness accounts for the reports of the overturning of the iron clad natural laws, one may assume that the miracles do not occur. Hume, the 18thCentury skeptical philosopher (see Skepticism), formulated the logical refusal of miracles and demonstrated that the argument from miracles fails. There is the argument from the Bible. Since the claims of biblical prophesies, “factual accounts,” perfect moral systems and biblical inerrancy have been discredited, the argument from the Bible fails.
A few arguments for god’s non existence-
There is the anti-creation argument. God supposedly created the universe, but god is immutable. To create the universe, the creator must undergo a state change. An immutable substance cannot undergo a state change. Therefore god did not create the universe and does not exist. There is the incoherence of omnipotence argument. This argument is complex, but a simple question can shed light on it. Can god make a stone too heavy for him to lift? There is the lack of evidence argument. A god who is supposed to be deeply involved in human affairs would have to make his presence known at some point. If one discounts miracles and false reports, evidence of god’s existence has not come about. The argument from non belief was formulated around 1993 in its present form, and has been refined by Theodore Drange, who believes it is more robust than the argument from evil. The argument from non belief states that it seems impossible that a god so involved with man and wishing to see every person believe in him before he/she dies would permit so many people to disbelieve in him. (See the Book List for a more detailed description of non belief.) There is the argument of human insignificance. Humans are putatively very important to god, but science shows their insignificance within the universe. There is the concept of the incoherence of the definition of god, which is the confusion of the biblical accounts of god, which give rise to conflicts between people, and the argument from Biblical defects. (See Biblical Errancy and Criticism) The problem from evil may be the most consequential argument for the non existence of god, and will be discussed below, in a separate section.
The Preface has just glanced at the multitude of arguments for and against the existence of god. The volumes on the Book List below will expand the arguments and discuss many more. The atheist reader who wants to study further in this particular area will find more arguments in the following short list of books. Burton Mackie.The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. (1983); Douglas E. Krueger. What is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. (1989.); Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God. (2004); Michael Martin. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. (1990); Michael Tooley. “Evil, Problem of.” (New Encyclopedia of Unbelief 2007); Theodore Drange. NonBelief and Evil. (1998); Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion. (2006); and Keith Augustine. “Evidential Arguments from Evil.” (Web.Secular Web)
See the Book List and the Works Consulted.
The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is the most consequential argument for the non-existence of god and both theists and atheologists have devoted extensive time and thought concerning its ramifications. The atheist sees a world filled with enormous suffering, both moral and physical. Atheists cannot reconcile suffering, whether from man’s moral evil, or from natural evil, such as typhoons, earthquakes, cancer, and so on with an all powerful, all benevolent, all knowing god. As Epicurus, the Hellenistic Greek philosopher stated:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” The argument is not considered philosophically sound, however. There are possible reasons, according to theist philosophers, for the world being a better place because of the evil in it. One of theists’ favorite justifications is that evil might be necessary in the world to allow people to develop spiritually. Michael Tooley states that the problem of evil should be formulated in a different way by atheist thinkers. He believes in making the more modest claim that some evils exist in the world that make it very unlikely that god exists.
Theist philosophers, knowing the strength of atheistic arguments that a world containing evil lessens the probability of god, have formulated justifications for the presence of evil, which are called theodicies. A few of their reasons for evil in the world are as punishment for original sin, as a character builder, as an opportunity for earning eternal reward or punishment after death, man’s limited knowledge as to god’s purpose for evil, the fact of evil suggests an ethical law, and more. They have set the bar even higher against atheist reasoning, with the claim that to dispute evil, one would have to consider every one of the theistic arguments. Alvin Plantinga, arguably the most knowledgeable and pre-eminent theist philosopher, states that the atheist “…would be obliged to consider all the sorts of reasons natural theologians have invoked in favor of theist beliefs- the traditional cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, for example.” Plantinga does not explain why he mentions the cosmological argument. There is no necessity in the cosmological for the object, the first cause, in other words, god, to have a moral character, or to be morally perfect. The cosmological, therefore, would have no bearing on the fact of evil in the world.
Alvin Plantinga’s argument concerning evil is the most consequential one in contemporary theological circles. He has advanced the free will defense and argues that the concept of an all powerful, all benevolent, omniscient god can be compatible with evil in the world. Plantinga is very clever, and while his defense is considered sophisticated by theist philosophers, it does not appear plausible to atheists. A short glance around the Web discovers theist agreement with Plantinga and some seem to believe that his formulations and the recent “scientific discoveries” of design (!) have settled the question of the existence of god.
An attenuated version of Plantinga’s argument is as follows: free will is so important for the development of moral creatures that god could not actualize a world without actualizing evil within it. God could simply not create a world with no evil or creatures that would be incapable of choosing evil. Here is Plantinga on the issue: “It is possible that god, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil… furthermore, it is possible that god, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil, if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.”
Although this argument does not seem robust to many atheist thinkers, Plantinga has managed to create a defense concerning moral evil. He has devised a “fall back” answer to the problem of physical evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as well. He states that it is possible that physical evil is caused by Satan or other evil creatures who have free will in some way that does not contradict god’s omnipotence. Plantinga does admit that the probability of such creatures in extremely low. Richard Swinburne, a formidable Christian theologian in his own right, disagrees with the evil creature idea, stating that it adds an unnecessary proposition to the theory and lowers the probability of the preceding argument.
However, many theist philosophers have pronounced the question of evil settled by Plantinga, even though the entire argument is open to dispute. Plantinga’s goal is to logically defeat the idea that god and evil in the world are incompatible. Even if his defense is highly implausible, it is what theists consider a possible answer concerning the compatibility god’s existence and the existence of evil. That possibility is sufficient for Plantinga’s purposes. It is not necessary for his formulation to be true, but that it is logically possible. In the last volume of his trilogy on belief, Warranted Christian Belief (2009), Plantinga devotes the final chapter to suffering and evil once more, and states his position that there is perhaps no good antitheist case from evil.
There is no obvious philosophical objection to Plantinga’s theory of moral evil, but it is quite clear that he has not solved the problem of physical evil in the world by logical argumentation. Atheists have rebutted the arguments for the existence of god with ease. The problem of evil in the world compatible with an all powerful and benevolent god has not been satisfactorily explained by theists. It is time to take Ockham’s metaphorical razor up and scissor the god proposition from the theory. The only true logical explanation for evil in the world is that no god/creator exists.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the atheist brother, Ivan, confronts his younger Christian brother, Alyosha, with a question concerning evil in the world: “I call on you- answer me: imagine that you yourself are building an edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature…and raise your edifice on that foundation of her unrequited tears- would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”
“No, I would not agree,” said Alyosha softly.
The defense of god and evil in the world fails.
1 Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 93-94.
2 Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990. Chapter Three.
3 Angeles, Peter A. “ God, Existence of.” In Gordon Stein,ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1985.
4 Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990. 94.
5 Plantinga, Alvin. Ontological Arguments. I: Classification: Handbook of Metaphysics and Ontology. B. Smith and H. Burkhardt, eds. Munich: Philospha Verglag, 1991. 622-623.
6 Krueger, Douglas. What Is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998. 143-145.
7 Krueger, 146.
8 Craig, William Lane. “Theistic Critiques of Atheism.” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 76.
9 Smith, Quentin. “Kalam Cosmological Arguments for atheism.” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 183.
10 Krueger, Atheism, 152-153.
11 Martin, Atheism, 125.
12 Stenger, Victor. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2005. 71.
13 Tooley, Michael. “Evil, Problem of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 302-310.
14 Krueger, Douglas E. What Is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998. 172-185.
15 Tooley, “Evil, Problem of.” 302-310.
16 Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. 166-167.
17 Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. (1979) 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 487.
18 Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 487.
19 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. (1880). Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 245-246.
The following Volumes on the Book List have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:
Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003.
Baggini has written a very concise and informative introduction to atheism, covering many of the subjects important to atheism in a short 115 pages. His positive, upbeat tone concerning atheism is a welcome change from the negativity often used to describe irreligion, even by authors who are proponents of non belief. Baggini argues for the meaning and purpose that humans can derive from finding their own paths; he believes that a purpose bestowed on a person by a “creator” is not as meaningful.
Baggini discusses how important the naturalist stance is for many atheists. (See Atheist Philosophies - Naturalism and Humanism.) Baggini dismisses the charges made against atheists, that they are extreme materialists. He maintains that atheists are generally physicalists, that many of us believe the physical brain and body work together, the mind dependent on the brain.
The author’s discussion of the advantages of the kind of pick and mix ethics and morals many atheists engage in is excellent. He suggests looking at a mixture of Kantian, Aristotelian and Utilitarian ethics for a secular life stance. He lays out very concise, accurate descriptions of all three systems. (See Ethics and Applied Ethics) He takes up a spirited refutation of charges by theists concerning atheist immoralism, demonstrating through examples and reasoning, that the slanders are groundless. The volume has a section on meaning in life without god and how death helps make life important.
The book’s coverage of atheist history is necessarily attenuated, but he is one of the few authors of beginning atheism to explain why the two totalitarian governments of the 20th Century, Fascist Germany and Soviet Russia, were not the products of atheist philosophy. His examination of this troublesome issue is commendable, straightforward and illuminating. Fascist Germany was not really atheist; Hitler’s government retained many ties to the Catholic Church. He provides welcome documentation of how much the Eastern Orthodox Church played a role in Soviet Russia, and discusses how far the Soviets were from the ideals of Karl Marx, the great socialist philosopher.
Baggini discusses the arguments for god and against god (the problem of evil) very competently. He includes a caution to atheists concerning taking a militant stance that would try to stamp out religion. He concludes with an endorsement of a humanist life stance. His style is concise, clear, flowing and very accessible. He simplifies obscure philosophical points. A fine and idiosyncratic bibliography is included. Baggini’s volume is an excellent place to start for beginning students. Readers with a background in atheist studies or philosophy will find other books on this list more helpful.
The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Michael Martin, ed. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
The Cambridge is relatively current, features an array of articles about atheism written by 18 leading thinkers and researchers in the field, and is a veritable feast for atheist scholars. It is a very welcome volume: an atheist- designated Cambridge Companion helps designate atheism as a respectable, scholarly topic, suitable not only for philosophers, but for thoughtful readers of all types.
The largest criticism of the book is that it is very weighted with philosophy essays, which is Martin’s field. There is a good degree of balance in the volume, otherwise, with an article by William Craig Lane, a leading theistic philosopher, on critiques of atheism. Lane is easily dealt with in the rebuttal articles by atheist scholars. Gavin Hyman has written a fascinating article about modern atheist history, but his main premise is not necessarily robust. He believes atheism is a reaction to the kind of god that is proposed at different periods of history and that atheism grew in tandem with modernity. Why atheism must be a poor cousin of theism is an irritation to the secular reader. He even suggests that atheism might be in danger in the post modern world. That is not the case, as atheism has been shown to be growing, according to reputable statistics. (See Atheist Demographics)
The Cambridge is divided into 3 parts: history of atheism and demographical statistics, the case against theism, and then a section called implications. Implications includes feminism and atheism, atheism and post modernism, with interesting thoughts by John Caputo, the Derridean scholar. He sees the possibility of theism and atheism blending into a third option, but he does not make a guess about its nature. There is a fine essay by Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds- 1993) on anthropomorphical theories of religion and a very good piece by Steven G. Gey on atheism and freedom of religion.
Some of the essays are very technical and some are most accessible, so beginning readers will have to pick and choose. It is a fine, scholarly work for the intermediate atheist reader. A beginning atheist scholar without a background in philosophy might feel more comfortable reading one or two less complicated volumes, such as the Krueger or the Dawkins on this book list, before attempting The Cambridge. Recommended for atheist libraries.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
This Book List almost left Dawkin’s volume off, because it is so well known. But a further consideration put it back on because anecdotal evidence appears to confirm that people who were in some doubt about theism were convinced by The God Delusion to become non-believers. Dawkins is an excellent communicator andDelusion is a salvo against theism, especially Christianity and Islam.
Some of the book is an excoriation against religion, and while it may delight, it will not instruct atheists. But Dawkins explains what an atheist is and covers the arguments for and against god with brio and philosophical thoroughness. He is also an excellent commentator on the topics of religion’s roots and morality. Dawkins is strongest when discussing scientific principles. He delineates the pros and cons of contested theories such as the anthropic principle, both planetary and cosmological versions. When Dawkins writes on biology, which is his field, he is at his best.
The book’s biblical chapter is amusing, but leaves much to be desired in scholarship, as does his very cursory explanation of the atheism of Soviet Russia. Julian Baggini’s short discussion is a much more thorough study in a small number of pages. (See Above.)
When God Delusion talks about how heinous religion is, there is more substance to the text. Dawkins explains his hostility and his reasons for it, such a religion’s subversion of science, intolerance toward gay people and the awful record of faith vis a vis human life and flourishing. He has helped bring attention to the issue of various types of child abuse caused by religion. He has helped raise consciousness concerning compulsory inculcation of religion on young children by parents and other adults.
Dawkins is an elegant writer and Delusion is a thundering polemic against faith, religion and irrationality. This volume, despite some defects, has helped many people take up the atheist stance.
Drange, Theodore. Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the nonexistence of god. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Theodore Drange’s volume is an excellent and important book that discusses 2 serious atheologist claims for the nonexistence of god. The first is the issue of nonbelief (in a theistic god) and the second is the argument from evil. The nonbelief concept was first discussed around 1993, and has gained strength concerning its salience. Drange is a proponent of the idea. His version is that god (if he exists) wants everybody to believe he exists before they die, can bring this situation about, and also believes that this goal is of the utmost importance. If god exists, all people would believe in him before they die, but many humans do not; therefore god does not exist.
Drange, interestingly enough, finds the god of the people, especially the god of evangelical Christians, quite similar to the anthropomorphic god of the Bible. Professional philosophers, both theist and atheist, describe a different god, one literally and metaphorically in “the clouds,” omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal, non spatial and so on. He maintains that before one can argue against theism, one must deal with the fact that different gods are described by different faith traditions, such as the god of evangelicals, the one of the liberal Christians, and the god of Judaism. Drange finds the god of the people concept more coherent than the god of the philosophers, but ultimately false.
Drange also undertakes the problem of evil question, and writes on it very convincingly. But his most interesting points are made concerning the nonbelief argument, which he has enlarged, refined and given rigor. He demolishes the free will objection, showing that when people are convinced by evidence, there is no violation of free will. Bertrand Russell, an atheist philosopher of the last century pointed out, humorously enough, that if he should discover right after death that there was a god after all, he would say: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” Drange believes the argument for nonbelief is stronger than the one for evil in the world. It has become a struggle to argue theists concerning evil and the problem of the ability of a god to make a universe with no evil. The same cannot be said about causing people to believe god exists before they die. An authentic god could surely do that.
Drange’s book is written in a clear, accessible style, but it is still quite technical in its argumentation. Atheist readers just beginning to study in this area are advised to begin with writers such as George E. Smith or Burton Mackie. (See Below.)
Krueger, Douglas E. What is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
If one were to give two books to beginning readers of atheism, who had no background in atheism, science or philosophy, the choices should be Krueger’s What is Atheism? and David Mills’ Atheist Universe (2006- see Creationism. Atheist Universe is discussed in that Book List.)
Krueger discusses what atheism is, as his title promises. He takes the position that the only thing all atheists have in common is that they have no belief in god. The opinions they possess are varied and might be liberal or conservative. Their moral stance might be different and so on. Krueger then discusses the three non-theist philosophies that atheists might adopt- aristotelian, utilitarian, and Kantian. (Kant thought belief in god essential to human ethics- see Atheist Ethics for all three of the above stances.) Krueger engages in biblical criticism, bringing the beginner’s attention to biblical violence, inaccuracy, the fact that the Bible was written by people with an agenda, that biblical prophecy is erroneous and so on.
Krueger does not shirk when he comes to many of the traditional arguments for god, such as miracles, cosmological, and teleological. He explains the argument from evil in a very satisfactory manner and shows the flaws in other theories for god, while at the same time affirming the arguments against god.
Krueger arranges each point he makes in the various chapters into easy to follow sections, providing summaries of the ideas at the end of the chapter. He has a clear, simple style. He is more concerned with making his discussions understood than with elegant writing. The book has a very useful, explanatory bibliography. This is an excellent book to recommend to beginning atheist readers, or to give to a beginner as a gift. Readers who have studied other atheist volumes and philosophy will probably not find it useful. Highly Recommended.
Mackie, B. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
The late Burton Mackie was a humorous and brilliant atheist philosopher. Miracle is a well argued, urbane volume. Mackie discusses the classical arguments for and against god, such as Hume’s telling critique of miracles. Mackie does not think the theist philosopher, Kierkegaard, has advanced religion’s cause by echoing the theologian Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.” Mackie criticizes Descartes’ views and makes short work of the ontological, teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of god, as well as the argument from consciousness. Although Miracle was published in 1982, it continues to be fairly up to date, as he critiques and disproves current theologians such as Plantinga, Lane, and Swinburne.
Mackie deals with one of the atheism’s strong arguments in Chapter 9- the problem of evil. Not surprisingly he finds theist attempts to defend god against the problem of evil incoherent. Mackie is a scholar and his erudition is demonstrated by his careful consideration of opposing positions. He gives each of them full attention and uses the strongest counter arguments against it. I have seen a theist review that maintains Mackie’s array of theodicies (justifications for god) and arguments against them make the possibility there is a god greater as there are more listed possibilities that there is a god. This circular argument is very similar to more serious arguments for god and not much more fatuous.
Mackie concludes that theism itself is a miracle. Mackie is a fine writer, but Miracle is often technical and the philosophical points are closely argued. There is no bibliography for the reader who wants to study the topic more thoroughly. Recommended for atheists who have a background in philosophy or who have first read some of the less dense atheist discussions of god’s existence.
Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Michael Martin is one of atheology’s strongest proponents and Atheism is a fine example of his robust refutation of theistic arguments for god and affirmation of positive atheism’s denial of belief in god. Martin explains that he has undertaken a book on theism and atheology once again because new arguments have emerged from theists that must be dealt with. New arguments, unfortunately, will always emerge from theists because they need to justify and/or defend their faith in a nonexistent god. As quickly as their arguments are defeated they weave new ones.
The first half of Martin’s volume discusses the weaknesses of theist arguments and the case of negative atheism (not believing in god.) He concludes very early that an assertion can be made that religious language is “unverifiable and hence factually meaningless when used in a sophisticated and non anthropomorphic way.”
Part 2 is a laying out of atheologist arguments for disbelieving in god (positive atheism). He deals with the problem from evil, the free will defense, soul making theodicies and more. After demonstrating the non salience of theists’ arguments for god’ existence, Martin concludes that while it is possible that a robust argument for god’s existence might be conceived of in the future, it seems quite unlikely. The arguments Martin and other irreligious thinkers have defeated have been the best the religious could devise for centuries. This is an excellent volume by one of atheism’s pre-eminent philosophers. It is accessible, but as with the Mackie book, is quite technical and not recommended for the beginning reader. It does not have a bibliography, which makes it difficult for those who would like to pursue further reading. Martin’s writings are highly recommended for the more advanced atheist reader, including his Impossibility of God (2003) and The Improbability of God. (2006.)
Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case against God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.
Smith doesn’t like the concept of god and he does like Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, 20th Century objectivists. (See Philosophy- Objectivism) He quotes them both throughout his very good book about atheism. The first chapter is an excellent description of atheism and its difference from agnosticism. Critics have pointed out that Smith’s aim is to prove that if theist propositions concerning god’s existence can be shown to be false and incoherent, the reader must accept an atheist position or be in bad faith.
Smith discusses the concept of god’s supposed properties and attributes and maintains that they do not hold up to reason. He then considers religion’s fallback position- faith. He states that believing in something emotionally does not make it true. He discusses the varieties of faith, the concept that reason must be attacked to make way for faith, and faith as an authoritative trust. He dismisses revelation with convincing arguments. He then turns to the traditional arguments for god, cosmological, design and more.
Smith’s concluding chapter is very strong, articulating the sins of Christianity and attacking the ethics of Jesus. He quotes example after example from the New Testament that demonstrate the biblical Jesus saw himself in a messianically appointed vision rather than as an ethicist. We cannot be sure how the historical Jesus saw himself, of course, but some theists chose in portray him in the light of the Messiah, or savior. Near the end of the chapter Smith states: “Strip Jesus of his divinity as many liberals wish to do and, at best, he becomes a mediocre preacher who had mistaken beliefs about practically everything, including himself, and at worst he becomes a potential fraud.”
Even though it is often recommended for beginning readers, Case is one of the best volumes for the intermediate atheist reader. It is fairly technical when discussing philosophical issues. It would be best to read one or two beginning books about atheism and then begin to read Smith.
Note: The Books in the Book List, above, discuss both the concept of atheism and the arguments for and against the Existence of god.
William Lane Craig. The Kalam Cosmological Argument. (1979); Richard M. Gale. On the Nature and Existence of God. (1991); David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. (1779); E. H. Madden and P.H. Hare. Evil and the Concept of God. (1968); David O’Connor. God and the Inscrutable Evil: In Defense of Theism and Atheism.(1998); Walter Kaufmann. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. (1958); Nicholas Everitt. The Non Existence of God. (2004); Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God. (2004); Daniel C.Dennett. Breaking the Spell. (2006); Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation. (2006); Kai Nielsen. Atheism and Philosophy. (2005); David Eller.Natural Atheism. (2004.) Spry, Michael. No Santa, No Tooth Fairy, No God: The Need to Challenge Faith in America. 2011.
David Brooks's Egregious Review of DeBotton's egregious Religion for Atheists
In the March 18th, 2012 edition of the New York Times Book Review, David Brooks reviews Alain deBotton's new book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. (Pantheon Books, 2012.)
This review demonstrates that Brooks has not learned any new "tricks" in his stealth attacks on secularism. His stance has consistently been to promote the so-called ameliorating effects of religion, of going to church, synagogue or mosque, even when one does not believe in god or the supernatural.
In this review of deBotton's Religion for Atheists, Brooks finds that author's suggestions to create a religious experience for atheists a failure. Indeed it is, but not for Mr. Brooks concluding reasons. Of those, more will be said below.
DeBotton wants the comfort of religious rituals brought back in a secular manner, such as communal restaurants where non-believers can sit and eat in large groups, with instructive manuals before them, and ask and answer such questions as "whom can you not forgive?" or "What do you fear?" He wants college philosophy lectures to be conducted with reponses from students at every sentence from the professor. Need I elaborate any more?
While we atheists are very much in need of community centers in which to socialize, bring our children, take lectures and classes, and discuss important philosophical and ethical issues, we hardly need to create parallel universes with religion. Both Brooks and deBotton seem to find the rigors of the "task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws" burdensome, as well as "remembering what we learn and putting these ideas into practice." Neither seem to find the search for individual values and ethics the source of joy, self-empowerment and accomplishment that many atheists feel as they pursue their quest.
Mr. Brooks then segues into the "joy" experienced by Christians such as C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. Come now, Mr. Brooks. Many atheists know the deep joy or sadness or other deeply experienced emotions when reading the great atheists such as Stevens, Nietzsche, or Dickinson. We know what we feel when hearing great music, looking at great paintings, or seeing dance or film or performance art. Many atheists feel great joy when gazing at their families, their gardens, their individual hobbies.
Mr. Brooks concludes, somewhat fatuously, that atheists live in a flatland, that we know "what we don't believe in but don't seem to know what we we don't feel."
Atheists do not dwell in flatlands. Nietzsche's works alone are red hot with passion. Stevens sears us with ice cold precision. Perhaps the aridity deBotton and Brooks see are not that of we atheists, but their own. Mary
Edited by Mary C. Taylor on Mar 18, 2012 4:59 PM
Bibliography for both What is Atheism? and Arguments for and against the Existence of God:
Angeles, Peter A. “God, Existence of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Craig, William Lane. “Theistic Critiques of Atheism.” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. (1860) The Brothers Karamazov. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. New York: Vintage Press, 1990.
Drange, Theodore M. NonBelief and Evil: two arguments for the nonexistence of God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Gale, Richard M. “The Failure of Classical Theistic Arguments.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Grim, Patrick. “Impossibility Arguments.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Krueger, Douglas E. What is Atheism?: A Short Introduction. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Mackie, J.L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Martin, Michael. Atheism, Morality and Meaning. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002.
____________. Atheism: A Philosophical Investigation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Martin, Michael and Ricki Monnier, eds. The Impossibility of God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003.
Parsons, Keith. “Some Contemporary Theistic Arguments.” In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.
Smith, Quentin A. “Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism.” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to atheism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Stenger, Victor. God: The Failed Hypothesis. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008.
Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tooley, Michael. “Evil, Problem of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Weisberger, Andrea. “The Argument from Evil.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.