Note: This review will come in several installments, as I'm busy with other reading assignments. I've given the book four stars because it's comprehensive and I agree with much of what I've read.
In Naturalism and Religion, atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen defends a naturalist (and therefore atheistic) view of the universe. He tries to show what a life in such a universe should be like and seeks to argue so forcefully for his position that anyone who reads the book shouldn't think bad about naturalism but, instead, should think a naturalist something desirable to be.
The Introduction sums up Nielsen's goals for the book (see above). It's also a nice commentary on the state of religious belief in the world. The Introduction was very funny, too. Here are some quotes.
"In a recent survey taken in the United States, 88 percent of the population (if the sample taken was accurate) maintained that they never had any doubts about the existence of God. Even if this survey is innacurate and this is true of only forty percent of the population, it is still an intellectual and moral disgrace--a disgrace that should be a scandal in the United States."
Speaking of the political right, Nielsen says:
"If the Pat Buchannans of the world should triumph, we would be led into outer darkness where life would indeed be nasty, brutish, and perhaps even short or at least shorter, but nasty and brutish, certainly. I am very glad that I have secular-humanist colleagues who take up this good fight and that there are journals such as Free Inquiry that take on such Neanderthals. I should think for an intellectual that would be a very wearisome and boring Sisyphean task indeed, but still a task that must be done."
And of fundamentalists:
"These fundamentalists do have their philosophical spokespersons (more likely spokesmen), e.g. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. They have learned tecniques of the contemporary philosophical trade and deploy them to defend fundamentalism....But rank and file fundamentalists will not read us (atheists). I speak of those people who would close down abortion clinics, make the death penalty freely available and availed of (remember Bush's record in Texas), make sure evolution is not taught in the schools, make 'creation science' a regular part of the science curriculum, ban the inclusion of 'evil books' from the public school curricula and from public libraries, shut gays and lesbians down (get them, since they will always be with us, firmly back in the closet), and halt the influence of liberals (to say nothing of socialists) on our cultural life. They, of course, will be glad to hear that there are those great philosophers out there--J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig--who have uterlly refuted those evil atheists with their barnyard moralities. But they will not, to any considerable extend, read Moreland or Craig, let alone us. They will just go on in their Neanderthalish and oppressive ways. Only occasionally when some individuals out of their own inner turmoil with religion come to have some reasonably persistent doubts, doubts which touch their personal lives, will they read us. And for that reason it is important that there be secular humanists who write in ways that speak to where they are. But that will only be a drop in the bucket. Most believers are not so stressed. They just think of us (if they think of us at all) unquestionably and unambivalently as part of the evil empire."
Is there a solution? Nielsen thinks so.
"What is needed...is for us to think through and then propose ways of turning around--it can't be done overnight--the vast mass of people out there who are so blinkered (so unthinkingly oriented) and who go about acting and seeing things in such a reacionary and irrational ways. However, the proper answer to this is not only in giving people a sober education (as Freud once put it) and in having a decent media, but to insure that everyone has sufficient means and security to live a decent life. (I principally have in mind here, given my 'barnyard morality,' the material conditions of life.)
"With this change in life conditions (including education) the terrible state of religions consciousness that afflicts the United States could in time be reversed. It will not make secular humanists of us all, but it will bring more liberal tolerance and a greater secularizing of attitudes and practices into our world."
The next chapter is an essay on naturalistic explanations of religion. Nielsen looks at several critics of religion: Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Durkheim. All argue that religious symbols don't point to what believers think they point to. Rather religious symbols point to deep psychological needs on the part of religious people or are used as the social glue to hold society together or are coping mechanisms that help us deal with the hell that life can be. Nielsen also maintains that after Hume and Kant's demolition job on 'proofs' for God's existence, we must then ask *why* religious belief is so rampant; and that's where the naturalistic interpretations of religion come into play, as they meet some deep inner need on the part of the religious believer.
The next chapter is on immortality. Nielsen examines the concept of 'immortal soul' and 'resurrected body' and finds them both of such a low order of intelligibility that we can set them on the shelf and move on to something else.
(More to come)
Also recommended: How to Lose Your Faith in Divinity School