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Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief [Paperback]

Scott F. Aikin , Robert Talisse

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Book Description

1 July 2011
A recent poll from the University of Minnesota finds that atheists are America’s least trusted social group. Perhaps compounding this negative impression is the attack-dog persona taken on in the past decade by the "New Atheists." Not only have they been quite public about their disbelief, but they’ve also stridently lambasted religious belief generally in a number of bestselling books.

Disturbed by this negative public perception and the deterioration in the tone of open debate, the authors of this eminently reasonable work attempt to introduce a note of civility and rational clarity. To both religious believers and fellow atheists they counsel a measured approach that combines serious intellectual engagement with respect for the reasonableness of the other side’s position.

The heart of the book is the authors’ moral case for atheism. Atheism, they contend, manifests a decidedly moral concern for others and their wellbeing. The authors further argue that atheism is driven by the kinds of moral considerations that should be familiar to all religious believers. Atheists are motivated by a moral concern for others, a desire to alleviate suffering and combat evil, and an appreciation for the value of life, freedom, and responsibility.

In the end, the authors make not only a compelling case for atheism but also for the value and necessity of mutual respect in a democratic society composed of diverse citizens.

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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars They make a good case--but I still also love Hitch, Dawkins, etc. 5 April 2011
By Kindle Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
First, it has to be said that I know these two academic guys are probably trying their hardest not to sound too philosophy-nerdy-wonky and be more reader-friendly...but they don't approach the readibility of, say, an A.C. Grayling (The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century) or Julian Baggini (The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher). They do achieve a relatively high level of readability, however, given the often difficult topics the book aims to take on. And I'm delighted by the little conversational touches I notice often ending a paragraph...like "What gives?" following a fairly complex sentence.

Second it has to be said that there is something of the velvet-gloved and iron-fisted about some of what they write. I have no doubt that there are tactical and rhetorical advantages to remaining friendly and reasonable-sounding, but there is no more compromise on the actual likelihood of atheism being true here than there is in anything written by New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or P.Z. Myers. I suppose that's why I feel free to love both this book, which advocates a softer tone, and the acerbic, sarcastic tone struck in some New Atheist works. They're both right, in a way.

The intelligence, sanity, and sincerity of the religious person need NOT be called into question--as a formerly devout Christian, I can attest to that personally. And yet there IS something undeniably unreasonable in religion that occasionally borders on the ridiculous. The authors do a fine job of addressing the issue of "accommodationism," the insult hurled at atheists by some New Atheists for having the timerity to suggest that not all religious believers are wicked, stupid, insane, deluded, and/or benighted. Simply wrong. They make this point several times. It is possible for nothing to be wrong with a person, and yet that person can still hold beliefs that are wrong, or at least, unsupportable. There is no abiding shame in this, and it opens the way for atheists and theists to have conversations as intellectual equals. It is probable that many theists have simply never been confronted with evidence against their beliefs, and that the insular social settings many find themselves within serve only to buttress unwarranted beliefs. Viewed this way, it is clear that some vitriol towards the religious in general will often be misplaced...although the condemnation remains for the liars and charlatans and those who should and can know better but for reasons of laziness, crassness, timidity, or other vice, choose to remain ignorant.

I found the section that uses the ontological proof of God's existence as a sort of acid-test of an atheist's sophistication in discussing theological issues an interesting and refreshing take. It's the perfect puzzle of a proof--something is more or less obviously wrong with it, because it seems on some level to consist entirely of a word game (in essence, the idea is that if a god is characterized by ultimate perfection, and actually existing is more perfect than not actually existing, a god must exist). But even though this seems an almost obvious reaction to the "proof," it's not quite so simple to put one's finger on what the error in reasoning might be. Just because it is ultimately sort of a word game that allows one side to define god into existence does not make it a game easy to beat. Using this example, "Reasonable" demonstrates that in order to engage fairly and convincingly with theists, atheists really do have to be respectfully familar with such issues.

I find in "Reasonable Atheism" an attractive polemic that does a stellar job of making the case for reasoned conversation, and the morality not only of atheists but of atheism. The authors say the book was written for the religous, as a sort of "what every believer should know about atheists." What are we really like? Much more acceptable as human beings than many relgious folks have been led to expect.

I initally thought that the tone coming off of some lines in the book was a little whiny, with a faint echo of Stockholm Syndrome wafting off a culture held captive to religion. Upon further reflection, I've had to revise my thinking. This book is every bit as "tough" for atheism and contra theism as anything put out by the Four Horsemen (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens), and in some ways, this is more forceful stuff. I love the New Atheists, I really do. They have given us so much, not just in terms of ammunition (others have done that part better), but especially in terms of confidence. If someone as obviously brilliant as a Hitchens or Dawkins, or as clearly talented as a Harris can be completely skeptical of religion's claims, then perhaps average person that I am, I too can feel justified in my skepticism.

But some of their arguments have all of the subtlety of a drive-by shooting. Sometimes that's justified, but not always. I got the sense coming away from, and thinking about, "Reasonable," that the authors' approach in this book was much less like a drive-by intended to snipe at irrationality, and more like a regemine of chemotherapy that over time could choke it off. It might not be as splashy, but there's no shame in it. And given that it's more likely actually to be effective in many cases, there is much to recommend the approach it takes.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reasonable Book, Basic Philosophy. 15 July 2011
By Patrick Mefford - Published on Amazon.com
Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief by Scott F. Aiken and Robert B. Talisse turned out to be a major disappointment for me, though that is no fault of the authors. This book is not intended for atheists or theists with a background in philosophy, but for folks whose entire working knowledge of the Atheist/Theist conflict comes from the best seller list in the NYT.

The first two chapters were very slow going for me, and probably the part of the book I least enjoyed. I think the authors took great pains to make the book readable and understandable to any high school educated person who happened across this book, and the result is something that reminds me of a introductory lecture where a Professor has to guide the class by the hand through the basics argumentation. The substance was not a problem for me, and I can hardly hold it against the authors for taking this approach, but I think potential readers should be aware that you might be covering a lot of ground that seems like common sense to you.

The commentary on the "New Atheists" is where the book begins to earn it's keep. At several points I felt like clapping for the authors, as they made their case against the `New Atheist' approach to dialogue, which is a combination of aggression and ignorance. Their finest example has to do with the Ontological argument, which was by far, my favorite part of the book, and how this argument is useful is gauging people's understanding of the more complex issues involved. If you don't understand the Ontological argument, and do not have a reasoned response to it, your atheism is more than likely to be poorly justified.

I must confess that my biggest disappointment with the book is the poor way in which the authors discussed Psalm 53. I can't help but charge the authors here with blatant eisegesis. For example, on page 67 the authors state, " The Psalmist affirms that those who deny God's existence are fools. And fools, according to the Psalmist, are both morally and intellectually corrupt." Checking my own various sources, I found plenty of biblical scholars who would disagree with the author's interpretation. Now most commentary is actually going to be found in Psalm 14, which is nearly the same Psalm (in fact, all my sources referenced the reader from Psalm 53 to Psalm 14). My Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV, 3rd edition, page 785) states, " Fool, a moral category, not an intellectual one. The fool denies not God's existence, but divine governance of the world and attention to humankind." I next checked a Jewish translation (Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Press Society, 2004) and their understanding of the passage is so different from the authors' understanding that the beginning of the 1st verse reads, "The benighted man thinks, `God does not care.'" (page 1269). The commentary discusses the Hebrew word `naval' (translated as benighted) and the implications of the word is described as," [benighted], is a very strong term that can carry moral overtones...". I even turned to my "The Apologetics Study Bible (2007)" and consulted their commentary (page 800) on this passage and it read, "...the fool here (naval) is neither a simpleton nor an ignorant dullard, but instead is a practical atheist, His denial of God may not be overt, but in his heart he lives as if God does not exist."

Now, the authors' main points don't rest on their faulty interpretation of Psalm 53, it is merely a lead in to their points about public perception of atheism and the perceived lack of morality, but I found it annoying and it colored the rest of my reading.

After dealing with the New Atheists, the book launches into the meat of things, and essentially recreates a survey course in ethics, raising classic objections to Divine Command theories (Euthyphro Dilemma) and introducing the reader to the various normative ethical theories that don't rely on God. After laying that ground work, the book moves into contemporary politics, with an interesting "Moral Test" and the end.

All things considered, the book is solid (if a little boring) and I think the best description I could give of this book, is that if I had to teach a survey course on atheism, this would be my textbook. I have plenty of classmates who are fellow atheists and science majors who take their cues from the likes of Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers, whose tutelage leaves them with convoluted forms of nave empiricism and physicalism, there is much they could learn from Aiken and Talisse.

I'll end up giving my copy away, and I'm warning all armchair philosophers away, but this book is a perfect gift for people interested in the atheism/theism conflict, but uninitiated into the grand discipline of philosophy.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Case...If You're Patient Enough 7 July 2011
By James D. Zimmerman - Published on Amazon.com
In Reasonable Atheism, authors Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse set out to present a moral case for atheism. They attempt to "show religious believers that atheism is a morally and intellectually responsible position" (9). They do a rather decent job.

Reasonable Atheism is not a polemic against religion or belief. As they state on page ten, their aim "instead is to show that religious believers' beliefs about atheists are false." The authors make a point of noting that they are not merely trying to champion diversity - a worldview in which citizens respect all belief systems (a viewpoint they discount as nonsense) - but, rather, are presenting a cognitive case that the existence of gods is "entirely irrelevant to morality" (11). Indeed, they go one step further, asserting that atheism is a prerequisite in order to take good and evil seriously. In short, the authors wish to have their readers take atheists as seriously as they regard those who subscribe to different faiths from their own.

As the authors are philosophers, it probably goes without saying that it takes them quite a long time to get to meat of their argument. The first third of the book is taken up with clarifications and stage-setting. As late as chapter four (nearly 100 pages into the book!) the authors declare "our discussion thus far has been mostly preliminary." But perhaps so many pages of caveats and asides are necessary in order to assure the devout Christian reader to continue on, to turn the next page, and not fear for their soul. During those first hundred pages, Aikin and Talisse address several objections readers may have. Foremost is the objection that religion should not be discussed publicly. The authors respond by asking why there is no corresponding rule against discussing other topics of a controversial nature, such as sports, fashion, and food. They note that religion is such a large part of a person's life that altering one's viewpoint is seen as altering who they are: "one doesn't merely change one's mind about whether Jesus was divine," they state, "one converts to Christianity" (20). Religion, therefore, is personal. However, they point out that, as moral beings, humans should strive to minimize false views in our lives. As such, discussing religion should not only be acceptable, but of paramount concern if, for no other reason, than because we care about truth and wish to be competent in responding to criticisms, however personal.

Aikin and Talisse also address the idea, so popular among theists, that there is little point in engaging in a discussion on faith and belief with non-believers because those people are ignorant, unintelligent, wicked, or just plain evil. Again, the authors handily overcome this objection by pointing out that declining to discuss topics with certain people is erroneous. To the contrary, they explain the phenomenon in social dynamics wherein prolonged contact among people who all agree with each other results in the group's members adopting more extreme versions of their initial beliefs (36). Interestingly, the authors point out that such a fallacy can even be found among atheists, and they cite Christoper Hitchen's denunciation of theists as "credulous idiots" as an example (71). They lambaste New Atheists such as Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins for failing to distinguish between being wrong and being stupid. It is also possible, they claim, to hold a correct belief for the wrong reasons (the bizarre example they cite is that it would be wrong to believe that Harrison Ford majored in philosophy - even though he did - simply because he delivers some profound dialogue in the Star Wars trilogy). The authors' stance on this issue has already generated a denunciation from PZ Myers, who claimed that this book provides an example in how not to write a book on atheism. (Technically, however, Myers was simply baffled by the authors' response to a post he made at their site. After reading their tedious response, Myers posted on his blog wondering if their entire book was written with such "preening opacity." Good news, Myers: it's not.)

The meat of the book - their argument for the reasonableness of atheism - is not nearly as fascinating as their protracted prefatory chapters. On page 130, for example, they argue that a god that was less than all-powerful or all-good "would be a defective God - that is, no God at all," but given the pantheon of deities over the millennia, it's difficult to follow this reasoning. As another example, on page 148 they contend that "if there's nothing that we should worship, then there is no God." They next assert that "if there is a God, we should worship Him," but only a few pages later, they make a clear argument that just because there is a God, it doesn't follow that they are deserving of worship (155).

The book's cleverest arguments are to be found in the appendices, where they present first the problem of Hell (though, admittedly, this is easily dispensed if the devout reader does not believe in Hell), then offer a "Religion and Morality Test." The test, designed to show the absurdity and immorality of the Old Testament would be stronger if it weren't so thinly veiled. Nevertheless, if a theist - particularly a Christian - has read that far, then this final appendix just might provide the push they need to, at the very least, view atheism as a morally conscionable position and, at best, to see and reject the immorality inherent in the monotheism religions of our day.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meh... 23 May 2012
By Tim K - Published on Amazon.com
Right off the bat, I was actually looking forward to what the authors had to say. I've read all the 'new atheist' books and thought that most of the book would be dedicated to an indictment of the Dawkins and Hitchens types. I was surprisingly wrong. The authors don't disagree with the 'new atheists,' nor do they necessarily disagree with their tone (which is a big discussion in and of itself). What the authors make clear is that, if you're going to take a confrontational tone, you better be on your A-game. This is the only legitimate charge against the 'new atheists.' They claim that the 'new atheists' aren't giving arguments for the existence of God their credit, and the authors use the example of the Ontological Argument (see book for full discussion).

But, I truly did enjoy their discussion of the reasonableness of open and honest criticism of deeply-held beliefs. We should argue in mixed company about politics and religion. I've met many people who claims religious people are somehow intellectually inferior and 'idiots.' This is divisive, as the authors make clear. Theists, the authors claim, are just highly mistaken about the way the world is.

The authors' goals isn't to convince anyone of the merits of atheism, but that reasonable people can reject theistic claims and still be good, moral people. On this point, the authors do well. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear that morality isn't contingent on God's existence, nor should it be. The authors discuss how a moral system derived from God isn't moral anyway, and that a non-theist conception does much better.

One major issue I had throughout the book were the examples used. Yes, I completely understand who the intended audience is, but many of the examples seemed out of place in this kind of book. The authors used extreme examples which I feel will make certain readers miss the important points being made.

Overall, this wasn't what I expected, but I may borrow it out to some theist friends I have.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential read for religious believers; a book to be cherished by rationalists 25 Oct 2011
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com

"In this book, we have sought to...convince religious believers not that their religious beliefs are false and atheism is true, but rather that their beliefs about atheism are false.

We have tried to show that atheists can produce powerful criticisms of most common forms of religious belief while also providing compelling accounts of morality and democratic politics. We have tried to show that atheists can take religious belief seriously and yet reject God's existence. We have tried, too, to show that rejecting God's existence does not require us to shy away from serious moral convictions...

We have tried to lay the groundwork for a civil and reasonable public debate about God, morality, and democracy."

The above comes at the end of this extraordinary book by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. Aikin is senior lecturer in the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and an author. Talisse is a professor of philosophy at the same university and also an author.

What impressed me about this book is that the authors made their points without putting religious believers down. In fact, a central theme of this book, as the authors state is that:

"You can hold that someone else is wrong, in error, mistaken, and so on without thinking that he or she is stupid, incorrigible, malicious, or downright evil."

What also impressed me was the clear, lucid, precise, and thorough writing. For example, here is a description of atheism that the authors endorse:

"We deny the existence of a God who is all good, all knowing, and all-powerful. We deny the existence of a God who is the transcendent creator of the natural world. We deny that there is any entity that is properly regarded as a deity. We deny that there is a being who deserves to be worshipped. We deny that there is anything that is divine. We deny that there are or ever have been prophets, persons through whom divine beings speak and act. We deny that there are books or texts that have been composed with the assistance of a God or any other divinity...

We deny the claim that through prayer individuals can summon the assistance of divine beings. We deny the existence of supernatural persons, including angels, ghosts, spirits, and demons. We deny that there has ever been a virgin birth, a resurrection, and an assumption. We deny that there will be a Second Coming, a Rapture, and a Judgement Day...

We deny that humans somehow survive their bodily death...We deny that there is an afterlife...We deny the existence of miracles in the literal sense of that term...We deny that there are acts that are morally wrong because they are instances of "sin," for we reject sin as a moral category. We deny that there is a heaven and a hell, and we hold that the very idea of eternal rewards and punishments is morally repugnant."

All arguments in this book are well thought-out, reasonable, and above all, rational. For me personally, they were a joy to read.

It is not until the middle of the book that the authors present the essence of their case. Some readers may see this as something negative. Not true! This long build-up is necessary because the authors have to be crystal-clear on where they stand. Personally, I found this preliminary information both necessary and very interesting.

Finally, this book has a couple of appendices that I consider to be must-reads. They are entitled respectively "The Problem of Hell" and "The Religion and Morality Test."

In conclusion, this book presents a fair-minded discussion of atheism. It should be read by all interested in this issue!!

(first published 2011; preface; 6 chapters; main narrative 190 pages; 2 appendices; work cited and further reading; index)

<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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