The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology) Hardcover – 21 Nov 2013
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This collection will be warmly welcomed by philosophers of religion, philosophers of science, historians of ideas, andmetaphysicians for themany fresh angles it opens up on familiar difficulties with defining atheism ... the volume provides an especially gratifying richness of reflection on its strengths and weaknesses as a full-fledged philosophical outlook (James Orr, Religious Studies)
a truly interdisciplinary and comprehensive review ... All of the chapters are well-written and coverage of major philosophers and movements is extensive ... an essential resource. No library should be without it. (Darren E. Sherkat, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion)
About the Author
Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics, St Mary's University College. Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University.
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Part 1 Definitions and Debates
1) Defining 'Atheism' - academics have variant definitions of atheism ranging from mere lack of beliefs in deities to positive beliefs that that there are no gods; regular people have variant definitions of atheism too which incorporate things like the supernatural and religion ; overall atheism is not universally understood in the same way across cultures, but in this hand book atheism is defined as "an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods"; "a-" is a 'privative' in Greek grammar which means "lack of, absence, state of being without" (e.g. amoral, asexual, anaerobic); different types of atheism (hard, soft); atheism may be misunderstood as a deficiency because it "lacks" or is "without" something; "-theism" is defined as "belief in the existence of God or gods"; atheism is usually focused on the prevalent theisms in any given culture since there are many variant characteristics of gods (some are infinite, others are not, some are all powerful, others are not, etc); some extend theism to include all supernatural beings and forces possible and place metaphysical naturalism as atheism's underlying worldview, though this is not necessarily true since numerous atheists believe in other supernatural things, while not having beliefs in gods, such as ghosts, impersonal forces/energies, nature spirits, ancestors, clairvoyance, telekinesis, speaking to the dead, etc
2) The Case Against Atheism - it is "unreasonable to fail to believe that there's a God."
3) Critiques of Theistic Arguments - counters traditional arguments for the existence of God, Pascal's wager, moral argument
4) Arguments for Atheism - naturalism and theism cannot both be true; describes positions on theism being meaningless, incoherent, inconsistent, impossible, improbable, morally repugnant; naturalism and theism compared in terms of theoretical merits; this essay has lots of loose ends
5) The Problem of Evil - "The problem of evil is 'the rock of atheism'."; Logical and Evidential arguments
6) Atheism and Morality - addresses the 'worries' on if atheism leads to moral decline; benevolent behavior can be done by both theists and atheists and mundane reasons may be the basis for it in many ways; the empirical data is not straight forward for atheism in automatically generating moral superiority, but there are some hopeful cases; argues against moral objectivity being necessarily grounded in theism
7) Atheism and the Meaningfulness of Life - contests Immortality and Divine Plan on meaningfulness; options for atheists: subjectivism, intrinsic values, subjective-objective hybrid for creating meaning
8) Aquinas and Atheism -Thomas Aquinas' on God and the relevance to atheism
Part 2 History of (Western) Atheism
9) From the Pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic Age - mentions Socrates belief in gods and his accusation of atheism; Anaxagoras and Democritus were not atheists; Protagoras likely was an agnostic; Plato's "Laws" details positions held by atheists of his day; death as punishment for not believing the divine (this does not seem to be widespread); Epicurus as a crypto-atheist; overall there isn't much evidence of open atheism in these time periods
10) The First Millennium - the term 'atheist' referred to things like polytheism, impiety, idolatry, heresy so positive atheism is hard to find clearly in this period; skeptic tradition did not necessarily lead to positive atheism; pagans called Christians atheists
11) The Medieval Period - both the belief that atheism was generally persecuted and the belief that this time period was an Age of Faith are from the 16th and 17th century and both are myths; some Muslim speculative ideas were atheistic; this period helped form atheist discourse by professionalizing theology and interreligious debating; the belief in persecution of atheists is not supported by the evidence (religious law, court cases, legal collections)
12) Renaissance and Reformation - "There are no clear records of self-professed atheists at the twilight of the Renaissance and the Reformation." (179); some contemporaries believed that atheists masked themselves as Christians; the term 'atheist' was used freely to include heresy and unorthodox beliefs which makes it difficult to find any atheists, in the modern sense, in this time period; the modern view that secularism and secular humanism began in the Renaissance with Humanists 'turning their backs on the Bible' is incorrect since the humanists in this period used the Bible frequently - in other words, Humanism in the Renaissance was not anti-theistic and definitely not ant-religion inherently; theologians had already supplied arguments for and against God's existence; ancient influences in ideas of irreligiosity that in time prepared ground for more systematic unbelief
13) The Age of Enlightenment - the first real atheists appeared in the 18th century and before then atheism was a speculative & abstract mental exercise, not necessarily embodied into real people; the fact that deists were often accused of atheistic belief means that there were still some ambiguities in who was an atheist in our modern sense; philosophical influences on atheism; Toland, d'Holbach, Naigeon were part of the minority of atheists in the Enlightenment; Epicurean philosophy was influential in focusing on naturalism; "Enlightenment atheism was unable to offer the explanations of spontaneous, that is, undersigned order that Charles Darwin could offer to unbelief. It turned its attention rather, above all else, to what it saw as the moral arguments and imperatives of denial of the existence of God and explanation of nature without recourse to a Supreme Being." (209)
14) The (Long) Nineteenth Century - lineage of ideological influence in atheism in England: individuality, growth of nonconformity, inheritance of writings from previous English doubters, French Revolution; Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason" was the most influential for atheists; on the development of secularist ideology; secularists interested in ideas of Auguste Comte's "Positivism" aka "Religion of Humanity" and spiritual/religious things like "Churches of Humanity"; political activism
15) The Twentieth Century - there was significant growth of people without religious identity, adherence, practice, but not all of the subscribed to atheism; the significance of positive atheism decreased as the century went on; declines in importance of Church going occurred in Europe, Canada, and Australia, but not the US; white males make up the majority of declines; the no religion/nones group increased in the last part of the century and some countries are leveling between men and women; diverse individual accounts on becoming nonreligious; characteristics of no religionism; humanists' disgust with fundamentalist anti-religiosity from atheist circles; some religious manifestations of humanism are mentioned; most of the changes in demographics occurred after 1960
16) New Atheism - review of the 4 horsemen; one interpretation of them was new atheism as being a religious 'fundamentalist' endeavor by atheists; their militancy; issues with the term
Part 3 Worldviews and Systems
17) Humanism - 7 points summarizing the humanism worldview; what humanism is not; [overall humanism as described here is pretty confused since it seems like religion and irreligion at the same time in that it is there but is immune to believing it or doubting it - almost a non-concept]; [seems like it is a religion that is trying to be irreligious since they offer religious rituals like weddings and funerals while trying to claim they are nonreligious]
18) Existentialism - Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus; existentialist ethics
20) Analytic Philosophy
21) Jewish Atheism - research on atheists in Jewish tradition is underdeveloped since atheism in Christian context is more popular; on the Psalms verse on the fool saying in his heart that there is no God; Hebrew was different than Greek, so there was no equivalent Hebrew idea for the Greek term meaning atheist; ambiguity of atheism in Jewish history; secular Jews, atheists, and Zionism
22) Buddhism - modestly interesting twist
23) Jainism - very interesting
24) Hinduism - very interesting twist
Part 4 Atheism and the Natural Sciences
25) Naturalism and the Scientific Method - methodological naturalism and its implications for metaphysical naturalism
26) Atheism and the Rise of Science - a hasty history of science with nonbelief, conflicts and harmonies between science and religion; conflicts between science, naturalism, and atheism include: utopian tendencies in atheism, grounding a morality, transcendental tendencies (depending on transcendental facts beyond nature to legitimate our social beliefs) remain within atheism, the history of atheism is primarily rooted in outdated ancient philosophical traditions, philosophy of religion (the main territory of atheism) is almost completely disconnected from science; "But science could and does work without atheism, and atheism remains a position adopted largely for philosophical and ethical, rather than scientific reasons." (410); "This means that modern atheism risks becoming stagnant, due to its heavy investment in the traditional philosophy of religion. At the same time that a comprehensive naturalism has become entrenched in mainstream science and has deeply influenced most areas of philosophy, atheistic philosophy and science seem increasingly irrelevant to one another. That tensions exist between science and atheism should not be surprising." (412)
27) Atheism and Darwinism
28) Atheism and the Physical Sciences - argues for naturalism and against supernaturalism/theism
Part 5 Atheism and the Social Sciences
29) Atheism and the Secularization Thesis - secularization is a very complex concept and straightforward understandings of secularization and atheism will not do; reviews the common modernity-secularization theory and criticisms of it (especially since there are religious revivals, subtle secularity, and the US contradicts it); "The modernization-secularization thesis remains a contested one. As Bryan Turner notes (2011), the 'de-Christianization' of Europe is one thing, but a global decline of religious sentiments and worldviews, quite another." (454); social complexities in modernity will lead as usual to transformations of religion, for better or worse; sociology has neglected active atheism and free thought populations and their potential impact on secularizing for a long time; structural models of secularization hold that secularization is a by-product of structure (economic, political, institutional) while intentional models hold that it is an outcome of purposeful activity of individuals, organizations, movements; the number of self-described atheists in the US and UK have been pretty steady and low from 1990 to 2010, though there were some increases in the 'nones' group in this time period; "As an active self-description, 'atheist' is more than the mere absence or rejection of theistic belief. It is an ideological and identity construct." (458); growth of 'nones' in the US is due to people distancing themselves from political conservatisms from the 1980s, while in Britain they seem to be indifferent to atheism so atheism has lost much of its edge there; US changes is secularity are more likely by-products of structural changes, not intentional activity such as religious skepticism; the internet has given a wider voice to minorities and very small communities, like atheists, and has given them some enthusiasm such that some atheist organizations and the preaching/campaigning for atheism has increased (stuff like this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century, then it died down for a long time til the New Atheists in early 21st century); "...the natural resting state of secularity tends to be passive indifference to religion rather than active atheism or irreligion." (461); along with the growth of atheists and nonreligious in US and UK, there have been increases also in 'higher' religiosity as well in both countries; religiosity and secularity in many countries is very mixed in that lacking beliefs in traditional religion does not mean they are irreligious automatically, many are more religiously open to alternative religions for instance; pluralism and individualism seem to be more the prominent trend globally rather than secularization
30) The Psychology of Atheism - most studies on psychology of atheism have been done by North American subjects it suffers from few studies too; "Other data on deconversion favor the intuitive hypothesis; a greater proportion of individuals leave religion behind for motivational rather than rational reasons, and the majority of deconversions happen at adolescence and young adulthood, i.e. at a time when one is emotionally particularly volatile (Strieb and Kelin 2013)." (470); religious beliefs may be intuitive; "While these studies show atheists' higher reliance on analytical thinking, they do not imply that atheists are more conscious or reflective of their own beliefs, or that atheism is the outcome of a conscious refutation of previously held religious beliefs. They may simply be showing that analytical thinking inhibits the expression of ones intuitive beliefs-and while the focus of these studies was on religion, it is likely that they can be generalized to other kinds of beliefs, including naturalistic ones." (470) - in the foot notes in that page it says that this applies to religious folk who are highly analytical also; when people lack beliefs in religion, they tend to replace religion with other faiths and beliefs systems (Humanism, New Atheism, etc) including conspiracy theories (like the Da Vinci code) to help them cope with life; as one study noted, atheists are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories like the Da Vinci code to help them cope with anxieties about death - "The study found that the more anxious a person was about death the more they believed in the Da Vinci Code conspiracy, except if they were strongly religious. Furthermore, the atheist part of the sample (35 percent) showed a higher belief in the conspiracy than religious participants." (471); numerous studies supporting the 'belief replacement hypothesis'; faith in progress may help in alleviating anxieties; atheists can be close minded and dogmatic about their beliefs and prejudiced against religious people when their beliefs are challenged because people prefer stability in their beliefs rather than being shaken up psychologically speaking; "The social psychological studies reviewed above provide supporting evidence for the claim that atheists do have beliefs, albeit of a non-supernatural type, and that these beliefs are not dissimilar to religious ones in their psychological function. This clearly lends support to the belief replacement hypothesis." (474); "Nevertheless, the available evidence is unambiguous: self-reported atheists and agnostics are more individualistic than religious individuals, and value more motivations for self-direction, hedonism, and stimulation (Houtman and Mascini 2002); Farias and Lalljee 2008). A psychological correlate of individualism and self-mastery, in particular, is the need to feel in control of your own life." (476); Protestantism and its individualism is in the same thread of self-mastery as with atheists; there is much in common between atheism and Gnosticism; "Concerning motivations, atheists are practically indistinguishable from New Age individuals. The characterization of atheists as more individualistic, non-conformist, liberal and open to new experiences (Caldwell-Harris 2012) applies equally to individuals engaged in modern spirituality. Even more explicitly than atheists, they cultivate self-mastery and endeavor to acquire knowledge, either intellectual or experiential, in order to transcend the abyss between the self and the world (see Heelas 1996)." (476); the desire for stimulation and new experiences may be reflected sexually since nonreligious folk and atheists tend to have more anal sex than religious folk, have more sexual partners than religious folk, are more likely to engage in extramarital sex than religious folk, and have had sexual initiation at a younger age than religious folk
31) Atheism and Cognitive Science - beliefs are commonly thought of as cognitive states; there are implicit and explicit beliefs and evidence shows that some have implicit beliefs on theism/atheism and sometimes they contradict explicit beliefs about theism/atheism; even positive atheists have implicit beliefs in the existence of supernatural agencies since this may be an evolutionary feature; traditional views of rationality as being a result of rational reflection is not supported by the evidence - all human rationality is characterized by heuristics which work well in producing adaptive behaviors based on time and information limitations, not on rational or scientific reasoning; the "comfort" theory of religion is false since scientific evidence does not support it and there are terrifying and malicious supernatural agents are not comforting at all but are still believed in by many cultures (e.g. witchcraft, demons, ghosts); "The evidence does not support the idea that we would come to believe in the existence of an entity simply because we would find it comforting if it existed. Consequently, while those holding the Comfort theory may be correct in arguing that many religious beliefs provide comfort for those holding them, they are unjustified in claiming that this comfort constitutes an explanation of why those beliefs are acquired in the first place." (489); anti-atheist prejudices are driven primarily by distrust of atheists, not disgust or negative emotions; the dominant view in the cognitive science of religion is the "by-product" view which "...holds that theism is a by-product of ordinary cognitive mechanisms that evolved for a variety of purposes, none of them having to do with religion." (490) - in other words there is no such thing a religious mindset or a religious way of thinking, there is only thinking and atheists are no different than theists their thought processes; empirical evidence contradicts Richard Dawkin's idea that children believe what authority figures tell them, instead children are persuaded more by actions of those who "walk the walk"
32) Atheism and Societal Health - using countries to compare social health is problematic and controversial since countries are not coherent societies or uniform cultures and inside each nation there are multiple ethnic groups, races, languages, social structures, moral standards, economic structures, political structures, power structures, conflicts and wars, etc; there are some countries which have less theistic belief and are in very good shape socially in many measures so lack of theism does not necessarily result in social dysfunction; relies on Norris and Inglehart's "existential security" explanation in that societal well-being may allow for atheism to flourish, but not the other way around; atheist regimes and damage done to societies
33) Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality - atheism is predominately an affair for white males, not females or people of color; feminism views; parallels between atheism and gay/lesbian/transgender experiences
34) Atheism, Health, and Well-Being - very few studies have been done on atheists and health and researchers do not seem to be interested much in them; studies do show that religion and medical health have a positive correlation; health behaviors are positively correlated with religious people; there may be no significant differences between theists and atheists in terms of pathology or mental health; consequences of anti-atheist discrimination
35) Conversion and Deconversion - conversion and deconversion; the objectivist fallacy - equating religion with belief
Part 6 Global Expressions
36) A World of Atheism Global Demographics - globally most "nonbelievers" are male, young, have some higher education, live in Northern Europe, Asia and Communist/former Communist countries [Asia and the Pacific constitute the vast majority of atheists worldwide] ; estimates are 450 to 500 million nonbelievers; CIA World Factbook says 2.32% globally = 161 million are atheists, Zuckerman used a meta analysis (with variant methodologies) to get his 500 million to 750 million number (both of these are problematic), this essay tried to get an estimate of positive atheists and agnostics in their study using 2008 ISSP data on 40 countries which results in 100 million atheists and 100 million agnostics (does not collect all countries and misses much of the world population); most countries do not collect systematic information on beliefs or religious identification; US only has 3 % who are atheists and this corroborate the ARIS results on .7% of the US self identifying as atheist; at the highest % of atheists are in Europe (top 6 are Czech Republic 40%, France 24%, Germany 24%, Netherlands 20%, Sweden 20%, Denmark 18%); according to Pew Global Trends the number of nonbelievers has increased globally but when there is a decline in theism, it usually increases agnosticism rather than positive atheism; atheism is associated to collapse of fertility rates in countries and is more prominent with people who lack interpersonal social obligations; atheists and agnostics are predominantly male and young (older people are less nonreligious); people who never marry are more likely than married people to be atheists or agnostics; in many countries, people who cohabitate tend to be agnostics or atheists; in the US, many religious beliefs are just as common as they were in the 1970s; in the US, agnostics had more higher education than did positive atheists; China has the highest concentration of atheists globally (around 200 million people)
37) Western Europe - atheism is often associated, in literature and academic writings, with Western Europe since this region and its families of cultures have generated much of the material for atheism as we know it today; Western Europe also had relations with Protestantism which has been argued to have given rise to atheism; atheism has been traditionally discussed by historians, philosophers, and theologians, not social scientists and this has given the impressions that it is about an idea, not a social phenomenon; relatively low levels of religious participation, relatively high levels of religious beliefs, and a predominant implicit Christian cultural identity characterize Western Europe; "believing without belonging" and "belonging without believing" are alternate views of the complex routes on secularization in Western Europe (overall there is no consistent pattern of atheization); 'fuzzy faithful' are those that show casual loyalty to theistic tradition: engage with religious culture (e.g. church weddings), identify with religious tradition, or have a vague idea of 'something out there', but not all 3; Western Europeans tend to cease to participate in religious cultures before they lose belief in God - "Simply put, 'people stop being religious more quickly than they start being wholly secular'." (590); indifference to religion maybe a characteristic of this region - "Contrary to this, however, it is striking that the number of people who are 'indifferent to religion' is remarkably consistent across European countries regardless of whether the remainder of the population is primarily atheist or primarily theist." (591); less than a quarter of people who do not believe in God self-identify as 'atheists' usually because atheism is sometimes seen as an anti-phenomenon and non-institutional; "Overall the implication is that Western Europeans do not practice atheism - that their atheism involves the absence of a cultural experience (theist religion) rather than the presence of a new cultural experience. This understanding is challenged, however, by new qualitative research which, unlike the survey data presented above, makes atheism rather than theism the object of inquiry. These studies suggest that being an atheist is not a purely negative or subtractive state and that, on the contrary, Western Europeans are, in an important sense, 'practicing atheists'." (592); a few qualitative examples of how atheism is practiced (as self-identification, for self-understanding, as a criteria for marriage or partnership, deep commitment); in a way atheism can be seen as a relationship with theist cultures since atheists may live without belief in God, but they do not live without interacting with theists; Western atheism is a heterogeneous phenomenon and can reverse itself so progressive social and political thought is not fixed to atheism; "It is clear that atheism is a social phenomenon. woven into everyday encounters. it is probably not particularly meaningful to talk about a 'church of atheism' (as sometimes occurs in journalistic discussions) but atheism does mediate between people in the way that theism have been recognized to." (595); atheism is used to build in-group and out-group boundaries; "Another feature of atheist culture in Western Europe is its more overtly religious-like practices. This wide-ranging category includes, most obviously, the use of both nonreligious and secular life-cycle rituals (e.g. Engelke 2012), popular in many parts of Europe. Just as rituals are important in other areas of human life - in our home, work, social, and family lives - so rituals that have been commonly been performed by religious institutions and in reference to theology have proved to be important in 'post-theist' atheist lives." (596); "Another religious-like aspect of atheist culture is, of course, the practice of not believing in God, and of developing 'atheologies'. By 'atheologies' I mean the broader assemblage of ideas that unbelief is one component of. As well as being philosophically important to some people, such atheologies are of more widespread cultural significance - when it comes to the development of secular and atheist responses to existential life events, for example, and to death in particular (see also Engelke 2012)."; "These suggest that, contra to theorists who provide functionalist accounts of theism, atheism does not seem to be a dysfunctional phenomenon but one that relies on a range of alternative practices to fulfill many of the same functions as religion. Such alternatives sometimes function like theism (secular alternatives) but often function in reference to or contradistinction from theism (atheist alternatives). They are not therefore necessarily or intrinsically atheist or nonreligious. Rather, they may be 'theist-like' or 'religious-like' only to the extent that people have no other language or concepts available to articulate them. In the broader, negative sense, however, it is likely that large numbers of Western Europeans are practicing atheists, even if they do not necessarily represent themselves as such, and this practice is social and cultural as much as it is cognitive or philosophical. The implications of this are that future researchers should recognize this domain of practice and not assume that the types of practice involved - congregating, ritualizing, developing meaning and philosophies of life - are exclusive to the theist population." (597); the old idea of causal relationship between atheization and industrialization is getting harder to maintain because many industrialized countries have majority theist populations too; Norris and Inglehart's existential security explanation only accounts for atheism in general, not the heterogeneity of atheist practices that emerge among atheists
38) North America - most studies on atheism have focused on the US or Western Europe; this chapter covers atheism in US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean; approximately 30% of North America are not religious, but the % of atheists is incredibly small; most complete info on atheism is available only for US so most of the essay focuses on that, but Canada and Mexico have some details on it also; atheist demographics for US, Canada, and Mexico are: most are young, male, have some higher education, live in large cities, are politically liberal; atheism in US history, how people adopt a self-described 'atheist' identity; questioning if this applies to those who were always atheists since majority; discrimination of atheists; in all of North America there are only 20 million atheists
39) Central and Eastern Europe - atheism before and after Communism
40) The Islamic World - history of atheism in Islamic culture
41) India - the earliest atheists were likely from ancient India; atheism and unbelief in Indian history
42) Japan - atheism is an idea connected with the Meji Era (1868-1912) when Japan experienced cultural interactions with Western nations and modernization; the term in Japanese for atheism is "mushinron"; etymologies and histories of atheism in Japan; in the 20th century atheism did not develop much in intellectual circles since nationalism and making Japan better for all citizens became a priority
Part 7 Atheism and the Arts
44) The Visual Arts
Further reading in comments.
Several of the essays asserted something to the effect that 'the problem of pain' (why, if God is all powerful and all loving is there so much pain and suffering in the world?) is the bedrock of atheism, but the only essay on the problem of pain was from a theist, who does his best to dismiss the issue entirely. If the problem of pain is so central to atheism, wouldn't it make sense to have an atheist present it? Or even have two essays, in a point-counter-point fashion, theist and atheist? (The theist response is essentially: as long as we can imagine that God has a purpose for the pain and suffering, then there is no real problem, whether or not our imagined solutions are true. Personally, I think the entire debate falls apart when, instead of dealing with the God of the philosophers, one examines the specific claims of, say, the God of the Bible and reads about the suffering he commands and causes, but theistic discussions of the problem of pain tend to avoid the specific claims of the biblical text - as did the essay here. 'Theodicy' justifications for why God 'permits' (or even causes) pain and suffering for some greater good also pose problems for establishing moral and ethical behavior (after all, any bad thing we do to our fellow humans MUST serve God's greater good under almost all of these theodicy models, so then how can it be 'wrong' since it actually serves God's greater Good?).)
In the essay on Conversion and Deconversion, quite a bit of time is spent presenting atheism as a neurosis, as if there is something actually wrong with a person's brain who doesn't believe in any gods. On page 598, there is an (amazing!) concession that 'deconversion need not involve a personal crisis resulting from an emotional or neurotic rejection of God'. If this were a Christian apologist writing, we might consider such a concession generous, but in an academic volume edited by people who know full well that atheists are on the receiving end of a fair bit of discrimination and misunderstandings, promoting the idea that most or even some non-belief might well be driven by malfunctioning brains - without any substantiating evidence - is irresponsible.
It was a very strange decision to let the theist editor write the essay defining atheism. It strikes me as an oddly political statement to allow the outsider to define the scope of the label. In general, I think he did OK. It's actually nice to have a reference work one can point to that uses a better definition than most dictionaries have. But in framing the definition as relating to belief in '(a) God or gods', the editor has made sure to privilege his own religion within the definition of atheism. His own footnote explains that 'God' is a proper name, and that the 'a' before it probably shouldn't be there (he omits the 'a' the first time he reveals his full definition, but then it's back again later in the essay and throughout the rest of the volume). In the English speaking world, 'God' generally refers to the Christian God. Muslims prefer the name 'Allah', Jews have a variety of ways of not saying the name 'Yahweh', etc. We'd all agree that the definition 'lack of a belief in Odin or any gods' would be redundant and ridiculously culturally narrow, but we're saddled with an explicit mention of capital G singular 'God' in the definition of this volume, as if atheism must be defined in relation to the editor's favorite god. 'Lack of belief in any gods' would have sufficed.
Several articles, even those written by atheists, take swings at the 'New Atheists' that I found generally without insight. This present volume would never have been written without the rise of interest in atheism inspired by the current crop of popular writers, and the criticisms herein seemed to be an attempt to shift the general distrust and dislike of atheists onto New Atheists, as some sort of scapegoat. One essay even proposed that the rise of extreme-right fundamentalism in the US might be a reaction to the New Atheists! Take 15 seconds to imagine yourself in the civil rights battles of the 60s and try claiming that the best way forward would have been for all those women and minorities to chill out and simmer down. It's just backwards thinking.
The chapter on the 'history' of New Atheism was nothing of the sort - it was primarily an argument for why we shouldn't use the label (which is always put in scare quotes in this entire volume), since (according to the author) there's nothing new about it and nothing that unifies people in that movement. Of course atheism doesn't have any holy books or tenants that must be adhered to, so it will have a wider variety of expressions than, say, a religious denomination. And sure, taking each individual strain of New Atheism, you'll be able to find someone from 100 years ago writing along similar lines. But this is ignoring the 50 year period (roughly corresponding to the Cold War) when atheists either went into hiding or people simply didn't consider atheism an option (at least in the US). It may not be 'new' in the grand scheme of things, but the rise of people openly declaring that they don't believe in gods and engaging in a political movement to achieve a fair, secular society is something new to most people alive today. One argument had some merit: few people 'self-identify' as 'New Atheists' - 'atheist' is sufficient. But we can still recognize this as a historical phase in the movement, and this essay primarily allows the critics to define 'New Atheism' rather than examining what common threads do bind this movement together. The efforts to distance atheism from its most active and visible champions is bizarre.
The chapter on the history of 20th century atheism was entirely made up of anecdotal stories about deconversions, despite there being a separate essay on deconversion experiences. I found it odd that an essay purportedly on the history of 20th century atheism would criticize atheism as a boy's club, while failing to even mention Madeline Murray O'Hare, one of the most prominent atheists of that century! In any event, the history chapters for the 20th and 21st centuries provided almost no history.
Several essays had statements like 'The worship of reason is clearly visible' and 'an almost Messianic belief in progress and science' which, coupled with the use of loaded terms like 'scientism' and 'evolutionism', display some rather distasteful rhetoric. 'Scientism' is a word Christian apologists throw around to mean: "science is all well and good when it's applied to making handy things, like the internet and Viagra, but it oversteps its bounds when it tries to address the big questions, like where we came from." These terms are used by religious people who want to make sure they get to control the direction of scientific inquiry, and to put down people who are convinced that science provides the best toolset we have come up with so far to discover what is true, and even if there are things that science will never discover, the answers to those questions will not be found in things ancient men made up and passed off as revelation. There may turn out to be legitimate boundaries to scientific inquiry, but religion has yet to demonstrate that it has expertise in anything at all. Acknowledging this state of affairs is not 'worship' of reason or science, and if we hope that science will solve some of humanity's problems, this is not Messianism; it's simply that science has a pretty good track record.
The one essay given to arguing FOR the existence of God was pitiful. I'm tempted to list that under PRO... The argument is painful: it essentially asserts that the fact that the laws of nature don't change is proof that there is a God. It used to be that miracles were considered the best proof of God, but now when nothing miraculous happens at all, THAT is supposed to be the best proof that there is a God. The author makes no attempt to prove that it is even possible for a universe to have fluctuating laws of physics, but he declares that it is somehow probable that this would be the state of affairs without a God. No mention of what mechanism would cause this state, just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about multiverses and so on (which frankly negates his claim anyway: if we're allowing an infinite number of universes where the laws of physics have different levels of variability, we only need one to be stable enough for life to form in - whether or not it remains stable for eternity - and whatever life would be writing books about gods would have to have formed in that universe. No gods needed in his multiverse model.) Is it a PRO or a CON that this was the best theist argument they could find?
The article on atheism and the meaning of life seems to be written by someone who finds the entire debate silly, or at least hopelessly unresolvable. It recommends considering the theistic and atheistic models for the meaning of life independent of ascertaining whether there are any gods. But of course, if there are no gods, than the theistic ideas of a cosmic purpose are exactly as arbitrary and self-chosen as the atheist's humbler ideas of purpose, only they're blissfully ignorant of the fact (i.e. everyone is an existentialist, but some people are really bad at it!), and 2) the meaning they are ascribing to their lives is actually a lie. Is meaning so subjective that one's meaning is just as good/valid if it is in the service of a lie as in the service of something productive? And she misses the larger point of whether it is even a desirable thing to have one's purpose dictated by a god. None of us would want our parents to pick our careers or hobbies or mates, why does anyone want a god picking their ultimate purpose? (I've been told by theists that MY purpose is to burn for eternity so that the flames from my torment will illuminate God's glory for those who He chose for a more pleasant afterlife. Well, excuse me, but I don't think a God-chosen purpose is very appealing. Keep it, thank you very much!)
Several essays on Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, attempt to broaden the definition of 'atheist' to include anyone who doesn't believe in the type of god that classical theist philosophers argue for (i.e. omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, outside of space-time, etc. etc.). While a very few threads of genuine skepticism can be traced in these traditions, as a whole they are still littered with gods and spirits and god-men of all stripes. In short, they are dominated by the same kind of faith-based, superstitious thinking as classical theism that is alien to atheistic thinking. I'm not entirely sure why these groups would want to be considered atheistic, or why atheists would think it meaningful or useful to carefully redefine their labels with respect to these groups. How much serious consideration should be granted someone who, for example, claims "Of course I don't believe in God; that's silly. But fairies are real!" Some of these essays seemed to be promoting these Eastern religions as some sort of better, more peaceful 'middle way' of rejecting theism within the context of a dizzying variety of other supernatural ideas. The authors, IMHO, failed to make a compelling case for this type of 'atheism'.
Each essay had a rich bibliography for tracking down more information.
The chapters on the history of atheism up through the 19th century were very informative. Though it must be said that there's some irony here: if everyone demanded the level of evidence for a god that these authors require to simply assert that there were ANY atheists in the ancient world, we wouldn't be having these discussions.
The information on the demographics of atheism worldwide was interesting, not just the raw numbers, but the statistics regarding health and well-being in most religious countries versus the least religious countries (and states in the US), as was the ability to get some European perspectives that were quite different from my American experience.
The essay on philosophical arguments FOR atheism caused me to rethink whether some of the arguments I found compelling really are, philosophically, better than the theistic arguments. Atheists are no less prone than theists to turn to philosophy to rationalize something they already believe for non-philosophical reasons (for me, scientific ones), so it was useful to have a philosophically trained atheist show how some of those arguments are the inverse of theistic argument and don't actually work for either party.
Vic Stenger's essay on Atheism and the Physical Sciences inspired me to start reading some of his longer words, as did A.C. Grayling's critiques of the theistic arguments.
I learned a lot from these essays, even the ones that made me want to hurl my iPad across the room. So I tentatively recommend it to those interested in a broad discussion of atheism. But many of the essays contained bits that didn't represent atheism well, or perpetuated stereotypes and misconceptions. I hope this matures into a second edition that brings a little more clarity and focus to the discussion.
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