Top critical review
6 people found this helpful
Good yet Unbalanced Introduction
on 21 April 2013
Let me lay my cards down: I'm a Christian and disagree with Mr. Baggini's philosophy entirely.
However, I found this to be a very useful introduction to the topic of atheism, following the good quality works of the rest of this series.
For a start, it maintains a neutral tone, attempting to show why atheism is the best explanation for life rather than supernatural explanations. It avoids and even denounces the dogmatic assertions of people like Dawkins, describing them as just another type of fundamentalist. Dialogue, not ridicule, is Baggini's modus operandi.
He seeks to define atheism as a positive view, "a person who believes there is no God or gods", (p1) rather than a negation of religious belief. He outlays definitions and issues in Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 is his main argument for atheism that essentially comprises of a defence of naturalism and the uncontroversial fact that we're mortal.
Chapter 3 shows how atheists can still live moral lives.
Chapter 4 shows how atheists can still live meaningful lives.
Chapter 5 defends the place of atheism in history, particularly against the criticisms of fascist and communist states.
Chapter 6 offers some critique of religion, particularly 3 arguments for the existence of God, rather than a defence of atheism.
The issues I take with this book is that much of his critique of religion is either over-simplified or shows that he hasn't done his homework properly. Yes, this is a very short introduction, but his research could have been more rigorous. The fact that there are no footnotes for reference and only a limited bibliography at the back is frustrating.
One example of poor research is on p29 where he argues that different religions make contradictory claims so they can't all be right. This is true, but his example, that Christians believe "Christ" is the messiah and muslims don't is patently false. The Qu'ran frequently asserts that Jesus IS the messiah, just not divine. Additionally, "Christ" simply IS messiah - one is in Greek, the other Hebrew. This is just a simple issues, but shows that perhaps he doesn't know as much about what he's dismissing as he should do.
Another example is Chapter 6, where he offers a critique of 3 theistic arguments.
The first is a broad attack on the cosmological argument, yet fails to make the distinction in the premise that whatever *begins* to exist has a cause, not everything that exists has a cause. In this way he can describe the argument as "utterly awful, a disgrace to the good name of philosophy" without actually addressing the conceptual nature of what a "cause of the universe" must be like. He would discover it is far from arbitrary.
His attack on the teleological argument is even worse, in that he refutes William Paley's watchmaker design argument from the eighteenth century. Well done him! I know of no serious Christian philosopher today who would still use this form. There is no mention of the fine-tuning and anthropic principle discussions that now cover this argument today.
Baggini's inclusion of Alvin Plantinga in Chapter 7 was a redeeming factor, though there are several other names he could have interacted with.
Things like this aside, I found this book very useful. Chapter 3 was particularly challenging, looking at where we get our morals from and justification for them. He uses the euthyphro dilemma to attack theistic morality.
The sections where he discusses rationalism and arguments to the best explanation are also very useful.
Its interesting to see where he (and by extension, other atheists) may get their morals and meaning from, but I occasionally felt he slipped into question begging, or posed questions to theists as if to prove his point to which we would readily have answers for him. Overall though, I'd take this book over The God Delusion anyday as it is simple, fairly argued, even if you disagree and doesn't strike me as a rant but a decent attempt to explain what he considers the truth to be.