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on 30 June 2003
Julian Baggini's 'very short introduction' is timely. In a world which - commendably - is increasingly multicultural and respectful of diversity (including religious diversity), atheism finds itself out on a limb and needing to defend itself.
Perhaps (and I am one of the already converted) this shouldn't be necessary. J Baggini invokes an analogy whereby 'Nessies'- those who believe in a Loch Ness Monster - become the norm, so that unbelievers need to be labelled 'Annessies'. Similarly, in a world where so many people believe in a god or gods, 'atheism has come to be defined in contrast to theism'.
J Baggini sets out to do several important things. Firstly, he promotes a positive case for atheism, making clear that it is not to be equated with negativity and denial. Secondly, he separates morality and ethics from both theism and atheism, shifting responsibility on to individual choice. Thirdly, he dispels the notion that without religion life becomes meaningless and purposeless, and suggests that sufficient purpose can be gained from living in the world we know rather than in some nebulous hereafter. Fourthly, he shows that atheism is part of a historic progression from superstition to rational explanation. Finally - and importantly - he advocates the 'quiet voice of reason', rather than dogmatic and table-thumping atheism. Militancy from any point of view, he recognises, begets increased defensiveness and entrenchment.
I hope that this little book, with its quiet voice of reason, gives food for thought, and even reasurrance, to those who may be hovering on the brink of atheism and, for whatever reason, feel hesitation in coming out.
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on 24 September 2009
For the most part, this Very Short Introduction is a lively and enjoyable little guide which sets out to counter various myths about atheism and to make it more palatable to the non-atheist. Author Baggini breezes through a handful of key areas - ethics, purpose, history, and so on - bringing his admirable philosophical knowledge to bear on each contending argument, and presenting it in a down-to-earth and amiable style.

One pivotal area of contention in the theist-atheist debate is how to define atheism. Here, Baggini chooses to define it as "a positive belief system" rather than as a term of negation. Personally, I've always felt more comfortable with the latter approach (a-theism = 'lack of' theism) and wondered if perhaps Baggini, in his eagerness to counter the impression that atheists are "lacking" meaning, morality, happiness, etc, had let this concern drive his decision to turn it into a positive.

To his credit, he develops his argument well and, in an extended discussion about evidence, counters the common charges, such as the one about atheism being a faith position. Still, it's hard not to feel that his approach just serves to introduce a layer of unnecessary confusion to the distinction between theist and atheist, and I have to admit I remain unconvinced that it's strictly necessary. (Incidentally, on this issue, I highly recommend George H Smith's Atheism: The Case against God.)

Just a couple of gripes to mention: The photos throughout are seriously superfluous, particularly given how space is at such a premium. (Did we really need a stock photo of a man looking thoughtful while sipping coffee to illustrate the discussion on acts of faith?) Also I wasn't entirely comfortable with his categorisation of 'militant atheism'. More productive to stick to tackling the beliefs and approaches themselves, I think, rather than stating what is and isn't militant.

He does however make plenty of fine points, particularly on morality and life after death. The three big arguments - cosmological, teleological and ontological - are dealt with swiftly but cogently. On the whole then, this is an enjoyable and quite different read from many of the current crop of atheist titles. Pacy. Modest. Less combative. Despite my issue with how he has defined atheism, I found this to be a genuinely stimulating read, and a worthy addition to the sceptic's canon.
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on 5 October 2005
Let me just tell what I like especially about this concentrated presentation of arguments for atheism. Baggini always keeps a realistic sight on psychological und social facts. He starts off describing how religious education - though experienced in a moderate and relatively little indoctrinating form - nevertheless succeeded in embedding in his mind a connection of atheism and moral inferiority to stay for ever at least on a half-conscious, emotional level. An experience probably not to unusual and - apart from this - pointing to the general limits of changing convictions by rational argument. Later he demonstrates very convincingly why we shouldn't consider theism and atheism to be just intellectually equal types of faith: "The atheist believes in what she has good reason to believe in and doesn't believe in supernatural entities that there are few reasons to believe in, none of them strong. If this is a faith position then the amount of faith required is extremely small." In chapters on "Atheist ethics" and "Meaning and purpose" the author does away with the prejudice that atheism is just or predominantly negative. Very rewarding in the historical section on atheism is the discussion how far atheism might to be blamed for the crimes of totalitarian leaders and ideologies in the 20th century. Just read the book. It fits in your pocket to be taken everywhere!
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on 13 May 2007
... and neither a follower of whatsoever other faiths else.

This book is about a strange thing, a non-belief that has got its own name. We do not have words for people who do not believe in unicorns, or not in astrology, but people who do not believe in gods are called atheists. Only the disbelief in gods seems important that westerners coined a special term for it.

Though persecution of nonbelievers has gone out of fashion in most parts of the civilized world, prejudices about atheism and atheists are still abundant - even among the more liberal believers.

Philosopher Julian Baggini explains in plain and clear terms what atheism is, and what it is not, how individual atheists' positions differ, and which reasons atheists give for their nonbeliefs. He discusses why atheism isn't a faith in itself (though a few atheists are strong believers in something else), if being religious is necessary for moral behaviour, and other basic concepts and misconceptions.

Baggini does not try to convert anyone, but presents a very balanced perspective on atheism. Religions are mainly discussed as sets of beliefs, not as social or psychological phenomena. Understanding why people believe would probably shed some crucial light on why others don't.

To be fair, the question why people believe is an open and delicate one, and it is clearly one beyond the book's scope and intentions. Those interested in such questions, believers and non-believers alike, should probably consult P. Boyer's "Religion Explained" or D. C. Dennett's "Breaking the Spell". - The same is true for those who'd like a more thorough and rigid discussion of the philosophical arguments; B. Russell's writings might provide accessible starting points, as do many of the books from Baggini's "further reading" list.

I would recommend Baggini's well-written book to anyone who wants to get a general picture of atheism, or to any atheist who liked to explain or even justify his "unfaith" to others. Those looking for a critique of religion(s), or an explanation why people believe in them, or sociological facts on atheists and theists, should look someplace else.

This very short introduction does exactly what one could expect - nothing more, but also nothing less, and in a very readable and clear way.
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on 21 October 2003
If you're atheist or that side of agnostism, this is an excellent little book. It presents a positive and rational case for atheism, based on a naturalistic (or humanistic) approach. Of particular interest are the sketched arguments for why atheists can be moral, good, purposeful and productive (and not twisted and evil), without the need for otherwordly guidance. I found it a heartening book as I feel it presents a pithy case for why not all atheists are dogmatic religion bashers. Atheists simply don't believe in supernatural explanation -- just natural ones. But they can have these beliefs with their morallity, rationality and dignity intact.
But this book isn't for everyone. For people who do have faith (of whatever type) in the supernatural, the arguments and comments presented will simply be either offensive or blatantly and barkingly wrong! To the atheist they will be rational and well argued.
Overall, an excellent contribution to the VSI series.
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on 18 December 2006
I think one of the main problems Atheism faces is not only misunderstanding from those who are theistic, but a lack effort to understand what Atheism really is by the secular, and even some who would consider themselves to be Atheistic. I've always considered the notion of God and the following of Religion to be self evidently preposterous, but until recently I didn't have more of an explanation for my own beliefs than that negative explanation. This book gives a very readable, very practical, and yes, very short explanation of what Atheism positively involves, rather than just what it rejects.

The quote on the back of the book reads "The best short explanation of the best explanation", which is the best short review of this book.
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Atheism by Julian Baggini, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003, 136 ff

The author begins by describing the aura of the negative and sinister that his childhood Catholic indoctrination has left with him in regard to atheism. Although he has consciously rejected the fabric of religion, still his subconscious cannot entirely dispel the sense of evil that he was taught to associate with atheism. So his book is a rational exploration of the true philosophical status of atheism.

Believing there is no God does not imply that there is no such thing as morality or goodness or that life has no purpose, says the author. Belief in atheism usually carries with it a rejection of all things spiritual, like psychic events or any kind of afterlife – a belief in the natural world (naturalism or materialism) but not in the supernatural. This does not however make the atheist a nihilist – disbelieving in all non-material entities, like mind; atheists are simply realists. Baggini suggests that ‘all the strong evidence tells in favour of atheism, and only weak evidence tells against it.’

The fact that there is ‘a plethora of evidence for the truth of naturalism’ does not necessarily imply that there is not additionally a spiritual agency outside of the material natural world [HAJ] – for the author, naturalism implies atheism. To Baggini, human beings are just ‘animals’ and ‘our capacity for consciousness . . . is entirely dependent on our organic brains’. Empirical evidence of near-death experiences and other psychic phenomena clearly undermines this assertion, though the author relegates these to the ‘extremely weak evidence’ category, all such evidence being dismissed and dumped into the dustbin of unreliability – because we do not have the time to check all the cases! Any concordance between such events and reality is pure chance, he says. The principle of induction also supports atheism – because no-one can ever be said to have seen God.

Chapters 3 and 4 of the book deal with the consequences of atheism to morality and ethics, and to our sense of the purpose of life. I would agree with the author that a belief in atheism is irrelevant to both. We need nothing more than humanism to engender our morality and to give meaning to our lives. Baggini agrees that morality is ‘entirely independent’ of God. Similarly with meaning or purpose: the ‘purpose’ of a knife is to cut things – but that purpose is created by the manufacturer and the user, not by the knife. So unless we are playthings created by our God for his amusement, we cannot rely on God to define our purpose in life – our purpose must lie within ourselves.

The final chapters give a brief overview of the history of atheism, and a commentary on the atheist view of religion. Baggini believes that atheism ‘emerged from the rejection of myth’, which he considers a good thing. But myths are alive and well in our society today and again often have nothing to do with the God of western religion.

There is a brief Bibliography and an Index at the end. This is an interesting little monograph for those who want to explore atheism from a philosophical standpoint, but I cannot see it converting anyone.

Howard Jones is the author of The World as Spirit and Evolution of Consciousness
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on 4 February 2007
In "Atheism: A Very Short Introduction" Julian Baggini has done his job with impressive efficiency. There is neat and clear coverage of the critical topics: morality and purpose with and without God, the nature of knowledge, and the relationship of atheism and science, amongst others. More technical philosophical concepts (defeasibility, consequentialism) aren't avoided but are brought in with a minimum of fuss and crisp explanation.

While the book is principally aiming to describe and explain some venerable arguments, Baggini also introduces his own perspective. There is a heartening emphasis throughout on the positive nature of atheism; on living a reflective life based on best evidence, rationality, and an ethics rooted in human realities. Some excellent material argues why agnosticism is unsatisfactory. This centres on the notion of abduction, or "argument to the best explanation": there are no knock-down reasons for or against belief in God; the case against is not absolute, but it is absolutely overwhelming for anyone whose standards are evidence and rational argument.

This lack of an absolute case against the existence of God leads Baggini to reject what he terms militant atheism - that is an active hostility to even moderate religion. He thinks religion is false and has the potential, at least, for harm, but takes the principled stance that in the absence of absolute evidence, an aggressive assertion of the truth of atheism is dogmatic, and contrary to the spirit of open enquiry. This is impressive, right and can make some of his text a bit timid. However, it is a well-made definition of a recognisable position, especially as it is contrasted with "fundamentalist atheism", the latter being restricted to violence against the religious. This is a useful separation given the increasingly frequent rhetorical move to call any atheism asserting its better claim to truth "fundamentalist".
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on 7 August 2008
If you've ever wondered what an atheist really thinks then this book is a pretty accurate account. If you are an atheist then this book summarises the main philosophical and evidential stances that makes atheism such a strong position.

The book shows how tough it is to deny the evidence for the universe lacking a 'father figure' like any of the gods proposed by various religions throughout the ages. An atheist is simply someone who has looked at the evidence, perused the holy books and found the claims to be severley wanting. Atheism is a view that is well supported by the evidence and is a claim that there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe. Many of the usual arguments for God's existence simply violate the rules of rationality that we all adopt in other areas of our life. Atheism is simply applying those same standards of evidence to the proposition of the existence of Gods. For instance, the absence of evidence isn't absence of evidence argument is often wheeled out as some form of proof of God's existence. However, this same stance could be applied to the Loch Ness monster - a beast that has been thoroughly searched for yet no reliable or credible evidence has been found. The absence of evidence for such an entity following a thorough search can be seen as clear evidence of absence.

Baggini also clears up the agnostic-atheism debate quite nicely by saying that we can never reliably know anything with 100% certainty (except for maybe 1+1=2). since we cannot know 100% doesn't necessarily mean the evidence leaves a 50/50 probability of a proposition or its opposite being true. This is something we apply in real life... I don't know if there is or isn't a china teapot orbiting the Earth, but is it really wise to be agnostic about such a proposition. We don't believe in anything in life (rationally) without evidence for it. The is no evidence for God and hence no reason to believe. In fact the evidence is strongly in favour of naturalistic forces and therefore the proposition of Atheism.

The book discusses nicely how morality is separate from God and that both theists and non-theists are still responsible for their moral choices.

What of the meaning of life? Do we need God to find meaning in life? The notion that we survive our death, while flying in the face of the evidence that consciousness dies with the brain, rather detracts from the meaning of life. When one faces life face on as the only life they will get then meaning takes on a new dimension.

Theists can deny the profound arguments based in this book but they must do so in opposition to the evidence. Atheists do not have the luxury as their beliefs by definition are constrained to natural evidence... as the natural world is all we can actually know anything about.
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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.
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