Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October, 2009)
Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! That might be how some people react given the media linking of atheism with these names.
So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. Atheism is far more widespread than that. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas.
50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists includes contributions mainly from philosophers, but also from scientists, science fiction writers, political activists and public intellectuals. They all responded to the request for “your explanation of why you do not subscribe to the view that there exists an all-powerful, omniscient, good entity running the universe.” Inevitably, they all answer the question differently. Readers will also react differently and will select different essays as their favourites. There’s plenty to choose from. And one advantage of a collection like this is that you can dip into it wherever you want.
Obviously a number give a personal history of how their beliefs developed. I am always surprised how many atheists had been religious believers in their early years. Perhaps that’s something to do with family imposition or attendance at religious schools. In my case it was not a matter of change of belief, or “loss of faith.” I simply realised the religious stories were unbelievable when I was old enough to think about such matters. But, then again, I was not subjected to strong family or educational religious indoctrination as a child.
Other contributors used their essay to discuss the nature of belief or to deal with some religious apologetics arguments. I found myself thinking I should follow up some of their other writings to explore the ideas more deeply.
Here are some of the essays that interested me:
I have already discussed Victor Stenger’s contribution (Godless Cosmology) in Godless cosmology. He always writes clearly and his presentation shows why the Christian apologists like Dinesh D’Souza and William Lane Craig are distorting science in their arguments. These distortions (eg., “fine tuning”) are now so commonly used by theists they need more active discussion. Stenger, a philosopher and scientists, provides valuable analyses of these arguments here and in his books (e.g., The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness, and God: The Failed Hypothesis)
John Harris (Wicked or Dead?) deals with respect, why people are entitled to respect (because they count, they matter morally) But their beliefs “may or may not be respectable, worthy of respect.” To command respect “beliefs must be respectable, worthy of respect; they must meet at least minimum standards of evidence and argument, in short minimum standards of plausibility.”
Rationalist are thinking through the meaning of respect these days because of theist attempts to prevent open discussion of religion, labelling it “defamation.” The well-known “New Atheists” have all discussed this in their best-selling books.
Sensitivity of religious belief
Adele Mercier (Religious Belief and Self-Deception) ponders the unwillingness of people to examine the details of the religious beliefs they profess. She analyses beliefs into primary (the detail of the belief) and secondary (belief in belief). “Religious believers are not primarily – or even at all – committed to their first-order beliefs, but to their second-order beliefs about them.” “Religion is in more ways than the obvious like a country club: it is deeply about social identity, not one’s golf game.”
This helps explain the “disproportionate offence people feel to the questioning of their religious beliefs: doubt the truth of any first-order belief and you question only the veracity of its claim; doubt a religious belief and it’s the entire believer who feels called into question.”
And I like this: “Religion is all about believing that one’s beliefs are right, not about having right beliefs. If first-order beliefs had content, their content could be checked against the truth. It is precisely because such beliefs lack content that one can go on believing that one believes them despite any and every evidence. But the price of second-order belief in vacant first-order beliefs is self-deception.”
Defending scientific epistemology
Thomas Clark (Too Good to be True, Too Obscure to Explain) discusses the cognitive defects of religious epistemology. He compares it to the scientific approach and critiques the “supernatural.” This is a good essay for anyone interested in the “natural”/”supernatural” arguments used by Chrsitian apologists to criticise science.
Ophelia Benson (A Deal-Breaker) critiques “goddy epistemology.” “The claims that are made about God bear no resemblance to real knowledge. This becomes immediately apparent if you try adding details to God’s CV: God is the eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient creator of the universe, and has blue eyes.” Mention of eye colour and “it suddenly becomes obvious that no one knows that, and by implication, that no one knows anything else either.”
“That’s the advantage of goddy epistemology, of course; it’s so extraordinarily flexible, so convenient, so personalised. The knowledge is so neatly moulded to fit individual wishes.”
How often have we atheists despaired at “goddy epistemology.” I think we are al familiar with the feeling that at times we are trying to fight with jelly.
No religious monopoly on community
Philip Kitcher (Beyond Disbelief) deals with the role of community that religion provides. He points out that “This role is so tightly entangled with myths of supernaturalism that it cannot be sustained.” And that religions don’t have monopoly on community. He sees an important role for starting and promoting secular communities. In fact disbelief in itself is not enough; we need to go beyond this. We can find “ways to disentangle what is valuable from what is inevitably corrupted by falsehoods and absurdities.”
A. C. Grayling (Why I am not a Believer) discusses reasons for persistence of religion, even though “all the historical religions are a hangover from the less knowledgeable and more superstitious infancy of mankind.” Religious survival “is a well-recorded result of priesthoods and temporal powers needing and supporting each other in order to control majority populations; the institutionalisation of religion, and the indoctrination of children into its tenets, are jointly among the many reasons why it persists.”
Frieder Otto Wolf (Not even Start to Ignore those Questions) reveals an attitude from his Austrian German background which described a common attitude to religion today. That of “not even starting to ignore something”, or not even carting to know about it.
I think this is a common attitude of today’s non-religious. We are usually happy to “live and let live.” Most of the time that is how I feel. But we just can’t afford to ignore irrational ideas when they threaten humanity’s use of science and reason or its human rights.
These were the essays that most interested me. However, other readers will find different ones that strike a chord with them. That’s the advantage of a collection like this – there is something for everyone.
And there is the opportunity to discover new ideas.