Richard Norman receives a primer in Atheism
Julian Baggini's experience as coeditor of The Philosophers' Magazine stands him in good stead. His Very Short Introduction is lively and readable, ideal for a popular audience, without sacrificing precision and rigour. Jokes, pictures and anecdotes are all used effectively, always to make a point, never as mere windowdressing. He has a distinctive slant on atheism and some distinctive arguments to present, and any reader, however much they think they know about the subject, will learn something from it.ATHEISM: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
Oxford University Press
His distinctive aim, he says, is to present atheism as a positive view rather than a negative one. This is at first a bit puzzling. He defines atheism as 'the belief that there is no God or gods' surely a negative definition if ever there was one. Despite the negative appearance of this definition, he insists that atheism is not 'parasitic on' religion, since atheists would believe what they believe even if there were no theists. But that can't be quite right, it seems to me. If no one had ever believed in gods, there would be nothing for atheists to reject, and so, if denial of the existence of a god is the defining feature of atheism, there would be no atheists. In that sense atheism is parasitic on religion.
Still; that doesn't mean that atheism has to be purely negative. Baggini is right to emphasise the positive, but the project seems to me to need a bit more clarifying. I think there are at least three things going on here. First, he presents atheism as a form of naturalism the belief that the natural world is the only world there is. That means there's no room for the 'supernatural', which Baggini seems to equate with disembodied minds or spirits. In Chapter 2 he argues that all the strong evidence supports naturalism, and that all the supposed counterevidence invoked to support belief in the supernatural is extremely weak. He does a great job here, and the chapter is, as it is intended to be, an objectlesson in how to support a belief with evidence and argument. However, I think there's more that could be said about the relation between naturalism and atheism. There are religious believers who think that God is a physical being, existing in space and time. (That's one of the many dotty beliefs held by Mormons, for instance.) So arguing for naturalism doesn't clinch the case for atheism.
Secondly, Baggini's emphasis on the positive is intended to show that atheism doesn't have to have negative implications. In Chapter 3 he defends the claim that atheists can and do have positive moral values and principles, and in Chapter 4 he defends the claim that atheists can find meaning and purpose in human life. Both of them are terrific chapters. Baggini is here making the case for what I would refer to as 'humanism', and my own preferred vocabulary would be to distinguish between 'atheism' as the negative aspect and 'humanism' as the positive side. Baggini acknowledges at the end of the book that what he has called 'positive atheism' is what many people would call 'humanism'. Which label to use becomes at this point a merely terminological issue.
Thirdly, Baggini's emphasis on the positive leads him to suggest in Chapter 6 that there's not a lot of point in trying to refute the traditional arguments for the existence of God. This, he says, is because most religious believers base their belief not on such arguments but on 'inner conviction'. "Grounding religious belief in this kind of conviction," he says, "which feels to the believer like the direct apprehension of absolute truth, can utterly negate the power of all the arguments for atheism I have advanced so far." I think he's being a bit soft on religious believers here. If that really is all their beliefs are based on, then those beliefs in effect have no basis at all, and I think it's important to say so. As Baggini shows in Chapter 2, no case has been made for a belief unless the case is based on evidence and argument.
In that respect, as Baggini says, "the naturalism which lies at the heart and root of atheism is itself rooted in a broader commitment to rationalism". In his very interesting Chapter 5, on 'Atheism in history', he argues the historical emergence of atheism coincides with the origins of Western rationality, first among the philosophers of ancient Greece and then in the 18thcentury Enlightenment. "Thus," he suggests, "atheism can be seen as part of a wider, progressive story about the development of human intellect and understanding." That progressive story has become unfashionable, but it needs telling and Baggini tells it splendidly. His "very short introduction", which packs into a hundred pages a wealth of insight and argument, is itself a wonderful commitment to the rational thought which he defends.
Atheism is available from Amazon (UK)