Type Book
Date 2003-06-26
Pages 119
Series Very Short Introductions (99)
Tags nonfiction, atheism

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

The guiding idea has been to produce a book which atheists will be able to give to their friends by way of explanation for their beliefs, after having used it themselves to help organize their thoughts.

The book might be useful to the atheist who hasn't spent much effort thinking about atheism, but that's about it. He hits a few of the high points, but he could probably have done it in a tenth as many pages. You could, as with the Jefferson Bible, cut out the useful bits and save everyone a lot of time.

1: What is atheism?

The goal of the book, the author says repeatedly, is to present a positive case for atheism: not only why one should not be a theist, but why one should be an atheist. The negative connotation–that atheism can only exist in opposition to theism–is mere etymological fallacy.

2: The case for atheism

The evidence for atheism–for materialism, for naturalism–is strong, since it is the everyday experience of everyone. The evidence against atheism is weak, being limited to hearsay and eyewitness reports from a small number of people in a small number of instances. Therefore, it is justified to be an atheist, rather than merely agnostic.

On the final analysis, absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence of absence–when you have searched for evidence in places you would expect to find it, were the proposition true.

I'm an atheist and even I find this chapter pretty unconvincing. It's not that I think Baggini is wrong when he says that the various phenomena we observe seem more likely to have natural explanations that supernatural ones, and that premises should not be needlessly multiplied, but…

I don't know. Maybe if I were twenty years younger I'd feel like all this stuff was useful to read. Today, though, it just seems like so much weakly repeating obvious basics without any kind of engagement with the opposition. Perhaps that's the point–Baggini doesn't want to present atheism as in opposition to theism–but it makes for some tiresome reading, for me.

Pascal's wager

Baggini gives his own version of Pascal's wager. He begins by positing the existence of "a good, all-knowing, all-loving God" and concludes that this God would only really care about people being good, and is unlikely to send people to hell or to care about worship.

That's great, but it's the same argument any 14-year-old atheist will come to with a few moments' thought. Certainly it'd be nice if, granted there were some god, this reasoning would hold up, but isn't it assuming too much? The God of the Bible doesn't really seem all that interested in people being generically 'good'. He cares a lot more about people following his rules, and worshiping him in certain ways, and a bunch of other stuff that seems rather petty for such an awesome being.

Ah-ha, you say, but these things were written by humans, and as an atheist there's no reason for me to believe them.

Sure. But there's no reason to believe in an all-good, all-loving Bob Ross type of God, either. All this argument really shows is that some conceptions of God are incompatible with some arguments about how humans should behave.

Essentially, this argument is one that probably only sounds good to atheists. Theists can just point out that, after all, God says he wants people to worship him.

3: Atheist ethics

Baggini discusses the Euthyphro dilemma briefly.

Discussing the story of Abraham and Isaac, Baggini observes that neither atheists nor theists can be absolved of moral choice, even at the command of God. Atheists are simply more aware of this fact.

4: Meaning and purpose

Baggini argues that life need not be eternal (or even very long) in order to have meaning, and that saying (as the religious might) that the true meaning of life is in the afterlife really just pushes the question back a bit. If there can be true meaning then, why not now?

Further, he argues that a purpose must be a purpose for us, not merely a purpose we serve for another (i.e. an acceptable purpose for life should not be merely to serve as a cog in God's plan, any more than to be a cog in a more mundane machine would seem a worthwhile purpose, devoid of other meaning).

So, religion doesn't have one up on atheism with regard meaning and purpose.

5: Atheism in history

Atheism is not responsible for the horrors of fascism or communism, in the first case because fascism has not in general been atheist, and in the second because (Soviet) communism is by no means the natural consequence of atheism. Rather, secular governments as in the West should be looked upon as the atheist answer to theocracy.

6: Against religion?

Atheists are not necessarily anti-religion any more than catholics are necessarily anti-protestant, Baggini says. That sort of "militant atheism" which is actively hostile to religion "requires something verging on hatred" (101). Baggini is careful to distance himself from this.

Arguments against god

Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that moderate atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense, and the second is that it is usually or always harmful.

As to the first, Baggini says that the problem is that believers just don't think rationality is important, so arguments about religion being false are misguided. Baggini isn't quite advancing a relativist argument that religion is true for believers, as though there is no such thing as objective truth, but he does seem to be saying that one must allow the believers to set the terms of the argument, which is giving far too much ground.

Having pronounced this immense caveat, Baggini describes some arguments for and against God's existence. First, the problem of evil: it seems like a big problem for God, but religious believers will simply declare, like Pangloss, that this is truly the best of all worlds–God lets evil exist because it is better for us, in the long run. "For the atheist, the problem of evil demands an answer . . . For the believer, a solution would be nice, but is not necessary. For militant athesists, this is evidence that religious believers . . . are essentially irrational in their beliefs" (104). Baggini refuses this conclusion becase, he says, he doesn't want to be dogmatic. It isn't sensible to make such a bold statement until you can do it in a way that both believers and atheists can agree with.

Absurd! "I think it healthier to at least admit the possibility that there is something in what they believe" he says, as though admitting the possibility of error means giving up on ever drawing any conclusions. If I am very sure that the glass of water I just poured is not poisoned, but cannot discount 100% the possibility that some trace of poisonous substance has found its way into my glass, should I, out of a principle of avoiding dogmatism, resign myself to dying of thirst?

To the second argument, then: that religion is harmful. First, Baggini argues that "believing something false is harmful" is only valid if we know 100% that the thing is false, so we are back to the previous argument that maybe there really is a teapot out there. Ugh. As to other kinds of harm, Baggini waves his hands and says that since some believers hold bland and unoffensive beliefs, we shouldn't be opposed to religion in general.

7: Conclusion

Baggini suggests a number of interesting-sounding books for further reading.

Name Role
Julian Baggini Author
Oxford University Press Publisher