Review : Atheism A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

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Julian Baggini presents a rather moderated case for atheism, based on the argument that naturalism is the best explanation of existence. His chapter 2 on the case for atheism focuses more on questions of intellectual methodology. He could have made a stronger, more conclusive case by including more on issues such as the moral failure of religion in history, the challenge to belief of two terrible continental wars, the massive challenge of evolution to creationist belief, etc. It’s not in fact entirely clear whether the book is a short academic study on atheism, or an argument for atheism, and this uncertainty may account for its understatement of the case for atheism. He does highlight the role of the Enlightenment in celebrating rationality and thereby forcing an atheist conclusion, although not all Enlightenment philosophers were in fact atheist (d’Holbach, La Mettrie, Spinoza and Hume were, but Locke, Vico, Voltaire and Rousseau were deists).

It’s strange that he doesn’t anywhere mention Darwin and the huge impact of the contemporary Darwin/Mendel/Hamilton synthesis in biology, which certainly underpins much contemporary academic atheism. Dawkins gets one fleeting reference in his refutation of the watchmaker argument in William Paley’s `Natural Theology’. One suspects that this is due to Baggini’s opposition to dogmatic atheist positions which he terms `militant’, which is a welcome open minded approach, but thereby leaves the coverage incomplete.

He is entirely correct in pointing out that religion offers no advantage in defining morality, since positing God as the source of ethics makes morality arbitrary, but also because this approach fatally removes any human moral agency. The same goes for meaning and purpose in life where, contrary to popular assumption, religion adds nothing.

Baggini rightly critiques physicalism for its lack of an account of metaphysical phenomena such as intellectual ideas and emotional feeling. It specifically has no account either of truth or of virtue. He remains sympathetic to religion, mainly out of tolerance. He cites the alternative paradigm of religion advanced by Don Cupitt, but without explicating it. These observations would benefit from further development, even within the confines of this short introduction. Human spirituality does exist, even for an atheist world view. Physicalism can only drive us further into consumerism. If we care about what sort of people we are, and what sort of society we live in, then atheism needs a spirituality. Religion interpreted as doctrine and truth statements has failed, but freshly interpreted as myth, may well have a significant contribution to make to atheism. The virtues celebrated by the French atheist philosopher AndrĂ© Comte-Sponville in his `A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’ become the new divine.

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