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Michael Martin (editor)


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
The book is intended to provide general readers and advanced students with an introduction to atheism. This rather wide scope of intended readers no doubt explains why the tone of the different chapters varies widely, some being readily accessible while others are aimed at an academic audience and include arguments using formal logic notation.

There is a quite short general introduction which does little more than outline some possible ways of understanding what atheism is. The body of the book is in three parts. Part 1 has three chapters: atheism in antiquity (Ian M. Bremmer), atheism in modern history (Gavin Hyman), and Phil Zuckerman's survey of research findings of non-belief in different parts of the world, which finds that from 500 million or more people currently do not believe in God. But there are wide regional variations: atheism hardly exists in most of Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia. With the notable exception of the USA, countries with high degrees of cultural and societal security are most likely to have a large proportion of atheists—up to 80 per cent in the case of Denmark. But, as Zuckerman acknowledges, there is considerable doubt about many of the figures cited.

Part 2 is described as putting the case against theism, although the first chapter, by William Craig Lane, is actually a defence of theism which claims that there is a renaissance of interest in the subject in philosophy. Keith Parsons, in contrast, criticises the arguments of two prominent philosophers who defend theism, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne: this is a useful summary of their views.

Successive chapters in this section advance various arguments against theism. Quentin Smith's "Kalam Cosmological Argument for Atheism" and Patrick Grim's "Impossibility Argument" are pretty technical. Daniel Dennett has a chapter demolishing the argument from design from a Darwinian perspective. Andrea M. Weisberger has probably the easiest task of any of the contributors, in showing that it is impossible to reconcile the notion of a God who is all-powerful and all-good with the existence of evil and suffering.

In "The Autonomy of Ethics" David O. Brink discusses the claim that theism is needed as a support for morality. This idea contains an obvious difficulty, pointed out in antiquity and often since then: if actions are good only because God approves of them, it would be possible for God to authorise, for example, genocide (there are passages in the Old Testament where this does seem to be the case). Alternatively, if God only approves actions which are objectively good, why do we need God at all as a basis for morality? Brink concludes that we can justify morality without any reference to God: ethics is, and must be, autonomous.

Part 3 looks at the implications of atheism. The editor, Michael Martin, finds that it is possible to have religion without a God or gods, and he thinks that Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism exemplify this, at least to some degree. But he does not regard atheism itself as a religion. Other chapters consider feminism and atheism (Christine Overall), the legal aspects of atheism (Steven G. Gey), and atheism in relation to postmodernism (John D. Caputo); I found the last to be somewhat obscure, but that is a feature of most discussions of postmodernism.

The final chapter (Atheists: A Psychological Profile), by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, seeks to account for the existence of non-belief, which clearly does require some explanation given the overwhelming tendency to religious belief in most humans. Beit-Hallahmi doesn't really provide such an explanation, but rather he looks at the demographic characteristics of the irreligious. He concludes that the typical atheist in Western societies is likely to be male, married, with higher education.

We can say that atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate. conscientious, and well educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life. In short, they are good to have as neighbours.

This flattering portrait of the typical atheist as a thoroughly good egg is, I suspect, intended to counteract the tendency that appears in surveys of attitudes in the USA to see atheists as hardly better than paedophiles. I feel myself that it rather overstates the position in the opposite direction.

7 June 2010

%T The Cambridge Companion to Atheism
%E Martin, Michael
%I Cambridge University Press %C Cambridge
%D 2007
%G ISBN-13 978-0-521-60367-6
%P xix + 331pp
%K religion

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