Thursday, June 24, 2010

Julian Baggini's "Atheism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Calmly, non-dogmatically, this explains how not anti-religious so much as pro-naturalist stances can define a more positive version of atheism that accentuates reason to counter belief, myth, and superstition. As a philosopher, Baggini in a hundred pages manages to survey the moral foundations for rational assertions, the weakness of unverifiable claims of faith, and the hopes that this orientation will help men and women to grow up, if painfully, while leaving behind childish illusions.

He starts by countering assumptions that "atheism can only exist as a parasitic rival to theism," or that atheism needs to be nihilistic. If God could be proven to have never existed, he points out, we'd still have had atheists, if not by that name! It encompasses positive views of human potential and commonsensical self-actualization, not merely the naysaying sneers of caricatured malcontents.

He then makes the case for atheism based on experience, observation, and truth claims. Faith by its very definition relies on that not seen. Atheism cannot accept this as evidence of a divine presence. It does not ask us to go against our own reason or what can be measured or grasped. He demolishes Pascal's wager, ontological and cosmological proofs for God, and the appeal to one religion among so many choices as the only true one. If atheists cannot be a 100% sure, this only shows them the necessity to avoid militancy, oppression, or intolerance as they convince by nonjudgmental, non-dogmatic methods.

These tie into ethics, and Baggini steps into Aristotleian, Kantian, existentialist, and utilitarian concepts for much of the middle of his text. This seems perhaps a detour, but Baggini as a philosopher seeks to establish a foundation for morality that does not need a scripture, revelation, or belief as its construction. He then takes up the position that atheism can offer us meaning and purpose. "If we pretend or imagine that life's purpose lies outside living itself, we will be searching the stars for what is underneath our feet all the time." (67)

He looks at the history of atheism. He reminds us that moral people need not believe in the supernatural. Terry Pratchett is cited well: "I think I'm probably an atheist, but rather angry with God for not existing." (70)

Then, he defends a committed, caring atheism against charges that the Communists were such. This does not disprove atheism's truth anymore, he avers, than Hitler disproves the value of vegetarianism. Too severe a distorted application of ideology in whatever cause, Baggini warns, will lead to inhumanity pursued for principles that forget tradition, advance zealotry, and deny human nature's need for liberty and respect.

Finally, he links atheism to the progression of human culture away from innocence as well as ignorance. He examines how evil persists and how theodicy fails to account for this problem. Superstitions are replaced by rational explanations for the forces around us and within us. We learn to live as mature beings within finitude.

I found a few concepts, perhaps due to such compression for this fine Oxford series, that I would have liked to hear more about. Agnosticism's "suspension of belief" Baggini rejects as not accepting the "strong claims" that God does not exist as opposed to the "weak claims" that He may, but this needed more elaboration. He skims over how a bliss-filled afterlife in a non-human-like state might not represent fulfillment, and considering Stephen Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (see my reviews), I'd be curious about non-theistic approaches that might jibe better than Baggini might think with his own rationalism.

He precedes the bestsellers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens (see my reviews) by a few years. He takes up Dawkins's evolutionary studies briefly, however. He appeals to a less confrontational stance on non-fundamentalist religion and acknowledges the good that religions do can be separated from their harm, contrary to the more combative approaches taken by many subsequent contenders in the past decade's neo-atheist resurgence.(Compare Robin Le Poidevin's "Agnosticism" in this same series, also reviewed by me.)

This is an optimistic, thoughtful work I enjoyed. Baggini succeeds in writing a book that atheists can share with those who wonder about this often misunderstood and feared system of thought. Not belief, but a philosophical, positive humanism that puts people ahead of spirits, and our capacity for living up to our best selves as our goal, freed from fear of torment or punishment from unseen forces. Whatever your own position, this primer challenges you to examine your own suppositions carefully. (Posted to Amazon US 6-24-10)

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