Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lex Bayer + John Migdor's "Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart": Book Review

If you don't believe in God or gods, what then? Stanford humanist chaplain Migdor and his colleague, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Lex Bayer, offer a reasonable, calmly argued, and philosophically constructed set of Ten "Non-commandments" aimed to guide the growing numbers of non-believers along a straightforward path.

The first five emerge from atheist tenets based on observable reality to distinguish truth from false claims. Data and evidence derive from what can be tested and what is open to verification, correction, rejection, or acceptance. Basically and unsurprisingly, the authors establish that truth-claims about divine existence fail to explain why one manifestation is to be proven among myriad competitors past and present, and they offer a stimulating analogy to a "religious lottery" (50). A secular spin on Pascal's wager, this game of chance means no believer in this life can be sure that his or her choice will "pay off" as opposed to competing versions of a deity or gods. Religion is redefined as a "set of starting assumptions" rather than truth-claims able to be verified. God, the authors assert, is an assumption rather than a belief. (53) "Beliefs are simply inserted into a space left empty by a lack of effort." (136) Strong words in a generally genial study. However, Bayer and Migdor roll out a logical response that confirms that belief in an unseen presence with the names we are most familiar with is no different than that which insists elves or Thor or Babalú must exist.

There may endure a "high level of confidence" among atheists (whom they align more or less with humanists and agnostics early on if with some slight delineation) that God may not exist. But the writers also agree with Richard Dawkins' 6.9 (who ranks himself on his scale, 7 as total non-belief) that the odds are stacked against divine existence. Still, logically total certainty can never be claimed.

The second half of this brief book articulates the humanist comfort gained when one acts to increase the well-being and happiness of others, and so ensures more contentment for one's self. No facile reduction to Utilitarianism, yet this asserts a thoughtful consideration of how we may treat each other better. I found the tone shift here, as a more relaxed, expansive attitude appeared to replace the rigor of the preceding section. I was not sure if one author took charge of one part more than the other, or if the subject matter created its own mood, but it was noticeable from the start of the ethical portion.

Overall, this is very readable. I expected a refutation of the classic ontological arguments of Anselm, the teleological and cosmological ones of Aquinas, the argument from design by Paley. But no trace of these terms, or even Primum Mobile or uncaused cause, watchmakers or a 747 in a junkyard can be found. So, this may fit the needs as the authors encourage of more of a self-study book for those needing reflection and direction towards a more articulate type of non-belief. Two pages are included so you can make up your own tenets to mull over, for in this process, the authors find their own rationales have been tested and made stronger. I like the conversations they have with each other that show how one person's range of subjective views build up one's moral standards. They refuse any universal objective set of morals can be defined. I wish more depth had been given to the common challenges to this, and in the "Common Religious Objections" to some of the venerable theorems for God's existence. For, these will be faced by nearly anyone tackling this in conversation or debate with Christian believers. Only one medieval thinker is mentioned. Cleverly, Ockham's Razor is applied to advance the logical preference for the simplest explanation for what we observe, God-free.

Bayer and Migdor favor reasonable interactions, to strengthen community, and a just, rational society. They turn to the case of the Boston bomber who hid under a boat and wrote on its hull a literally "unintelligible" scrawl justifying in the name of Allah the immoral action perpetuated by "heinous acts" such as the bombers carried out. (117) This haunting comparison reminds readers of the irrational motives which continue to attempt to rally people in a supposedly advanced century to take on outmoded and illogical rationales to perpetrate violence upon those outside their own belief system. Such fanatics chant the name of one of the many competing versions of God or gods which Migdor and Bayer seek to prove as false. (Amazon US 12-11-14; Vote for beliefs; author's website)

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