In the year 2013, all my posts have been a summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp. I have carefully summarized his definition of, and case for, atheism. As promised, I will now offer my evaluation of his book. It is my contention that theists (and those committed to any religious faith tradition) should be able to appreciate the kind of atheism Baggini presents in this book, whether they disagree with him or not.
Baggini’s approach to atheism is a breath of fresh air that should assure religious believers that not all atheism is as hostile to Christianity as Rickard Dawkins’ brand of militant atheism. Set against such recent aggressive anti-religious developments in atheism, Baggini’s book is exemplary for fair treatment, right attitude, and more charitable posturing overall. This is the most important aspect of his book and it fits with his chief purpose for writing the book—namely, to provide an introduction to atheism that is “not simply about rubbishing religious belief” (7). I therefore sympathize greatly with his attempt to redefine atheism as naturalism so it can be viewed more broadly rather than being so narrowly and negatively construed as anti-God. Baggini has summarized well the historical treatments of others who have (rightly I think) tied atheism to naturalism and recognized how the social context of the Enlightenment redefined atheism as anti-religous at a time when all religious beliefs were becoming more and more open to public critique after a long period of the ideologically oppressive political policies of medieval Christendom. I can agree with Baggini that it is narrow-minded to reduce a naturalist’s worldview down to its negative component of atheism (the denial of the existence of God or gods), just as I would think that it is narrow minded for a Muslim to consider a Christian anti-Muhhamad. Such reductionist labeling can feed into prejudices and hinder mutual respect and productive dialogue. On the other hand, as I will explore later, I don’t necessarily think the argument Baggini advances in order to accomplish his redefinition of the word “atheism” is sound (but more about that later).
Several insights from Baggini’s treatment of atheism stand out as exceptionally helpful or persuasive, so here I offer some examples.
Are There Good Grounds to Distrust Interpretations of Religious Experience?
First, he helpfully starts out by defining what he thinks a good case for something will consist of: evidence and argument. When trying to make a good case or argument for the truth of something, it is not fair, he argues, to give what he calls “anecdotal evidence” (or what we might call “private evidence”) more weight than the type of evidence that can be publicly verified since “human beings are not very good at interpreting their experiences” (14). It seems that Christian evangelicals committed to an exclusivist worldview would have to agree here, since if this version of Christianity is true (and Jesus is the “only way”) this means all the other religions of the world who base their belief in religious experiences have grossly misinterpreted them. For example, what should a Christian say to a Muslim who claims God revealed to his heart that Islam was the true religion when he fasted and prayed for a week straight? What if this Muslim also says that God has assured him that the Koran (and not the Christian Bible) is the Word of God? It seems to me that evangelicals who hold to exclusivists positions ideologically (i.e. that only Christianity is true and all other religions false) have no choice but to admit with Baggini that human beings in general are not good at interpreting their experiences—especially religious experiences. How can Muslims be so skeptical about the religious experiences of Christians (or vice versa), but be so confident in their own?
Does Science Make Belief in the Immortality of the Soul Problematic?
Second, I have to agree with Baggini that the correlation of brain activity with consciousness is problematic for belief in human souls that retain consciousness apart from brain activity. If the human soul, for example, is supposed to be the core-most part of human nature, processing and retaining the deepest memories and feelings of the human person even after death apart from the firing of neurons in the brain, then why is Alzheimer’s disease so prevalent? All science shows a dependency of consciousness on brain activity, but if human persons remain fully conscious after death via the soul why does the soul seem unable to retain memories for those with Alzheimer’s disease? Here it seems that views of consciousness after death are problematic in light of the dependency relationship established by science between consciousness and brain activity. This area of science is forcing some evangelicals, for example, to rethink their interpretation of biblical language about souls to accommodate the scientific data. I stop short of agreeing with Baggini that the strongest evidence for consciousness after death is the “testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences,” but more on that later (19).
It seems impossible to contest that the traditional Christian anthropology of body-soul dualism is problematic because it requires one to believe that “non-material thinking souls exist along side brains and somehow interact with them, and that, further, the dependency of consciousness on brain activity miraculously disappears at death, when the soul lives on without the body” (30). And yet even as Baggini makes this argument, he does not overstep the evidence by arguing that it is irrational to believe in life after death, that there is no evidence at all for it, or that it is not possible that science could be surprised in the future by discovering something new that could shed new light on this question and overturn what is now overwhelming evidence for the morality of human consciousness. Rather, he argues more modestly that while there is this possibility and some evidence for life after death, nevertheless compared with the stronger evidence for human mortality, evidence for immortality of human souls is much weaker.
I cannot recall ever reading such a carefully fair handed way of putting this secular argument where Baggini appears to be conceding in every place he can think to concede to the other side. His example in this should be followed by religious philosophers and naturalist philosophers alike. This is what makes Baggini’s atheism different: as a matter of principle, he always leaves room for his own views to be wrong (or “defeasible” if you like the philosophical term he chooses). “There is no way either can be so sure they are right,” he concludes (24). Absolute certainty is not possible, but Baggini is content to hold that his view has much stronger evidence.
Is Induction a Superior Method Than Religious Experience?
Third, when one compares the cohesive developments of scientific understanding with the diversity of religious belief in the world, I must admit with Baggini, the scientific understanding seems to have more continuity globally than does religious understanding. Although certainly there are disagreements and different schools of thought in science, there is nothing like the full blown comprehensive, fundamental, and irreconcilable contradictions that exist between different religious traditions in the world. In fact, people from radically different religious traditions often find themselves able to work harmoniously side by side in the field of science so long their methodology for inquiry is restricted to “evidence and argument.” They can put their religious differences aside taking for granted the same scientifically established truths on which they base their further scientific inquiries. It seems reasonable to suppose that such cohesion in the discipline of science is largely owing to the chief method of inquiry: induction (28). Approaching the world with the question “What is the best explanation for the observable phenomenon of the world and the universe?” is very different than how most people go about choosing or deciding on a religious commitment (at least in modern times), which more often has to do with making sense of one’s own personal experiences of the world rather than global or universal phenomenon in general (which would need to include the personal and social experiences of people in general—including those of other religious commitments).
Few people (if any) decide on a religious commitment only after a substantial logical inquiry into which worldviews make the most sense of phenomenon in general, taking the time to investigate and compare the claims of the worlds major religious traditions against the critiques of skeptics and then to also compare these with the most philosophically careful secular, agnostic, and naturalistic accounts of the world and universe. Religious commitments are almost always made without any such rigorous intellectual interest; they are usually on the basis of deep personal and/or social experience. That is not to say that scientists never have social or personal biases that motivate them to choose a secular or naturalist worldview over against a religious one, for it is inevitably the case that experience has a potentially (if not necessarily) determinative role to play in shaping the motives and perspectives of everyone. If we wanted to get technical, I suppose one’s motive to be “logical” could itself be construed as the result of personal or social experience in a number of ways. For example, it could be argued that human nature is hard-wired to be logical (some more than others) and that personal experience can shape how central of a role this innate desire plays in determining one’s desires or actions.
Nevertheless, on the whole the testimony of religious believers is explicitly based on personal experience while the influence of such personal and social experiences usually are negligible or peripheral in the self-understanding of atheists and scientists committed to naturalism or else they are mentioned only in connection with how such experiences helped them see that religion does not make the best logical or scientific sense of phenomenon. The ostensible aim of people like Baggini is to be as rational as possible and restrict their beliefs to what best explains all or most of the evidence. Such is rarely the self-understanding of religious believers. Christians, for example, may make this the goal of their apologetic discipline which seeks to defend Christian beliefs against critics, but such is rarely (if ever) the stated goal of their decision to commit their lives to follow Christ; such a telos is also not the stated goal of Christianity.
As best as I can tell, reconciling one’s faith with logic and science is something a religious believer can (and in some religious traditions should) explore, but such reconciliation is never (and in most religions never should be) the ground of their religious faith commitments. In the discipline of apologetics reason is restricted to defending what faith is already committed to, whereas for the naturalist reason’s role is much more comprehensive, central, and ideologically and teleologically fundamental. It should not be surprising, therefore, to find that two scientists from different parts of the world who may be in different fields of scientific study, or two naturalists (whether scientists or philosophers or otherwise) would have world views more similar to one another than two religious believers each committed to a different religion. We all have our psychological reasons for being motivated to either be religious or not be religious, but the aim to be logical or obtain “the best explanation” plays a much more controlling role in the psyche of some than in others, and it would be helpful (and humble) if religious believers could admit this.
Religious believers, whose self-understanding of their own purpose in the world is usually part of a grandiose religious and sacred telos (e.g. to glorify God, do the will of Allah, to be one with a transcendent reality, to achieve Nirvana, to “save” the world) are probably tempted to see the atheist telos of merely ensuring that they be as rational as possible as quite petty in comparison. Athiests are probably tempted to think of the religious telos as irrational and delusional. To Baggini’s credit, while he believes Atheism is more rational, he explicitly denies that religious believers are irrational or delusional (he avoids this kind of language and criticizes other atheists for using it). Religious believers should return the respect and humility of Baggini by avoiding the temptation to think of the Atheist telos as being petty or prideful, and respect that they are trying their best to live in conformity with their own human nature, which is hard-wired to reason and be rational.
Is Atheism a Better Explanation for Religious Pluralism?
Fourth, not unrelated to this, I sympathize to some degree when Baggini argues that atheism has the best explanatory power when it comes to the existence of divergent religious beliefs, holding that the easiest explanation for such religious pluralism is one that views religions as creative human constructions. Admittedly, the attempts of each religious tradition to explain the existence of other religious traditions is highly problematic. It seems to force religious traditions to either hold that the other major religious traditions are wrong and only one happened to get it right (a view that requires a convoluted explanation for why this sort of a thing happened), or else so downplay the importance of these differences that the distinctive truth claims of each tradition are either lost or so generic that they are stripped of any strong supernatural metaphysical claims. When such metaphysical claims are tossed aside one is left with bare-bone ethical claims like: “we should love our neighbor” or “community should be valued above all”).
It should not be missed, however, that in viewing all these religions as mere human constructions, one must hold that any substantial arguments seeking to establish supernatural phenomenon (especially the historical claim about the resurrection of Jesus made by scholars of respectable standing within a secular discipline) must be weighed carefully (something Baggini does not explore in his summary treatment). Furthermore, if there were a religious theory that accommodated all scientific inquiry yet at the same time generically validated in some significant way religious experience (while viewing their particular cultural expressions as less important), this too would have to be weighed carefully. And here I am wondering, of course, what Baggini would make of the well known pluralist hypothesis of the recently deceased analytic philosopher John Hick. The subtle nuances of Hick’s pluralist hypothesis avoid claims that all religions are different paths to the same truth and accepts as a starting point the contradictory claims of the world’s major religious traditions, views that Baggini rightly excludes as untenable. What if such a theory had an equal ability to accommodate scientific knowledge but without the problem of having to dismiss religious experience as illusory? Would such a theory have more explanatory power than the naturalist worldview?
I suspect that Baggini would here value the rule of simplicity above all, and argue this rule is more important than the problem of dismissing as entirely illusory the global phenomenon of religious experience. But then we must ask: Is that really the simplest explanation of this phenomenon—that the majority of persons are shaped by illusory experiences whereas naturalists are the only ones who get it right? Baggini does not seem to be at all bothered by this position which could be seen as also problematic. Could Hick’s hypothesis (taken in its most generic form) be considered as having greater explanatory power? Could it be less problematic to view such globally ubiquitous religious experiences as indicating a higher reality not to be confused with a personal deity or deities but nevertheless uncongenial to the scope of normal human perception that explains why religious experiences are so common and transformative? Sure such an explanation is not necessary since one can always hold religious views are entirely delusory. But could such an explanation make more sense of the global phenomenon of religious experience and be less problematic? I doubt Baggini would think so, but when he argues that the only alternative to his view is to view one religion as being true while all other religions are false, he doesn’t exactly construe the options as generously as he could. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that religious pluralism makes the most common forms of religious commitments, which are usually to a particular Religious Tradition rather than a philosophical hypothesis, problematic.
Fifth, I agree with Baggini that it is misleading when religious believers argue that atheists must have “faith” since they cannot prove their atheism because (as Baggini points out) “proof” in this sense is not attainable for the “vast majority of most beliefs” (31). It is a question of interest to what extent the notion of “faith” in the worlds religious traditions values or encourages belief that is not based on evidence or reasoned argument. For example, in both the Bible and the Christian Tradition this way of viewing faith seems to be a part of the religious perspective: Abraham’s faith was exemplary precisely because he believed the unbelievable (i.e. that which seemed to go against reason): that he would be the father of many descendants even though he and his wife were of a ripe old age and as of yet had no children. The famous Christian theologian and preacher John Chrysostom defined faith’s key element as believing God’s revelation without needing any human arguments to establish it. “Faith” is probably being misused when it describes believing in something that one has good evidence and reason to believe but lacks indisputable “proof” (like believing that the sun will rise tomorrow, that frozen sidewalks outside will be slippery today, that other people you know have minds and are not cleverly constructed robots that imitate human behavior and cognition). It seems right to reserve the word “faith” in the common vernacular to refer to belief in God, miracles, transcendent realities and deities in the absence of the “ordinary support of evidence or argument” and therefore either go beyond reason or [at least seem to go] against it (33). The field of apologetics in the Christian worldview that seeks defend Christian faith need not be taken to presuppose that one must have good evidence and argument before one accepts faith, but can be seen rather as more of a defense mechanism against attacks of skeptics who claim that Christian faith is irrational, as Baggini understands it (93).
The author’s respect for religious belief in spite of his strong conviction that it’s wrong continues throughout the book, never letting up. He admits that many intelligent people are religious; faith cannot be simply dismissed as foolish superstition (92). He cites Christian philosopher Peter Vardy who points out that Aquinas would not have thought of his arguments for the existence of God so much as “stand alone” proofs but as attempts to reconcile faith and reason by showing faith is not contrary to the evidence. Whether it is the best fit for the evidence may be considered quite another question. Few skeptics (or religious believers for that matter) recognize this subtle distinction, but Baggini seems attentive to it out of respect and courtesy. If we compare this attitude to dogmatic religious apologists who often accuse all atheists of being foolishly irrational and deviously suppressing their knowledge of God so they can indulge in sin and rebellion against God’s authority, we can appreciate all the more how Baggini’s tone and posture is in many ways more virtuous than those who would sharply disagree with him. His insight that those seeking and using arguments that support faith often are already convinced that they know for certain their faith is true based on their religious experience is accurate and helps put debates in their proper perspective. I must concur that “arguments don’t provide the reasons why people become religious” (93). But occasionally I have heard of skeptics of Christianity who are engaged or challenged by apologists and as a result of the exchange they eventually come also to believe, thinking that their reasons for not believing were mistaken. Several considerations, however, prevent me from concluding this necessarily makes an exception to this claim. First, what stops such a person from simply withholding judgement until they have examined all world religions carefully and weighted them against one another to see which one is the most coherent with itself and all that we know about the world and universe? Second, Christian apologists who specialize in attempting to make a case for their faith will argue that someone’s decision to become a Christian is never (and never should be) based merely on intellectual reasons alone, but must be the result of some deeper motive in the recesses of the human soul or heart. Third, those who I have heard give testimony about having been skeptical about Christianity but of having became open to it through logic or reason end up interpreting this experience as more than just a decision to choose what seemed like the most rational choice among worldview options, but also inevitably look back on this conversion as something they were moved by a supernatural power to do. I would argue that the controlling psychological principle in play when someone makes a religious commitment is never a purely intellectual interest in being as rational as possible and choosing what makes the best sense of the most evidence. How one would describe this principle that moves people to religious conviction will depend on the assumptions they bring to such an interpretation.
In this post I have focused on areas where I found Baggini to be exemplary and his thoughts insightful and helpful. In my next post I will focus on my critical remarks concerning some of the details of Baggini’s book.