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What is Atheism? :: A Book Review of Julian Baggini’s “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction”

In the next few posts I will be both summarizing and reviewing a book designed to explain and defend Atheism.  The book is not written for academicians but intended for the broadest possible audience.

Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.

What is Atheism?

In this short book, Baggini has defined for us what it means to be an atheist, summarized the case for atheism, addressed some of the main objections to atheism, and clarified some of the misconceptions of atheism along the way.  In defining atheism, the author is concerned to correct what he sees as a misunderstanding that atheism is fundamentally negative.  As he puts it “there is no a priori link between being an atheist and having a positive or negative outlook” (11).  Furthermore, for Baggini, atheism is actually a positive worldview “that includes numerous beliefs about the world and what is in it” (8-9).  Atheism, as he sees it, is not parasitic on religion, but would exist whether religious belief in God or gods existed or not (9).

Chapter 1: What is Atheism?

Defining atheism simply in terms of its negative aspects—the lack of belief in God or gods—is an unfortunate accident of historical circumstance.  That is, if we define atheism negatively we commit the etymological fallacy, which Baggini summarizes as “the mistake of thinking that one can best understand what a word means by understanding its origin” (7).  The linguistic construction of the word “atheism” may be fundamentally negative (a + theism = no theism), but (warns Baggini) to assume therefore that atheism itself is fundamentally negative is a logical fallacy.

He is also concerned to avoid the pitfall of allowing his discourse about the nature of atheism not to degenerate into a negative bashing of religious belief (7).  As we will see in chapter 2, he also does not want to come across as dogmatic in his belief, and admits that even though he has no good reason to think so, he may be wrong.  In many ways Baggini is attempting to leave the reader with a more positive impression of atheism, not just convince them that atheism is reasonable.     

One of his illustrations will prove helpful here.  Before people started believing in the Loch Ness Monster, people who did not believe in this monster were not called “anessies” or defined in fundamentally negative categories.  The rise in popularity of belief in the monster Nessie, however, as a matter of historical circumstance, caused people who had an otherwise positive worldview to be defined in exclusively negative terms by being branded as “anessies.”  Likewise, argues Baggini, the same historical misfortune has befallen atheists, and this book seeks to redress this situation.

Baggini defines atheism as “the belief that there is no God or gods,” but stresses that many people assume this means atheists do not believe in morality or meaning to life (3).  “Atheism is only intrinsically negative when it comes to belief about God,” says Baggini, “it is as capable of a positive view of other aspects of life as any other belief” (3).  He does admit, however, that atheism tends to go hand in hand with something called naturalism, which he distinguishes from something else he calls crude physicalism.  While naturalism is “a belief that there is only the natural world and not any supernatural one,” crude physicalism is the belief that “the only things that exist are material objects” (4).

What’s the difference?  A subtle distinction Baggini believes is worth pointing out: so much of the natural world includes forces of physics that “don’t seem to be ‘material objects’ in the everyday sense of the word” (e.g., gravity, magnetism, human ideas and affections).  Therefore Baggini thinks it may be misleading to call naturalists “physicalists” because it might seem to imply that they don’t believe in forces of physics that may not be considered “material objects” in the common use of language.  Those who rule out the existence of such “forces of physics” he calls eliminative materialists.  Eliminative materialists believe that everything that exists is physical “stuff” in the normal use of the word that excludes forces of physics (5).

Although Baggini is a naturalist, he wants to distinguish himself with something he calls philosophical Naturalism, which he believes “may make stronger and more specific claims” (5).  He puts it another way: atheists are usually naturalists with a lower-case “n,” not necessarily an upper case “N.”  Also, rather than “crude physicalism” or “eliminative materialism” the author is willing to believe in a generic form of physicalism so long as it’s defined the same as naturalism, so that it includes forces of physics in addition to “physical stuff.”  SIDE NOTE: I’m not sure what philosophical group Baggini has in mind here, since I’ve never personally heard of any such group of naturalists who are in denial that forces of physics are contained within and caused by nature.  It seems to only make his presentation more muddled (but more about that in my final post).

In case you are a bit turned off by all these heavy labels (naturalism vs. Naturalism, eliminative materialism, crude physicalism), we should simply note that Baggini believes that everything that exists is contained within what we call “nature” (even if it’s not physical “stuff” in the normal sense of the word “physical”—like human ideas or affections) and nothing exists outside of nature that would therefore be considered as somehow supernatural.  Although it’s admittedly possible for atheists to believe in the supernatural even if they don’t believe in God or gods, the author argues that atheism tends to be more of a by-product of naturalism and thus (with perhaps a few exceptions) goes hand-in-hand with it.  In this I’m sure Baggini will be glad to find himself in agreement with most theists who also are keen to point out this philosophical link.

In my next post I will discuss his second chapter, where he makes a summary of “the case for atheism.”  My critical and laudatory remarks will be reserved until the very end once I have summarized each chapter, at which time I will post a link to the full book review in PDF format for those who wish to read it all the way through as opposed to a series of posts.

Bradley R. Cochran

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