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Atheism in History :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, and even examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview.  In this post, we will see how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism.

When and why did Atheism emerge in Western history?  To what extent is atheism to blame for the terrors of 20th-century totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Italy, and Spain?  The answer to this first question will bolster the case for atheism, and the answer to the second will weaken objections to it.  Thus our author sets out in this chapter to continue to build his case for atheism by using history.

ImageChapter 5: Atheism in History

Atheism’s origins can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, especially when we fully appreciate the connection between naturalism and atheism (see post “”).  If we can think of atheism as a positive belief that only the natural world exists (as opposed to some other world distinct from it like a non-natural or supernatural world), James Thrower’s argument in his book Western Atheism is on target.  Thrower argues that to understand the origins of atheism one must understand the origins of naturalism, which starts with the pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers of the 6th century BCE—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—who rejected mythological explanations in favor of naturalistic ones.

Baggini also believes “this therefore also marked the point where science began,” although we must make a distinction between this type of science and the more mature and rigorous experimental science we do today.  We might even make the distinction, as does Baggini, between a broader shift towards replacing mythology with rational explanation in general, and the replacement of mythology with science in particular.  Although science grows out of rational explanation, in both cases myth is replaced by rationality.  Rationality includes the use of historical evidence to explain the past as opposed to religious myth, and shouldn’t be confused with the more specific and ambitious movement of 17th century Rationalism-with-a-capital-R.  Atheism can be defined positively as naturalism, and because “naturalism follows from rationalism,” this makes rationalism fundamental to the origins of atheism (77).

A rational account is broadly one which confines itself to reasons, evidence and arguments that are open to scrutiny, assessment, acceptance or rejection, on the basis of principles and facts which are available to all.  An optimally rational account is one in which we don’t have to plug any gaps with speculation, opinion, or any other ungrounded beliefs. (76)

It would be inaccurate to say that atheists only believe in the existence of what can be rationally explained, as is often argued by those who say atheism is overly committed to reason.  There may be good reasons to believe something exists, even if how it exists cannot be fully explained—like consciousness for example.  But when it comes to entities like ghosts, we neither have any good reasons to suppose they exist, nor can we rationally explain how they exist.  At the very least we must have good reasons for supposing something exists to “believe” in it, even if how it exists cannot yet be rationally explained (77).  The alternative to this is to swing the door wide open to let in countless “irrational absurdities” (77).

Atheism is tied to rationalism, but it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that it emerged explicitly as an “avowed belief system” (78).  This is where David Berman’s history of atheism comes in handy, who argues that Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) was the “first unequivocally professed atheist in the Western Tradition” (78).  This is when the task to “present and promulgate a godless world view as an alternative to the religious one” began (79).  The author is careful to admit that a certain naiveté attended the period of Enlightenment concerning the power of reason.  Nevertheless this shift in authority certainly could be viewed as what helped atheism establish itself as an avowed belief system over against a religious one.  Atheism could be considered as “the fruit of the progression to Enlightenment values” (79).

We may have lost some of the Enlightenment’s optimism in the power of reason, but we would certainly not like to go back to a society based on superstition.  And although some may think that we have gone too far in our disrespect of authority, few seriously believe that we should go back to a time when office was inherited, when only the male middle classes were politically enfranchised, or when leading clerics wielded strong political power.  So despite its faults, the Enlightenment has to be seen by any reasonable person as an important stage in the progression of Western society, and its core ideals have triumphed. … Atheism takes the Enlightenment rejection of superstition, hierarchy, and rationally ungrounded authority to what many would see as its logical conclusion.  It certainly fits atheism’s self-image to say that, once we were prepared to look religion in the eye under the cool light of reason, its untruth became self-evident (79).

The author does not claim to have an “air-tight” case here, but says at the very least the emergence of modern atheism during the same historical period as the Enlightenment is difficult to be seen as purely coincidental, and can plausibly be seen as related.  This also helps explain why atheism has come to be defined negatively—the emergence of modern atheism took place in the context of a shift away from religious authority.

The rest of Baggini’s chapter is devoted to basically arguing that atheism per se is not to blame for the atrocities of 20th century totalitarianism.  For example, the most important of these regimes was Nazi Germany, yet in no way was Germany a “straightforwardly atheist state” (84).  Furthermore, the Catholic Church signed a concordat with the Nazi government in 1933 and “the collusion between the Protestant churches and the Nazi régime was even closer, helped by anti-Semitic tradition in German Protestantism” (84).  The fact that pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer were radicals in the church for opposing this collusion is an indication that such opposition was not the norm among Protestant churches.  Therefore, the historical fact of such pastors is not reason enough, argues Baggini, for Christians to celebrate.

Although Soviet communism was tied to atheism, it was tied more closely to the philosophy of Karl Marx.  “Communism,” argues Baggini, “is just one atheist belief, and certainly not the most popular one” (87).  The active oppression of religion enacted by Soviet communism was even against the philosophy of Marx since Marx himself believed the way to rid the world of religion was to create a state in which it’s comforts and consolations were no longer needed (87).  Furthermore, the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church overtly backed Stalin in very specific military initiatives according to historian Michael Bordeaux—such as the suppression of the Hungarian uprising (1956), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), and the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979).

In closing the author warns against militant or fundamentalist atheism that seeks to abolish religion by force as a “dangerous” position—just as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism.  Baggini therefore prefers atheism to be expressed in a secular state rather than an atheist state.


In our next post, we will examine why Baggini thinks that showing flaws in the traditional arguments for the existence of God doesn’t usually convince theists to give up their beliefs.

Atheist Purpose and Meaning :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have examined how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism according to author Julian Baggini.  In our last post, I summarized Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics.  In this post, I’m exploring his atheist perspective on meaning and purpose as presented in chapter 4 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  What is the meaning of life?  How can atheists still believe in meaning and purpose when they have rejected the idea that our meaning and purpose come from God?  Does an atheist worldview actually offer even more meaning than a theist worldview for the present life, as opposed to the after-life?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

ImageChapter 4: Meaning and Purpose

Baggini has already argued that theists tend to take for granted that God and morality are a bundle offer when in reality this easy marriage should be called into question.  Likewise, God, meaning, and purpose are often yoked together with a similar line of reasoning.  Without God theists have argued there would be no purpose or meaning for anything.  As he puts it, “Buy into religion and meaning comes with it free.  Opt out of religion, however, and you lose meaning” (57).  Without God meaning and purpose are problematic, so it is argued.  But what if meaning were also problematic for theists?  This is the line of argument taken by Baggini.  Life’s true meaning, according to Baggini, is not pre-packaged together with religion; the wedding of the two is not unproblematic.

Meaning Imposed on Us vs. Meaning Created by Us

First the author wants to make a distinction between imposed purpose and existential purpose, or, if we choose to word it differently, between a purpose in the intent of a designer, and a purpose significant to the consciousness of the thing designed.  If humans were bred by Nation X for the purpose of being slaves, we could say objectively that they were created with a purpose—to do work for Nation X.  But this would be somebody else’s purpose, which may or may not be significant to the consciousness of the slave, which could be called existential purpose.

In short, a purpose or meaning given to a creature by its creator just isn’t necessarily the kind of purpose or meaning that we are looking for in life when we wonder what the point of living is for us.  If the only point in living is to serve somebody else’s purposes then we cease to be valuable beings in our own right and we merely become tools for others, like paper knives or cloned workers.  This is why a belief in a creator God does not automatically provide life with a meaning. (59)

Adopting Imposed Meaning vs. Creating One’s Own

Of course one could possibly be content with being a slave to someone else’s purpose and adopt that existentially for herself so that it becomes not just a purpose for somebody else, but for her also.  Baggini compares this to a cast system where a certain class of people genuinely thinks it’s their purpose to work for the aristocracy and the upper class.  This certainly puts a dark spin on the otherwise glowing boast of theists who claim to have a “higher” purpose.

Another possibility is to trust that God’s purpose is for us, and not just something we do for him.  Although this is a “perfectly coherent position,” Baggini still has a critical critique:

This is a perfectly coherent position but as with much else in religion it has to be recognized that it requires the religious to take something on complete blind trust, or, as they prefer to put it, on faith.  To adopt this position is to admit that the religious actually don’t have any clue what the meaning or purpose of life is, but that they simply trust God has one for them.  And there is still the troubling doubt that a meaning that is given to us by others isn’t necessarily the kind of meaning which makes life meaningful for us. … So God or no God, if life is to be really meaningful it must be so in a way which speaks to our own projects, needs, or desires and not just the purposes of whatever or whoever created us” (61). 

This argument also works against evolution providing “real” meaning either, admits Baggini, because evolution tells us we are here basically to replicate DNA.  So now the question becomes—is it possible to think of meaning or purpose apart from such frameworks?  Sure, argues Baggini.  Creating life goals for oneself is one way.  Even most religious people don’t think their own personal life goals were handed down to them by God but as something they have drawn up for themselves.  In this way, we can be the authors of our own meaning.  Baggini now offers bonus counseling to those setting goals for themselves: be careful not to be too goal oriented in case you don’t meet your goals or in case when you do achieve them, you might be tempted to think you no longer have a purpose.  There is a problem, then, with tying meaning too close to goal achievement, so we must realize that it’s the journey that is also meaningful, not just the achievement of the goal.

Life as It’s Own Answer to the Question of Meaning

There is an endless series of “Why?” questions that can be asked of any action to discover why any given action is worthwhile.  Why should we do chores like going to the grocery store?  Because we need food to live, and we enjoy eating.  But then you could ask “Why is living or enjoying something worthwhile?”  If you were to ask “Why should I do what I enjoy?” you have missed the point according to Baggini.  If you get to where you ask this type of question, “you have not really understood what it means to enjoy doing something” because “to enjoy doing something is itself a good enough reason to do it” as long as you don’t hurt others (62-63).  Our purpose, argues Baggini, must therefore be bound together with some activity or enjoyment that is valuable in itself and not just for some further aim or goal.  Ideally then, our goals will be enjoyable to achieve, so that the process itself is enjoyable, and of such a nature that once achieved, “leads to something which is of enduring value to us” (65).  To illustrate Baggini asks whether it really makes sense to ask something like “Why would I want to work at a job that was enjoyable with likeable coworkers, and then come home to a family I love and fill my leisure time doing things I enjoy most?”  This question just doesn’t make sense.

In a way, then, life is its own answer to the question of meaning.  This means atheists can claim more meaning for life than religious people who see this life as merely some preparation for the next life, per Baggini.  For religious people, this life isn’t what’s really valuable.  “It’s like a coin which can be exchanged for a good that really does count: the after-life” (66).  But this only pushed the question back a life—what makes the after-life meaningful in itself but not this life?  Again, Baggini argues, we are forced to just trust on blind faith that “an answer will be forthcoming” (66).

Before wrapping the chapter up, Baggini argues that Hedonism doesn’t work because pleasure is transitory by definition and we desire something enduring, and that death makes life more meaningful, not less meaningful, for atheists because eternity in the next life would actually be detrimental to meaning and purpose for this life.  “Why bother trying to do anything, such as improve your golf swing, if you’ve always got time to do it later?”  Finally, in closing, Baggini points out that many atheists live very meaningful lives and are writers, thinkers, or artists.  He offers the Czech Republic as evidence against the idea that atheists cannot live meaningful lives—40% of its population is atheist and yet if you visit the country you are not overcome by “a wave of meaninglessness” (72).  “The greatest proof that something is possible is to show that it actually exists” (72).

In our next post, we will look at Atheism in history, and why Julian Baggini thinks that many who use historical evidence against atheism are misled, and how the diverse evidence of history provides, at best, a warning against all forms of fundamentalism–including militant atheism.

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