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Against Religion? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

What about arguments for the existence of God?  Are they sound? Is the faith of religious believers actually based on such rational arguments?  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, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview, and looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism.  In this post, we will see how he critiques traditional arguments for the existence of God in untraditional fashion, placing emphasis on how one should keep the role of all such philosophical arguments in proper perspective.  Religious beliefs, he argues, come more from personal conviction, not from rational argument.

Atheism__A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini__image

Chapter 6: Against Religion?

Although this chapter is devoted to a suggestive critique of arguments for God’s existence, Baggini tactfully prefaces his critique by arguing that mere disagreement with religion does not make atheism “anti-religious.”  Unfortunately, argues Baggini, atheism has a negative brand as “anti-religious,” and religion is treated with more respect than atheism.

For example, he laments how a radio program in the UK called “Thought of the Day” allows religious figures a platform to speak to the culture where this same platform is denied to the prominent atheist associations and societies in the UK who have campaigned to allow non-religious viewpoints to also be given a slot (e.g. the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association).  Atheists are justified in feeling wronged and perceiving a prejudice in policy when such public forums exclude atheism from being given a platform to speak to matters of ethics and life-guidance.  But perhaps even more irritating is the fact that when these atheist-friendly organizations protested, it was sadly seen as an attack against religion, confirming and perpetuating the general prejudice against atheism.

Atheists are necessarily anti-religious in one sense only: they believe that religions are false.  But in this sense of the word ‘anti’ most Muslims are anti-Christian, most Christians anti-Jewish, most Protestants anti-Roman Catholic, and so on. … To set any group up as ‘anti’ another suggests more than disagreement, it suggests hostility, and atheists are no more required to be hostile to the religious than Jews are required to be hostile to Hindus. (92). 

With this warning in place, Baggini is now prepared to suggestively critique some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God.

Providing Perspective to the Role of Arguments

I mentioned that Baggini only offers a suggestive critique, but he also deliberately downplays the importance of such critiques, arguing that “evidence and arguments are neither here nor there – it is personal conviction that really counts” (93).  In the end, people do not become religious because arguments provide the grounds for their faith.  People become religious for personal reasons, but afterwards want to argue that such beliefs are rational—to show that being religious doesn’t entail throwing reason out the window.  Religious arguments are not so much to “prove” God exists as they are to merely show that religious belief isn’t nonsense.  So Baggini thinks religious arguments for God’s existence are designed to show that religious belief, although not required strictly by the “evidence” and reason, are at least consistent with them.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument goes something like this: everything must have a cause, especially the universe with all its complexity, and God is the best hypothesis to explain its existence.  It fails because it ends up hypothesizing an entity that undermines the reasons for the argument in the first place.  God is considered to be uncaused and even more complex than the universe.  If God can exist without a cause greater than himself, why can’t something less complex exist without a cause greater than itself?  “Either the principles that inform the argument stand or they don’t.  If they stand, then God requires a cause and the causal chain goes back ad infinitum.  If they don’t, then there is no need to hypothesize God” (95).

Furthermore, even if such an argument were allowed to work without God having a cause, we still don’t arrive at anything like any of the particular personal God’s of religions, but merely with an uncaused cause.  Typical religiously heavy notions of God therefore could be seen as rational possibilities, but by no means necessary from the evidence.  But that’s only if we are generously entertain the otherwise flawed reasoning that really shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

This type of argument is also problematic inasmuch as it fits the “God of the gaps” method of arguing for God—a method whereby something that we can’t explain yet with science allows a place for God to fill in the gap in our understanding.  But Baggini argues that “such a God is fast running out of place for believers to hide him” (95).

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument utilizes the analogy of a watch.  The evidence of a watch naturally leads one to suppose there is a watchmaker because it’s an intricate mechanism that appears to be designed for a particular purpose.  But, Baggini argues, the analogy fails because the universe is not like a watch.  We know from experience watches are created by humans, we have no similar knowledge of the origins of the universe.  Furthermore, we know from science that the appearance of design in the world can be sufficiently explained by evolution.

In any case, it’s “anthropocentric” to think the creator of the universe is an ethically perfect omnideluxe version of ourselves (omnipresent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, etc.).  “Why shouldn’t it be something more abstract, not recognizable as the traditional God of religion at all?” (96).  As with the cosmological argument, Baggini concludes “it is not contrary to reason and evidence to believe that there is an intelligent mind behind all this.  But that is not to say there are positive reasons to believe that there is.  Those reasons are still elusive” (97).

What Then Justifies Belief?

Baggini gives these arguments “short shrift” because he’s sure that religious believers did not adopt their faith on the basis of them, but on the basis of inner conviction.

As Russell Stannard said, for the believer, it is as though they know God exists and no further arguments are required.  The leading Christian philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga calls this faith, understood as ‘a special source of knowledge, knowledge that can’t be arrived at by way of reason alone’.  … If this is indeed the ground of religious belief, then it is disingenuous for believers to put forward arguments to support their beliefs.  Similarly, it is futile for atheists to attack the religious with arguments undermining these reasons for belief if they are not genuine reasons for belief at all. … I personally have little interest in trying to destroy these convictions, except when the holding of them leads to unpleasant and bigoted actions and proclamations, as can be the case with fundamentalist believers of all religions.  (98-99).

We have to recognize, however, that reliance on inner conviction rather than rational argument is a “risky” strategy.  This is because we must acknowledge that reliance on personal inner conviction leads to a multiplicity of religious faiths, not one in particular.  Trusting one’s inner conviction has led to Muslim beliefs, Christian beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, etc.  The fact that the same grounds of faith can be used to justify different and incompatible religions is a sufficient reason to discredit such grounds as a proper method for arriving at religious belief.

Militant Atheism

Not only does Baggini argue that atheism is not “anti-religious” and has carefully downlpayed his critiques of theistic arguments for the existence of God, he also wants to critique what he calls militant atheism, which he defines as “atheism which is actively hostile to religion” in general (not just fundamentalist religions).  Such atheism is characterized by its position that all religion is nonsense and by its desire to “wipe out all forms of religious belief” (101).

The problem in making this charge stick, however, is that the disagreement between believers and atheists if often precisely about the proper limits of rationality and evidence in belief.  The believer sees the atheists’ refusal to believe in anything that is not established by the ordinary standards of argument and evidence as too narrow.  …  The upshot of this line of argument is that religion may be irrational by certain standards, but then so much for those standards. (101-02)

The Problem of Evil

In addition to positive arguments for the existence of God, there are also classical defenses for the so-called “problem of evil.”  This problem is easy enough to understand: God is all powerful and all loving, so why should evil and suffering exist?  Either God’s not powerful enough to stop it, or else he is not good enough to want to stop it.  But, as Baggini points out, the classical defense is this: “God can stop it and wants to stop it but doesn’t because it is better for us in the long run that such suffering exists.”  The author emphasizes again, however, as with all apologetics, “the argument only serve[s] the needs of the believer” already committed to their faith in a good and all powerful God (103).

But crucially, many religious believers would be prepared to live with the inexplicability of evil if they could not find a decent theodicy.  For many believers, the existence of God is like the existence of time – they believe it exists even if its existence seems to generate logical paradoxes.  For the atheist, the problem of evil demands an answer, and an inability to provide a good one adds to the case against God’s existence.  For the believer, a solution would be nice, but is not necessary.  For militant atheists, this is evidence that religious believers have effectively opted out of the usual standards of truth or falsity.  Their refusal to be bothered by seeming contradictions shows that they are essentially irrational in their beliefs. (104). 

Dogmatism vs. The Quiet Voice of Reason

Baggini sympathizes with the militant atheist position but refrains from joining its ranks as a matter his principle to always avoid dogmatism.  “Because there are no standards for judging these questions shared by atheists and believers, I think that simply asserting that one’s own standards must be right is dogmatic” (104).

Furthermore, the militant atheist position usually ends up arguing that religion should be wiped off the map because it’s harmful for one of the following reasons:  1) believing what is false is always harmful, 2) it’s life-denying rather than life-affirming by the way it encourages people to deny their this-worldly desires for a future world or afterlife, 3) religion’s benign effects cannot be separated neatly from its harmful ones.  To this the author responds: 1) if we are hostile to every belief we considered false “the world would be a terrible place” full of dogmatism, 2) not all religious belief fit’s the “life-denying” characterization and many religious people seem to lead quite full and happy lives in this world, and 3) this argument could apply to all beliefs that have both moderate and extreme forms, delegitimizing beliefs that even atheists like Baggini value (104-106).

Being open-minded in one’s rational inquiry includes not being dogmatic the way militant atheism requires.  We cannot see reason and argument as weapons to bash religion or else we become, ourselves, fundamentalists in our own right, argues Baggini.

The best we can do therefore is to show believers who may think that they have rational grounds for their belief that they are wrong.  We can force them to choose, in other words, between taking the risk of faith and restricting their use of reason to apologetics, or giving up their religious belief altogether.  I think that relatively few will take the second path.  But as more do so, and religious convictions become less and less likely to be passed on by parents, educators , and the Church, so the force of reason may generally hold more sway.  Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard. (107).


In the next post, I will summarize his concluding thoughts about different lines of further inquiry into atheism and why he prefers the words “positive atheism” rather than Humanism.

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