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Is Atheism Really a Positive Worldview? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

I have so far offered almost nothing but praise and appreciation for 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 have begun now to offer my evaluations of his book.  In my last post I argued that theists should be able to appreciate the kind of atheism Baggini presents in this book, whether they disagree with him or not.  In this post I will begin to specify some areas of his arguments that I found unconvincing.
Julian Baggini__Atheism_A Very Short Introduction
Is Atheism Really a Positive Worldview?
Disclaimer: I am using “worldview” in most generic of ways here.  If you don’t think atheism should be categorized as a “worldview” (as some give reason for) then replace the word with “position” and it will not change the intention of my post.
As I’ve already mentioned, I appreciate Baggini’s move to reclaim atheism in terms of naturalism rather than as an “anti-God” position.  However, his argument is not that natrualism is a positive worldview.  Rather, his argument is that atheism is a positive worldview.  But then he admits that the very definition of atheism is fundamentally negative: “the belief that there is no God or gods” (3).  If this is the definition of atheism, such a definition is hardly congenial to Baggini’s argument.  If he wants atheism to no longer be seen as an essentially negative worldview, it seems the definition would need to be fundamentally altered to mean something like “the belief that nature encompasses all of what is real,” which is something like the current definition for naturalism.  Such an alternative definition would imply that anything supernatural is not real (gods, God, angels, demons, ghosts, transcendental worlds, etc.), but this aspect of the position would only be a negative by-product or implication of a more positive central affirmation.  Furthermore, even when considering its implicitly negative aspect, the denial of the existence of God or gods in particular would be a further consequence following from the denial of all things supernatural in general.  This would successfully place the denial of God or gods at least two steps removed from the central affirmation, removing the acute anti-God flavor from the very definition of the term.  The problem is this: Baggini’s argument is not that atheism should be redefined positively.  He is arguing that atheism (as it is currently defined) already is a positive worldview in spite of his own admission that atheism is negative by its very definition.
This is also the problem with his counter to the argument that atheism is essentially negative.  He claims such an argument is committing the etymological fallacy.  The etymological fallacy is when someone infers something about the current meaning of a word not by its modern usage, but by its historical derivation.  This would be like saying that the English word nice comes from the Latin nescius which actually means “ignorant,” therefore to say something is nice is to say it’s ignorant.  The origins of the grammatical form of a word may give clues to its current usage and meaning, but not necessarily.  If one assumes the current usage or meaning must be based on the words historical derivation (or if a compound word like “hourseplay” by simply combining the current meanings of the two words) this is a fallacy of reasoning.  But saying that atheism is negative by its modern definition (not by any semantic derivations) is not a fallacy.  To know whether atheism is fundamentally a negative position, one need look no further than today’s Webster’s Dictionary.   For this reason his strategy for reclaiming the word or position of atheism as something essentially positive seems futile for the further reason that it’s based on a dubious understanding of the etymological fallacy.
I could agree that the worldviews of atheists can be positive (consisting in a diversity of affirmations that are more important for the atheist than his or her denial of the existence of God or gods), but I’m afraid atheism per se is negative by definition.  Furthermore, even if for Baggini this negative component (the denial of the existence of God or gods) is not what defines his personal worldview, it is easy to conceive that there would be plenty of atheists for whom this denial would be of central importance.   Theists can have negative worldviews while atheists have positive ones, and vice versa.  But when we ask the question “Is such and such a worldview positive or negative?” we must limit such an inquiry to what is essential or necessary to atheism, not what could or could not be the case with those who hold it.  Although Baggini admits there is no a priori link between atheism and a positive or negative worldview, he nevertheless insists that atheism consists in “numerous beliefs about the world” not just the denial of the existence of a God or gods (11, 8).  This kind of language betrays his own prior admission and takes atheism beyond its proper sphere, confusing what positive beliefs atheists can potentially hold with what atheism per se actually consists in.
In my next post I will continue with an evaluation of Baggini’s overall argument, and point out what I believe is the most important oversight of his book.
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4 Comments

  1. […] on areas where I found Baggini to be exemplary and his thoughts insightful and helpful.  In my next post I will begin to focus on my critical remarks concerning some of the details of Baggini’s […]

  2. […] book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  In my last post I offered my first critical remarks of the book.  I argued that atheism is negative by its modern […]

  3. Gabriel Cavaggioni says:

    I read your arguments and I can personally say after doing further research on atheism that I disagree with some of the arguments you are trying to make against Baggini’s book on Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. First off, atheism’s definition does not need to be altered but rather it has a couple of definitions as Baggini points out indirectly, a lack of belief in a higher being or beings and a form of naturalism that is well rooted within rationalism, logic, and reasoning and he uses historical context to back it up, examples and he explains why atheism stands out in its own right. Secondly, as he also points out, atheism’s positive view comes from morality and how they view the world. What he meant by atheists believing in numerous things is what we know about events, life, etc. and it is not all just views on the higher being. That said, the only difference is that atheists don’t have that belief in that higher being which in terms is not necessarily negative it’s just their view in a way of not being concerned with it unless they feel that they have to address it. While I do agree that he may have not been aso precise, one thing to point out is that this book was written in 2003 so these definitions can be altered towards a better understanding of atheism and that one you are reviewing is his view on atheism and I’m positive that other atheists would have more to say on this matter. So for example, I think August Berkshire makes a better concrete argument not just against theism but for atheism as well: http://mnatheists.org/news-and-media/letters-and-essays/64-34-unconvincing-arguments-for-god So at best most of your arguments with all due respect are not concrete and neither is the book Baggini wrote and he even admits that some of his arguments are not concrete. If you would like to discuss further with what I have explained then my email address will be below, my name and I will be looking forward to reading your other posts on this book.

  4. I disagree with some of the arguments you are trying to make…

    Disagreements are more than welcome here on this blog. They make for interesting conversation.

    First off, atheism’s definition does not need to be altered…

    Where in my argument did I assume atheism’s definition “had” to be altered? Your argument here seems disconnected with my review. Can you quote me a bit more to show where I’m arguing that the definition for atheism must be altered?

    Secondly, … atheism’s positive view comes from morality and how they view the world

    It seems you haven’t understood the meaning behind the words I wrote in my review. The language you are using does not actually critically take into account the carefully chosen words I used in my review. I could agree with your statements here and they are fully compatible with what I have said in my post. So it sounds like you are offering compatible thoughts, so your only mistake here was to assume your insights and my own were somehow incompatible.

    These definitions can be altered towards a better understanding

    Well, my review was limited to his book, so whatever better definitions that have been proposed or that the future may hold have no bearing on my critique of the definitions presented in this book, so I don’t think this really fits your posture of disagreement with my critical review. Additional thoughts or ways of thinking that might be *better* than the one’s I’ve reviewed in this post, which was purposefully limited to the ideas presented in the actual book I reviewed, do not warrant the posture of disagreement in which you have couched your comments. Also remember, this review was written years ago. You can never fault a review for not explicitly taking into account ideas that were published years after the book and the review were written.

    Your insight about atheists holding positive views on morality (and you could add many other things atheists have very positive views on) missed the point of my critical review, because I agree with you on this point. Again, my contentions don’t contradict your insights here. We both agree, so the only mistake you are making is the assumption that your insights were left uncaptured by my review, or are somehow in conflict with my own critical thoughts about this book.

    Your thoughts?

    Bradley

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