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Does Atheist Julian Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
Whenever making general claims that a position has no good arguments or supporting evidence, one must be willing to consider the strongest possible evidence and arguments for such a position as defended by its most able proponents, not just cherry pick the weaker evidence and less careful arguments made by rash or inept proponents. The best way to make a rationally persuasive case against a position is to first accurately represent the strongest arguments for that position before deconstructing them. This is always risky, since it could turn the audience–especially if they fail to keep reading the subsequent critique. It seems counter-intuitive, but the first step to attacking or debunking a view is to first argue in favor of it—that is, to do one’s best to take on the mindset of its most able proponents and state the strongest possible case for their position. This (by the way) is also risky for the one making the arguments against it (not just for the audience they are trying to persuade) since often when one goes to such great lengths to fairly represent one’s interlocutor, not only can one’s critique be more transparently assessed by judging whether any part of the argument hinges on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation, but it has the potential to alleviate ignorance, misunderstandings, and (the best part) dogmatism. It’s always easier to make a case against a view one has not studied very carefully from its most able proponents. All too often the exchanges between those holding contrary positions are more like lobbed grenades or dumb bombs than accurate sniper fire or smart bombs.
An expositional prelude of the kind I am advocating for here demands patience, good-will, virtue, and a lot of time, but it adds maximum credibility to the subsequent critique. Such a strategy also has the greatest potential to convince the very audience that isn’t already persuaded because it assures them first that their views have been well understood. It’s the best method for meeting the preconditions for genuine dialogue and exchange. If you can explain your philosophical/theological opponents view or argument in detail as well or better than even they can, your arguments against it are much more likely to be both appreciated and respected by the target audience you wish to engage and persuade. Sometimes it seems as if the goal of those who argue against other positions is not to persuade at all, but to shore up the confidence of those who already agree, which seems to imply a bit of insecurity.
Unfortunately, most people who go to the trouble of arguing against a position have a strong incentive to not make the counter view sound as persuasive as it could possibly sound in the hands of its most able defenders. Instead, distortions of a position and how it’s argued for are the norm—-even among academicians. Straw-man fallacies are often unintentional: the result of a blind spot or a disconnect in perspectives. Throw into this a lot of ignorance and rhetoric and you have a recipe for dogmatism and unproductive polemics.
Does Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence?
Thankfully Baggini is well educated and appears to do a decent job throughout most of his book in achieving a fair representation of the views he’s arguing against, but there are some serious oversights in the book. For example, when he considers the “counter-evidence” on the question of life after death, he mentions only 1) the testimony of mediums, 2) supposed appearances of ghosts, and 3) near-death experiences. Then he concludes “there really isn’t any stronger evidence” (19). Just mentioning the types of counter evidence, Baggini figures, is enough to make his case. He doesn’t care to unpack the supposed ghosts sightings or analyze the testimony of mediums. He doesn’t take these types of evidence very seriously.
Unfortunately, it just happens to be that the cornerstone of Christian apologetics does not fit any of these “counter-evidence” categories he lists, but bases its argument on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Christian scholars have often put together rather impressive historical arguments that would appear to construe the known evidence in such a way that the resurrection hypothesis best fits the historical data. This does not mean the hypothesis is true or that critiques of such historical arguments are not available, but it remains the strongest type of evidence (historical) for the Christian position, yet Baggini fails to even consider it. [NOTE: Christian’s do not believe Jesus was a “ghost” so the second item on his list does not cover this type of argument.] In fact, nowhere in his book does he ever tackle what is treated by Christians as the strongest evidence for their position, yet the overall argument of the book is that only the “weaker” types of counter-evidence can be found against naturalism, making this oversight problematic for his entire strategy. If one says only weak arguments can be found for a position, one had better consider what the most able proponents who hold that position think are the strongest arguments for it. (I could also bring up Intelligent Design theory which I would consider as far better of an argument than the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences, but I’m going to stick with the resurrection hypothesis here since I’m not as familiar with the ID literature).
For example, on this topic one would have to offer good counter arguments to the arguments of respected scholars like Larry W. Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright to name a few. These are scholars who are respected by collegues in their secular fields of historical work, not just the Christian community. Since Baggini is not a historian but a philosopher, his best counter argument move for this would be to appeal to other historians who have expert critiques for these arguments. His argument would only be as good as the historical experts he would be forced to rely on, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on how soundly the arguments of the likes of Bauckham and Hurtado have been represented and critiqued in those sources. To be truly on top of things, one would also want to see what counter-arguments have been made by these authors to their critics. All too often defenders of a position respond: “I’ve already answered that objection in chapter X of my book.” If nobody is taking the time to carefully read where their opponents have already answered their objections, no real dialogue or fruitful exchange can even get off the ground.
If you are thinking, “That sounds like a ton of work,” your right, but when making a sweeping claim that no good arguments exist for a position, this is the type of “homework” that would make such a claim credible—especially to those who are familiar with the best proponents of such a position. To put it another way, Christians who are steeped in the historical literature of the scholars I mentioned (or others with the same pedigree) would find it easy to dismiss Baggini’s claim that no good arguments exist for life after death, since the arguments they stand on don’t even seem to be on Baggini’s radar. And this just so happens to be the case with Christianity.
Does Baggini Fairly Represent Opposing Arguments?
This is not the only place Baggini appears to lack a familiarity with the strongest counterpositions. Another major oversight in his book can be found in his representation of the idea that divine authority or divine law is somehow required to “uphold” ethics. How he understands the position he argues against can be seen in the summary statement of his position at the beginning of the chapter:
Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong. (37)
The rest of the chapter mainly establishes that (1) people have to always make their own subjective decisions on what moral codes to adopt or not adopt and (2) atheists have plenty of resources to draw from for ethics and can even be more ethical than religious believers. [NOTE: The best part of this chapter is his engagement with the Euthyphro Dilemma where he considers a common counter-argument to his critique.]
As to (1), Baggini is mistaken that the “inescapability of personal choice” means that “the atheist and the believer are therefore in the same boat” (41, 43). It’s true that personal choice is inevitable, but I’ve never met a theist who argued that divine law and personal choice were incompatible. The theist perspective is about better aligning one’s subjective decisions with the objective moral code. The theists argue that in the atheist scenario there is no possibility for an ultimately objective moral standard or code, so one’s personal choices about what morality to adopt have no potential to ever be objectively right or wrong. With religious morality it is possible in theory (even if not in practice) for the theist to attain to a subjective adoption of what is objectively right. “Objective” in this sense transcends any type of objectivity that is possible with an atheist morality, for the divine moral code transcends national and cultural morality. It also transcends the evolution of practiced morality across time. Baggini thinks that establishing that subjective decisions are inevitable when it comes to morality somehow makes the type of objective morality claimed by theists impossible, but this does not follow, since if the theist perspective is true, the subjective attainment of an objective moral code is at least possible. Various religions supposedly provide the “true” path to attaining such objective morality. That’s what makes them very different from any type of morality possible in an atheist worldview.
As for (2) Baggini appears to miss the thrust of the argument made in the most respected Christian literature, which isn’t that atheists cannot be moral or ethical in practice. I’ve never heard or read any such claims in even the least sophisticated of religious literature. The argument put forth is that without a divine moral code in theory one cannot ground their morality or ethics objectively in a way that transcends one’s personal preference, culture or time. In fact, part of the theistic argument’s bite is supposed to come from the fact that atheists actually do adhere to and expect others to treat as objective certain moral principles. As the argument goes, atheists therefore are a walking contradiction because they have no philosophical grounds for saying anything is objectively right or wrong, but only right or wrong for them or perhaps for a particular group of people at a particular time in the evolution of the human species. They have no right or grounds to judge the moral actions of others. One may be able to ground atheist morality so that it is not restricted to only oneself by appeal to evolution, which opens up the possibility for a certain moral code to (in theory) hold for a tribe or group of people at a particular time in the evolution of human history, but this still grounds morality in subjective and changing circumstances.
Murder and rape of humans, for example (as the argument goes), cannot be objectively wrong in the atheist perspective. In theory, at some point in the development of human history a unanimous consensus could potentially accept it as wrong, but this would only be a limited and fragile consensus based on the changing circumstances of an ever-evolving species. One might try to argue based on Aristotelean teleology, for example, that murder and rape of humans is a counter productive practice to the ultimate telos of human happiness as we now know it, but what makes people happy could change from person to person, and culture to culture, and generation to generation. Furthermore, is happiness really the ultimate telos for humans anyway? Can one know simply based on the fact that all humans want to be happy? If a desire for happiness is currently an inescapable part of human nature, this does not mean it’s the only inescapable part of human nature or the most important one. Furthermore, we must remember that because of evolution human nature is always in flux. It has changed in the past, it’s changing now, and it will change in the future. Basing morality in human nature appears to fallaciously ground what ought to be on what is the case. In the Aristotelian morality described by Baggini, one bases what he or she ought to do on what humans appear to inescapably desire. We are still a long way from the type of objective morality possible within a theist view, especially one where God writes these moral codes on stone tablets to make them clear as in Judaism or Christianity.
One of the bonuses of this book comes from the fact that although Baggini is familiar with streams of philosophical and theological literature, he makes a decision to leave out footnotes (for the most part) “to avoid scholastic sterility.” This works to his advantage for most of the book. However, when one fails to follow this “strict academic” guideline, one’s writing becomes vulnerable to the flaws that remind us why it’s such a “strict academic” guideline. His arguments portray a lack of familiarity and misunderstanding with the most able proponents of the counter-evidence to his position. Reading and carefully citing these proponents would’ve been a better move here for Baggini, and would lessen one of the most regrettable gaps in academia—the one where people speak past each other when they hold disparate views on a topic. Closing the gap requires not only good will (which I believe Baggini has) but also a copious amount of reading in books written by those who hold views directly opposed to the one you seek to defend. This is why the road is very, very rarely traveled.
Is Atheism Really a Positive Worldview? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
Can A Theist Appreciate Baggini’s Atheism? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
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 to 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 begin to focus on my critical remarks concerning some of the details of Baggini’s book.
Is Atheism the same as Humanism? If not, what is the difference? Who are the major atheist thinkers of history and what are some of the different approaches or lines of inquiry for studying atheism further? 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, looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism, summarized how Baggini critiques some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and why he thinks such arguments and counter arguments are not decisive for either theism or atheism. Now we will summarize his final remarks before offering an evaluation of his book.
Baggini closes his book by offering other lines of inquiry for those interested. For example, he did not have time to explore the peculiar contributions and thoughts of the great thinkers (Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, etc.). He avoided discussing “the more sophisticated defenses of theistic belief” (Plantinga and Cupitt) because he wanted a less antagonistic approach (108). The science vs. religion issue is “a little tired” and is discussed many times over, but there are threats to religious belief from science Baggini did not have time to cover (109). Another area of discussion not treated in this introduction is the claim made by many that religious belief is nonsensical or incoherent (claims brought to public attention by A.J. Ayer). Staying faithful to his overarching concerns, he does not think such an approach (claiming religious beliefs are “gibberish rather than just false”) is the best way “to engage with religious believers” (109).
Baggini admits that the label Humanism (which he defines as “simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives”) fits his “positive atheism” but would rather stick with the term “atheism” for purposes of clarity. There are self-proclaimed “Christian humanists” and some atheists avoid the label “humanist” because they think being a member of a humanist organization is a “quasi-religious” endeavor. Furthermore, there are anthropocentric ideologies that have been associated with humanism, but many atheists (like Baggini) don’t have any interest in glorifying homo sapiens as the superior species. For these reasons Baggini prefers the word “atheist” over “Humanist” but will admit to being a humanist (with a lower case h).
Although “in many ways, the whole purpose of the book has been to dispel this image” of atheism as sinister, the author claims atheism’s true dark side concerns the “scary” thought that no benevolent Father is out there watching over us who is unquestionably good. This maturity of perspective is the loss of a child-like innocence and false sense of security. Atheism accepts the harsher realities of life for what they are and does not “seek to shield us from the truth by myth and superstition” (111).
In our next post I will offer my own evaluation of Baggini’s book as a whole. This will include both criticism and laudatory remarks. I will attempt to answer questions like: Does Baggini do justice to the rational defense for theism? Do his arguments for why an atheist worldview can fit comfortably with ethics and meaning work? Is Baggini’s less dogmatic atheism a better alternative to what he calls “militant” atheism? What are the strengths and weaknesses of his approach?