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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.


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.

Atheist Ethics :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have looked at how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism.  In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics, presented in chapter 3 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  Where does morality come from?  How can people who don’t believe in God believe there are moral codes everyone should obey?  Does morality automatically make perfect sense in a theistic framework?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 3: Atheist Ethics

Many people believe that in order for morality to be possible, one must have a lawgiver and a judge who either punishes or rewards, but Baggini says this confuses law and morality—laws can be either moral or immoral.  The big question is this: Where does morality come from?  The author makes his case against the theist view of morality by breathing fresh air into the Euthypryo dilemma from the Socratic dialogues: Does God (or the gods) choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because God (or the gods) choose it?  If we answer this question by arguing that God just is goodness (God and good are the same thing), the Euthypryo dilemma only needs to be restated differently:

Is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?  If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist.  So we must choose the second option … this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. (39)

In other words, “God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary” (39).  Furthermore, being moral due to fear of punishment or self-interest in reward only taints (if not ruins) the concept of morality, giving the atheist “more moral merit” than the theist (40).  But doesn’t this leave us all with our own “privatized moralities”?  Yes, answers Baggini, but to ask the question this way (as an objection) misses the point that we all inevitably have our own privatized moralities anyway because “individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not” (41).  There is no way to avoid making private decisions about what is morally right or wrong even in the theistic framework for morality, for two reasons: 1) one must make the privatized decision in the first place to follow the moral law of a religion—a decision which could later be changed or abandoned, 2) even while one has adopted a moral code of a particular religion, one still is forced to either accept these laws or reject them.  More to the point: since “listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men)” religious persons have been led to “suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that” adopting a religious morality “does not absolve one of moral responsibility” (43).  In the end, we must all “in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves” even if we are religious and have decided to follow the moral path laid out by that religion (46).

No Easy Answers for Grounding Morality 

Baggini finds the whole question “Why should I be moral?” strange.  There are no easy answers.  A non-moral answer to the question only undermines morality—for example, that we should be moral because we will be happier if we do or punished if we don’t.  Again, if we act moral out of self-interest, Baggini thinks we undermine morality because “morality is about acting in the best interest of others and oneself” (44).  If we give a moral answer “because we ought to do what is right” our reason becomes circular.  We shouldn’t expect an easy answer or source for morality that every rational person should recognize because no such answer exists.

At the root of morality is empathy and concern for the welfare of others that is, for most, a part of human instinct.  It’s not a logical impulse that leads us to morality, but a psychological one.  Yet if we accept it, we have a foundation for morality and the richness of Western philosophy provides a diversity of approaches for working this out.

Building a Godless Ethic

Aristotelian ethics helps us think about morality in terms of our desire for happiness and helps us see strategies for instilling virtues (although Baggini criticizes this model because he thinks any morality based on self-interest is problematic).  Nevertheless when we simply think of what we need in order for life to go well, morality comes into play.  Living well, however, and self-interest do not always coincide, so we need to draw from other sources of philosophy.

Utilitarianism can be another source: we think in terms of what causes pleasure and pain, then we evaluate our actions based on their consequences (both for ourselves and others).  So long as we agree that pain is bad, morality comes into play.  “Bad consequences thus provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others” (52).  This adds another “pillar upon which to build a godless morality” (52).

Another pillar is Kant’s categorical imperative: asking “what would happen if everyone behaved that way?”  This helps us think about the moral merit of an action apart from self-interest, which helps us avoid being hypocritical.  It’s obvious that Baggini favors this pillar above the others, for he already has shown his hand that he believes it is essential to morality to avoid self-interest.  “Some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning” (54).  What is good or bad for us should be considered good or bad also for all others in similar circumstances.

In the end, Baggini admits he has not provided any sort of logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but he is not bothered by this because he thinks theists have no such logical proof either.  It’s a myth, he argues, that morality just comes along with the package if you are a theist.  “Being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist” (56).

Can an Atheist Believe in Meaning or Purpose? 

In our next post, we will explore meaning and purpose within an atheist worldview.  Once I have summarized all of the major points in each chapter, I will offer my own personal assessment of Julian Baggini’s account of atheism.

The Case for Atheism :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of the case for atheism, presented in chapter 2 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 2: The Case for Atheism

To make a case for anything, argues Baggini, one must use a combination of argument/logic, facts/evidence, and rhetoric.  Rhetoric is the odd ball here, since it can neither make a case good or bad, but only makes good or bad cases more or less persuasive.  The structure of Baggini’s overall argument is this: strong evidence counts in favor of atheism, and only weak evidence counts against it.  What makes evidence stronger is its experimental verification—that is, “evidence is stronger if it is available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions” (13).  Likewise evidence is weaker if “it is confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions” (13).


There is a continuum here, with extremes on each side.  On the extreme side of strong evidence we have things like “in countless repeatable tests countless scientists have verified that water freezes at zero degrees centigrade,” and on the extreme side of weak evidence we have anecdotal evidence such as “my dog spontaneously combusted right before my eyes yesterday at 2:00pm while I was at home all alone.”  In the former case, we have countless witnesses and can repeatably test the claim.  In the latter case, we have a claim that relies on the testimony of a single person relating one incident.  It’s not that the latter is not evidence at all, it’s just that it is weak when compared to “all the other evidence” that suggests dogs do not spontaneously combust (14).

Secondly, it’s not strong evidence because “human beings are not very good at interpreting their experiences especially unusual ones” (14).  This does not mean such testimony should reflect poorly on the character of the one testifying to some anomaly—they could be the victim of a clever trickster or just be mistaken about the interpretation of their experience.  The strength of evidence grows in proportion, then, to an occurrence’s repetition under close scrutiny.  The close scrutiny part is important too, since magicians (for example) can make it seem that rabbits can be instantaneously transported into previously empty hats quite regularly, but such an occurrence (though there might be thousands of witnesses) does not hold up under close scrutiny.

Baggini insists that the argument for atheism  does not follow the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” fallacy, for he is not concluding that absence of evidence for God’s existence necessarily means God does not exist, only that the strongest evidence favors naturalism, and only weak evidence seems to favor Theism (or anything supernatural).  Thus, the conclusion of his argument is not “God does not exist,” but rather: we have no good reason to suppose God exists, for nature is found to lack any good reason for such a hypothesis.

If we look inside the fridge, thoroughly examine it, and don’t find any butter, then we have an absence of evidence which really does add up to evidence of absence.  Indeed, it is hard to see what other evidence there could be for something not being there other than the failure to find any evidence that it is there.  Something which does not exist leaves no mark, so it can only be an absence of marks of its existence that can provide evidence for its non-existence. … So the evidence for atheism is to be found in the fact that there is a plethora of evidence for the truth of naturalism and an absence of evidence for anything else. (17)

It’s unfortunate that many people see atheism as simply an attack on the existence of God rather than the affirmation of naturalism, which rules out “goblins, hobbits, truly everlasting gobstoppers,” etc., and God just happens to be another one of those postulates that lacks any strong evidence.  Owing to historical circumstances, however, atheism is the name branded to naturalists, which perpetuates the stereotype of atheism as something fundamentally negative.

Although atheist humanism tends to affirm “human exceptionalism” (the belief that humans are essentially different from other animals) it does not go as far as to claim that human beings survive death after the grave because they have an immaterial soul.  All the strong evidence suggests that human consciousness is the product of brain activity “and that with no brain, there is no consciousness” (18).

The data of neurology show that all the diverse experiences which we associate with consciousness correlate with particular patterns of brain activity.  The key word here, of course, is ‘correlate.’  To say brain events are conscious experiences correlate is only to say one always accompanies the other.  This is not to say one causes the other.  … But while it is true that a correlation does not necessarily indicate a cause, in the case of brains and consciousness the link is at least one of dependency. … If any one thing distinguishes us as individual persons then that must be our capacity for consciousness and rational thought.  And if this capacity is entirely dependent on our organic brains, as the strong evidence suggests, then the atheist view that we are mortal, biological organisms is well supported.  (18)

Counter-evidence is of the weak variety—from the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, near death experiences, and so on.  Demanding a case-by-case rebuttal from atheists on any claim of life after death, as many do, places an unfair burden on the atheist.  It’s enough that atheism can appeal to general principles and strong evidence.  The burden of proof should be on the non-atheist.  And in any case, “none of these so-called cases … have left us with anything approaching the kind of generally observable, verifiable data that is characteristic of strong evidence.  So the question for the non-atheist must be, why do they think that a few pieces of such weak evidence for life after death will suffice to outweigh the mountain of strong evidence for the mortality of human consciousness?” (21).

Baggini admits that his arguments will not be persuasively conclusive for those bent on believing, since for many it only takes the mere logical possibility that there is life after death to justify either believing in it or withholding judgment.   He reminds us that logical possibilities like this exist for so many beliefs.  For example:

Tomorrow it will be revealed that you have lived all your life in a virtual reality machine; that aliens have been preparing for an invasion of Earth for the last hundred years; that the Pope is a robot; that the Apollo mission never made it to the moon and the whole landing was filmed in a studio; that the evangelical Christians were right all along and Judgment Day has arrived.  But the mere possibility that such things might be true is no reason to believe them.  Indeed, the fact that the evidence to date suggests strongly they are not true is good reason to disbelieve them. (22).

Is Atheism Dogmatic?

The author is concerned to emphasize that his position is not dogmatic, for he still believes in the defeasibility of his views—namely, that the possibility remains that he could be wrong.  After defining dogmatism as the belief that one’s position is indefeasible, and his own view as “firmly held belief” rather than dogmatism, he goes further to suggest that one must go beyond merely gesturing that one might be wrong, but must sincerely acknowledge this possibility.  This sincerity allows for a distinction between dogmatic atheism and un-dogmatic atheism.  Neither the theist position nor the atheist position can be proven, and thus absolute certainty is not a possibility.

Although absolute certainty is not possible for theism or atheism, for some reason (perhaps Plato he suggest) too many people think in black and white, all or nothing terms.  He bemoans the fact that people often think we are not justified in believing something unless we can be sure—if followed through to its logical conclusion, he argues, this would lead us to doubt everything we think we know.  All we need are good reasons to believe something.

I am as opposed to dogmatic atheism as anyone, and I am also opposed to dogmatic theism.  Indeed, it is my personal view that dogmatic views of any kind are in general more dangerous than the views themselves.  Intelligent atheists often have much more in common with undogmatic theists than one might suppose. (24 – 25)

Baggini makes explicit his reliance on inductive reasoning, a type of reasoning that doesn’t lead to absolute certainty, but generalizes from specific evidence.  He argues that everyone uses this type of reasoning every day so its legitimacy cannot be denied.  For example, we always rely on the principle of uniformity—that natural laws will continue to operate tomorrow the way they did the day before so that gravity, for example, will not suddenly stop holding you to the earth.  We don’t believe in this principle because it logically follows or is somehow logically necessary, yet we still strongly believe it because of our inductive reasoning.

We live in a world where everything is governed by natural laws and everything is explainable in terms of natural phenomenon.  Many things remain unexplained, but as the past has shown, as our knowledge increases about natural phenomenon naturalistic explanations continue to fill in the gaps—gaps that in many cases were previously filled with supernatural explanations.  It’s reasonable, then, to expect that supernatural explanations feed off of ignorance.  As Baggini puts it: “The class of unexplained phenomena therefore is unlikely to contain anything that will come to be explained by anything supernatural” (27).

Arguments from “Best Explanation”

In addition to the evidence of experience, Baggini adds a second argument he labels “abduction” or “argument to the best explanation” (27).  He admits that the criterion for judging whether one explanation of a phenomenon is “better” than another is not like a math problem because “there is no magic formula” for adjudicating between two explanatory hypothesis (28).  Nevertheless, he argues that “in general better explanations are simpler, more coherent … more comprehensive” and more testable than the alternatives (28).

Atheism is simpler because it posits only the natural world, not a natural and supernatural world where the supernatural world is by definition unobservable.  This extra dimension of the supernatural is thus less testable.  A naturalistic worldview is also more coherent for several reasons.  First, it fits the whole universe into one scheme of being rather than two, and when you have two it requires an explanation of how the natural and supernatural interact and co-exist.  Second, it better explains the phenomenon of world religions all contradicting each other.  The alternative would be to hold that only one (or a few maybe) are really true.

It’s no good saying that all religions are different paths to the same truth: the fact has to be accepted that religions flatly contradict one another, and if one were to focus simply on what all religions agree upon one would be left with very little indeed. (29)

Third, atheism better explains the existence of evil in the world—the religious explanation “requires rather a lot of sophistical reasoning” for explaining how a loving God would allow such terrible suffering and injustice.   Fourth, what best explains the dependency of consciousness of brain activity?  This makes perfect sense for a naturalist who doesn’t posit a non-material thinking soul that exists (somehow mysteriously) alongside brains and interacts with them—and further that “the dependencey of consciousness on brain activity miraculously disappears at death, when the soul lives on without the body” (30).

These are just a few examples, but in the big picture Baggini thinks naturalistic explanations are less problematic.

Is Atheism a Faith Position?

It’s often claimed that because atheism cannot “prove” their case to be true with absolute certainty on the basis of logic or science, atheism is just as much a “faith position” as theism.  But Baggini dispels this myth by showing that we must make a distinction between believing something because one thinks they have sufficient and strong evidence for believing it (even if it’s not conclusive), and accepting a belief without such evidence merely on the basis of faith.  Most of our beliefs we don’t have absolute proof for anyway, so to call all beliefs “faith positions” that cannot be proven absolutely (even if there is strong evidence for them) is very misleading.

The popular notion of religious faith includes the opposite element: believing in something on mere trust without first requiring evidence or logical argument.  For example, the Christian scripture teaches “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  Naturalism, according to Baggini, does not require one to believe anything that goes against available evidence, experience, or logic.  It only requires one to believe what there is strong evidence for believing.  Religious faith is “what supports beliefs that lack the ordinary support of evidence or argument” (33).  This is very different from atheist “faith,” and to call beliefs that are rationally justified based on strong available evidence “faith” is to rob the word of its meaning.

In my next post I will attempt to summarize the rest of his book before my final post, where I will offer my appraisal of his book and arguments.

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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