143 of 147 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2006
This is really a superb introduction to atheism. What gets my attention is that it includes a number of essays that contextualize atheism in its particular historical instances.
The first chapter, "Atheism in Antiquity," details how naturalism and similar concepts central to atheism were advocated long ago. Due to the prevailing influences of Christianity and other voices and powers in the ancient world, however, they didn't "catch on" like other metaphysical notions did.
The next chapter, "Atheism in Modern History," is a superb supplement, and is worth the price of the entire volume in my estimation. In it, Gavin Hyman argues persuasively that modern atheism is a reactionary phenomenon to a modern conception of God, which was different from more ancient conceptions. Hyman says that the advent of modernity made the rise of atheism inevitable. Modernity and atheism are inexorably entwined. What might atheism do, then, in our postmodern context?
Much later in the book, the Derridean scholar, John Caputo, shows how the matrix of postmodernity alters the strength of atheism. His conclusion: postmodernity is just as unfavorable to theism as it is to atheism, and there is the paradoxical attempt to move beyond the binary oppositions of the Western tradition (in this case, between theism and atheism) into a new and unforeseen option. It is difficult to say exactly how this tertium quid should be described. A kind of Levinasian mysticism of sorts, tempered by a learned ignorance? What we can say is that there is a reluctance to affirm naturalism or a supernaturalism too strongly. While a "weak" conception of God predominates, the language of theology remains in use.
Phil Zuckerman and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi give sociological and psychological profiles of atheism. Zuckerman's sociological chapter is quite dry, with little more than statistics. What else should I expect, though, I suppose. Beit-Hallahmi's psychological profiling is much more interesting, and makes the case that atheists are generally male, married, well-read and committed in various ways to the academic world, less dogmatic (which seems ironic in some cases, no?), less prejudiced, more tolerant, compassionated and conscientious, but oftentimes distanced and unhappy.
Steven G. Gey's essay ("Atheism and the Freedom of Religion") gives some historical depth to exactly how atheists have been treated by recent Western governments. Despite their being "good to have as neighbors" (Beit-Hallahmi's conclusion), Gey details how the modern atheists experience with the socio-politico powers that be has not been too friendly -- from outright silencing of centuries past (or just a century ago, in most cases!) to the present socio-politico discourse that, in various ways, gives a distinct advantage to those of a religious persuasion. (No wonder atheists don't tend to be happy!) While in many ways the United States of America paved the way for religious toleration and freedom, it is shown to be presently lagging behind when compared with other nations (e.g. those of eastern Europe especially). The U.S., in many ways, is much the same as it was two centuries ago.
The Analytic tradition gets a sizeable representation here, which is what would be expected. Daniel Dennett, too, gets a chapter to argue for the Darwinian variable that supports atheistic non-belief. I wanted to be convinced of it more than I was. Other contributions include the relationship of atheism to feminism (the author argues that all consistent feminists should be atheists), religious freedom, and anthropology. William Lane Craig is allowed one chapter to give the other side a voice (theism). Some of his arguments are laughable -- literally. Others are more convincing, until one reads the subsequent rebuttals. It must be said, though, that anyone could refute such a summary as W. L. Craig's (it amounts to something like 14 pages in all). It is simply too short to argue convincingly for anything. That being said, it is only an introductory text. It's quite nice that a contrary position was included at all, actually.
While some essays are certainly better than others (an inevitability, of course), all are at least a B/B+ status, and a few are quite exceptional indeed (A/A+).
I like Richard Dawkins quite a bit, and would recommend his _God Delusion_ and Sam Harris's _The End of Faith_. However, as a balanced, scholarly work, you would be hard-pressed to find something better, I think. Moreover, this is an excellent "spring-board" source. Only the best of the best are included here, and those whom they cite are well worth taking note of.
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2007
I recently read this superb introductory book to atheism.I have read more sophisticated books on this subject,but i think that this book is the most appropriate for the general reader who wanths to be introduced to what atheism represents.Its chapters are written by experts on their fields and comprise the history of atheism from antiquity to modern times,arguments for and against the existence of God,the implications of atheism for other aspects of our life as for example morality and approaches from different cognitive faculties to the subject of religion such as the relationship between atheism and the state and what anthropology says about the origin of religious beliefs.I highly recommend it to readers who want to know what atheism is all about,but i think that it will also be good for more advanced readers to have a look at this book since it covers aspects of atheism as yet not taken into account like the relationship between atheism and feminism.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2008
This is a very thought-provoking collection of essays, edited by Michael Martin, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Boston University. Eighteen leading scholars, mostly from the USA, discuss aspects of atheism and its implications for philosophy, religion, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology and physics.
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman estimates that there are about 500-750 million atheists, agnostics and unbelievers, which is 58 times the number of Mormons, 41 times the number of Jews, 35 times the number of Sikhs, and twice the number of Buddhists. Atheists, agnostics and unbelievers are the fourth largest group, after Christians (two billion), Muslims (1.2 billion) and Hindus (900 million).
Daniel Dennett examines the relationship between atheism and evolution. He shows how matter has evolved to produce mind, rather than matter being produced by an originating mind.
Philosopher David Brink discusses the need for a secular ethics based on objective standards. He notes that in ethical subjectivism, ethics depends on the beliefs of an appraiser, but God is an appraiser too. So religion brings subjectivity into ethics. Also, if ethics depends on God's will, then it is relative to God's will, so religion brings relativism into ethics.
Again, if God commands an action because it is good, then God and his commands are unnecessary. If an action is good because God commands it, then ethics is unnecessary and obedience to God is the only virtue. So religion, which supposedly sets ethics on an objective basis, with independent values and standards, in fact reduces ethics to subjective opinions, with no independent values or standards.
Also religion compromises morality. When eternal bliss is the reward for goodness, then selfish considerations cannot but intrude, inevitably corrupting goodness. Belief in God becomes an insurance policy.
Philosopher Andrea Weisberger writes, "The existence of evil is the most fundamental threat to the traditional Western concept of an all-good, all-powerful God." If we are morally obliged to reduce evil, then God must also be obliged. If he is all-powerful, why doesn't he prevent unnecessary suffering? Those who argue that God uses evil for some greater good are saying that God immorally uses people and their suffering as means to ends.
Philosopher Patrick Grim shows that God's traditional attributes - omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection - are all intrinsically impossible, self-contradictory idealist fantasies.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Atheism involves far more than people screaming "God is dead!" and stamping their feet. As this dense collection demonstrates, scholars have heaped oodles of diverse brain power onto this subject. Three main sections, each containing numerous erudite essays, provide enough intellectual girth and breadth to quell disparate curiosities. Theists and atheists alike can hone their knowledge and expand their understanding of this firebrand topic that has recently crept into the mainstream. As of last year, many bookstores even have sections dedicated to atheism, from which this book's purple-blue spine often juts out like neon.
The book opens with a short general, and unattributed, introduction that delineates the definitional nuances that riddle the terms "atheism" and "agnosticism." It also discusses the etymological roots of "atheist" back to the Greek "a" and "theos," roughly meaning "without gods." Later essays build on the definitions presented, which include "positive" and "negative" atheism and "skeptical" and "cancellation" agnosticism. A glossary also helps keeps these terms in line. The subsequent essays can be read in any order, but keeping to one section at a time will aid comprehension of the major issues.
Part I, called "Background," looks at ancient and modern notions of atheism. Jam Bremmer's "Atheism in Antiquity" discusses the Greek, Hellenic, Roman, and Christian attitudes. As expected, the term was often used in disparaging ways against enemies. For example, Socrates was accused of atheism in Plato's famous "Apology." Next, "Atheism in Modern History," by Gavin Hyman, explores the link between theism, atheism, and modernity. He thinks they may all be inextricably linked, and the essay ends with the provocative claim: "the fate of atheism would seem to be inescapably bound up with the fate of modernity." He also traces the origins of modern atheism back to the transition from Augustinian notions of God as a "great mystery" to Dun Scotus' more theologically and epistemologically accessible God. In this way modern atheism, Gavin claims, began within theism itself. Part I closes with an intriguing demographic overview of global atheism by Phil Zuckerman. Though the numbers fluctuate based on the various surveys and studies, they contain few surprises: Sweden, Vietnam, and most of europe seem to have greater concentrations of "non-believers" than the Middle East and the United States.
Part II, "The Case Against Theism," contains essays dealing almost exhaustively with arguments for and against theism. All of the most ominous brain scratchers receive apt attention here: ontological arguments, compatibilities with naturalism and physicalism, evolution, ethical autonomy, arguments from evil, cosmological arguments, and impossibility arguments. This section's first essay, William Lane Craig's "Theistic Critiques of Atheism," gives theism a chance to air its grievances, as it's written from a theistic perspective. Hardcore atheists may have trouble making it through this one. The rest of the section critiques theist arguments with the overall tone of logical analysis as exemplified in what's known as Anglo-American Analytic philosophy. Throughout, many arguments get picked apart, analyzed, and critiqued in sometimes minute detail. The collection doesn't get more technical than these essays. One of the more challenging essays here is Quentin Smith's "Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism," which utilizes Bang Bang cosmology to critique arguments concerning "uncaused causes." In contrast, one of the more accessible is Daniel Dennet's "Atheism and Evolution," which argues that evolution provides a plausible explanation for the origins of life contra teleological arguments from design.
Part III, "Implications," loses the logical focus and explores atheism's other impacts, including editor Michael Martin's survey of potentially "atheistic religions," namely Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. His analysis concludes that, though atheism is not a religion, atheism and religion do not necessarily stand in irreconcilably stark contrast to each other, as often thought. Other subjects covered include: atheism and feminism, atheism and freedom of religion, atheism and postmodernism, anthropologies of religion, and a psychological profile of atheists. Of all these, John D. Caputo's "Atheism, A/theology, and the Postmodern Condition" stands out as the most challenging, especially for those not versed in Continental or Postmodern thought. He challenges the notion of atheism as a "grand narrative" and thus subject to some of the same postmodern critiques as theism. Lastly, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi's "Atheists: A Psychological Profile," the closing essay, describes atheists as more likely to be male, highly educated, and filled with existential angst. He uses voluminous studies (some of which seem very dated) to support these conclusions. The volume closes on a considerable high note with: "...atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life. In short, they are good to have as neighbors." Whether this holds water or represents mere self-congratulation remains for the reader to decide.
"The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" provides a great overall view of this controversial topic. Certain parts remain more dense and technical than others, but nothing is beyond comprehension. Though accessible throughout, a more academic than popular tone pervades the majority of the writing. Nonetheless, this never detracts from the collection's readability. The book's some 300 pages provide more than an overview; they dig deep into many granular issues affecting the subject of atheism. As such, this collection delivers detailed and in-depth knowledge, not just a 10,000 foot view. It's more than an introduction: it's a considerably rigorous study of atheism, its foundations, and its implications. It will definitely give atheists something to believe in.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2012
"The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" is a collection of essays from a wide-range of scholars on atheism: its history, implications, and arguments.
Though Part I and III were enlightening, I found Part II to be the most interesting. Not only does it include an entry by Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but the scholars delve into many of the arguments that one hears given for the existence of God. Granted, some of the arguments analyzed are rarely used by your average theist, they are still intellectually interesting. Many topics are usually far too technical for the interested reader, but the authors made sure to cut out the technical aspects while still keeping the content.
The contributions are written for college students, though any laymen can pick it up. A glossary of terms at the front of the book helps in uninitiated get a hold on philosophical jargon. There were some parts I had to re-read more than once, but for the most part, all the essays were well-written and attention holding. This doesn't mean, though, that rigor was compromised. All essays were heavily referenced.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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The theism/atheism dialogue in recent years generates a good deal more heat than light. Too frequently, champions of either position seem to think that polemics trumps rational analysis. The authors in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism refuse to treat the issue as if it were a high school debate, however. Their reasoning for the most part is rigorous and civil. That's why the collection, edited by philosopher Michael Martin (a long-time and distinguished advocate of atheism), is a genuine contribution to the conversation.
An earlier reviewer has given an good summation of the collection's contents. I would add that the essays tend to be a bit uneven in quality. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi's "Atheists: A Psychological Profile," for example, curiously appeals to quite dated data. Christine Overall's claim that a consistent regard for liberation demands that feminists also be atheists strikes me as underdetermined. Patrick Grim's essay on impossibility arguments is solidly argued, but is impenetrable for anyone without a hefty course of logic under their belts.
On the other hand, Quentin Smith's reductio of the kalam cosmological argument is an exceptionally strong piece, and Evan Fales does a good job in a short amount of space of summarizing the naturalistic/physicalist foundation of atheism (at least atheism in the Anglo-American tradition). But perhaps the most intriguing--and important--essay in the entire collection is Gavin Hyman's "Atheism in Modern History." One of Hyman's main points is that both theism and atheism may in fact be more products of modernity than either believers or nonbelievers recognize. This is an important observation, because both theists and atheists tend to be unhistorical, thereby totalizing their claims.
All in all, a strong collection, although it's too bad that editorial modesty inhibited Michael Martin from contributing an essay. Anyone looking for rigorous analysis of atheism should focus on this volume or The Impossibility of God, also edited by Martin, and give more popular but polemical collections--such as Christopher Hedges' The Portable Atheist--a miss.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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Many Atheists or those curious about Atheism have read books by the "four horsemen" of the so-called "New Atheism," and while those are entertaining, there is nothing in those books on the same level as what is found in this book. Of course, nothing in any of the books actually prove there is no god, but the burden of proof is not on those that do not believe an exceptional claim, but on those that make the exceptional claim. Most people would agree that the existence of an all-powerful god would be quite exceptional, presumably far more than dragons or unicorns . . . or even Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.
Not all of the essays are philosophical arguments for or against a god, but that takes up the majority of the book. The essay by Zuckerman on statistics of the religious or nonreligious is an enlightening and thoughtful essay that provides much food for thought, just based on the numbers. One of the essays is by William Lane Craig, the premier theist philosopher that debates all the persons that express thoughts on the side of doubt, and that essay may be enlightening to those that are not familiar with Craig or theistic arguments for a god. In my opinion, having read this essay as well as his arguments in debates (even while I was a theist), his arguments are embarrassingly inadequate to convince anyone that has the slightest grasp on reason and logic.
If one is interested in reading a higher level of theistic or atheistic discourse, this book covers many areas and introduces many ideas in a scholarly form. As a compilation of scholarly essays, this is for the more serious thinker, while being accessible to those that are not currently familiar with the philosophy in question. This book undoubtedly deserves five stars.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2011
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The first two chapters, histories of atheism, are boring and not very illuminating. Chapter 5, refutations of classical theistic arguments, is as clear as mud. Chapter 6, refutations of theistic arguments of Plantinga and Swinburne, is masterfully and concisely written by Parsons. Chapter 7, on naturalism, tries to cover so many concepts so briefly that it winds up being superficial. Daniel Dennett's chapter on evolution is uncharacteristically lucid (for him). Chapter 9 is a well-written argument that religion has no good role to play in ethics. The essay on the atheist kalam cosmological argument is incomprehensible to me. Following that are several boring chapters, then chapter 16 on postmodernism, which consists of confusing verbiage.
on March 3, 2015
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This is a very assortment of essays by highly qualified professors of philosophy and other fields. Some of the essays are difficult to understand and need to be red twice or three times. I specially liked what Daniel Dennett (Atheism and Evolution) and Michael Martin (Atheism and Religion); two deep areas written in simple way.
The book talked about the relation of feminism and atheism from the point of view of Christine Overall and showed that women should adopt the stand against religion because religion did the most damage to women. Unfortunately statistics shows that the majority of atheists are men.
Benjamin Beit-Hallami in his essay Atheists' Psychological Profile proved that they are smarter, thinkers, reasonable, brights, tolerant, law abiding, morals and in short they are good to have as neighbors. I highly recommend this book and deserves top rating.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2011
I've read all the works of the "New Atheists" (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett). I found this book to be a nice contrast to their polemics. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism is not designed to convert anyone. It begins with a history of atheistic though starting in ancient times. Then it goes into more modern atheist philosophers and then the third chapter is on contemporary demographics in atheism. I found the best essay in the book to be Michael Martin's "Atheism and Religion", in which he argues that atheists don't necessarily have to be anti-religion and there are even religions that can be considered atheistic. I also enjoyed "Feminism and Atheism" as well as William Lane Craig's "Theistic Critiques of Atheism", which I had fun refuting. All in all, this collection of essays takes a more cerebral approach to atheism than the works of the New Atheists and was a very enjoyable read.