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Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case For Respectful Disbelief Paperback – April 26, 2011
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About the Author
Robert B. Talisse (Nashville, TN) is a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Democracy and Moral Conflict, Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed (with Scott F. Aikin), A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy, and Democracy After Liberalism.
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Second it has to be said that there is something of the velvet-gloved and iron-fisted about some of what they write. I have no doubt that there are tactical and rhetorical advantages to remaining friendly and reasonable-sounding, but there is no more compromise on the actual likelihood of atheism being true here than there is in anything written by New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or P.Z. Myers. I suppose that's why I feel free to love both this book, which advocates a softer tone, and the acerbic, sarcastic tone struck in some New Atheist works. They're both right, in a way.
The intelligence, sanity, and sincerity of the religious person need NOT be called into question--as a formerly devout Christian, I can attest to that personally. And yet there IS something undeniably unreasonable in religion that occasionally borders on the ridiculous. The authors do a fine job of addressing the issue of "accommodationism," the insult hurled at atheists by some New Atheists for having the timerity to suggest that not all religious believers are wicked, stupid, insane, deluded, and/or benighted. Simply wrong. They make this point several times. It is possible for nothing to be wrong with a person, and yet that person can still hold beliefs that are wrong, or at least, unsupportable. There is no abiding shame in this, and it opens the way for atheists and theists to have conversations as intellectual equals. It is probable that many theists have simply never been confronted with evidence against their beliefs, and that the insular social settings many find themselves within serve only to buttress unwarranted beliefs. Viewed this way, it is clear that some vitriol towards the religious in general will often be misplaced...although the condemnation remains for the liars and charlatans and those who should and can know better but for reasons of laziness, crassness, timidity, or other vice, choose to remain ignorant.
I found the section that uses the ontological proof of God's existence as a sort of acid-test of an atheist's sophistication in discussing theological issues an interesting and refreshing take. It's the perfect puzzle of a proof--something is more or less obviously wrong with it, because it seems on some level to consist entirely of a word game (in essence, the idea is that if a god is characterized by ultimate perfection, and actually existing is more perfect than not actually existing, a god must exist). But even though this seems an almost obvious reaction to the "proof," it's not quite so simple to put one's finger on what the error in reasoning might be. Just because it is ultimately sort of a word game that allows one side to define god into existence does not make it a game easy to beat. Using this example, "Reasonable" demonstrates that in order to engage fairly and convincingly with theists, atheists really do have to be respectfully familar with such issues.
I find in "Reasonable Atheism" an attractive polemic that does a stellar job of making the case for reasoned conversation, and the morality not only of atheists but of atheism. The authors say the book was written for the religous, as a sort of "what every believer should know about atheists." What are we really like? Much more acceptable as human beings than many relgious folks have been led to expect.
I initally thought that the tone coming off of some lines in the book was a little whiny, with a faint echo of Stockholm Syndrome wafting off a culture held captive to religion. Upon further reflection, I've had to revise my thinking. This book is every bit as "tough" for atheism and contra theism as anything put out by the Four Horsemen (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens), and in some ways, this is more forceful stuff. I love the New Atheists, I really do. They have given us so much, not just in terms of ammunition (others have done that part better), but especially in terms of confidence. If someone as obviously brilliant as a Hitchens or Dawkins, or as clearly talented as a Harris can be completely skeptical of religion's claims, then perhaps average person that I am, I too can feel justified in my skepticism.
But some of their arguments have all of the subtlety of a drive-by shooting. Sometimes that's justified, but not always. I got the sense coming away from, and thinking about, "Reasonable," that the authors' approach in this book was much less like a drive-by intended to snipe at irrationality, and more like a regemine of chemotherapy that over time could choke it off. It might not be as splashy, but there's no shame in it. And given that it's more likely actually to be effective in many cases, there is much to recommend the approach it takes.
But, I truly did enjoy their discussion of the reasonableness of open and honest criticism of deeply-held beliefs. We should argue in mixed company about politics and religion. I've met many people who claims religious people are somehow intellectually inferior and 'idiots.' This is divisive, as the authors make clear. Theists, the authors claim, are just highly mistaken about the way the world is.
The authors' goals isn't to convince anyone of the merits of atheism, but that reasonable people can reject theistic claims and still be good, moral people. On this point, the authors do well. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear that morality isn't contingent on God's existence, nor should it be. The authors discuss how a moral system derived from God isn't moral anyway, and that a non-theist conception does much better.
One major issue I had throughout the book were the examples used. Yes, I completely understand who the intended audience is, but many of the examples seemed out of place in this kind of book. The authors used extreme examples which I feel will make certain readers miss the important points being made.
Overall, this wasn't what I expected, but I may borrow it out to some theist friends I have.