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Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case For Respectful Disbelief Paperback – April 26, 2011
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"…an intriguing view of the complexities of modern atheism."
About the Author
Scott F. Aikin (Nashville, TN) is a senior lecturer in the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed (with Robert B. Talisse) and Epistemology and the Regress Problem.
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.
Reasonable Atheism is not a polemic against religion or belief. As they state on page ten, their aim "instead is to show that religious believers' beliefs about atheists are false." The authors make a point of noting that they are not merely trying to champion diversity - a worldview in which citizens respect all belief systems (a viewpoint they discount as nonsense) - but, rather, are presenting a cognitive case that the existence of gods is "entirely irrelevant to morality" (11). Indeed, they go one step further, asserting that atheism is a prerequisite in order to take good and evil seriously. In short, the authors wish to have their readers take atheists as seriously as they regard those who subscribe to different faiths from their own.
As the authors are philosophers, it probably goes without saying that it takes them quite a long time to get to meat of their argument. The first third of the book is taken up with clarifications and stage-setting. As late as chapter four (nearly 100 pages into the book!) the authors declare "our discussion thus far has been mostly preliminary." But perhaps so many pages of caveats and asides are necessary in order to assure the devout Christian reader to continue on, to turn the next page, and not fear for their soul. During those first hundred pages, Aikin and Talisse address several objections readers may have. Foremost is the objection that religion should not be discussed publicly. The authors respond by asking why there is no corresponding rule against discussing other topics of a controversial nature, such as sports, fashion, and food. They note that religion is such a large part of a person's life that altering one's viewpoint is seen as altering who they are: "one doesn't merely change one's mind about whether Jesus was divine," they state, "one converts to Christianity" (20). Religion, therefore, is personal. However, they point out that, as moral beings, humans should strive to minimize false views in our lives. As such, discussing religion should not only be acceptable, but of paramount concern if, for no other reason, than because we care about truth and wish to be competent in responding to criticisms, however personal.
Aikin and Talisse also address the idea, so popular among theists, that there is little point in engaging in a discussion on faith and belief with non-believers because those people are ignorant, unintelligent, wicked, or just plain evil. Again, the authors handily overcome this objection by pointing out that declining to discuss topics with certain people is erroneous. To the contrary, they explain the phenomenon in social dynamics wherein prolonged contact among people who all agree with each other results in the group's members adopting more extreme versions of their initial beliefs (36). Interestingly, the authors point out that such a fallacy can even be found among atheists, and they cite Christoper Hitchen's denunciation of theists as "credulous idiots" as an example (71). They lambaste New Atheists such as Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins for failing to distinguish between being wrong and being stupid. It is also possible, they claim, to hold a correct belief for the wrong reasons (the bizarre example they cite is that it would be wrong to believe that Harrison Ford majored in philosophy - even though he did - simply because he delivers some profound dialogue in the Star Wars trilogy). The authors' stance on this issue has already generated a denunciation from PZ Myers, who claimed that this book provides an example in how not to write a book on atheism. (Technically, however, Myers was simply baffled by the authors' response to a post he made at their site. After reading their tedious response, Myers posted on his blog wondering if their entire book was written with such "preening opacity." Good news, Myers: it's not.)
The meat of the book - their argument for the reasonableness of atheism - is not nearly as fascinating as their protracted prefatory chapters. On page 130, for example, they argue that a god that was less than all-powerful or all-good "would be a defective God - that is, no God at all," but given the pantheon of deities over the millennia, it's difficult to follow this reasoning. As another example, on page 148 they contend that "if there's nothing that we should worship, then there is no God." They next assert that "if there is a God, we should worship Him," but only a few pages later, they make a clear argument that just because there is a God, it doesn't follow that they are deserving of worship (155).
The book's cleverest arguments are to be found in the appendices, where they present first the problem of Hell (though, admittedly, this is easily dispensed if the devout reader does not believe in Hell), then offer a "Religion and Morality Test." The test, designed to show the absurdity and immorality of the Old Testament would be stronger if it weren't so thinly veiled. Nevertheless, if a theist - particularly a Christian - has read that far, then this final appendix just might provide the push they need to, at the very least, view atheism as a morally conscionable position and, at best, to see and reject the immorality inherent in the monotheism religions of our day.
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