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This is one question George H. Smith, defender of reason and personal liberty and author of an influential contemporary classic on nonbelief, seeks to answer in Why Atheism? Smith reviews the historical roots of nonbelief going back to the ancient Greeks, argues that philosophy can serve as an important alternative to religion, and defends reason as the most reliable method...
This is one question George H. Smith, defender of reason and personal liberty and author of an influential contemporary classic on nonbelief, seeks to answer in Why Atheism? Smith reviews the historical roots of nonbelief going back to the ancient Greeks, argues that philosophy can serve as an important alternative to religion, and defends reason as the most reliable method humans have for establishing truth and conducting one's life.
Why Atheism? tackles a wide range of subjects, some of which have never been thoroughly analyzed from an atheistic point of view. Beginning with the problem of atheism's credibility, Smith points out the various ways in which religious opponents have sought to exclude atheism from serious consideration. He also analyzes a number of classical philosophical issues, such as the nature of knowledge and belief, concluding that modern atheism is largely an unintended consequence of the religious diversity brought about by the Protestant Reformation.
Two chapters are devoted to ethics, one focusing on the ethics of belief with particular attention given to the views of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke. Other chapters discuss the persecution of religious dissenters and the features of an ethical system without belief in God. Smith's characteristic lucidity, analytical rigor, and wit make Why Atheism? an accessible and enjoyable guide to living a positive life without belief in a supreme being.
Coming to Terms
The Credibility of Atheism
The title of this book, Why Atheism?, may be construed in several different ways. It may be understood as a philosophical roll call wherein arguments for atheism are lined up and presented. Or it may be interpreted pragmatically as an inquiry into the benefits of atheism for the individual and society. Or we may view it as a historical investigation into the conditions and causes of modern atheism.
I shall touch on some of these issues later in this book, but I now wish to discuss another interpretation of Why Atheism?—namely, why should anyone, especially the religious believer, take the time and trouble to consider the atheistic point of view? We cannot, after all, explore every new idea that happens our way; we must be selective, focusing on some while ignoring others.
Assertions, arguments, doctrines, and the like (which, for the sake of convenience, I shall call propositions) must strike us as both relevant and credible before we will take time to investigate them further. A proposition is relevant if it is related to our intellectual interests, whether theoretical or practical. A relevant proposition is one whose truth or falsehood would have a significant impact on what we believe or how we act.
A proposition must also appear credible before we will take it seriously. If I am told, for example, that American astronauts did not really land on the moon but that this event was an elaborate hoax concocted by NASA tosecure funding for the space program, I would likely reject this assertion outright—because, though interesting, it does not strike me as credible. True, I do not have the evidence in hand to prove that the moon landing was authentic, and we have abundant evidence of other governmental frauds; nevertheless, I would not take the time and effort to investigate this claim unless I were presented with enough presumptive evidence to establish its credibility. Only if I took it seriously enough to merit further investigation would I seek more detailed information that would resolve the issue one way or another to my own satisfaction.
To assess a proposition as credible is to say not that it is justified but that it is worthy of being justified. A credible proposition is one that we regard as worthy of further consideration. Without credibility a proposition will simply pass through our consciousness without stopping long enough to be examined. Credibility is like an Ellis Island of cognition, a checkpoint for immigrating ideas that are seeking permanent residence in our minds. Whether a proposition is turned away or admitted for further investigation will depend on how we assess its credibility.
The same point can be made by differentiating between a reasonable belief and a justified belief. A reasonable proposition is one that does not strike us as impossible or highly improbable, even though it may lack sufficient justification to warrant our assent. Of course, given the vast number of reasonable beliefs, we cannot examine every proposition that falls into this category. Severe limitations of time require that we narrow our focus, selecting only those propositions that we regard as reasonable and relevant.
But even these conditions are sometimes insufficient, as when a proposition, though both reasonable and relevant, conflicts with our most strongly held beliefs. Consider, for instance, an intelligent Christian who confronts the agnostic's claim that God's existence cannot be proven one way or the other, so we should suspend judgment. This proposition is of great interest to the Christian, and it may even strike him as reasonable inasmuch as he can understand why other intelligent people might adopt this view. Nevertheless, the Christian might decline to investigate the arguments for agnosticism in any detail, because his own belief in God is so strong, his degree of certainty so high, as to render any further investigation unnecessary.
Much of this book is more concerned with the credibility of atheism than its justification. I shall argue that atheism is credible and should therefore be seriously considered by theists and agnostics like. This is an essential link in the process of persuasion. If most Christians (and other religious believers) dismiss atheism outright, this is not because they have examined the arguments for atheism and found them wanting, but because they do not take atheism seriously enough to examine its arguments in detail. Atheism, in their view, lacks credibility, so they have no motive to explore it further.
To portray atheism as utterly lacking in credibility has long played a crucial role in religious propaganda. Atheism must be rendered unthinkable, because doubt, if left unchecked, can easily propel the believer down the path of deconversion. (By deconversion, I mean the process by which a religious believer becomes an atheist.) Dire accounts of atheism, which portray deconversion as a descent into spiritual and moral oblivion, are propaganda born of religious necessity. Atheism lies at the end of a slippery slope, so the process of deconversion, if not immediately blocked, can easily advance to its final destination.
To say that atheism is credible is to suggest that the atheist may be right; to say that the atheist may be right is to suggest that the Christian may be wrong; to say that the Christian may be wrong is suggest that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge; to say that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge is to suggest that each and every tenet of Christianity should be reexamined in the light of reason—and from here all hell breaks loose as the process of deconversion rushes headlong to its logical destination.
When reason is liberated from the shackles of faith it will inevitably claim sovereignty, the right of critical jurisdiction, over every sphere of knowledge. This inner logic of ideas (for which we have many historical examples) is one reason why so many theologians have found it necessary to dismiss the case for atheism as unworthy of serious consideration. To move from the position that atheism is unreasonable to the position that it is credible is a bigger step than the step from credibility to justification—for it may require the Christian to question God himself by subjecting his divine revelation to critical analysis. Thus has the slander of atheism and atheists played a major role throughout the history of Christian propaganda.
A Bugaboo Epithet
In 1623, the Friar Mersenne declared that there were fifty thousand atheists in Paris alone. Yet just two years later another Catholic theologian, Father Garasse, could count only five atheists in all of Europe (two Italians and three Frenchmen). How can we explain this discrepancy? Either thousands of atheists had suddenly converted within a two-year period, which is highly unlikely, or these Catholic observers had radically different things in mind when they used the term atheist.
The word "atheist" has traditionally been used as a smear word—or "bugaboo epithet," as the historian Preserved Smith once described it. To call someone an atheist was more often an accusation than a description, an invective hurled by orthodox Christians against any and all dissenters, including other Christians.
Derived from the Greek atheos (meaning "godless, not believing in the existence of gods"), an atheist is "one who does not believe in the existence of a deity." Atheism, or the absence of theistic belief, is therefore a perspective, not a philosophy. Although there can be atheistic philosophies that are based solely on naturalistic principles, there cannot be a "philosophy of atheism" per se, because a negative position can never serve as a satisfactory foundation for a philosophical system.
Since an atheist is a person who does not believe in any god or number of gods, how we define atheist will depend on how we define the word god. Some theists have been called atheists for disbelieving in the god (or gods) of the orthodox majority. Early Christians, for example, were frequently accused of atheism by their pagan critics. "We are called atheists," wrote Justin Martyr in the second century, "[a]nd we confess that we are atheists, so far as [the pagan gods] are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God...." Another apologist, Athenagoras, dismissed as "exceedingly silly" the charge that Christians are atheists, because pagans disagree among themselves, some believing in gods that others do not. Hence if Christians qualify as atheists owing to their disbelief in the pagan gods, then everyone is an atheist of some sort, since those who believe in the god (or gods) of one religion will necessarily disbelieve in the god (or gods) of other religions.
Atheism was sometimes used to describe a doctrine that, if carried to its logical conclusion, would allegedly result in disbelief. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most intelligent and sophisticated Catholics of the sixteenth century, had this in mind when he condemned the teachings of Martin Luther as implicitly atheistic. Protestants had rejected the church as an intermediate authority between God and man, arguing instead that individuals should search their own conscience for divine inspiration. But this was a dangerous innovation, according to Montaigne, because the feeble and unreliable judgments of individuals will generate diverse and conflicting religious beliefs, and eventually terminate in atheism. The "novelties of Luther" were "shaking our old religion," and this "new disease would soon degenerate into loathsome atheism."
It was rare to find atheism mentioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without being preceded with adjectives like "loathsome" and "wicked." Montaigne was also following the custom of his day in referring to atheism as a "disease." Equally common was to label atheists as "monsters" of one kind or another. Post-Reformation Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, regaled their readers with dire accounts of how the disease of atheism was rapidly infecting many thousands of people, and how atheistic monsters were stalking the land, devouring all morality and decency that lay in their path. The Elizabethan writer Roger Ascham blamed the freethinking Italians for infecting many of his countrymen with atheism. These "Italianate Englishmen are incarnate devils ... for they first lustfully condemn God, then scornfully mock his word, and also spitefully hate and hurt all the well wishers thereof.... They count as fables the holy mysteries of religion." Another Englishman of that era claimed to have found more atheists in Oxford and Cambridge alone than in all of the rest of Europe.
In 1645, the Presbyterian Thomas Edwards expressed alarm at a new breed of atheistic monsters who were "now common among us—as denying the Scriptures, pleading for a toleration of all religions and worships, yea, for blasphemy, and denying there is a God." (The advocate of religious toleration was sure to find himself condemned as an atheist, for who else would dare call for the legalization of blasphemy, heresy, and other heinous sins?) In 1652, Walter Carleton, formerly a physician to the king, complained that England had produced and fostered "more swarms of atheistical monsters" than any other age or country. A decade later Bishop Stillingfleet noted an alarming but fashionable trend of atheism among educated Englishmen, who considered disbelief in Christianity to be a mark of wit and good judgment. Sir George Mackenzie—nicknamed Bloody Mackenzie for his zeal in persecuting heretics—was perplexed because "the greatest wits are most frequently the greatest atheists," while in 1665 Joseph Glanville similarly noted that it is "now accounted a piece of wit and gallantry to be an atheist." Matters had apparently become even worse by 1681, when Archdeacon Parker testified that "atheism and irreligion are now as common as vice and debauchery"—a warning that was seconded by Archbishop Tillotson, according to whom "atheism hath invaded our nation and prevailed to amazement."
References to the atheistic "disease" and to "atheistic monsters" remained common throughout the nineteenth century. Typical of this trend is a book published in 1878, The Natural History of Atheism, wherein the author warns of "the atheistic disease" that results from a "moral disorder of the reasonable creature." The author divides atheists into two categories: "atheistic incapables" and "atheistic monsters," both of which result from "the morbid atheistic pathology." This effort to slander atheism through metaphor is found even among modern writers. In 1971, the Catholic priest Vincent P. Miceli claimed that "every form of atheism, even the initially well intentioned, constricts, shrinks, enslaves the individual atheist within and against himself and, eventually, as atheism reaches plague proportions among men, goes on to enslave and murder society."
The Short and Easy Refutation of Atheism
Pick up a modern text on the philosophy of religion and you will likely read that atheism is the belief that God does not exist, and that an atheist is one who affirms the nonexistence of God. Then, working from these definitions, you will quickly be informed that atheism can never be justified. Why? Because even if we cannot prove the existence of God, this failure does not positively establish his nonexistence. Failure to prove a positive does not establish the negative. At most it would justify the suspension of judgment, in which the existence of God is neither affirmed nor denied. This suspension of judgment, commonly known as agnosticism, is typically offered as the only rational alternative to theism.
No one can lay claim to omniscience, but this is precisely what the atheist supposedly does when he says that God does not exist. How can the atheist possibly know this, since many things exist of which we are presently unaware and which elude our sensory powers? Even if the atheist is able to deny the existence of a particular god (e.g., the God of Christianity) owing to its contradictory attributes, this does not preclude the possibility that a god of some kind may still exist, even if we cannot define him adequately in human terms. Has the atheist explored every nook and cranny of the universe and exhausted every conceivable avenue in his search for God, only then to declare that God is nowhere to be found? Since this is an impossible task, atheism is rejected as irrational on its face, and the atheist is exposed for what he really is: a hypocritical friend of reason who criticizes theists for their supposed irrationalism, while professing to know something that cannot possibly be known, namely, that God does not exist.
It therefore seems as if we are left with one of two possibilities when confronted with someone who claims to be an atheist: Either the atheist understands what he professes to believe, in which case he is irrational or insincere; or the atheist doesn't understand the obvious irrationalism of his claim that God does not exist, in which case he is ignorant, stupid, or confused. In no instance, however, need the atheist be taken seriously.
So goes the short and easy refutation of atheism—a refutation simple enough for a child to understand but sophisticated enough to serve the needs of Hans Kung and a host of other theologians and theistic philosophers.
I suggest that this short and easy refutation of atheism, however popular and convenient it may be, is a bit too short and a bit too easy. Indeed, it is little more than unmitigated sophistry—an exercise in evasion and deceit that studiously ignores the kind of atheism that has been defended by virtually every prominent atheist over the past two centuries. The short and easy refutation achieves its victory by attacking a counterfeit form of atheism that has rarely been advocated by real atheists. It is no more justified than if an atheist were to include the belief in religious persecution as a defining characteristic of Christianity, thereby condemning all Christians as immoral and excluding from the ranks of Christianity anyone who believes in religious freedom. (Indeed, it is far easier to name prominent Christians who have defended persecution as an essential component of Christianity—e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin—than to name prominent atheists who have defined atheism as a positive belief in the nonexistence of God.)
Nineteenth-century atheists repeatedly attacked the short and easy refutation by exposing its faulty definition of atheism (known as positive atheism, since it positively affirms the nonexistence of God). Consider the British atheist G. W. Foote, editor of the Freethinker and the author of many books and articles on atheism. Foote's atheism was scarcely of the timid variety; convicted of blasphemy and sent to prison, his case provoked a young John Stuart Mill to write a passionate defense of religious freedom. Yet Foote repeatedly insisted that atheism is properly defined as the absence (or lack) of theistic belief, and not as the denial of God's existence. In a typical exchange, Foote challenged a critic "to refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God." The atheist is a person who is without belief in a god; "that is all the `A' before `Theist' really means."
This was also the view of Charles Bradlaugh, the most influential atheist in Victorian England. In The Freethinkers Textbook (1876), after noting that the meaning of "atheism" had been "continuously misrepresented," Bradlaugh went on to say: "Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God." Similarly, in Why I Do Not Believe in God (1887) Annie Besant (who worked closely with Bradlaugh in the freethought movement prior to her descent into theosophy) defined atheism as "without God."
No historian has yet undertaken a thorough investigation of this negative definition, so we don't know when it came into common use, but we see traces of it as early as the seventeenth century. For example, John Locke, in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), cited travel accounts that reported "whole nations" of atheists, "amongst whom there was to be found no notion of a God, no religion." The negative definition also appears in the first comprehensive defense of atheism, Baron d'Holbach's The System of Nature (1770). "All children are atheists," according to d'Holbach, because "they have no idea of God."
Unlike most of their modern counterparts, some previous Christians were fair-minded enough to read what atheists had actually said before attacking their position. Once such person was Robert Flint, a highly respected scholar who wrote extensively on theology, history, and economics. Flint clearly understood that atheism, as defended for many decades by prominent atheists, is negative rather than positive in character. In Agnosticism (1903), Flint pointed out that the atheist "is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God." On the contrary, this "positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds...." The atheist is simply a person "who does not believe that there is a God," and this absence of belief may stem from nothing more than "want of knowledge that there is a God." Flint concludes: "The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less." (Emphasis added.)
The same point had been made decades earlier by another Christian theologian, Richard Watson, who was well known for his attacks on Thomas Paine and other freethinkers. In A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831), Watson maintained that atheism literally means "without God": An atheist, "in the strict and proper sense of the word, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god, or who owns no being superior to nature."
Twentieth-century freethinkers have continued to defend the negative definition. In A Rationalist Encyclopedia (1950) Joseph McCabe, a former Jesuit priest who became prominent atheist, defined atheism as "the absence of theistic belief." And Chapman Cohen, president of Britain's National Secular Society and author of many books on atheism, wrote: "If one believes in a god, one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist—he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God."
If the foregoing passages (many more could be cited) seem to belabor the point, I have quoted them because some points need belaboring. No reasonable dialogue between theists and atheists is possible until the myth of positive atheism is put to rest once and for all. When the theist portrays atheism as necessarily irrational because no one can prove the nonexistence of God, he is attacking a position that has rarely been embraced by real atheists. The short and easy refutation of atheism is merely a mock refutation of a mock adversary.
Posted September 18, 2003
Once you have digested the information from Atheism: The Case Against God then it is time to move to this book. An excellent follow up! The book is easy to read and understand without being elementary. In it, Mr. Smith further explores many of the concepts discussed in the first book. He points out how ridculous so many of our most sacred beliefs simply do not stand up to reason.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2002
I loved this book so much! I am a teenager and and very interesting in philosophy, and as well as being an atheist this book was amazing to me. He gave such great arguements, and such amazing info, i am recommending it to all my friends. I hope many ppl can stop and take the time to read this and learn to question their beleifs.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2001
I first became acquanted with the author Mr. George H. Smith when he was editor and chief of Reason magazine. His first book, Atheism: A Case Against God, was a great outline to atheism. Smith wrote, or so I believe, this book, Why Atheism?, because he still had more to say. Smith expects the reader to be familiar with his first book. However, luckly, he does give short reviews to bring the reader up to date. Neverthless, Smith expects the reader to have read his first book. I actually agree with Smith on that aspect. Why Atheism? covers the issues of how atheists look at death or how they may possibly look at death. It tells about choosing reasoning philosophy over religious propaganda. I also gives the atheist a way to fight the theist's belief that all atheists are immoral. Smith goes on to explain that it's the theist's responsibility to prove to you that God does exist. It's not the Atheist's responsibility to prove that God does not exist. The book is great reading. I recommend it. Smith also has another book out called, 'Atheistm, Ayn Rand, and other Heresies.' I'm going to purchase this one next...Regards Frank...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 29, 2008
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