Book Review: Reasonable Atheism
By James Zimmerman
Reasonable Atheism, by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse ©2011, Prometheus Press, 220 pages.
In Reasonable Atheism, authors Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse set out to present a moral case for atheism. They attempt to “show religious believers that atheism is a morally and intellectually responsible position” (9). They do a rather decent job.
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.