I recently I went to a local bookstore in search of a book that would give me a solid overview of the atheistic worldview. Atheism: A Reader happened to featured prominently. It is handily divided into eight sections that offer a broad range of atheistic objections to Christianity with representations from various eras of history and areas of expertise. I will provide a very brief (and hopefully fair) summary of the sections and essays before offering some comments at the end.
- Thomas Huxley notes that “The agnostic says, ‘I cannot find good evidence that so and so is true.’”
- Leslie Stephen basically agrees with the definition, because “there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence.”
- Emma Goldman writes that since all religions are based in fear and ignorance and developed by people who are not that bright, atheism is a boon to mankind, a “dissolution of the phantoms of the beyond; the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare.”
- Carl Von Doren agrees that religions give no good reason for anyone to accept any of them.
“A Refutation of Deism”
- Percy Shelley claims that “design must be proved before a designer can be inferred.” Since this cannot be shown, positing a Creator is unwarranted.
- A.J. Ayer rejects the Argument from Design because it could allow for multiple creators, does not require an eternal deity, and needs a creator outside of time, which seems difficult at best.
- Robert Ingersoll’s refutation of Deism can be summarized in two key questions: Why did God apparently create so many defective things? And why did a good and wise God create so much evil?
- Bertrand Russell addresses a number of the arguments for God, but he focuses on the link between morality and God. He claims that Christians think they are the only ones who can be moral, then highlights bad Christians throughout history.
“The Immortality Myth”
- Lucretius claimed that a belief in the afterlife detracts from our ability to taking this life seriously.
- Mill noted there is no proof of an afterlife; he believes people have made it up because they don’t want to give up life.
- Antony Flew does not think a belief in the afterlife can overcome a “universally know universal truth: ‘All men are mortal.’” He dismisses three competing theories of the afterlife (Reconstructionist, Astral Body, and Platonic-Cartesian) because they fail to provide him with proof.
“The Natural History of Religious Belief”
- Hume contends that people have created the gods in their image.
- George Eliot offers twenty pages of an extended ad hominem attack on a Dr. Cummings, a representative of all people of faith, who is characterized by “small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.”
- Charles Bradlaugh believes that history proves the sciences succeed “solely in measure of the rejection of the Christian theory.”
- Anatoles France clearly states that no evidence will be sufficient to prove a miracle.
“Religion and Science”
- Darwin begins the section by highlighting three issues that moved him to agnosticism: the unconvincing nature of the traditional arguments for God, the problem of pain, and the unreliability of the testimony of Scripture.
- Nietzsche suggests that Christianity hates science because science competes with the church for cultural domination. This morphs into, “Christianity has the rancor of the sick at its very core.”
- H.L Mencken picks up Nietzsche’s torch by declaring religious organizations to be “conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters…“ with a “congenital hatred for knowledge.”
- Carl Sagan notes that religion, which is not proven by science, is a “delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry.”
“Religion and Ethics”
This section makes basically the same argument in every essay: atheists can be moral and religions people can be immoral; therefore, one does not need religion to be moral. H.P Lovecraft acknowledges that there are some good effects that stem from Christianity, a favor that the other essayists do not extend.
“Religion and the State”
- Spinoza argues that religions are based on fear.
- W.E.H. Lecky makes a solid analysis of how the rise of a secular state is inevitable.
- Robert Ingersoll gives an extended argument that our founders did not intend religion to be part of our nation’s government. The people must declare right and wrong; their will must be supreme law.
- Clarence Darrow attacks by criticizing laws concerning observation of the Sabbath.
- Gore Vidal calls monotheism “the great unmentionable evil at the core of our culture,” then presents a conspiracy theory about a “sky-god totalitarian state” which would make Dan Brown proud.
“Religion and Society”
- Christianity degrades women (“The Christian Church and Women”).
- Christianity purposefully perpetuates ignorance through religious instruction (“The Priest and the Child”).
- Christianity taps into unused sexual energy to convince people they have touched the divine (“Religion and Sex”).
I was disappointed by this reader. I was expecting erudite, lucid, compelling arguments for atheism. I was looking forward to a robust intellectual challenge. What I got was a smorgasbord of informal fallacies and ferocious ad hominem attacks. I’ve had much more challenging (and enjoyable) conversations at the local microbrewery with my atheist friends.
The atheism presented in this book effectively points out the hypocrisy and shortcomings in religious people. That point is incontestable. However, I felt that it provided little in terms of a constructive argument for atheism. One should apparently be an atheist because religious people are stupid, evil, delusional and full of fear – which is supposed to lead us to the conclusion that not being religious will make one smart, good, entirely rational, and not full of fear.
This clearly does not follow. Atheist closets have skeletons in their closets too. Nietzsche, who railed on Christians as lunatics, wrote much of his work in an asylum. George Eliot, vociferous in her hatred of specific Christians, reaffirmed religion quite strongly by the end of her life. Antony Flew, hero of the atheistic crowd for decades and one of the few writers chosen who is still alive, became a Deist before his death. Carl Sagan, who mocks demon-haunted worlds, firmly believes in alien-populated universes. Madelyn Murray O’Hare is apparently the embarrassing secret of the movement due to her unrelenting racism and overall rudeness.
It turns out that while atheism is good at being critical of the failures in others, it has succumbed to many of the same failures itself. This neither proves Christianity nor disproves atheism. It does, however, highlight that people remain people no matter which worldview claims their allegiance. The argument is not about whether some people are delusional, or petty, or mean, or irrational, or hypocritical. I think that’s a given. The question is if Christianity or atheism is true. “A Refutation of Deism” at least brought up some topics into which we can sink our philosophical teeth: the argument from design, the presence of evil and the nature and grounding of morality. Other than that, the engagement on the level of truth was frustratingly sparse.
If you are looking for a primer that confirms your feeling that religious people are idiots, this book will do it. For that matter, if you want a book that confirms your feeling that atheist arguments are shallow and petty, this book will do it. If you are a Christian or non-Christian who is not content with that kind of knee-jerk reaction – if you want to think about the worldviews and the people on both sides of this issue fairly – look for a different book, one that challenges with serious thought and rigorous scholarship.