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Atheism - Study Notes

ATHEISM by Julian Baggini [OUP Very Short Introduction Series, 2003]

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and the author of several books on philosophy. His book on Atheism is addressed to ‘atheists looking for a systematic defence of their position, agnostics who think they might be atheists after all and to religious believers who have a sincere desire to understand what atheism is all about’.

Chapter 1 is ‘What is atheism?’ where Baggini says that atheism is simply the belief that there is no God or gods.
It is accompanied however by ‘a broader rejection of any supernatural or transcendental reality’, including immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, spirits or anything else ‘supernatural’. Atheism contrasts with theism (belief in a God) and also with agnosticism which is the suspension of belief as to whether there is a God or not.

Atheists are not simply physicalists (or materialists) who assert that the only things that exist in the universe are physical objects. Many of the concepts of physics (such as light or gravity) are not physical objects, but they exist. Baggini says that atheism is rooted not so much in physicalism as in the broader sense of naturalism. This is fully compatible with ‘consciousness, emotion and beauty and not just atoms and fundamental physical forces’. All that naturalism rejects is the ‘supernatural’ as just outlined (life after death etc.).

But the aim of his book is to present a positive case for atheism, not simply to reject religious belief. Some critics say this is not possible since atheism is purely negative and relies for its existence on the religious beliefs which it rejects. Baggini quite correctly regards this rather specious argument as mistaken. It is based, he says, on the ‘etymological fallacy’, the notion that one can best understand what a word means by understanding its origin – a half-truth which can be misleading because the meanings of words change over periods of time. The fact that the word ‘atheism’ was originally constructed as a negation of theism is not enough to show that it is purely negative as a belief now.

However, the fact remains that the sentence ‘there is no God’ is, grammatically, a negative assertion, and proving negative assertions can sometimes be difficult to do. For example we cannot conclusively prove there are no such things as imps. Of course, it does not follow from this that imps exist or even that they may exist, and we can still assert, with reason, that we have no evidence for believing that imps exist.

In Chapter 2 Baggini moves on to ‘The case for atheism’.
He starts by outlining in general terms what is meant by ‘making a case’ for something. This involves [1] argument, by which he means reasoning (a better word in my opinion), [2] evidence and [3] rhetoric. If we are concerned with matters of fact and questions of truth or falsity, evidence is the critical factor and it can be strong or weak. This is of major importance in all aspects of life - the science laboratory, the courtroom, news-reporting and our daily lives. Evidence is stronger if it is available for inspection by more people on repeated occasions, and weaker if it is confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions. The evidence that water freezes at zero degrees centigrade can be tested by anyone with a thermometer and is always confirmed to be true, the best kind of evidence.

Very differently, anecdotal evidence could be based on the testimony of a single person relating one incident. Here we must consider the likelihood of what they report. If an honest, sober person reports seeing a neighbour walking down the street with a shopping bag, there is no compelling reason to disbelieve them. But if someone reports seeing an animal or a person suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason, we balance this against the overwhelming evidence we have that spontaneous combustion by living creatures does not take place (without artificial accelerants). People can also misremember or can embellish what they see, often inadvertently. However, we often believe things without direct evidence; we rely on what others say or report, balancing this with what is already known, what is probable or improbable or possible or impossible. The pitfalls of hearsay evidence are also well known – which applies, strictly speaking, to believing God exists ‘because the Bible says so’. By contrast you can verify what science textbooks say (for example) by conducting or commissioning the necessary researches yourself if you’re in any doubt.

But whatever it says in the Bible or any other sacred writings, direct, observable evidence of God is lacking, so on this basis Baggini says we have no reason to suppose that God exists. Note that if God is defined entirely negatively (invisible, intangible etc.) this only gives us a definition of nothing. Some people say that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, but Baggini does not agree. He provides a simple example: is there any butter in your fridge? If you look inside, search carefully and thoroughly and don’t find any butter, then you have an absence of evidence which really does add up to evidence of absence.
This argument is alright as far as it goes, but I think Baggini overlooks the distinction between what logicians call a limited domain (such as what’s inside your fridge or on that table) and an unlimited domain such as the contents of the entire universe. We can make conclusive assertions or denials about what exists or does not exist within a finite, limited domain, but we cannot make conclusive negative assertions about the contents of the entire universe simply because we cannot survey the entire universe. We can only say that whilst there is no direct evidence for believing in God, we cannot conclusively say that a God does not exist. This suggests that agnosticism is more viable than atheism, in my own opinion.

Baggini makes a good case on the remaining questions which he discusses in this chapter such as the belief that we have immortal souls. Scepticism can be justified in his view by the proven fact that when brain activity has ceased at death, so has consciousness. The theist could object that brain activity, consciousness and the soul are not the same thing, but the simplest answer here is that we must request a clear definition of what the ‘soul’ is and what is the evidence for it, but so far as we are aware this has not been provided.

There is no evidence that consciousness (or the soul) can survive the death of the brain other than the unreliable, hit or miss testimony of mediums and so on. Baggini mentions there are so many mediums a few will probably give correct reports by luck alone (just as fortune-tellers and astrologers sometimes make correct guesses). But there is no strong evidence. He also says, quite correctly, that the onus of proof is not on the atheist or sceptic who might be challenged to explain this or that report by a medium or a clairvoyant; the onus of proof is on the believer to provide evidence that amounts to more than just a repetition of hearsay. I would simply add that even if ‘the paranormal’ etc. can be proved, we are still a long way from proving the existence of an immortal soul or a transcendent God.

Curiously Baggini does not mention the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, attested to by various witnesses of good character. But even here, an alternative, naturalistic explanation that has been suggested is that Christ had not died, he had been in a coma, hence the ‘resurrection’. On the balance of probabilities, which is likelier?

Baggini goes on to argue that atheism is the view best supported by the evidence of experience, and the fact that such evidence is never ‘watertight’ is not a reason for rejecting atheism and turning to agnosticism. He therefore summarizes how we reason about any sort of factual question. The main method is inductive reasoning as used in both everyday life and in science. This is where we argue from what has been observed in the past to reach conclusions about what will probably happen in the future. For example there is evidence that if you jump out of a tenth floor window you will, in all likelihood, fall to the ground with deleterious consequences for your health. Such reasoning is premised on the uniformity of nature – the justified assumption that the laws of nature such as gravity do not suddenly suspend themselves or change for no apparent reason. Other things being equal, they remain constant. The important point is that inductive reasoning is always based on evidence and has predictive power in many circumstances.

The second type of reasoning, also based on evidence, is called abduction, better known as ‘argument to the best explanation’. Abduction examines an event or state of affairs that has more than one possible explanation and seeks to determine which explanation is the best in terms of simplicity, coherence, testability and/or probability. For example you see bootprints in the sand on a deserted beach. You cannot prove it, but it is reasonable to say that a person had been walking there. You could say that a cow wearing boots had been walking there, and we cannot disprove that statement. But which is likelier?
Getting back to the universe, God and the supernatural, Baggini uses abductive reasoning to support atheism. Whilst there are many possible explanations for the way the world appears to be, they cannot all be true for in many cases they contradict each other. The atheist view is simplest in that it only requires us to posit the existence of the natural world whilst the religious alternative would require us to posit the existence of a supernatural world as well, unobservable by definition and therefore untestable. It also has to be explained how a supernatural realm and the natural realm would interact and co-exist.
Baggini notes that atheism has great explanatory power when it comes to the divergence of different religious doctrines. He suggests the best explanation for this is that ‘religion is a human construct that does not correspond to any metaphysical reality’. He disparages the claim that ‘all religions are different paths to the same truth: the fact has to be accepted that religions flatly contradict one another’. ‘Hindus and Christians are not worshipping the same God, because Hindus do not believe in one God’. Also, ‘it requires a lot of fudging of doctrine’ to claim that Islam and Christianity are both ‘true’. Some people may be tempted to say that what’s ‘true’ for the Moslems is ‘true for them’ and what’s ‘true’ for the Christians is ‘true for them’, but this confuses the distinction between truth and belief which are very different things and which only leads to relativism (more about this in a moment).

Baggini next discusses what best explains the existence of evil. The atheist hypothesis is that as evolved creatures, ‘there should be no expectation that the world should be a good place’. But the religious explanation requires ‘a lot of sophistical reasoning to reconcile the belief that the universe was created by a loving God with the terrible suffering and injustice found within his creation’, he says (we’ll come back to this later). Then again, what best explains the correlation between brain activity and consciousness? There is the atheist hypothesis that consciousness is a product of brain activity, or on the other hand ‘an implausible tale’ about how non-physical thinking souls exist alongside physical brains and somehow interact with them, the ‘soul’ somehow surviving the body at death. Baggini says that although natural explanations of things may not always be complete, explanations involving a supernatural element are ‘much less plausible and at times preposterous’.

He goes on to ask, ‘is atheism a faith position?’ His answer is very firmly ‘no’. He comments that if atheism is a faith position ‘just like’ religious belief, then the faith-based religions are in no position to criticize atheists for their beliefs. But if all beliefs are just faith positions, ‘then we are left with a kind of relativism where there are no grounds for establishing the truth or falsity of any belief system’. I think that is a very important point because relativism ends up by making rational discussion of any sort impossible if there is no objective means of distinguishing what is true from what is false or unproven.

Baggini maintains that ‘we have no need for faith’. He says ‘the atheist position is based on evidence and arguments to best explanation. If we contrast this with belief in the supernatural, we can see the fault line between faith positions and ordinary beliefs’. He quotes the Bible which says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’, but he simply points out that this is equivalent to saying ‘it is good to believe what you have no evidence to believe.’ He also comments on p33 that ‘only religious belief requires faith because only religious belief postulates the existence of entities we have no good evidence to believe exist. It is an error to suppose that just because atheist beliefs are also ‘unproven’ or ‘uncertain’ that they too require faith’. The cardinal difference is that atheists and agnostics do not claim to be able to explain everything, but they do not postulate entities such as God or the supernatural for which there is no evidence.

Chapter 3 is ‘Atheist ethics’.
Many people think that in order for there to be a moral law there has to be some kind of lawgiver, namely God. This is the divine command theory of ethics. However, Baggini quotes Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma: ‘Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?’ If something is right (or wrong) because God says so, then there is no right or wrong other than what God commands. So morality in itself does not exist, which is implausible. But if God says something is good (or bad) because it is good (or bad), then this shows that God and morality are distinct. Either way, the divine command theory collapses.

Baggini argues that ‘there is no reason why a denial of God’s existence would necessarily entail a denial of the existence of goodness’ (p39). His argument is that morality and religion are different things, notwithstanding that they can co-exist within a particular doctrine. He comments that the person who doesn’t do wrong because they fear that God will punish them is ‘not a moral person, merely a prudent one’. So, what is morality without God? ‘Do we all become sovereigns of our own privatized moralities?’ he asks.

The answer is ‘no’, probably best illustrated by the joke he makes at the beginning of the chapter. Dostoevsky’s fictional character Karamazov may have said, ‘Without God, anything is permitted’, but Baggini says ‘I bet he never tried parking in central London on a Saturday afternoon.’ There is a perfectly serious point here – whether there is a God or not, human beings still find it necessary to have rules of one sort or another, whether they are traffic regulations or laws against murder or theft.

Baggini has to give an account of ethics and morality without God, in a way that shows them to be not just arbitrary, ad hoc human inventions. He is correct in saying on p44 that ‘morality is about acting in the best interests of others’, and I think he is again correct in saying on p46 that ‘morality is a basic concern for the welfare of others’, but when he says this is ‘a concern that is not based on rational argument but empathy and our shared humanity’, his argument is becoming rather tenuous.

I think he gets closer to pinpointing the basis of morality when he discusses Kant’s doctrine of the ‘categorical imperative’. For a defining characteristic of morality is that it is in most cases obligatory, not discretionary except in special circumstances. Moral rules and precepts such as telling the truth, respecting other people’s lives and property, refraining from harm, violence and so on are obligatory in the sense that these rules and modes of behaviour are required by other people. That is because it is a basic fact of human life that whether there is a God or not, respecting other people’s concerns and interests is a necessary condition for any sort of human society to be viable. In my own opinion this is centrally important to the entire notion of ethics and moral obligation. It is an observation which I think Baggini could usefully have made himself in his defense of ‘atheist ethics’.

Of course, we have free will and freedom of choice over many moral issues and dilemmas. Individual responsibility would make no sense if we did not have freedom of choice. Sometimes we have to make difficult, complex choices, for there is no such thing as a moral ‘rule-book’ where we can easily look up the answers. Should we always tell the truth, should we always forgive, or is there room for some discretion?

But this is not the place for a long discussion on all the ins and outs of moral philosophy.

In Chapter 4, ‘Meaning and purpose’, Baggini discusses the theist’s claim that ‘without God nothing has a purpose’.
He disputes this claim, as well as pointing out that life can have purpose and ‘meaning’ in a purely secular sense. He queries the argument that the purpose of our lives is to ‘serve God’; it is not clear how or why a presumably omnipotent God would need any assistance from us at all. Likewise I think we can query the notion that the purpose of our lives is to do ‘good works for the glory of God’ – if God is wholly good, how or why did he create a world in which ‘good works’ are necessary at all? But Baggini’s main purpose in this chapter is to explain how life can have purpose without religion.

He recognizes of course that for many people, the purpose of life is nothing more than the struggle to exist. But for more fortunate people, a natural way to think about life’s meaning is in terms of our own purposes or goals which we set for ourselves. Obvious examples include reaching the top of your chosen career or profession, excelling at your favourite sport, or learning to excel in some other special field. There are two risks – one is that we fail, which could be personally catastrophic, the other is that having achieved our goals, what then? Life could become empty and meaningless.

Baggini’s answer to these problems is very cogent. This is to do things that are valuable in themselves and are not done simply to meet some further aim or goal. I would mention that you can do well in plenty of ordinary but worthwhile occupations and careers without being a ‘high-flier’ at all. As Baggini says, what most people want is companionship, a job they enjoy and sufficient money for a good quality of life. These sorts of things are good in themselves, and to suggest they are ‘meaningless’ because they do not serve some other purpose or goal is absurd. He says that ‘atheists can claim that life is more meaningful for them than it is for many religious people who see this world as a kind of preparation for the next.’ He goes on: ‘if one’s work and home life are going well, it is in a way senseless to ask why such a life is worth living. The person living it just knows it is.’ We should also note that many people find purpose in friendships, creative activity, causes of one sort or another, local activities, politics, charitable works, and so on.
Of course, another way of looking at the purpose of life is to ponder what is the purpose of everything, or what is the purpose of the universe in some ultimate sense. This is what mystics and some religious people ask and here, of course, neither atheists nor agnostics have an answer. From a philosophical standpoint the main difficulty is to clarify by what sort of enquiries or investigations could an answer possibly be obtained? A sense of wonder or bafflement at the immensity of the universe is understandable, but whether this ‘translates’ into a literal question to which an answer can be given is a very different matter.

Chapter 5 is ‘Atheism in history’ which is not, Baggini explains, a history of atheism which is too vast a subject for a short chapter in a short book.
He concentrates on two specific questions:
[1] when atheism emerged in Western history and
[2] the extent to which atheism is implicated in 20th century political totalitarianism
Taking question [1] first, the answer rather ambiguously is that ‘atheism had its origins in ancient Greece but did not emerge as an overt and avowed belief system until late in the Enlightenment’ (that is, until the 18th century). In ancient Greece, it was the Milesian philosophers of the 6th century BC who were the first to reject mythological explanations of the world in favour of naturalistic explanations. Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes advanced the revolutionary idea that ‘nature could be understood as a self-contained system that operated according to laws that were comprehensible by human reason’ without religious, mystical or mythological explanations of things. This is the basis not only of science but of rational explanation in its broadest sense, applicable in all fields of life, which Baggini says is the basis of atheism.

Rationalism acquired its capital ‘R’ in the Enlightenment which occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries with the scientific revolution and the rise of modern ideas such as equality, liberty, rights and tolerance. These core ideas of the Enlightenment have endured, and they are purely secular in orientation. Two notable atheist writers of the 18th century were Baron d’Holbach and Scottish philosopher David Hume.

Question [2] is the alleged extent to which atheism is implicated in 20th century political totalitarianism, which Baggini discusses for quite a few pages. It is true that a decline in religious belief and the rise of totalitarianism both occurred at roughly the same time, in the first half of the 20th century, but it is not clear how it can be shown that the one caused or influenced the other. By what sort of methods or enquiries could this be established or proved? In my own opinion the entire question is very speculative.

It is true that Stalin (for example) was an atheist and did many wicked things, but how can it be shown that if he had not been an atheist he would not have done those things? This sort of question is pure conjecture. And as Baggini says, the fact that some atheists can be wicked people does not refute atheism as a doctrine any more than Christian atrocities such as the crusades or the inquisitions refute Christianity as a doctrine.
I would add that religion by contrast has been directly implicated in many wars and conflicts over the past few centuries, with ample evidence. A very cogent example is the Wars of Religion in 16th century France. Then there are all the other conflicts which specifically revolve around religion and which continue to the present day.

Chapter 6 is ‘Against religion?’.
Baggini denies that the main concern of atheists is to ‘attack religion’. This impression (which is quite common) is as unfounded, he maintains, as the belief in some quarters that feminists who only want equal representation for women are man-haters. Likewise, very few atheists are hostile to religion, but they are ‘anti-religious’ in the sense that they maintain that religious belief is false. He briefly summarizes the three main theological arguments for the existence of God – the ‘cosmological argument’, the ‘teleological argument’ (or ‘argument from design’) and the ‘ontological argument’. We encountered these when we looked at Humanism by Stephen Law back in February and, without going into detail about them here and now, we found that all three arguments fail to provide logically secure proofs of the existence of a deity. But we noted that the vast majority of religious believers do not base their beliefs on any of these arguments; they base their belief on faith, not on abstract reasoning or objective test and investigation.

Baggini reaches much the same conclusion, and faith, of course, is impervious to logical or rational critique because it does not set out to be a ‘proof’ or a ‘rational argument’ in the first place. But difficulties still remain. What is faith other than a feeling (such as hope, for example)? How can this be the same thing as knowledge? The difficulty is that religion is not simply the expression of a feeling, it makes specific assertions or claims, supposedly true, about the existence of a deity with certain attributes, the origin of the universe, and so on. Another difficulty is, what if different faiths are contrary to each other? They cannot all be true, so at least some of them must be false. By what criterion can we tell?

The questions won’t go away – faith cannot disengage itself from rational critique. As Baggini puts it, faith is a risk because it relies on reasons that are unreliable. It is sometimes said that millions of people have religious faith and millions of people can’t be wrong, but the sad fact is they can be and often are. It was only a few centuries ago that most people believed the world was flat, at the centre of the universe and that demons, imps, hobgoblins and other horrors lurked around every corner.

Baggini also summarizes the problem of evil which is considered by many atheists to refute, conclusively, the notion of a benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful God. It cannot be denied that evil exists; there are natural evils such as disease and injury, and there are morally evil actions carried out by human beings causing others to suffer. The problem is that an omniscient God would know that evil exists, an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent evil, and a benevolent God would want to prevent it. But evil exists. Therefore God can be omniscient or omnipotent or benevolent, but not all three. Otherwise God would have eliminated evil long ago.

A common theistic response is to say that evil is perpetrated for the most part by human beings who exercise their own free will to do evil things, so don’t blame God. Critics have called this argument ‘the cosmic buck-pass’, meaning that in giving human beings free will (and all their other faults and failings) God must or should have known perfectly well what the likely consequences would be. Some human beings do have a propensity to do evil things, but why did an omnipotent God create them that way in the first place? Also, it is difficult to see how human free will can be responsible for natural evils such as disease or injury. Many atheists have concluded not simply that a benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful God does not exist, but that it cannot exist.

I think I agree with most of what Baggini says in his book, but I have one reservation. As I said earlier, although we can make conclusive negative assertions about the contents of a finite, limited domain, we cannot make conclusive negative assertions about the contents of the entire universe for the simple reason that we cannot survey the entire universe. It follows that we cannot conclusively say that a God of some sort does not exist, suggesting that agnosticism is more viable than atheism, in my own opinion.

RHS, 2014