Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review of "Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know"

Since September 11, 2001, the question of religion and its role in society has been more focused on than in the past, especially on the side of negativity. While people like comedian Bill Maher and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been cynical and critical of religion, religion has seemed to be one of those things that was taboo to criticize. Not so much after the September 11 attacks. From the then graduate student Sam Harris (The End of Faith)to eminent biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) to my personal favorite writer the late Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great), there has been a plethora of attacks on religion. Most of these books have taken the tone that religion is irrational and needs to be destroyed; even if it need be by violent means as alluded to by Harris in his book "Some beliefs are so dangerous it may be ethical to kill people for believing them." Very enlightened indeed Dr. Harris!

As a philosopher who also happens to be a theist, I was interested in a book that talked about atheism, but one that was nuanced and took the theistic arguments and propositions seriously. Luckily, at the behest of my friend who as a professor specializes in philosophy of religion, I was led to such a book : Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know by Michael Ruse. Ruse, for those who do not know of him, is a philosopher of science at Florida St. University in Tallahassee, Florida. A Quaker by birth, he lost his faith in his youth, but unlike Hitchens who describes himself in his book as a "devout anti-theist", Ruse is an agnostic-atheist who is very respectful of those who believe and takes the position of the theist seriously even if he himself does not believe, a good trait for anyone.

Ruse begins the book by giving a historical overview of the atheistic position, citing philosophers such as Lucretius in the past all the way to the New Atheists in the present. He notes that up until the enlightenment, you really couldn't find any atheists. Mostly you had people who would reject organized religion, but would not drop the notion that there was a God of some kind out there. As Penn Jillette said in an interview, it is hard to find an atheist before Darwin. Ruse seems to agree.

He then goes over the standard arguments for the existence of God (the ontological, cosmological, teleological, etc) as well as how they have been countered in the past. He then showed charts of the amount of people in the world who proclaim themselves as religious against those who claim to be non-religious. These charts were very telling, and among one of the more interesting parts of the book.

He then went on to show whether or not one could reconcile science with religion. This is a contentious point, because while people like Dawkins will say that science has disproved God to a large degree, Ruse begs to differ. He points out that science and religion are different enterprises after different types of things; the former is find out the laws and nature of the material world, while the latter is trying to find out the importance of humans in the cosmos and reconcile themselves to God and put on the divine nature. In effect, Ruse is adapting Stephen Jay Gould's idea of non-overlapping magesteria, although Ruse does point out there is some overlap with science and religion. Don't take this to mean that Ruse thinks everything in the scriptures in scientifically justifiable; he adamantly states that the ideas of a universal flood and a literal Adam and Eve are nonsensical (as a theist I would agree). He also is very critical of Intelligent Design, another area as a theist I would agree with him. But he is very comfortable in saying that one can reconcile science and religion, which is very daring given that he is a non-believer.

Perhaps the most telling and touching part of this book is the end, where Ruse points out that teh issue of atheism is a deeply moral one, and unlike Harris thinks that atheism is a bleak worldview. Rather than cheering the fact that God is dead as a Nietzschean would, he states that in the absence of God and religion there is no ultimate purpose to life and one must make up his own values and meaning to live by. Like the existentialists Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus, Ruse states that in the absence of God life is absurd. One really gets a sense of Ruse anguish at the end when writing this.

Overall, the tone of the book is jovial and funny,like Ruse himself. While Ruse does take the maters at hand very seriously, he does allow room for humor and I confess that several times I had to stop reading as I literally laughed out loud.

Whether one is a philosopher or just curious about athisem, I highly recommend Ruse's book. You will not be bored at all, and you will come away enlightened.

4 comments:

  1. "Ruse begins the book by giving a historical overview of the atheistic position, citing philosophers such as Lucretius in the past all the way to the New Atheists in the present. He notes that up until the enlightenment, you really couldn't find any atheists. Mostly you had people who would reject organized religion, but would not drop the notion that there was a God of some kind out there. As Penn Jillette said in an interview, it is hard to find an atheist before Darwin. Ruse seems to agree."

    I appreciate this article, and would like to read Ruse's book, but I think that plenty of Modernist philosophers forget they live in a post-Protestant world. The world previous to the Protestant Revolution did not classify religion in the same way we do. There were plenty of atheists who participated in state religion because that was the culture previous to 1517, and those participants believed in a state rather than a god, which is fascinating and incomprehensible to us in itself. For a modern example of civic religion turn to Tisa Wenger's "We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom."

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    1. Kate,

      Thanks for your comment. Ruse is talking about atheism from a western perspective, especially within the philosophical western discipline. So, he doesn't address Eastern religions much, although he does mention them.

      That there were non-believers around is evident from scripture itself, since the Psalms and the Book of Mormon mention it.I would say it was just harder to be one before Darwin because you couldn't answer why organisms where so complex and looked so well designed.

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    2. Fair point, but I would argue Epicurus, as a rationalist and materialist, was an atheist. I think he was addressing Darwinian principles by developing the concept of the atom, but probably also participated in religious festivities out of civic duty.

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    3. Kate,

      Ruse mentions Epicurus, but says that he would fall in the category of deism since he did believed deities existed, but rejected that they cared about human life and affairs. I tend to agree.

      The first real atheist in the full sense would be Baron D'Holbach, who explicitly rejected the belief in deities.

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