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Philosophers without GodsReview - Philosophers without Gods
Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life
by Louise M. Antony (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Brad Frazier
Aug 19th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 34)

Approximately fifteen years ago two books appeared--Philosophers Who Believe, edited by Kelly James Clark, and God and the Philosophers, edited by Thomas V. Morris--that provided certain well-regarded Anglo-American theistic philosophers with a rare opportunity to reflect publicly and personally on their spiritual journeys.  Finally, with the publication of Philosophers without Gods, edited by Louise M. Antony, an atheistic counterpart to these volumes is now available.

Philosophers without Gods, much like God and the Philosophers, features essays from twenty well-regarded philosophers, including contributions from current 'rock stars' in the field, such as Daniel Dennett and Simon Blackburn, and, rather poignantly, the late David Lewis, whose chapter was completed with the help of Philip Kitcher.  Antony helpfully organizes the essays into ten "Journeys" and ten "Reflections."  The former are more personal, in some instances far more personal, meditations on living without faith, while the latter address in a more general way philosophical questions about religion and theology, such as, for instance, whether morality depends upon God's existence.

The writing is not technical but it is more advanced than that which is found in the recent spate of books on philosophy and popular culture.  While it is somewhat difficult to offer generalizations about the book as a whole, since it is a collection of diverse essays, it strikes me as a worthy and sturdy alternative to its theistic counterparts.  Antony has a light and deft editing touch.  The chapters are well-organized and the diversity of viewpoints that emerges among this group of authors appears maximized, not truncated.  Furthermore, Antony provides a brief but informative introduction.  In it she cites a recent survey of Americans that places atheists at the top of the list of persons viewed as problematic, even though most people who participated in the survey claim not to know any.  On the heels of this data, Antony states that a main goal of the volume is "to contribute to a more just understanding of those who have rejected religious belief" (x).  If the target audience mainly consists of fairly well educated readers, this can seem like a very modest goal.  Nonetheless, despite concerns that a few contributors occasionally reinforce certain negative stereotypes about atheists (more on this point below) the book clearly achieves this objective.

With a few very notable exceptions, especially Elizabeth Secord Anderson's essay, "If God is Dead, is Everything Permitted?"--a highlight of the "Reflections" section--I tended to find the "Journeys" chapters more interesting and engaging.  For instance, the opening essay, Stewart Shapiro's "Faith and Reason, the Perpetual War: Ruminations of a Fool," begins with Shapiro poignantly recalling the precise moment when he lost the last vestiges of his faith--a day in February of 1984 when David Vetter, otherwise known as the "bubble-boy," passed away.  Shapiro then proceeds carefully, while appealing to personal experiences and an incisive reading of the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, to argue that religious faith is at odds with the best impulses of philosophy--those that lead us to doubt and to question.  Strategies of avoiding this fundamental conflict, which he discusses under the rubrics "rationalism" and "incommensurability," are deemed untenable.  Even though some readers will not share Shapiro's background in Judaism or his broader conclusions about faith, most likely they still will feel understood and will understand clearly and perhaps even appreciate Shapiro's stance, which is no mean feat for an opening chapter in a volume defending atheism.

Joseph Levine's "From Yeshiva Bochur to Secular Humanist" continues the sketch of journeys to atheism.  Levine cites his firsthand experiences of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict as an interesting and provocative reference point to illuminate crucial moments in his journey.  This is one kind of experiential evidence for atheism that likely would not show up in a standard journal article on the topic, unfortunately.  Levine also provides the only reference to Nietzsche in the entire volume.  He notes that Nietzsche led him to think that belief in God is not only false but also "morally wrong" insofar as it "makes servility to authority the ultimate aim of human life" (29).  This is about as close to delving into the thought of the great trinity of atheists, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, as the book gets.

Daniel Garber's "Religio Philosophi" follows Levine's chapter and stands out on account of the fact that Garber openly laments his lack of faith.  He acknowledges that he is not a "cheerful atheist" (34).  Daniel Farrell echoes this perspective to some extent in his "Life without God: Some Personal Costs," in which he bracingly concedes that the loss of clarity about what to do with his life was "by far the most serious loss" that he suffered when he lost his faith (61).

Garber also offers an extended and surprisingly sympathetic discussion of Pascal's famous wager argument for belief in God.  He resists Pascal's conclusion ultimately on the grounds that while Pascal gives good reasons in favor of (the prudence of) believing in God, he does not present convincing reasons for thinking that God exists (36).  This mixed reaction to Pascal contrasts sharply with the perspectives of Marvin Belzer and Jonathan Adler, both of whom heap scorn on him.  Belzer argues in "Mere Stranger" that Pascal's wager is "grounded in fear and pessimism" and amounts to a "ridiculous trivialization of the basis for religious life" (99).  In "Faith and Fanaticism," the concluding essay, Adler holds that Pascal commends through his argument "a long-term project of self-deception" (280).

Somewhat in spite of its title, "For the Love of Reason," I especially identified with Antony's contribution to the "Journeys" section.  Antony movingly depicts the pathological guilt that often accompanies a rigorous Christian upbringing and how the loss of faith can be frightening in deeply contradictory ways.  But she also brings balance to the theme of regret explicated by Farrell and Garber by insightfully conveying how, for a child, the supernatural world of religion can be terrifying.  From this starting point, thoroughgoing naturalism and humanism are an exhilarating relief.  Antony develops as well an important theme of several essays: fideism in religion tends to fideism in politics, which can be very dangerous.

The view that atheism often is the result of an intellectual and spiritual quest launched from a standpoint of utterly serious faith seeking understanding (and a way to answer skeptics) is another intriguing and recurring theme of the "Journeys" essays.  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong develops this claim in his "Overcoming Christianity."  However, Belzer's essay is especially noteworthy and ironic in this regard as he forcefully argues that it was his passionate commitment to Christianity that eventually led him to atheism.

Philosophically, perhaps the strongest component of the book centers round the discussions of morality, theism and atheism.  For instance, both Edwin Curley's "On Becoming a Heretic" and Lewis's "Divine Evil" advance profound moral criticisms of the doctrine of everlasting punishment.  Moreover, on the basis of a detailed and subtle treatment of the moral character of God as it is depicted in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Anderson makes a compelling case for the claim that if any version of orthodox theism is true, then possibly anything is permitted.  She also points out the political dangers related to the practice of defending biblical genocides.  Many of the essays, moreover, such as Anthony Simon Laden's "Transcendence without God: On Atheism and Invisibility" and Kenneth Taylor's "Without the Net of Providence: Atheism and the Human Adventure," contain inspiring and challenging defenses of a non-religious life devoted to the highest ideals of humanity.

Still this collection of essays has some significant weaknesses.  The contributions of Dennett and Blackburn, "Thank Goodness" and "Religion and Respect," respectively, are disappointing.  Both philosophers come off as a bit churlish and arrogant.  For instance, Dennett carefully explicates his cheerful "forgiveness" of those well-intended but benighted (i.e., "non-bright") persons who prayed for him to recover well from the life-threatening heart malady that struck him just before he wrote his essay.  He also reinforces concerns about his apparent tendency to view every human phenomenon through the single lens of science when he concludes his brief remarks by depicting the concerned supplicants as "tenacious scientists who resist the evidence for theories they don't like long after a graceful concession would have been the appropriate response" (117).  The irony of this statement seems lost on Dennett.

Blackburn has a point when he complains about a kind of "respect creep" that sets in when religious persons demand ever-expanding forms of respect for their views in public and private discourse.  However, as with Dennett's essay, only the most forgiving and sympathetic readers will fully hear it, conveyed as it is with a tinge of smugness.  Blackburn's essay opens with his recounting an awkward Friday evening dinner at a colleague's home (Blackburn holds a post at Cambridge) at which "some kind of observance was put in train, and it turned out I was expected to play along--put on a hat, or some such" (179).  Since his colleague clarified that there was no expectation that Blackburn concur with any religious or moral ideas related to the observance, it is debatable, as Blackburn himself notes, whether his decision flatly to reject his colleague's invitation was rude or appropriate.  But it is beyond cavil, in my view, that Blackburn's comparing his colleague to a "flat-Earther" and a "Hale-Bopp" hopeful is boorish.  After doing this in the context of questioning why he should respect belief systems that he does not share, Blackburn then notes that he will not dwell on "anything goes" postmodernism.  Instead he proceeds to dispatch in a few sentences a form of postmodernism that is hard to recognize as a view that anyone holds (180-81).  (He cites another of his writings for those seeking greater elaboration.)  Blackburn also reminds readers in two separate passages that "even Christians are human" (186, 191).  The other contributors seem to work harder than Dennett and Blackburn to offer evenhanded and persuasive discussions.

Another drawback of the book is that several essays in the "Reflections" section seem somewhat ill-suited to the topic at hand.  Marcia Homiak's "An Aristotelian Life," for instance, is a well-crafted, sympathetic defense of an Aristotelian conception of a purely secular life.  But the bottom line of the essay is fairly banal: this kind of life can meet basic human needs as well as a religious way of life.

A better example of what I have in mind, however, is David Owens's "Disenchantment."  Owens is most concerned with issues at the intersection of philosophy of mind and ethics, and he makes very few connections to the central religious themes of the book.  Furthermore, the highly reductive views that he advances about human nature (e.g., "man is just a bag of chemicals") certainly are not crucial to atheism, and they are put forward in an off-putting way, as if to disagree with Owens is to disagree with science itself.  For instance, after arguing that people "find it very hard to articulate the grounds for their anxiety" about breast enlargements, face lifts and pectoral implants, Owens states: "Anyone who has absorbed the scientific picture of the world will conclude that there is no answer to such questions" (169).  But the questions include, for instance, whether pectoral implants are more "unnatural and more objectionable" than becoming muscular through the discipline of frequent physical exercise.  Furthermore, for Owens, an elementary understanding of the scientific picture of the world yields the view that the human body merely is "a machine that is there to serve our purposes" (170).  Science reveals a value-free world, according to Owens--except for those unnoticed values about our bodies and what to do with ourselves that are implicit in his own perspective.  In what was for me a humorous bit of serendipity, in the very next essay, Blackburn states: "If we go to the Grand Canyon, and my experience of awe and terror and elevation are met only by your indifference and wish for an ice cream, the rift between us is serious. . . . We are on the road to alienation and potential hostility.  If you see the Grand Canyon only as an opportunity for starting franchises and tourist camps, then I would be disappointed in you.  We might have to split up" (186).  Perhaps Blackburn has not sufficiently absorbed the (preceding author's) scientific picture of the world.

This brings me to a deeper problem with this volume.  While Antony is right that it exhibits a "marvelous diversity of perspectives" in the sense that there is obvious intellectual and experiential diversity in the perspectives of the contributors, there is a significant lack of diversity as well.  All of the contributors are academic philosophers and more important, analytic philosophers (and familiar mostly with Judaism and Christianity).  Hardly any continental perspectives on atheism and theism emerge.  Furthermore, even though several contributors refer to the chauvinism of certain forms of Judaism and Christianity, there is no sustained critical engagement with theism or meditation on atheism from the margins, so to speak.

Along the same lines, since the analytic approach dominates, tics of analytic writing crop up in the carefully parsed prose of nearly every essay.  Readers are repeatedly warned, for instance, about the sketchy or incomplete nature of the discussions and reminded that the issues are "vastly more complicated" than the philosopher can discuss in the short space given to him or her.  Other kinds of "analyticeze" recur as well.  To bring more precision to a particular point, for example, one author, in standard fashion, clarifies the nature of disagreement as follows: "Let's say that two people have a disagreement when one believes a proposition and the other denies (i.e., disbelieves) that proposition" (201).  Another laments that atheists "often get trapped into doing far more, far riskier philosophy than they need" to defeat the arguments of theists (248).  Here the "risk" in view is that of unnecessary theory construction.  Oh, for the "good" old days when skepticism about religion was a bit riskier (see, for instance, Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History).  If analytic philosophers--in this case analytic philosophers who happen to be atheists--want to engage more persons outside their own rarified circles, they need to deal with these tics induced by the peculiar rigors of writing for members of their own tribe.  (I hasten to add that in this brief review I cannot possibly do justice to the careful work of all the philosophers who contributed to this book.  And by "brief" I intend "short" but tending now to too long.)

Finally, I remain perplexed by the distinct and greater hostility to progressive forms of Christianity and Judaism that some of the authors express.  For instance, Blackburn refers to those who "go in for" certain kinds of progressive theologies as "atheists in dog collars" (187).  What bothers me most about this attitude is that it rests on a certain gap in understanding of the history of religious doctrine and on a tendency to treat Christianity and Judaism not as groups of living traditions of rituals, complex social practices and beliefs, but as ahistorical creedal entities.  The goal of James Tappenden's "An Atheist's Fundamentalism," for instance, is "to bring out why even someone who doesn't just disbelieve the core story of Christianity but finds it literally incredible might nonetheless want to make sure we get the story right," including the crucial part about the divinity of Christ (112).  But Tappenden doesn't take into account the fact that there have been diverse forms of Christianity from its very inception and that the particular traditions that hardened and congealed into Nicene orthodoxy, for instance, did so over centuries of political intrigue and wild contingency.  There is no single, simple story of Christianity to get "right" that makes Christian progressives deeply untrue to their own religion.  The idea that there is such a story is itself a necessary fiction of conservative Christian apologists.  Atheists should have no truck with this religious propaganda.

© 2008 Brad Frazier

Brad Frazier is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wells College in Aurora, New York.  He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  He also has published essays in Philosophy and Social Criticism; Journal of Religious Ethics; International Philosophical Quarterly; History of Philosophy Quarterly; and The Daily Show and Philosophy.  He resides in Aurora with his spouse, Dianne, and three children, Timothy, Jonathan and Anna.


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