Philosophers Without Gods

I read a lot of atheists, but the range is limited. I mostly focus on the writings of atheists who have a scientific bent (like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, etc.). However, I ran across a review of Philosophers Without Gods (edited by Louise M. Anthony), and I noticed that I recognized only a couple of the contributors. Thus, I purchased it two years ago, and on the trip home from New Zealand, I read it. I am very glad that I did.

This book is a collection of essays from twenty atheists. The editor contends that atheists are a very misunderstood lot, and her hope is that these essays will help provide a more “just understanding” (p. x) of those who reject religious belief. I essentially agree with the editor’s premise. Most people who do not share a given group’s beliefs tend to misunderstand that group. Since most people in the world believe in some kind of “god” or “gods,” it is not surprising that most people in the world really don’t understand atheists. Of course, most atheists don’t understand those who believe in God, so the misunderstandings go both ways.

Obviously, I fundamentally disagree with the main premise of each of the authors, but that is no reason to avoid reading them. Indeed, early on in my scientific training I learned that some of my most enlightening discussions were the ones I had with scientists whose views were quite different from my own. Not surprisingly, then, of the books I read over vacation, this was my favorite. Mostly that’s because the editor has done a great job of bringing together a very diverse group of atheists, most of whom have coherent things to say.

Only about half of the atheists spent much time discussing why they don’t believe in the existence of God. Mostly, they followed the standard arguments, which center around morality, rationality, and justice. The famous Problem of Evil argument was brought up (in one way or another) by several of them. I personally think this issue has been answered well by theistic philosophers for quite some time, but obviously not everyone agrees with me on that!

Some of the authors focused on what they considered to be the irrationality of a belief in God. However, I actually think that not believing in God is the irrational position to take, since I find a lot of evidence not only for God’s existence but also for the proposition that this God is the God of the Bible. Once again, however, lots of people disagree with me on that.

Interestingly enough, one of the authors (Richard Feldman) spent the bulk of his essay discussing such disagreements. He tried to decide whether or not two people with roughly equal amounts of intelligence, reasoning powers, and background information (he calls them “epistemic peers”) viewing the same set of data could rationally come to exclusively different conclusions. For example, can two equally-educated and equally-intelligent people, after sharing all the data they possess, actually rationally come to opposite conclusions about the existence of God? Essentially, he says no:

My conclusion, then, is that there cannot be reasonable disagreements of the sort I was investigating. That is, it cannot be that epistemic peers who have shared their evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions. (p. 213)

At the same time, however, he concedes that this simply might mean that a lot of people (including himself) have deeply-held, well-considered beliefs that are not really justified rationally. In other words, people might think they are being rational and just following the evidence when it comes to a given belief, but since another equally-rational, equally-informed person has a different belief, it is likely that one (or both) of them does not hold the belief based solely on reason.

I generally agree with Feldman on this. Because of my scientific training, I am used to experts in a field disagreeing about major issues in their field. For example, when I was a graduate student, I collected some data on neutron emission in a type of nuclear reaction. It was rather interesting, so at one of the Gordon Research Conferences to which I was invited, I shared the data with several PhD nuclear chemists from several different universities. By the time all was said and done, there were four different opinions about what the data meant, each of which was contradictory to the other three. Thus, I have no problem with equally-qualified people coming to different conclusions based on the same evidence. I contend that this happens a lot, because we rarely have all the evidence.

There are certain propositions for which the evidence is so complete that there is no way any rational, well-informed person can believe otherwise. However, I contend that those propositions are few and far between. Most of the interesting propositions (like whether or not God exists) have a certain amount of evidence in favor and a certain amount of evidence against. Based on the evidence that a given person considers important, then, he might chose either way. Of course, the decision as to what evidence is important probably isn’t a rational one. It is probably dependent on many subjective factors.

As I have already mentioned, for example, many of the authors who gave a reason for not believing in God considered the Problem of Evil (in one form or another) to be very important. I don’t consider the Problem of Evil to be important, as I think that has been answered adequately. Thus, it doesn’t hinder me from believing in the existence of God. Alternatively, I think the Argument from Design is strong evidence for the existence of God. However, many atheists don’t consider such evidence important, as they think that variation + natural selection + eons of time can result in the appearance of design. In the end, then, since we do not have all the evidence, we must make our decisions based on the evidence that we have. What is very strong evidence to me might be very weak evidence for you. As a result, even though we might disagree, it is not because one of is being irrational. It is because neither of us has all the evidence.

Moving on, I want to discuss two more things that I liked about this book. First, I think that this book, more than any other book I have read, shows that the Argument from Morality is simply a silly argument for God’s existence. I have never been persuaded by the Argument from Morality, mostly because of pragmatic reasons: while some of the most moral people I know are Christians, some of the most immoral people I know are also Christians. If morality is to be used as evidence for the existence of God, you would think that, on average, those who believe in God would be slightly more moral than those who do not believe in God. I just don’t see that.

Of course, that argument isn’t very rigorous or philosophical. However, this book has several essays that discuss morality in an atheist worldview, and they are quite good. They truly show that morality is not the exclusive domain of the religious person. For example, Daniel C. Dennett tells about a close call he had with death. Rather than making him a “foxhole convert,” it strengthened his resolve about atheism. Reflecting on how he was healed by a wonderfully competent hospital staff, he says:

I saw with greater clarity than ever before that when I say, “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is a God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. (p. 115)

Essentially, his argument is that everyone benefits when people are good. Thus, it is rational to be moral, even in a world where there is no God, because in the end, it will be beneficial to you.

Two other authors (Anthony Simon Laden and Marcia Homiak) discuss both morality and finding meaning in life as atheists. They use Aristotelian arguments to arrive at both how to find meaning in life and how to be a moral person without reference to God at all. Laden ends his essay with one of the best quotes I have ever read from an atheist. I think it clearly explains one of the draws that atheism has for some people:

Our existence is thus one long walk on a tightrope over a yawning abyss and there is nothing to catch us should we fall into meaninglessness or isolation or even mere ordinariness. But that is exactly what I find to be exhilarating about being an atheist. Life is up to us; there are no safety nets. That’s a bracing thought. It’s also a reason to live. (p. 132)

Now interestingly enough, one of the authors (David Owens) is not so sure about whether or not you can find meaning in life as an atheist. He says:

Religious worldviews may not be true, but we may not be able to do without them unless we can find some other way of imbuing the cosmos with meaning. (pp. 165-166)

He spends his essay discussing how science has “disenchanted” the world by getting rid of the supernatural. He doesn’t think this is all good. He ends his essay this way:

Should science be the whole truth about human beings, that truth will not set us free. (p. 178)

That brings me to the other thing I liked about this book – its diversity. Several of the atheists admit that there is a lot of good that religion can do for people, and some of them note their genuine affection for certain religious traditions. One author (Daniel Garber) has been strongly influence by the great Christian philosopher/scientist Blaise Pascal and indicates that he would love to believe as Pascal did – he simply cannot. Of course, there are other authors (like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) who argue that religion is the root of much evil in the world and must be stamped out. Thus, this book gives the reader a very wide range of atheists viewpoints, showing that atheists are just as varied in their beliefs as are those who believe in God.

So in the end, if you would like to read some atheists that actually present reasonable arguments for their point of view as well as reasonable discussions of what it means to live as an atheist, I think you should read this book. While it is clearly not “easy reading” for a Christian, I would consider it necessary reading for anyone who wants to become a fully-informed Christian.

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