Forth­right de­fence of athe­ism

50 Great Myths About Athe­ism

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Da­mon Young

By Rus­sell Black­ford and Udo Schuk­lenk Black­well Pub­lish­ing, 288pp, $29.95 IS­TEN to me! for I am thus and thus,’’ wrote Friedrich Ni­et­zsche in Ecce Homo. ‘‘ Do not, above all, con­found me with what I am not!’’

The of­ten pri­vate Ni­et­zsche made a bold re­quest here: to be com­pre­hended be­fore he was judged. The philoso­pher also swung his ham­mer at Chris­tian­ity, na­tion­al­ism and much of the 19th-cen­tury’s moral and meta­phys­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture — but over­all, the au­thor was ask­ing for recog­ni­tion.

It is a re­quest fa­mil­iar to many athe­ists, bick­er­ing with believ­ers: sure, we can ar­gue about Anselm — just stop com­par­ing me with Mao. Help comes in 50 Great Myths About Athe­ism, by philoso­phers Rus­sell Black­ford and Udo Schuk­lenk.

This col­lec­tion of es­says, each de­voted to a par­tic­u­lar ‘‘ myth’’, does not prof­fer proof of God’s non-ex­is­tence or the Catholic Church’s vil­lainy. It is, in­stead, a de­fence of athe­ism against com­mon mis­con­cep­tions and mis­chief.

As Black­ford and Schuk­lenk note, prej­u­dice against athe­ists still ex­ists, in­clud­ing in the US, where some states pro­hibit non-believ­ers from tak­ing of­fice, and more than a third of the pop­u­la­tion refuse to vote for athe­ists. There is also an eman­ci­pa­tory jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: help­ing re­li­gious read­ers who may be doubt­ing their faith, but fear­ful of athe­ism’s sup­posed gaffes and grief.

The so-called ‘‘ myths’’ are well­doc­u­mented, the sources rang­ing from Fox News to broad­sheet opin­ion and Chris­tian apolo­get­ics. Some are rel­a­tively silly and fall apart quickly (‘‘Athe­ists Have No Sense of Hu­mour’’), while oth­ers ask for more care­ful dis­man­tling (‘‘Athe­ism Robs Life of Mean­ing and Pur­pose’’).

And de­spite tetch­i­ness here and there, the au­thors are pa­tient, gen­er­ous and sin­cere. For ex­am­ple, in ‘‘ We Should Fear a ‘ Fun­da­men­tal­ist’ or ‘ Mil­i­tant’ Athe­ism’’, Black­ford and Schuk­lenk note that ‘‘ fun­da­men­tal­ism’’ is of­ten not de­fined, or else de­fined quite dif­fer­ently from its oc­cur­rences in 19th and 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can Protes­tantism. ‘‘ Fun­da­men­tal­ist’’, like ‘‘ mil­i­tant’’, is more vague slur than pre­cise la­bel. ‘‘ There may be some peo­ple who could, by anal­ogy, be de­scribed as ‘ fun­da­men­tal­ist’ in the way they cling to a po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy and its found­ing texts,’’ the au­thors write, ‘‘ but we can­not think of any sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure who could mean­ing­fully be de­scribed as a ‘ fun­da­men­tal­ist athe­ist’.’’

In ‘‘ There is No Con­flict Be­tween Re­li­gion and Sci­ence’’, the myth is that athe­ists be­lieve (wrongly) that faith and sci­ence are at odds. The au­thors grant that re­li­gions can move from lit­eral claims to metaphor­i­cal or sym­bolic claims, to avoid step­ping on the toes of sci­ence. But ac­tual re­li­gions of­ten do not dance in this way, be­cause their the­olo­gies are of a piece, be­cause their doc­trines will seem su­per­fi­cial with­out mythic cos­mol­ogy, or be­cause their po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal claims in­volve claims of fact (think of fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­raeli set­tlers or con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can abor­tion pol­icy).

‘‘ The prob­lem here,’’ the au­thors con­tinue, ‘‘ is that re­li­gion and sci­ence do not em­ploy the same meth­ods: epis­te­mo­log­i­cally, they are very dif­fer­ent.’’ This is not just about truth, but about what we think truth is, and how we dis­cover it.

They also pour cold wa­ter on (but do not bap­tise) the idea that athe­ism is a re­li­gion, and that there are no athe­ists in fox­holes (the US Mil­i­tary As­so­ci­a­tion of Athe­ists and Free­thinkers de­murs). In ‘‘ Athe­ists Hate or are An­gry with God’’, Black­ford and Schuk­lenk point out the ob­vi­ous (we do not hate what we do not be­lieve in) and the not-so-ob­vi­ous

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