Forthright defence of atheism
50 Great Myths About Atheism
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