"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Atheism: The Case Against God (Skeptic's Bookshelf)
George H. Smith
Prometheus Books, 1973

Atheism: The Case Against God has been called by some "the Bible of Atheism". Thumbing through this relatively short and readable volume, it is hard not to be delighted by the magnificent elegance of its prose, its deliciously wicked arguments and its pithy demolition of theism; it is no wonder that this volume is still in print even after 3 decades.

The book should really be called: "Atheism: The Case Against Gods", since it provides many general arguments that demonstrate the absurdity of theism, but since many people - most people in the USA, the audience of which this book was presumably aimed at originally - are trapped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mindset, naming this book as such was probably a wise marketing decision.

The author's thesis is that "if a person wishes to continue believing in a god, that is his prerogative, but he can no longer excuse his belief in the name of reason and moral necessity", and he amply demonstrates this. However, I feel that refutations of theism are best grounded in both schools of anti-theistic argumentation, so as to ring truer and more convincingly. To wit: the more philosophical school, which delves into the contradictions, paradoxes and absurdities of theism with respect to morals, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology (eg An omnibenevolent and omnipotent god cannot exist), and the more material school, which shows how there is no material basis in objective reality for theism (eg There was no town of Nazareth in the 1st Century AD). If one manages to undermine theism using one approach, theists may still flee to the other shore to attempt to seek refuge, but if both schools are employed simultaneously, the hopelessness of theism will be evident.

Of the two schools, the material one is more advanced in its demonstration of the absurdity of Christianity. Even the most hard core biblical literalist has to make concessions here and there, thereby already implicity undermining his fundamentalist theological framework (See the True Christian Church of Christ for more on this point). Which is why most serious Christian theology (as opposed to the drivel they churn out to rouse the masses) is focused on philosophical curiosities such as trans-world depravity, the veracity of faith, and the importance of the cosmological argument, since they know that the war on the other bank of the river is lost. But really, even if the cosmological and design arguments held any water, the most they'd commit one to would be deism. And even if one could show that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god could exist, it would not demonstrate that one did exist. Which is why Ronald de Sousa's description of much of philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net" (or indeed mine of it as "spiritual masturbation in a vacuum") rings so true.

Nonetheless, despite the deep pre-existing flaws of philosophical theology, at his self-declared mission, the author largely succeeds. After the obligatory clearing of the air on atheism and theism (just as my Evolution Professor has to spend the first week or two clearing the air on Evolution and Creationism), Smith shows that the theist is really a form of agnostic, in that he professes that he does not know about his god, and that some aspects of his god can never be known. He then shows that Christians do not really know much about their god, and employs metaphysical, epistemological, existential and causal arguments, often starting from first principles, to whittle away at the philosophical concept of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent monotheistic god until it is shown to be an unintelligible, untenable concept.

In the second part of the book, Smith shows how Faith and Reason are mutually exclusive concepts, how the former is an assault on the latter, and how knowledge cannot be gained through Faith. The concept of "misology" (the hate of wisdom and reason) is introduced, and is shown to permeate, at some level or other, Christian philosophy, theology and religion; after all, the very first myth in the Bible, the Creation Myth and the Fall of Man, is an instructive tale on the peril of wisdom and knowledge. Which in the end is why Reason and (Christian) Faith are fundamentally incompatible, and why apologetics and theology are fundamentally flawed, since they attempt to use Reason to defend the demolishing of Reason itself.

Following which, some words against Universal Skepticism (the stance that nothing can be known, also known as epistemological nihilism) are said, since Christian theologians sometimes offer the false dichotomy of the Christian god and Universal Skepticism, since "faith" is needed for one not to hew to the latter position, and so Christian faith is therefore not all that indefensible.

When Smith moves onto examining Revelation and Miracles, he begins to tread on ground more familiar to those versed with theistic and anti-theistic arguments. However, his employing of arguments similar to those used in the earlier part of the book seem suspect. He disavows miracles and the supernatural by saying that explaining the unknown with those concepts is not an explanation at all, but merely a fudge, to cover the real answer, which is really: I don't know or We can never know. This is a most valid point, for when theists purport to explain various phenomena and concepts by saying "God did it", they really are saying I don't know, and so aren't answering the question or adding any value with their answer. They might as well be honest like everyone else, and admit their ignorance. Be that as it may, something does not have to be explained to be possible - we may not be able to explain everything about Evolution and how it works, but that does not make it any less of a fact.

To end off the book, Smith rather hurriedly runs through why externally imposed, specifically, Christian ethics is a bad and self-destructive idea.

In the final analysis, though Smith puts forward marvelous, though at times overly-abstract, arguments, they are unlikely to be received as they should by those who need them the most; his arguments are mostly intellectual and do not resonate with people at a visceral level. More importantly, Faith is by definition believing in the improbable or impossible, and honest Christians admit that there is some level of absurdity in their faith.

Certum est, quia impossibile est (It is certain, because it is impossible) - Tertullian

Perhaps we fervent non-theists are guilty too, not of playing intellectual tennis without a net, but with no opponent.

Choice extracts from the above book will be posted at some time in the future :)
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