Just over a year ago I began reading Julian Baggini’s little book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. It’s a great little book, far more engaging and reliable than a library of new atheist books. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, however. Indeed, I didn’t get far before I wrote a response “Is atheism a default position?” Then I got distracted.
Sixteen months later I returned and continued reading. I still think it is far more engaging and reliable than the new atheists. And I still disagree with it.
While Baggini makes many claims that invite a critical response from the theist, I’ve decided to settle on a claim that appears on page 93:
“Pick up any introduction to the philosophy of religion and you’ll see a number of traditional arguments for the existence of God. Great sport can be had showing why these arguments fail, but to my mind it is not worth spending too much time on them for the simple reason that these arguments don’t provide the reasons why people become religious.” (93)
Where to begin? How about with a reworking of Baggini’s statement:
“Pick up any introduction to the philosophy of religion and you’ll see a number of traditional arguments against the existence of God. Great sport can be had showing why these arguments fail, but to my mind it is not worth spending too much time on them for the simple reason that these arguments don’t provide the reasons why people become atheists.”
In both cases, there are two problems. The first problem is that the sophisticated philosopher can poke holes in the arguments that appear in any introduction to the philosophy of __________. Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction is a case in point. The book has interesting and clearly presented arguments which hit just the right note for a lay readership. At the same time, any philosopher worth his salt can show why the arguments, as presented, fail. But so what? It’s an introduction, for goodness sake. So are we supposed to be impressed that a philosopher can critique introductory arguments for God’s existence?
The second problem is that Baggini thinks it is not worth spending time on arguments that do not provide the actual reasons why people adopt a particular view like Christian theism. This is mistaken. After all, the average atheist provides reasons for his/her disbelief that are no more sophisticated than the average Christian. (And why would we think otherwise? It is hopelessly naïve to think that people suddenly become rigorous pursuers of truth the minute they abandon religion.) This doesn’t mean we can set aside the best arguments for atheism because most atheists don’t believe on the basis of those arguments.
In short, we should separate the putative reasons average people provide for their belief or unbelief from the best arguments on offer for that belief or unbelief.