05 June 2008

The Cambridge Companion To Atheism - Michael Martin (Ed.)

Review by J. L. Schellenberg

This book is a reference work on atheism intended for students and nonspecialists. Its eighteen authors include eleven writers from philosophy, three from religious studies, and one each from sociology, anthropology, psychology, and law. Quite well organized, the book has three chapters on Background, nine on The Case Against Theism, and six on Implications. It is often interesting and stimulating, and contains a good deal of useful material. But its chapters are of uneven quality, and some will be tough going for beginners. The book also features some internal tensions (perhaps the inevitable result of such a diverse set of contributors). These tensions are not in themselves disturbing and could even be pedagogically useful. But they might have been acknowledged up front and better integrated into the overall flow of the book.

One of the questions that such a collection should obviously be expected to address is this: What is atheism? The editor, Michael Martin, tenders an irenic answer in his General Introduction: atheism can be positive (disbelief) or negative (the absence of belief), as well as narrow (disbelief or absence of belief specifically with respect to the personal God of traditional theism) or broad (disbelief or absence of belief with respect to all gods). This explication is not entirely unattractive. One remembers, for example, that A. C. Grayling, an atheist if ever there was one, is in his new book not just against the God of traditional theism but Against All Gods. But the idea of negative atheism is not easy to accept (at least for me). Martin says that in Greek a can be read as 'without' and theos means 'god', and hence there is linguistic warrant for thinking of atheists as those without a belief in gods. But his contributor on the Greek period (Jan M. Bremmer, 'Atheism in Antiquity') apparently disagrees, suggesting that one who was atheos would originally have been taken as being without gods or "godforsaken" (19), a notion that (as even the Psalmist knew) comports better with belief in the Divine than with nonbelief. And William Lane Craig ('Theistic Critiques of Atheism') points out that if simply the absence of belief in God makes one an atheist, then "even infants count as atheists" (70). Given such worries (and certain related ones I haven't space to point out), and because of the separate identity that another form of the 'absence of belief ' -- namely, agnosticism -- has in the last century clearly carved out for itself, it might have been better to stick with what Martin calls positive atheism, broad and narrow, in this volume. (click for full review)

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