Before I pick up with my series on reasonable faith (the next installment should be about rationality), a brief interlude.
Over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, a review of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (ed. Michael Martin) by J.L. Schellenberg of Mt. St. Vincent University has been posted. It contains some criticisms of atheism that I think are quite cogent and deserve mention.
First, Schellenberg tackles the eternal problem of defining atheism. This is always an issue because atheists (in my experience) like to carve out a big chunk of positions under the “big tent” of atheism. Likewise, this book spells out positive atheism (e.g. “I believe there is no God”) and negative atheism (“I do not believe in any god”), even differentiating between narrow (“I do not believe the Christian god exists”) and broad (“I believe that no gods exist”). This is helpful insofar that some atheists self-identify in these ways, but Schellenberg mentions some problems, the most compelling (in my mind) being William Lane Craig’s complaint that even babies would be considered atheists by the negative definition (and one would hope that such a suggestion would make Richard Dawkins go into fits). I have said for quite some time – and Schellenberg states here – that the negative atheism described is in fact agnosticism, and it is different enough that it deserves to be treated differently, just like pantheism is different enough from classical theism (Judaism/Christianity/Islam) that it really should be set in its own category. Thus, Schellenberg notes that positive atheism should really be the focus of this volume.
Another problem is the issue of whether or not atheism entails naturalism, which is almost a non-issue to me because even if it does not, naturalism obtains so frequently in atheists that it might as well be correlated. Quite a few of the contributors apparently agree, says Schellenberg, and see atheism as a naturalistic tradition, but Martin himself disagrees, citing some religious sects like Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as being somewhat “atheistic in the narrow sense.” Schellenberg notes:
It is easy for atheists…to treat their rejection of a personal God as entailing a commitment to irreligion and naturalism. But Martin’s essay should give them pause. It is just a fact that some well-known forms of religion are committed to transcendent realities while being completely uncommitted to a personal God or gods. Perhaps the religion of the future will, like them, do without gods altogether.
It’s a provocative statement, to say the least.
Schellenberg continues to note that the book attempts to take two separate tacks: “show…that traditional theism (belief in a personal God) is bankrupt and that there are good arguments for its denial (for what Martin would call narrow positive atheism — what most of us mean by atheism).” The attack against theism is directed at Craig’s essay “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” which he presumes (rightly) is done to give a representative view of theism, and this offensive is, in his view, adequate at explaining how atheists can deal with problems of morality and Craig’s kalam cosmological argument but deficient in such as the formulations of positions espoused by Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, from whose views Craig is working. In particular, he mentions Daniel Dennett’s fumble over the “Who created God?” question, which I agree is quite a useless objection.
Even worse is the section on arguments for atheism, Schellenberg states, which at points (like Andrea Weisberger’s essay “The Argument from Evil”) are narrowly proscribed to the Western concept of God or may, like Quentin Smith’s chapter on the kalam argument, include ideas that are “controversial even among atheists.” I can’t say I’m incredibly surprised, as I can think of at least a few potential theistic arguments against atheism that not all theists would accept; however, Schellenberg thinks this hurts the book’s force against theism.
The strangest part of the review (and likely the book, if I ever get a chance to read it) is Schellenberg’s discussion of Christine Overall’s essay “Feminism and Religion.” In my opinion, feminist critiques of religion are helpful in changing thoughts about how religion has historically treated women (and as such function as a useful tool for religion to examine its own prescribed behaviors), but historical criticisms like this generally suffer from the same fate as Weisberger’s argument from evil of having too narrow a focus. Like the places where he criticizes other contributors, Schellenberg points out this area of improvement; here, however, he turns his attention to possible ways of using feminism against theism:
…this suggests a perhaps more fruitful feminist angle: feminism allows us more clearly to see what an unsurpassably great personal being would be like, and makes the problem of evil more pressing for that reason — for example, could a loving and empathetic feminist God really tolerate horrific suffering (whether experienced by women or not)? And perhaps a feminist God should be expected regularly to inform traditions believing in God of the anti-feminist errors of their ways (which have often enough become institutionally entrenched, sometimes thanks to what was perceived as a word from the Lord). Overall comes close to such points at times, but they are not clearly brought out.
It is curious to me how feminism would elucidate the problem of evil, although I suspect from the context that Schellenberg is implying that feminism somehow gives special insight into empathy and compassion. Moreover, the argument that “God should be expected regularly to inform traditions believing in God” of any of their wrong ways is in no special way helped by feminism; it could be claimed about any view about which society has changed its collective opinion (although I am not of the opinion that God functions this way with society, nor does this idea seem to be entailed by any popular conception I can think of).
The review confirms what I would expect from such a compilation: it would hit some high points but completely miss other vital ones. The struggle between theistic and atheistic belief has such a long and convoluted history that any high expectations would of course fall short. Aspiring to disprove a belief system with such a rich tradition and supplant it with another is a daunting task, and I don’t count it as a huge defeat that the book is only really useful as a primer to the debate.