Schellenberg’s review of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism

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.

(HT: Fides Quaerens Intellectum)


6 Responses to Schellenberg’s review of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism

  1. The Imugi says:

    His point about how loose “atheism” is defined is, I think, really worth noting. Coming from a religious back which is “committed to transcendant reality” but not a “personal” God, I do not appreciate it when atheists will make sweeping statements like “Eastern religions are atheistic” or even “Buddhism is atheistic”. While I think that up-and-coming crop of atheist intellectuals are right in their criticisms of religious institutions, I don’t think an all out attack on theism (let alone religion in general) is warranted. Generally speaking I’m much more sympathetic to the Christian/theist perspective, I just wish it were better represented in mainstream debates.

  2. Brody says:

    Thanks for your perspective; variety is always helpful.

    I’ve always been sort of perplexed by the idea that certain Eastern religions are atheistic, and I haven’t really read into the reasoning behind it enough to understand either side except to say that it would be very misleading to call a pantheistic/monistic religion atheistic unless by ‘god’ one means ‘a god who is personal and interacts in the world,’ i.e. the most common theistic view. Is that sort of what you’re getting at, or is there a deeper conflict to it?

    Regarding the “up-and-coming crop of atheist intellectuals,” I’m afraid I’m also underread on them (assuming you mean Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.), so is it a tacit condemnation of religious institutions for promoting what they think are irrational ideas or behaviors? I know that they are generally very critical of the religious throughout the spectrum (i.e. fundamentalists, moderates, liberals), but I haven’t heard much other than Dawkins’ talk about child abuse from a religious upbringing (something I think is pure nonsense).

    As for your last sentence, I wholeheartedly agree. The ‘cynic’ in me is largely cynical because of the face that Christendom puts forth. And unfortunately, with things the way they are, things are bound to get worse before they get better (if they get better).

  3. The Imugi says:

    “it would be very misleading to call a pantheistic/monistic religion atheistic..”

    Yes, that is exactly what I’m getting at. We can certainly say that such religions are not “theistic” in the classical sense, but that does not mean they are necessarily “atheistic”. I think it makes little sense to take the theist/atheist paradigm, which grew out of the West, and apply it to religions like Buddhism or Taoism. Just because these religions do not acknowledge the Divine as a personal God does not mean they do not acknowledge it at all. D.T. Suzuki, the noted Zen scholar, for instance, described the Dharmakaya (basically the ground of Being for Buddhists) as the Buddhist “God”. And in movements like Pure Land Buddhism, there is definitely a very personal, faith-based relationship between the believer and Amitabah Buddha—this is at least analagous to the relationship between the believer and Christ. My point is that most atheists don’t really understand “Eastern Religions”; they are just throwing whatever they can at Christianity.

    :is it a tacit condemnation of religious institutions:

    Well, there’s little that’s tacit about it. All of their works are basically polemics, not only against the institutions of religion but against the very idea of God—in particular, the Christian God. It’s really this that I object to, not so much the criticisms of the actions of religious institutions.

    What really gets to me is that none of these authors gives especially compelling arguments. Dawkins, for instance, is a brilliant biologist and a witty, talented writer but he’s a philosophical lightweight. His critiques are operating on a bedrock of assumptions which he never bothers to prove. Most tellingly, although he claims to have read people like Aquinas, the substance of many of his arguments suggest to me that he hasn’t. If C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton were alive today, Dawkins wouldn’t stand a chance.

    Sadly, when there are “debates” between Dawkins and Christian thinkers, the Christians do not display an especially good grasp of their own theology. They tend to argue from emotions, from the psychological benefits of faith—and naturally, they get trounced. Even worse, they try to challenge Harris and Dawkins on their home turf–science—and they wind up looking even more foolish. I would love to see somebody who is familiar with, say, the Roman Catholic Scholastic tradition have a debate with any of the “New Atheists”.

  4. Brody says:

    I think you’re right on the money about atheists “just throwing whatever they can at Christianity.” Thanks for the insight.

    Again, since I haven’t read any of the more notorious works like The God Delusion or Letter to a Christian Nation, I don’t have the proper point of reference some of the New Atheists’ claims, but I was under the impression that they primarily implicated the religious individual rather than the organization (hence my ‘tacit’ qualifier – organizations would be responsible insofar as they propagate the ‘irrational’ ideas of religion in individuals). Of course, that’s just secondhand information on my part.

    It also intrigues me that you confirm what I’ve heard some say about these arguments (especially about Dawkins as philosopher), but of course there are plenty of people who are convinced by them for some reason – perhaps that they share the assumptions you allude to.

    As for debates, I haven’t seen many people debate Dawkins (except for Bill O’Reilly, which was just laughable), but you might be interested to read the transcript of a debate between Dawkins and Irish Catholic journalist David Quinn. Quinn actually gets Dawkins up against the wall as to where matter itself comes from, and Dawkins’ response is essentially “Science is working on it.” There are other issues that I think Quinn does some justice to as well, although the debate itself is rather short. Unfortunately, you might be disappointed on the subjects they cover, which are not generally the more interesting (or deep) ones.

  5. The Imugi says:

    Ah, I see what you meant by “tacit” now. Yes, you are right, they are mostly targeted at the religious individual for buying into the institution.

    I had read the transcript you provided, and thought it was one of the better debates I’d seen—but as you said, it is short and the subjects they cover are not especially deep. Another debate I’ve listened to/read about is a debate held recently in the United Kingdom. You can read a review of it here (and listen to the debate on the main website): (review) (podcast)

    What is especially galling about this debate is that one of the people defending the theist side is, for all intents and purposes, an atheist (Spivey). He argues not that religion is true, but that we wouldn’t have any kind of art or culture without it. Needless to say, he kind of weighs things down. For many other theists in these debates, it seems to come down to: “Well, I can’t argue against you, but I want what I believe to be true, and really, nobody likes a fuss, so can’t we all calm down, yes?”

    The reviewer makes a good point, though: in many ways, the New Atheists have either poorly defined religion, or they don’t really define it at all. Religion then means whatever it is they want it to mean. I think this is a point that should be taken up in future debates; if by religion they just mean fundamentalism or fanaticism, then really, I think all reasonable people are on the same side here.

  6. Brody says:

    Thanks for the links; that was interesting to read. And I agree with you; it doesn’t seem that they were really putting a good foot forward by having weak candidates – ones with such a loose tie to religion – arguing for it.

    The interesting thing about definitions is that people do often use words in different ways than the people they’re debating (which makes for an awful confusion since it inhibits communication on the most basic level). That’s why I thought it was great that Quinn jumped on Dawkins for his question-begging definition of fundamentalists as people who unwaveringly believe in a holy book. But I don’t think the New Atheists mean to equivocate religion with fundamentalism because of the common assertion (at least by Harris, but it’s been attributed to Dawkins in one instance that I’ve heard) that religious moderates and liberals “enable” fundamentalists to go on in their unreasonable beliefs. I contest this (and hope to write on it at some point), but it does sort of set up the notion that they view all religious people as irrational, not just fundamentalists or fanatics. From their viewpoint, they are the only reasonable ones (or have at least reached the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion – but I’m being rather generous with this estimation, I think).

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