Atheism: A Very Short Introduction August 9, 2007

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

The Oxford University Press (OUP) publishes a series of books called “A Very Short Introduction.” They cover a range of topics, from the Koran to Plato.

The book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction is written by Julian Baggini.

He recently did an interview with the OUPblog.

OUP: Why do you think the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins [sic] have struck such a chord with the public?

Baggini: Christian fundamentalism in America, intolerant Anglicanism in west Africa, terrorism in the name of Islam, increasing religious tensions in India: the list could go on. Religion is not giving a terribly good account of itself in the world right now, if you look widely. Many in the west had complacently believed that religion had become modern and tolerant the world over, when in fact, it is often a very reactionary force.

But this interest in strident atheism is not entirely good. I fear it is a symptom of a hardening of positions on all sides. I’d like to see a coalition of the moderate standing up against extremism of all kinds. Unfortunately, there seems to be an unwritten agreement between many religions that they do not criticise each other. I think religious moderates share more common cause with atheists like me than they do more extreme believers.

He also suggests a reading list, talks about why we can be good without God, and refutes the claim that “‘official’ atheist countries have failed in the 20th century.” The full interview is here.

(via Kirsty)

[tags]atheist, atheism, Oxford University Press, A Very Short Introduction, Koran, Plato, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini, OUPblog, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, Christian, fundamentalism, Islam, Anglicanism, India[/tags]

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  • stogoe

    I think religious moderates share more common cause with atheists like me than they do more extreme believers.

    I dunno about that. There’s this guy they like called Jesus or something, and I hear he’s pretty important to both moderate christians and theocrats alike.

    Seriously, though, we can make common cause with religious liberals, and we should. But ‘criticizing the evil things that religion does’ is something I’m not ever going to give up. They’re going to have to content themselves with rolling their eyes at us while our backs are turned, or something.

  • Maria

    But this interest in strident atheism is not entirely good. I fear it is a symptom of a hardening of positions on all sides. I’d like to see a coalition of the moderate standing up against extremism of all kinds. Unfortunately, there seems to be an unwritten agreement between many religions that they do not criticise each other. I think religious moderates share more common cause with atheists like me than they do more extreme believers.

    very very well said. I think I’ll check out his book. I have noticed that too, people are polarizing on all sides and I don’t like it. it’s a catch 22, all sides are going to keep doing it b/c someone else is. Religious get much more of a say in it b/c there are so many more of them. Everyone needs to start thinking and stop this, especially the biggest groups. While Jesus is important to both moderates and non-moderates (in Christianity at least), that alone doesn’t mean moderates are automatically going to support extremists. there are plenty of liberals (I prefer to call them that, b/c there are some who call themselves moderate who really aren’t, wheras liberals almost always are liberal) who do not support the extremists and do fight them. just look here:

  • It’s an interesting feature of the atheist fad that whenever you go into the obvious connections between it and the previous manifestation, which failed to really become fashionable, some atheists get upset. It’s an odd “civil rights” movement that is uninterested in its origins and history. Hemant, you certainly know about the activities of Paul Kurtz and his associates and how they are linked to Dawkins and Hitchens etc who have links with one or more of the Kurtz empire of groups and alleged groups. I think the culture of Kurtz’ form of atheist fundamentalism, often under the alias of “humanism” or “skepticism”, has largely determined the predominant character of what, I believe unfortunately, now manifests itself as “atheism”. But, mention it and you will be accused of paranoia. Considering the charges of some of his past associates, that charge is particularly ironic.

    If you doubt the ubiquitous influence of Kurtz and his propaganda machine, google his name, look it up on wiki * (which seems to have a disproportionate number of editors who think very, very highly of him, his friends and their activites). Keep track on paper of the number of “humanist” and “skeptical” groups he has either started or for which he has been the “chairman for life”. By the way, that phrase is what Dennis Rawlins, one of his former associates and a co founder of CSICOP, called Kurtz. Notice who else is associated with him, it reads like a whos-who of atheist stars.

    It is an odd “civil rights” movement whose predominant tactic is calling the large majority of people idiots, ignorant, superstitious, morons, the source of all evil, etc. For one thing, a small minority needs a coalition from outside if it is going to succeed in obtaining their civil rights. For another thing, most of the atheists I’ve known disagree and think it’s puerile and dishonest. Even some with a tendency towards invective find it gets old really, really fast. I’ve noticed on some of the atheist blogs I have read that the most mature voices seem to fall off and often disappear after a while. I think they see it’s futile to attempt organization through promotion of hate and self-congratulation. The group of cultists it might keep will share something else in common with another target of the Kurtz organization. As Ray Hyman, another associate of Kurtz and an active opponent of real parapsychology put it “As a whole, parapsychologists are nice, honest people, while the critics are cynical, nasty people” He also advised his fellow “skeptics” that they should be more charitable, while saying that he knew they wouldn’t like the idea. And if you read Skeptical Inquirer much or other Kurtz publications, the tone is far from charitable and fair.

    After wading through the vast field of Kurtz propaganda to read the criticism of his and his associates activities and noticing the definite ties, both direct and in style, between that history and todays atheist stars it is the real nastiness, dogmatism, fundamentalism of that style of orthodoxy that is obvious. And, after the fad passes, which it will, what you will be left with is a small, probably shrinking group of rather nasty and unpleasant people who grouse about how those idiots in the larger population won’t listen to them.

    I agree with the people in evolutionary biology who have said that Dawkins and Dennett are making the job of the IDers much easier by their insulting the large majority of the population who are religious believers. But what’s worse is that and their publicity seeking allies risk making the job of Republicans easier by helping them rally the religious right. That is where I came into this area, that is where I’m leaving it.

    After having witnessed the growth, greatest influence and rapid fall into ineffectiveness of several civil rights movements I will tell you it was exactly when they started down the road that neo-atheism has taken that they lost influence. A casual observer of neo-atheism might come to the misunderstanding that it has gone from birth to eutrophication in one fell swoop. But for someone who takes the time and wades through the propaganada to see where it really began, they will see that its birth was in the mean spirited bigotry of the organized atheism of the past.

    * Another suggestion of Rawlins, who, while I sort of like him, is far from nice himself.

  • Logos

    olvlzl, no ism, no ist , did an atheist pee in your coffee or something?

  • Logos, as quick to answer the point as always this morning. Let me make things easier for anyone with the curiosity to look into some real atheist history instead of the make believe that you usually get. Read another of Kurtz’ former associates account of his one attempt at doing some science, particularly notice the excuse that he was too incompetent to understand what he and two of his closest associates were doing.

  • stogoe

    Logos, I have taken not to reading what olvlzl posts, because the time and attention it would take are not worth the headache.

  • Logos

    stogoe, maybe you are right. Sometimes I think he takes meanness pills before he posts here!

  • stogoe, Logos, I’ve never seen any evidence that you have read any of them. Not that I mind, my intended audience is people who are able to read something through and see the points and point out any discrepancies. I’ve found a shockingly small number of those among the supposed rationalists. However, most of the above only requires looking up a few names. Too much work for you, apparently.

    Logos, for one so fragile as to think my post above was mean, what are you doing in the atheist blogosphere?

  • Oh, by the way, that link at 8:27AM, I believe J Lippard is an atheist so you can read it without getting kooties, though he tends to give all the detail so you might not want to try it.

  • Logos

    olvlzl, these will be my last words to you…you have the manners of a boy cow’s dingle-dangle!

  • olvlzl,

    Don’t you think you are going a little overboard? I only know Kurtz through his editorials in “free inquiry” magazine, and I’ve never read anything, “calling the large majority of people idiots, ignorant, superstitious, morons, the source of all evil, etc.” I think you are misrepresenting him and others like Dawkins and Dennett. (Maybe not Hitchens though… hehe)

    I’m not denying that there are some nasty skeptics and atheists. However they are a minority in a minority. There are also nasty theists and supernaturalists, ie some humans are just jerks! There certainly isn’t some vast atheist conspiracy promoting some kind of dogma. You say things like:
    “promotion of hate” and “group of cultists” referring to atheist organizations. I’m almost at a loss for words on how to respond to such unfounded exaggeration!

    I don’t understand how you could interpret essays by Dawkins, Dennett or Kurtz in such a way when they are just promoting reason and critical thought. If you want me to take your accusations seriously, please provide some direct quotes of this “hate” you describe.

  • NYCAtheist, Kurtz’s been going after people for going on sixty years in various venues. He’s done everything from publishing attacks on the sanity of people he doesn’t like to smearing those who expose his activities. I don’t think I’m scratching the surface.

    If you read the link mentioned at 8:27AM to a piece by another former CSICOP, you might be surprised. The problem wasn’t the thing being challenged, it was the scientific competence and execution of it and the entirely dishonest cover up of the disaster they were warned would happen from almost the beginning. Imagine if Kurtz and his friends discovered a reputable parapsychologist doing that? Though, even the absence of any evidence of dishonesty never stopped them from making the charge against other people. I didn’t mention Randi, though I could have.

    From what I can see, the more people know about the real history of CSICOP and Kurtz, the more shockingly bad it is.

    I don’t know what you’ve read by Dennett or Dawkins but what of it do you find that isn’t an attack on religious believers? Since the vast majority of Americans, indeed human beings, are religious, why would you think that would make those who aren’t informed about evolution want to be? Have you followed Dennett’s exchanges with Gould (a CSICOP, by the way), Lewontin, Orr? Reason isn’t generally in evidence. Read Orr’s review of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and then the exchange of responses between Dennett and him, they are on the web. Notice the list of ways Orr gives in which Dennett contradicts himself on how “memes” are like genes. It’s a stunning display of self contradiction on a very basic point, probably his most important in the book.

    And as to critical thought, isn’t that what I’m asking people do to these atheist heroes? How come they’re immune? It might lead someone to think that you don’t have any faith in their ability to withstand examination.

  • PrimateIR

    I’d like to see a coalition of the moderate standing up against extremism of all kinds.

    Wouldn’t that make them moderate extremists?

  • Maria

    I’d like to see a coalition of the moderate standing up against extremism of all kinds.

    Wouldn’t that make them moderate extremists?

    uh no……are you an extremist when you stand up against extremists?

  • olvlzl, you wrote, “I don’t know what you’ve read by Dennett or Dawkins but what of it do you find that isn’t an attack on religious believers?”

    Are you asking me to prove a negative now? 😉 I think since you are the one making the claim of “hate” by people like Dennett and Dawkins you need to provide the evidence. I haven’t seen any evidence of hate in their public writings.

    If you have a link, put it up. I don’t see how Dennett being possibly mistaken about memes has anything to do with promoting hate.

    I’ll certainly take a look at the link to the stuff about Kurtz, but I see it is a massive amount of text that will take some time. If you have anything short and sweet that would be helpful.

    I don’t think these atheist “heroes” are immune to criticism. Look how atheists jumped all over Sam Harris because of his sympathies to eastern mysticism. Since most atheist really do live up to the cliche of a herd of cats, I don’t see any evidence of cults of hate worshiping their own atheist saints.

  • NYCatheist, Look closely again at the section of my response to you concerning D&D

    I don’t know what you’ve read by Dennett or Dawkins but what of it do you find that isn’t an attack on religious believers?

    I didn’t focus on the emotions of the two, only on the intent, which it is impossible to miss in Dawkins, and the clear effect, in Dennett. You misidentify both what I asked you to do and the nature of it. If you had read both and had found passages that would be supportive of religious believers instead of the message that they were superstitious, violent, hypocritical, … you know the entire Dawkinsite act, you could easily refute the tenor of the question.

    My mentioning of Dennett, after all, only a professor of philosophy, who was entirely incoherent and irrational in the book in question on the subject of “memes” (which I believe he might be the last person of any stature to take seriously, and if you want me to go into why I don’t take Susan Blackmore seriously I’d be glad to), it had nothing to do with hate but to your assertion that he and his idol, Dawkins, are “promoting reason and critical thought”. I also think that the infamous history of Dennett’s resonses to book reviews with equal incoherence and in full attack mode would give the lie to his promotion of “critical thought”.

    I first ran into atheists who will hear no criticism of atheist heroes when I made a mild jab at Penn Jillette and in response to a long, rambling, incoherent, vulgar, threatening e-mail, then wrote a long analysis of his and CSICOPs type of “skepticism”. Dawkins, who now holds the position St. Carl Sagan once held in the pantheon of CSICOP stars was mentioned (my criticism of the would-get-a-high school student a failing grade level of research in The God Delusion was in one tiny footnote). The piece never mentioned the word “atheist” once but that didn’t stop one of Kurtz blog goons from lying about it being an attack on atheists. It is certainly a feature of the atheist fad that criticism of its celebrities, even on the basis of their allegedly scientific work will not be tolerated. Which doesn’t bother me much, it just adds to the evidence.

  • I can see Dawkins and Dennett attacking religious beliefs, but not believers. I don’t see any evidence of attacking religious believers, nor have I seen any evidence yet of the promotion of hate which you brought up in your first comment. But I don’t want to take you out of context or do any quote mining, so here is what you wrote originally:

    “I think they see it’s futile to attempt organization through promotion of hate and self-congratulation.”

    So the key issue here is what “it” is in your sentence. Who or what is promoting hate? Do you mean Kurtz? Other people? Or just random idiot atheists on various web forums?

    If it’s the latter, then you could accuse practically any group of promoting hate by choosing the worst posts on a particular forum.

    As for Dennett, whether or not he is incoherent and irrational is a side issue, so I won’t comment on that further.

    I think it is natural for any human group to hold up certain leaders as heroes and admire them. Don’t you think it’s silly to call Dawkins a new St. Sagan? I don’t think any atheists worship these guys. We don’t have little statues of them on our dashboards, or hanging around our necks. I’ve seen plenty of atheists criticize Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the rest.

    I am not saying you are completely wrong. Everyone is flawed, including people we hold up to admiration. As I originally said, I think you are just going a bit overboard.

    Do you really think Dawkin’s book is no better than a high schooler’s essay? I would be curious to read the piece that incited the “Kurtz blog goon” to lie about it. Do you have links? Who was the goon?

  • NYCatheist and other respondents to Olvisi:

    As a former Catholic priest-become-atheist psychologist (retired), and one who knows Paul Kurtz very well and the other more strident writers fairly well from both lectures and writings, I have serious difficulties digging through Olvisi’s posts. At the same time I heartily agree with Ophelia Benson’s post: “I would say ‘this interest in strident atheism’ is all right as a short-term thing, as a necessary wake-up call. It’s not entirely good if it goes on indefinitely, but I tend to think that nothing less will do by way of an attention-grabbing reminder that theism is neither mandatory nor universal.”

    If you want a less strident or more tolerant statement of the pragmatic atheist’s position for a pluralistic society, try that little book, Imagine No Superstition. I offer no extense praise for its healing power here; you can read enough of that, including a note from Kurtz, on the back cover of the little paperback. Enjoy.

  • Murray Hogg

    Unfortunately, there seems to be an unwritten agreement between many religions that they do not criticise each other. I think religious moderates share more common cause with atheists like me than they do more extreme believers.

    I take it from the “unfortunately” that Baginni thinks that religious believers should criticise each other. But whatever lead Baginni to think they don’t? The fact is that the critical interaction between religious traditions has a long (and “robust”!) history and that this history continues to the present day. The very reason that (for instance) Anglicans have not rejoined the Roman Catholic church is precisely because Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have been prepared to stand up for their respective positions and critique the other. Were there no criticisms then reunification would have been a foregone conclusion.

    One could go on and on citing examples of instances where religious traditions have engaged in critique of one anothers beliefs and practices till the cows come home. Indeed, as one of the fundamental points made by atheists is that religious belief is divisive rather than unifying factor in society, I take it that identifying inter-religious disagreements is something that an atheist such as Baginni should not find problematic. So what lies behind Baginni’s “unwritten agreement” remark?

    Personally, I think the issue for atheists is not the amount of inter-religious disagreement, but its nature. For atheists, those critiques which religious traditions make of one another are not regarded as “true” critiques for the simple reason that they don’t deal with the sorts of questions atheists themselves see as central. So when Anglicans and Roman Catholics critique each other over their respective understandings of the place of women in ministry, the average atheist sees this as mere sophistry irrelevant to the “real” issues which are common to both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.

    What many atheists want to see, I suspect, is a kind of “mutual elimination” in which Anglicans provide profound reasons for not being Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholics provide profound reasons for not being Anglican, and by the time each religion has shown why the other is “wrong” then atheism wins without having to do any work. And I’d suggest that what atheists dislike about inter-religious dialogue is precisely the fact that religions tend to agree on precisely those sorts of issues which atheists find objectionable.

    In short, I think the atheist objection to inter-religious critique is simply that the critique is different from the sort of critique that atheists think important. In some respects this is a pity as I do think atheists make some very valid critiques of religion, and I think religious believers ought to heed those criticisms. Consequently, I have some sympathy with Baginni’s remark about the potential for agreement between atheists and moderate believers, but I also think Baginni needs to accept the fact that there are, and I think always should be, disagreements between atheists and moderate believers also. But that said, I think that Baginni’s talk of an “unwritten agreement” between (many) religions is fanciful in the extreme.


    The above is a slightly edited version of a post from my own blog – see here for the original.

    Murray Hogg