The Inaugural Very Short Introductions Column: Atheism
By Kirsty OUP-UK
Today sees the start of another exciting new column for the OUP blog, inspired by our acclaimed series of Very Short Introductions. Every month I will be posing questions to a different author from the series about their topic and bringing you suggestions for more books to read on the subject, direct from the authors themselves. This month’s inaugural Q&A is with Julian Baggini, author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. He is the editor and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, as well as the author of a number of books including Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines (OUP), The Pig that Wants to be Eaten (Granta), and his latest book Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta).
OUP: Is atheism just another religion for people to follow?
Julian Baggini: I don’t think it should be. Atheism at its best is a view based on best evidence and good reason. It concludes that the natural world is the only world that there is. That means there are no souls, spirits, heaven, hell, gods or angels. Whether this view is right or wrong, it requires no faith to believe it. Nor does it require you to join an organised group or accept on authority teaching from others. In all these respects it is not at all like religion.
Some people believe that atheism is just a faith because you can’t prove God doesn’t exist. But faith is more than belief without absolute proof. After all, we don’t have absolute proof of anything. Faith as usually understood by religious believers themselves is belief that radically dispenses with evidence and rationality. Faith is meant to be hard: it’s not just about filling a gap between strong evidence and 100% proof.
Atheism can turn into a religion if it is believed dogmatically, or if it creates its own authorities and dogmas that followers are told they must accept. But this is not what atheism usually is.
OUP: If there is no God, why bother being good?
Baggini: If there is a God, why bother being good? To save your own skin? It’s not very moral to “be good” just out of fear. The reasons we have to be good do not depend on a divine rule-maker. We avoid causing unnecessary harm to others because we recognise that suffering is a bad thing, and so there is no reason to create it gratuitously. We also understand the to live a life that is rich and meaningful, we cannot ignore other people or their needs.
The question “why be good” can sound hard to answer. But if you are more specific, it becomes less baffling. For example, if someone needs to ask “why shouldn’t I kill people for fun?” we don’t say they are philosophically deep, we would worry they were psychopathic.
OUP: Many ‘officially’ atheist countries have failed in the 20th century. Why do you think that is?
Baggini: Nazi Germany was not an atheist state: it was quite overtly religious, as the historical facts I describe in my book make clear. Atheist communist countries failed because they put too much power in the hands of too few people and dogmatically followed a flawed ideology that was based on a mistaken understanding of human nature. That in no way invalidates atheism. The best atheists support free inquiry and rational debate: such people could never support states that impose atheism. Atheists should support secularism: state neutrality towards religious belief, not opposition to it.
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.
OUP: Once people have read your Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, what five books would you recommend them to read next?
Baggini: John Cottingham’s On The Meaning of Life for an intelligent, opposing view; The Sea of Faith by Don Cupitt for an attempt to salvage what is valuable from religion, once its literal beliefs are rejected; Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen, to help think through how society should handle diversity of belief; and then In Defence of Atheism by Michel Onfray, for a stronger attack on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. For a fifth book, read In The Shadow of Man by Jane Goodhall, because it’s not good to spend all one’s time thinking about whether there is a God or not. We live in an incredible world and we should not spend all our time either looking to the heavens or pointing out they do not exist.