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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 vsi_atheism.jpgconcludes 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.

OUP: Why do you think the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens 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.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. […] a little thing I did for Oxford University Press on atheism. Or, if you want the highlights: “We live in an […]

  2. […] recently did an interview with the OUPblog. OUP: Why do you think the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher […]

  3. Ophelia Benson

    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.

  4. kevin

    its amazing how many people, when you say you are atheist, say,”if there is no god, then why not rape, pillage, and burn?”. it shows me who THEY really are and what they think of other people… and it makes me think… “YOU NEED GOD”

  5. kevin

    i however, dont NEED to have the fear of burning forever to do the right thing. and even if there IS a deity, would it want people who did the right thing because it was right? or would the deity rather have people who only refrain from mayhem, because they are cringing in fear……
    and THEN i wonder, why would an all knowing, all seeing, all LOVING, deity NEED to create little FLAWED human beings to worship it in the first place?…. then if the flawed little beings, (made flawed by the deity), succumb to the temptations placed around it, or if they failed to worship the deity in exactly the way some fat hick preacher with a bad hairdoo says they should, or some priestophile says they should, then that deity would BURN THEM FOR EVER? essentially punishing them for ITS OWN MISTAKE OF NOT MAKEING US ALL PERFECT IN THE FIRST PLACE????? thats just sick.

    who would really want to hang out with a control freak, needy, posessive, stalkerish, vengeful, deity like that anyway, we put human’s like that in jail.

    i dont want any part of any deity like that nor do i want to hang out with the sycophantic, fear driven monkeys with car keys, that cringe at its feet…. and…i mean… do you all really want to go to a place where people like jerry falwell and pat robertson and jimmy swaggert will be? heh.

  6. Duncan

    This seems a good place to point out the relative oddity that is the placement of ‘philosophy’ under ‘religion’ on the OUP blog. ‘Religion’ under ‘philosophy’ I could vaguely understand, though I’d question why not substituting a general umbrella term such as ‘humanities’, but to give the appearance of believing philosophy to be in any sense a subset of religion seems to be nothing less than a casual slap in the face to thoroughly irreligious philosophers such as myself and the excellent Dr Baggini interviewed above (not to mention countless others).


  7. John Doole

    I think to refer to the writing of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as ‘strident’ is wrong. They may be passionate, but they’re certainly not strident. It’s odd that when it comes to politics, music, literature, theartre, restaurants, haircuts, shoes, interior design and most other topics of conversation, people can hold robust, piquant views and no-one bats an eyelid, but when it comes to religion all the rules seem to change and it must be spoken of in hushed, respectful tones. Why?

    Dawkins and Hitchens could never be accused of fundamentalism or dogmatism as their views are based on evidence and study, and they would gladly change their views if new evidence came to light. Religion is nothing but dogmatic because it is belief without, and in spite of, eveidence.

  8. […] Q&A with the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction Very insightful and reasonably smart questions with poignantly smart answers […]

  9. Cesar Elizi

    It’s interesting that the ‘talk’ with the author begins with the question “If there is no God, why bother being good?” Supposing there is a God right now, do we see people or governments attempting to be good? Not really! And among the countries which are causing havoc worldwide, one wonders why we see mostly religious ones…
    Last but not least, congrats on the blog and on the choice of Julian Baggini to write a VSI on Atheism. I dare say there’s something about the series which is inherently appropriate to the 21st century.

  10. chelsea

    kevin, have you read descarte’s mediatations?

  11. Matt

    kevin expresses a very twisted, biased view of religious belief and faith, of course — one that does a disservice to more thoughtful atheists. As I hope most people reading this blog already realize that, there’s little point in trying to respond to his rant.

  12. […] 99 in the Oxford University Press ‘a very short introduction’ series. You can find a Blog interview with Baggini on the OUP site devoted to these […]

  13. mark santos

    What is a Religion?
    1. Genocids
    2. War
    3. Racism
    4. Destroy
    5. Slavery
    6. Hate
    7. Intoleranc
    8. Antisemitism
    9. Kannibalism (Solutions of the Bible)

  14. mark santos

    Mr. Obama have the Bible, pray his God, same as
    Bush. Bush killing 1.200000 people in Iraq. Why?
    Mr. Hussein Obama want Change something: What?
    The new War in Iran with AIPAC? And with Military

  15. Damned

    Atheism is there to stay in the public debate, as much as abortion, public healthcare etc. The amount of atheists is proportionally growing, not only in the US but everywhere in the western world. It´s not a bypassing trend, but a wake up call for all believers of any faith, to think are their medieval believes really reasonable, or even sane for that matter?

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