50 Great Myths About Atheism, by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk

Martin Cohen on a mishmash of well-intentioned ideas

January 2, 2014

Fifty! That sounds like fun! Are atheists people who believe in God but are in denial? (Myth 3.) People who worship instead the gods of money and materialism? (Myth 10.) Do atheists secretly fear death – and make swift deathbed conversions? (Myths 17 and 18.)

Or what about those perennial arguments that without God there is no right or wrong? That without religion we become mere soulless machines?

On second thought, maybe 50 sounds like overkill. Surely half a dozen, or 10 at the most, would suffice. Do we really need to challenge the “myth” that the courts recognise atheism as a religion or that atheism is only for an educated elite? I don’t think these are real controversies and that is really the problem with this book – it is preaching, if not to an empty church, then to one filled entirely with fellow theological scofflaws. Vicar Blackford and his excellent organist Mr Schüklenk can lift their fellow spirits to a fine chorus of All Things Godless and Beautiful, but no one is going to be persuaded by any of their 50 carefully constructed mini-debates. Clearly that is not their purpose.

If leading believers back into the fold of scepticism were the aim, then surely the main spokespeople for religion would be philosophers and theologians of some weight. Instead, here it is one Dinesh D’Souza. I’m afraid I’d never even heard of him, but with no fewer than 30 pages in this fairly slim volume spent denouncing his errors, I thought I’d better check. Indeed, it transpires that he is a well-known spokesman for the radical Right in US politics, a former youthful adviser to Ronald Reagan. Like the proverbial country vicar, D’Souza waits lurking at the door to invite unsuspecting agnostics to his “tea party”.

As long as everyone in the world buys and reads this book, though, they will be safe enough. D’Souza appears here illogical and foolish: it is not the atheists who are “dogmatic and arrogant” but “someone like D’Souza”, indeed anyone who “claims to have esoteric knowledge of otherworldly agencies”. Oh, and by the way, did you know Hitler was fervently religious? By that measure, anyway…

Perhaps it is as well that those chosen to make the case for religion are rather second-rate champions, because the selection of thinkers backing up the authors is also rather weak. We see philosophical populariser Julian Baggini make 12 guest appearances, for example serving as the back-stop for the highly tendentious claim that “Franco’s Spain was controlled by an expressly Catholic ideology”, as well as providing authority for the authors’ own commonsensical theories: “As Julian Baggini states, ordinarily we reach conclusions on the basis of what we experience.” This is part of Myth 39, devoted to showing that the view of theologians such as Alister McGrath (19 appearances) that science, too, depends on certain assumptions adopted on faith is a myth. Here, instead, theories are supported by evidence and must survive falsification.

In fact, this discussion is a bit of a mishmash of ideas and the authors themselves seem to have realised that, so they finish the section by quoting D’Souza again, who apparently has imbibed Kant to the effect that true reality is always out of reach and we must be content with the world as it appears when seen through our distorting glasses (so to speak). This is a common theme of “religious apologists”, the authors sigh, adding: “if everything we believe is a matter of faith…you might just as well believe that you are a poached egg and that this book was written by centipedes from Mars”. Now they tell us…

50 Great Myths About Atheism

By Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk
Wiley-Blackwell, 288pp, £50.00, £14.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9780470674048, 4055 and 9781118607817 (e-book)
Published 7 November 2013

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