Saturday, September 13, 2014

Great new review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism

From the current issues of the Journal of Contemporary Religion 2014; 29(3): 572-574.

50 Great Myths about Atheism
Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell
274 pp., £50.00, US$84.95 (hb), £14.99, US$24.95 (pb)
ISBN 978–0–470–67404–8 (hb), ISBN 978–0–470–67405–5 (pb), ISBN 978–1–118–
60781–7 (eb)

In 50 Great Myths about Atheism, Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in the
School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle,
Australia, and Udo Schu¨klenk, Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University,
Canada, explore 50 ideas about atheists that they consider to be often
wrongfully upheld. The authors, who also wrote 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We
Are Atheists, tackle each ‘myth’ in succession throughout the book, giving their
reasons for considering the notion invalid or at least unfair.

The material in the present volume is presented according to themes. After
an introductory chapter, in which the authors explain the structure of the book
and define the main concepts, myths are addressed related to (in sequential
order) the meaning of atheism, the style of living of atheists, ethics and the
soul of atheists, name calling, the unpleasantness of atheists, faith and reason,
religion and science, and the future of atheisms. For all the myths, the authors
typically first introduce the source of the myth and then offer a rebuttal of the
statement. The last chapter of the book, entitled “The Rise of Modern
Atheism”, covers a coherent discussion of the history of atheism as well as
arguments against some classic theistic lines of reasoning and arguments
against the notion that religion and science are compatible.

Blackford and Schu¨ klenk have done an admirable job in refuting the claims
they deem unjustly attributed to atheism. Overall, the authors’ arguments are
convincing and well supported by citations and examples. For instance, in the
case of myth 38, “Atheists Don’t Understand the Nature of Faith”, different
definitions of faith as advanced by various religious writers are cited and
discussed, after which the authors persuasively explain how none of these
definitions precludes atheists from understanding what faith means. Inevitably,
however, with so many different sub-sections, some myths are more
compellingly refuted than others. In the myth just mentioned, the philosophical
claim is supplemented by the empirical finding that, in the United States,
atheists generally know more about religion than those who self-identify as
religious. There are more sections where rational arguments are supplemented
by empirical data, for example, myth 17, “Atheists Fear Death (More than
Others)” and myth 22, “Atheists Don’t Give to Charity”. The book is
predominantly philosophical, however, so that no empirical data are provided
for many other myths. Understandably, data are in many cases not available
and in other cases not necessary. However, certain myths suggest demographic
and/or attitudinal claims about atheists and in these cases it is arguable that
the absence of empirical data renders the refutation somewhat less conclusive.
Assertions such as “Atheists See No Good in Religion” (myth 7) and “Atheists
Want to Strip People of their Beliefs” (myth 33) are refuted by Blackford and
Schu¨ klenk; they state, for example, that “atheists are not necessarily hostile to
all religion” (28) and that “there is nothing in the mere concept of atheism that
could justify the use of force or other forms of coercion as legitimate means of
transforming religious people into fellow atheists” (110). It remains a mystery,
however, to what extent the attitudes addressed by the myths are in reality
represented in the non-religious population. Logical arguments, in that sense,
can only provide part of the answer. In fact, it is not impossible that sometimes
philosophy and empiricism could provide different answers to the same
question. A clear example is myth 5, “Atheists Hate or are Angry with God”.
The authors propose that atheists cannot be angry be with God because they do
not believe that God exists. Philosophically, of course, this argument is solid.
Psychological research has shown, however, that people who self-identify as
atheists and agnostics can and do report anger towards God at times (Exline
et al.; Exline, Yali and Lobel). Whether those who report anger towards God
may be called atheists is a separate discussion and this does, of course, not
mean that the myth itself, namely that all (or most) atheists are angry with God,
is true. However, it does at least qualify the philosophical claim that atheists
cannot be angry with God.

Not all myths discussed in 50 Great Myths about Atheism are claims of
demographics or attitudes of atheists. In fact, many statements can be and are
well refuted, with the refutation based solely on philosophical arguments, such
as myth 20, “Without God there is no Morality”. Moreover, even in the
discussions that do leave space for empirical support, many interesting and
thought-provoking arguments are brought forward by the authors that should
trigger the reader to at least (re-)consider the truthfulness of the particular
claim about atheists. As the book is broken up into small sections, it is highly
accessible and allows readers to pick and choose the items they find most

Overall, Blackford and Schu¨klenk’s work is a valuable contribution to the
debate between believers and non-believers. One hopes that the comics of
Jesus and Mo, which are dispersed throughout the book, in order, one
assumes, to amuse most non-religious readers, will not discourage religious
readers to pick up this book and consider the well debated ‘other side’ of
some of the beliefs about atheists they may hold.

University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
© 2014 Suzanne Brink

Blackford, Russell, and Udo Schu¨klenk, eds. 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Chichester,
West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Exline, Julie J., Crystal L. Park, Joshua M. Smyth, and Michael P. Carey. “Anger toward God:
Social-cognitive Predictors, Prevalence, and Links with Adjustment to Bereavement and
Cancer.” Journal of Social and Personality Psychology 100 (2011): 129–48.
Exline, Julie J., Ann M. Yali, and Marci Lobel. “When God Disappoints: Difficulty Forgiving God
and its Role in Negative Emotion. Journal of Health Psychology 4 (1999): 365–79.

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