Monday, November 10, 2014

Another review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism

Courtesy of the author, Diesel Balaam. It was originally published in the pages of the Pink Humanist, on page 15. The magazine is published by that wonderful Pink Triangle Trust, an organization of which I am proudly a Patron.

50 Great Myths About Atheism
 
Russell Blackford & Udo Schűklenk Wiley Blackwell
 
ISBN 978-0-470-67405-5
 
Richard Dawkins was spot-on, when he commented that it was useful to have all 50 myths about atheism listed in one book (having encountered all but 3 of them himself), so Blackford and Schűklenk's book will be invaluable to any atheist who comes up against charges that range from the challenging "Atheists are Certain There is No God" via the insulting "Atheists are Intolerant" to the downright pernicious "Atheists are to Blame for Religious Fundamentalism".
 
The need for such a book is perhaps a little mystifying to those of us living in the north western corner of Europe, where to declare oneself an atheist generally excites little controversy - at worst, it causes minor irritation to some, akin to declaring oneself a Chelsea supporter. Outside of ethnic minority circles, atheism (or more accurately, secularism) appears to be the modus operandi of the vast majority of citizens, who distance themselves from, and distrust, overt religiosity, certainly of any Abrahamic stripe. Nonetheless, Blackford and Schűklenk quickly broaden out from a slightly US-centric starting point to encompass a wider perspective that includes Muslim countries where the safety of declared atheists really is precarious.
 
Blackford and Schűklenk provide an informed, reasoned, and calmly dispassionate deconstruction of the many myths used to try and discredit the atheist position, whether those myths are borne of genuine misunderstandings, or desperate cynicism. In particular, the risible - if tenacious - arguments, deployed against atheists by Dinesh D'Souza, a prolific "religious apologist" (as the authors describe him), are systematically unpicked throughout the book and exposed as ill thought-out, flawed and cynical. This is of particular relevance to gay atheists and secular humanists, as D'Souza's starting point is that we became atheists just to swerve the Almighty's opprobrium for our sexual immorality!
 
The authors' ability to summarise a complex argument is impressive. For example, at the end of their detailed deconstruction of Myth 39 "Atheism Depends on Faith, Just the Same as Religion" they roll their entire argument into just 34 words: "Atheism is not a faith position because atheists do not require something extra that can be called 'faith' to bridge the gap between experience of the world and extraordinary beliefs about a transcendant realm". How cool is that? This book will help many an atheist fortify their position, as well as provide the means to articulate it more effectively.
 
50 Great Myths About Atheism is thorough, meticulously reasoned, and impeccably well-referenced and researched; its avoidance of jargon and academic grand-standing shows this was intended to be a very accessible book and is all the more welcome for it. The authors are sparing in their use of witty asides and mockery, no doubt anxious to avoid the charge of facetiousness, although the inclusion of some choice Jesus & Mo cartoons for the succinct illumination of various points does add a lighter discursive dimension to the book.
 
Perhaps some will find the authors' approach slightly too dispassionate and cautious at times. Myth 28 inadequately deals with Hitler's alleged atheism (he was, in fact, professing his ambivalent faith well into the early 1940s - nor is any mention made of those rather more tangible "Gott Mit Uns" Wehrmacht belt-buckles), while in Myth 29 the reader will detect some pussy-footing hesitancy to criticise the followers of Islam. Arguably, rhetorical questions are also over-used (see Myth 31 "Atheists are Intolerant"). Indeed, in his assessment of the book, Richard Dawkins states that "the long final chapter treats theological arguments with more respect than I would have bothered with".
 
Nonetheless, in spite of its Hush Puppy liberalism, assembling 50 Great Myths About Atheism into one book like this was the authors' master-stroke, a neat and dynamic way of organising and unifying what could otherwise have been a rather disjointed atheist treatise. This is what ultimately gives the book its authority and immediate appeal as a "go-to" source for any atheist who is in a hurry to marshall good contrary arguments, in order to defend their position against any pushy religionist who feels their elaborate nonsense of choice is under threat.
 

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