There are two books that I’m now starting and so excited to review. The first one, Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, I’ve already written about in response to some initial reviews. Now I’m digging in deeper.
The second is The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between) by John Shook. I was critical of him for an article he wrote on HuffPost, but based on the excerpts I’ve read, this book is great. He’s posted some significant sections of the book at the link above.
Ophelia Benson is posting some great quotes from the book and here is one of my favorites.
Religion’s defenders often show a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists. If atheists cannot justify such a claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable?This tactic fails, since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity for knowledge to humans, not atheism.
What is the correct definition of atheism?
Demographers polling people in America and around the world consistently find that few nonbelievers prefer the label of “atheist” for labeling their own position (Zuckerman 2007). This reluctance probably has more to do with the perceived meaning of atheism rather than the actual views of nonbelievers. Besides its strongly negative connotations, attached to the label by believers’ scorn or fear towards atheism, the term “atheism” became associated with dogmatism. Nonbelievers, quite understandably, do not want to be perceived as evil or dangerous, or stubbornly dogmatic. It is ironic how believers could accuse atheists of dogmatism, when the word “dogmatic” was a preferred label for true religious believers since the early days of the Christian Church. The meaning reversal that happened to “dogmatic” in turn caused “atheism” to shift meaning. In earlier centuries, an atheist was simply a skeptical nonbeliever, characterized by an inability to be dogmatic about religion (Thrower 2000, Hecht 2004). This lack of dogmatism was precisely what distinguished the wayward atheist who strayed into ignorance about religious matters. Unable to be persuaded by sacred scripture, religious creed, or theological reasoning, atheists expressed their unbelief and uncertainty. That’s how you could tell a religious believer from a nonbeliever back then: the religious person pronounced their confident knowledge about religious matters, while the atheist could only admit hesitant ignorance. Nowadays, however, the atheist is often accused of dogmatism.
This is why I think it’s so important to reclaim the label of atheist. Unlike many people, I kind of like labels. They are often unfair, but they do give you the most concise way to summarize your identity and beliefs. They’re also great conversation starters.
I will return with more interesting passages from both of these books as I progress with my reading. (They have to compete with my late night re-reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; this time in Hebrew.)