Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

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Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason. To what extent do you think people can be rationally persuaded to —or dissuaded from — belief in God? People can certainly change their minds.

There are very well-informed philosophers on both sides of the fence still. If there were these compelling arguments, that would be extremely hard to explain. You can be well informed and have thought about it a lot. Do you think that the argument could be run in the opposite way, where you say that a lot of people take atheism to be their default position without consciously entertaining these abstract questions?

I think that would have to be right. For some things there is explicit instruction, but lots of them you pick them up by making inferences from what your parents taught you about and the kind of behaviour that your parents — and later on, your kids — engage in. I certainly accept those points. It helps to make it understandable why there were no Christians in China three thousand years ago. After I finished high school, I enrolled in a medical degree at Melbourne. I did one year of the medical degree, spending a lot of my time writing philosophy, and I figured I was probably in the wrong place.

So, I swapped to doing an undergraduate in philosophy. For its size, it gives you the best coverage of a very wide range of important arguments on both sides of the debate about the existence of God. It packages it all up in a way that many atheists will find quite convincing. Mackie had spent many years thinking about these questions. The primary focus is arguments about the existence of God. We also get some discussion of theories of religion, including debunking theories of religion that seek to explain why it is that people have the religious beliefs that they do even though those beliefs have no connection to a reality that corresponds to them.

This came out in the s, just after Mackie died.

What tends to happen is that you get repackaged versions of arguments that came before, but are improved in various ways. Sometimes they have new twists to them that are quite hard to unpack and work out what to say in response. There might be something about fine-tuning, but if there is then it will be from the very early days of fine-tuning design arguments. But it depends.

There are people who think that there are arguments from things like the existence of abstract objects to the existence to God. Tell me about this one. This is a book I only learnt about fairly recently.

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One of the things I wanted to do was to do some pen portraits of atheists for one of the chapters on the history of atheism. Jean Meslier — was a Catholic priest in a small, quite isolated village.

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He lived his whole life as a Catholic priest. He was in some respects slightly idiosyncratic, but never to the extent that any of his superiors thought that it warranted serious attention. He did the kind of things that you might expect a priest to do: for example, when he had spare cash at the end of each financial year, he would give it away to his parishioners. There were many things that made it hard to guess that he was leading a kind of double life.

It turns out that the ideas he was developing were atheism, materialism, a kind of political internationalism, and a kind of hedonism. The whole book is a mess. Pick any kind of line of attack that the New Atheists have made on religion and you can find it there in Meslier. And over the next sixty years, there were a number of publications that drew on his work. But Voltaire did pick out the good parts in the arguments that Meslier had that could be used to support deism.

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Across the eighteenth century, Meslier was enormously influential. The first English translation only just appeared a couple of years ago. This is an incredibly subversive document, written by an atheist priest—which sounds like an oxymoron. How ferocious is his criticism? And why do you think he remained working as a priest if he held these beliefs?

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The criticism is extremely ferocious. He attacked the church on many different fronts. Why did he remain a priest? I think because he quite liked the life that he was living.

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It was pretty comfortable, and he was quite happy working in the service of his parishioners. I have no idea how he coped with preaching and that side of things during the last part of his life. One of the things that struck me was just how modern some of his lines of criticism are. He has written a couple of fairly lengthy articles expounding it and also complaining about the way that, for example, Voltaire treated the text. There will be lots of people who disagree, but I think that the most important contributions — the best books — in the philosophy of religion are these two little books that David Hume writes.

There were many people working inside the Catholic Church who, in various ways, were doing philosophy of religion. The first thing is their readability. Hume was a great writer. Was he an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a deist? He covers his tracks pretty carefully in the Dialogues. They take the design argument is the centrepiece of theology. I think that Hume does a fantastic job of demolishing the arguments that were around at the time.

He also does a good job of presenting things from different points of view and of obscuring what his own opinion is. There are all kinds of ways in which I just think the Dialogues is a superb piece of work. And The Natural History of Religion?

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This is obviously very different in form and genre. Yes, but very important in the history of studies of religion. But what he has to say about the origins of polytheistic religion—the kind of psychological benefits you might expect you can get from piecemeal polytheistic or popular religions as opposed to the kind of benefits that you might get from the highly theological conceptions of doctrine —still ring quite true today.

His importance is not just for philosophy of religion, but for the anthropology and cognitive science of religion as well. Many people refer back to Hume in their discussions of religion. How does he characterise the propensities to religion that he sees people as having?

There are different kinds of anxieties: death, loneliness, deception, disease, injustice, pain, loss, want, and I guess there are some around sex though I doubt Hume talked about those. Organised religion helps people to deal with those anxieties. Roughly this is the kind of view that Hume has of religion.

Holbach inherited a lot of money when his uncle died, when Holbach was about thirty, so he devoted his life to running a salon in Paris.

1. The Field and its Significance

There are twelve of them in the room. Now, Hume could have just been dissembling. He covers his tracks pretty carefully in the Dialogues , which makes it hard to tell. But that may have just been protecting his social reputation up while he was living.

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I think Hume imagined that, although he was doing it from the armchair, he was saying: this is what properly-conducted natural, human, and historical science would tell us about what happened. Way back, our early ancestors were polytheists and formed these beliefs about the gods in response to things like the forces of nature. The later emergence of monotheism is explained by other political, social, and psychological factors.

Of course, not everyone will accept this kind of account. Skeptics like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus held that one should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs. During the Middle Ages , Scholasticism and orthodoxy in religious thought was at its height, and Atheism was a very uncommon , even dangerous, doctrine, although William of Ockham went so far as to assert that the divine essence could not be intuitively or rationally apprehended by human intellect. In 17th and 18th Century Europe, Deism increased in popularity and criticism of Christianity became increasingly frequent, but it was only towards the end of the 18th Century that Atheism began to be openly espoused by individuals such as Jean Meslier and Baron d'Holbach , and the Empiricist David Hume began to undermine the metaphysical basis of natural theology.

By the midth Century , many prominent German philosophers including Ludwig Feuerbach , Arthur Schopenhauer , Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche were denying the existence of deities and were strongly critical of religion. In the 20th Century , atheistic thought found recognition in a wide variety of other broader philosophies , such as Existentialism , Objectivism , Humanism , Nihilism , Logical Positivism and Marxism , as well as the Analytic Philosophy , Structuralism , Naturalism and Nominalism movements they gave rise to.

Ayer , in their different ways, asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements. New Atheism is a social and political movement that began in the early s in favor of atheism and secularism. It has been largely promoted by a handful of popular radical atheist writers, including the so-called "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse": Richard Dawkins - , Christopher Hitchens - , Sam Harris - and Daniel Dennett -.

The movement advocates the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises". Implicit Atheism is the absence of belief in one or more gods, without a conscious rejection of it. This may apply to someone who has never thought about belief in gods, or never been exposed to theistic ideas, or, some would argue, also to newborn children. Explicit Atheism , on the other hand, is where someone makes a positive assertion , either weak or strong, regarding their lack of belief in gods.

Another distinction is sometimes made between strong or positive atheism and weak or negative atheism. Strong atheism is a term generally used to describe atheists who accept as true the proposition "gods do not exist". Weak atheism refers to any type of non-theism which falls short of this standard, and which can therefore be considered to also include Agnosticism. A third distinction can be made between practical or pragmatic atheism, and theoretical or contemplative atheism.

In practical atheism also known as apatheism , individuals live as if there are no gods and explain natural phenomena without resorting to the divine. This may be from an absence of religious motivation ; an active exclusion of the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action; indifference and lack of interest in the problems of gods and religion; or just ignorance or a lack of any idea about gods.