Book Review: Louise M. Antony’s “Philosophers Without Gods” – by Octavia

Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life
Edited by Louise M. Antony

philwogodsIn my trawl through the atheism section of the local library, I’ve learned to try and keep my distance from anything with “philosophy” in the title. Ignoring this rule leads to frustrating sessions with books full of gibberish; books only an author could love. But Philosophers without Gods looked new and shiny, and I could see from the cover that it was a collection of essays. If they each had a limited chapter to themselves, I thought, it will prevent them from getting up a head of philosophical steam. They’ll have to dumb it down to my level. This could be a philosophy book I might actually understand!

A couple of the authors didn’t seem to get what I was looking for, it’s true, and went wandering into the confusing bits. Even then, though, it has to be said, their contributions were watered down enough so that even a philosophy dunce like myself didn’t find them very difficult.

The majority, however, seemed to grasp the fact that Antony appeared to be trying to produce a book that would communicate with normal people. It’s really quite successful – and also rather canny. Philosophers without Gods is structured in two parts. The first is primarily personal experience – half the contributors tell how they came to embrace atheism. Most came from a theistic background, and the differing flash-points, or slower journeys, which prompted the changes, are a fascinating read. The traditional arguments for and against God which you often find in a philosophy text on the subject – the ontological argument, for instance – are barely touched on. The exception is the problem of evil, which comes up in a lot of the “experience” stories, although hardly ever in a technical way. The tone is very readable; in some of the essays it is almost chatty. In fact the essays are so reasonable, and draw such attention to the religious background of many of the contributors, that even a fairly obdurate believer could probably start reading and not be too shocked or horrified. I can see them being a little smug, though: “Yes, that’s terrible, I can see why it made you wonder why God exists, but have you thought about…” But it’s roughly equivalent to an atheist reading C.S. Lewis: the way the arguments are put is enough to keep you reading, even though you don’t agree with the argument itself, indeed can see glaring holes in it. A bridge-building sort of prose… This is really more a book for the irreligious than the religious, but if the latter happen to read it, there’s a fairly decent chance that the first part of the book will get them reading it long enough to get to the rest.

The second section of the book – Reflections – is a little harder in content. The language is still fairly clear and easy to understand, but the contributors are getting more to the meat of things. Jonathan E. Adler’s essay on “Faith and Fanaticism” turns that tired (and inaccurate) old meme about Dostoyevsky from The Brother’s Karamazov on his head in a way that is completely obvious – so obvious, in fact, that I never made the connection before. And David Owens “Disenchantment” essay on science and the natural world has a truly fascinating thought experiment set in the pharmacy of the future that’s as amusing as it is interesting.

The best essay, the one I most recommend reading, is “Religion and Respect” by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn talks about “respect creep”, where more and more it appears we expected to respect not only the rights of the individual to believe whatever stupid shit they want (fair enough), but the idiocies themselves – and those that hold them. Blackburn is really very convincing in his argument that, although we might genuinely respect a believer for their good qualities (honesty, kindness, etc.), if we cannot respect their religious beliefs, we cannot respect the individual for holding them. He extends this further… if an individual supports a God who is willing to inflict eternal torment, can we really respect the individual for offering that support? And if we do, are we worthy of respect ourselves?

I’d recommend this book for that chapter alone. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, read Blackburn. But read the whole if you can – especially if, like me, philosophy isn’t really your cup of tea but you still want to know what the philosophers are thinking.

Philosophers without Gods includes contributions by:

Jonathan Adler, Elizabeth Secord Anderson, Louise Antony, Marvin Belzer, Simon Blackburn, Edwin Curley, Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel M. Farrell, Richard Feldman, Daniel Garber, Marcia Homiak, Anthony Simon Laden, Joseph Levine, David Lewis, David Owens, Georges Rey, Stewart Shapiro, Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong, James Tappenden, Kenneth Taylor.