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A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism by Peter S. Williams

Luke Pollard finds nothing new about the New Atheists.

Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s there, being proclaimed from the roof-tops: a new philosophy for a new age. A new atheism.

You may have heard of the New Atheists, and now a brilliant sceptic writes his account of this ‘phenomenon’. He’s a heretic – but not for denouncing God; instead, for concluding that He exists.

Peter S. Williams’ new book A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism seeks to challenge the popular conception that the New Atheist movement has a monopoly on the rational. He examines modern popularist anti-theistic writings, specifically focusing on the New Atheists, and concludes, altogether rebelliously, that “I am not impressed.”

According to Williams, the New Atheist movement is nothing new, drawing much of its philosophy from Hume and others living hundreds of years ago. But it is “angry, acerbic and rhetorically cunning.” Unfortunately, claims Williams, these eccentricities tend to crowd out the philosophical essentials – reason and rigorous argumentation. In popular culture the philosophical extremists from both religious and anti-religious groups have shouted down the rest. Williams’ book is an attempt to redress this – promoting thinking, and lending logic to the debate. He helps us to see that the question of God can be addressed with care and precision, as is done in more academic circles (sometimes).

A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism acts, first and foremost, as a thorough account of the God debate in contemporary circles. It covers the key arguments in favour of atheism, as propounded by the New Atheists. In the attempt to ensure that the arguments are not misrepresented, Williams over-quotes, which can make for laborious reading; but conversely, this also pulls together the key statements from the main thinkers. A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism is a wonderful resource if one’s main aim is to study the history of the New Atheists, or if one wants to save time: the book is a good substitute for reading every popular New Atheist tome – most of their arguments, and best quotes on the God debate are contained within.

Williams first sets out to assess the current level of atheism. Through sourcing a variety of polls, he finds that lack of belief in a God may be declining world-wide, but is growing in parts of the West.

Why is this? Williams claims it is mainly to do with the devastating effect Logical Positivism had in the 20th Century on religious belief. Logical Positivism holds that only statements that can be observed to be true through our senses or otherwise be potentially verified, have any meaning. This leaves the unverifiable God hypothesis meaningless. However, argues Williams, it does the same to the opposite claim too. The atheist declaration ‘there is no God’ is also impossible to scientifically prove. So under Logical Positivism, atheism is also meaningless. As Williams writes in Ch1, “Dawkins’ atheism, no less than the theism he opposes, is built upon Positivism’s grave.” Positivism had to die for atheism to live. However, Williams then moves on to argue that bizarrely, Logical Positivism is historically the main reason atheism has such a grasp on public imagination today. It provided the social credibility for atheism upon which the New Atheists have built.

However, the book’s real attraction is not its history lessons. Instead, it is the logical assessment of the atheist arguments. Williams dedicates a chapter to each one, first giving it a fair hearing and then critically appraising it. Evidence and reason is allowed to rule above rhetoric and emotive gut-reactions. Williams doesn’t hammer his point across – you don’t finish reading with the sense that you’ve been intellectually mugged. Instead you feel enriched by a plethora of new information. This is the opposite of a mugging – leaving you with more in your pocket than at the start.

Williams deals with most of the big arguments against theism. For example, he examines the ‘Faith is the root of evil’ argument, which he sees as a foundationless moral reaction against foundationless religious belief. The argument that science leaves no room for a God is also dismissed. Following on from this is a debate about whether the ‘Who designed the designer?’ argument is logically valid, or even coherently expressible. Williams also discusses the less-popular argument that explaining the prevalence of religious belief in evolutionary terms negates any truth that it may hold. That is Daniel Dennett’s position, Williams claims; but few other New Atheists support this kind of attack. Williams also examines many other, less famous arguments. He deals with the big thinkers on both sides of the debate, getting us to re-examine ideas we’ve all heard before.

Williams attempts to raise the level of debate not by reciting his own arguments whilst the other side recite theirs, competing to be the loudest voice. Instead he interacts with the New Atheist arguments, evaluating them logically, thus giving us a well-thought-out perspective. This is relatively uncommon at the popularist level. And whilst we have plenty of deep books on both sides (which are, unfortunately, rarely the popular ones), it is unusual to have them interacting with the alternative perspective in such a compelling way. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion are other exceptions to this rule. However, The God Delusion tends to offer false versions of classical theistic arguments, and The Dawkins Delusion relates almost entirely to Dawkins. This book is different, interacting with all the main lines of reasoning, thus giving us a new level of civilized debate.

Entering this debate at the popularist level is a risky move for anyone not promoting atheism. Although it is written from a Christian perspective, Williams’ precise, logical style makes it fascinating reading for the rest of us. Thus it is an essential resource, helping the reader to get to grips with every angle of the God debate. As such, it will probably be burned as heretical teaching.

© Luke Pollard 2009

Luke Pollard is a writer interested in the areas of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion.

A Sceptic’s Guide To Atheism by Peter S. Williams, Paternoster, 2009, £12.99, ISBN: 9781842276174

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