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The Cambridge Companion to AtheismReview - The Cambridge Companion to Atheism
by Michael Martin (Editor)
Cambridge University Press, 2006
Review by Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D.
Jun 19th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 25)

The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ­-- an anthology edited by Michael Martin -- aims to acquaint its reader with atheism's "history, present social context, legal implications, supporting arguments, implications for morality, and relation to other perspectives" (most notably, to feminism and postmodernism) (1). The anthology is addressed to a "general reader" as well as to an "advanced student," but is supposed to serve as an "introduction to atheism" (ibid.)

Gavin Hyman, in one of the opening essays that provides the "background" for the discussion of atheism, says that "atheism defines itself in terms of that which it is denying" [i.e., theism] (28).  (In his "Atheism in Modern History," Hyman goes on to analyze the modern atheism, which was shaped in the context of modern philosophy, e.g., Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Marx.)  This understanding of atheism -- as historically and conceptually related and opposed to theism -- proves to be the leitmotif of the anthology.  As the table of contents shows, the anthology is divided into three sections:  (i) Background (consisting of three essays), (ii) The Case against Theism (that contains nine), and (iii) Implications (with its six contributions).

The main section of the anthology -- The Case against Theism -- covers a number of topics in philosophy of religion (especially as they are developed in Anglo-American thought), ranging from the arguments for the existence of God, to the relation between atheism and other branches of philosophy such as philosophy of mind ("Naturalism and Physicalism" by Evan Fales), philosophy of science ("Atheism and Evolution" by Daniel Dennett and "Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism" by Quentin Smith), and ethics (e.g., "The Autonomy of Ethics" by David Brink).  With the exception of William Lane Craig's "Theistic Critiques of Atheism," this section of the anthology makes a case for atheism and conceives of this case (largely) to be merely a case against theism.  Thus, most essays in this section are written in dialogue with prominent arguments for theism, especially the arguments developed by Alvin Plantinga.  In fact, in order to give justice to this section of the anthology, the reader appears to be almost required to have read Plantinga's e.g., God, Freedom and Evil and Warranted Christian Belief.

While the bulk of the Cambridge Companion to Atheism addresses the philosophical problems with theism, its 'dialogue' with theism remains one-sided, since the anthology does not contain a set of contributions in defense of theistic view.  No doubt, it can be said that in this consists the difference between an anthology on atheism and an introductory anthology to, say, the philosophy of religion, which (in some ways) would serve as a more comprehensive text addressing the arguments for and against various religious beliefs.  But both a "general reader" and an "advanced student" of atheism might be dissatisfied to find in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism exactly one half of a standard anthology on philosophy of religion.  That does not make this 'half' any more profound than a collection of contributions contained in a standard reader in the philosophy of religion; The Cambridge Companion to Atheism merely excludes the other side of the debate -- the contributions for theists' position that an anthology in philosophy of religion usually does include.

Although the history of atheism is a history of a-theism, it seems appropriate now to strive to understand atheism in more than relative terms.  In his "Atheism and Religion," Michael Martin briefly discusses the claim made by Madelyn Murray O'Hair that "atheism [is] not the religion of the future" (220).  Leaving aside the point of Martin's discussion (that atheism "fails to meet the conditions of being a religion"), we might want to take to heart the spirit of O'Hair's claim -- the understanding of atheism as a positive worldview that goes beyond the intellectualist rejections of the traditional theistic arguments.  Unfortunately, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism does not offer a discussion of atheism in this sense.

The third section of the anthology -- Implications -- fares better in this respect.  While this section does not develop a systematic positive understanding of atheism, its contributions explore the relation between atheism, on the one hand, and several other "perspectives," on the other.  Some of the questions that this section addresses are:  'Does being a feminist require that one be an atheist?' (by Christine Overall), 'Does postmodernism imply atheism?' (by John Caputo), and 'Who Are They -- Atheists?' (by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi).  The answers to these questions that the authors argue for are the following: according to Overall, "there are several reasons for feminists to be atheists" (from arguments against the accepted conception of God to the re-cast argument from evil).  Caputo presents an analysis of both postmodernism and atheism that challenges the naïve straightforward equation of postmodernism and atheism -- according to Caputo, "postmodernism is a sustained attempt to displace a fixed categorical opposition of theism and atheism" (279).  Finally, Beit-Hallahmi argues that, based on sociological data, we can come up with "a tentative psychological profile [of atheists]," according to which atheists are "less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant or others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well educated.  They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life.  In short, they are good to have as neighbors" (313).  These arguments are controversial, but they open the door to a philosophical discussion concerning atheism.  Most importantly, they conceive of atheism as more than a set of negative arguments against the soundness of theist's position.

I have argued that an "advanced student" (acquainted with philosophy of religion) is likely to be disappointed by The Cambridge Companion to Atheism since the anthology contains merely the well-rehearsed arguments against theism (without the theist's side of the debate) and does not paint a picture of atheism as an intellectual and ethical movement in its own right.  Let me add that a "general reader" would not for the most part find the anthology a desired reading either.  Most contributions are written by professional philosophers to professional philosophers.  They presuppose a fair fluency with respect to the traditional arguments, concepts, and even texts in the history of philosophy and in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion.

© 2007 Tatiana Patrone

Tatiana Patrone, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Montclair State University, NJ. 


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