Atheism has become a hot topic in the last four or five years, thanks to the work of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. The God Delusion, god is not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation have paved the way for what many have dubbed the ‘New Atheism’. In books, articles, debates, and countless other media, the figureheads of the New Atheism are teaching that religion is harmful superstition that should be rejected in favor of reason and science. So why pay any attention to a book on atheism that was published a little over three decades ago? Because, to be frank, the modern panel of atheist heroes owes a great deal to predecessors like George H. Smith. Atheism: The Case Against God lays out practically all the arguments of New Atheism, in a far more thorough manner, and also introduces several arguments unfamiliar to Dawkins and his ilk.
George H. Smith studied philosophy at the University of Arizona and has taught in political philosophy seminars since the 1970s, under the support of the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies. His writings have been published in Reason Magazine, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, The New York Times, and many other magazines and sources. Atheism: The Case Against God was first published in 1974, and some of his other titles include Atheism, Ayn Rand and Other Heresies (1991) and Why Atheism? (2000).
I. Atheism and God
Smith begins his book with an explanation of what atheism is and what it is not, something all too absent from the contemporary books on atheism. For the entire first chapter, misconceptions of atheism are demolished as a correct understanding is erected on the ruins. Atheism, he explains, is just what the word says – the absence of theism or the absence of a belief in gods. It is not religion or a way of life as theism is, and the burden of proof, contrary to popular opinion, is not on the atheist, but on the theist. A crucial distinction is also drawn between agnosticism and atheism, as Smith explains that it is not the middle ground between belief and non-belief that it has generally been identified as. Agnosticism is a different issue altogether, dealing with the possibility of knowledge (which is in the word ‘agnosticism’ itself, from the Greek word gnosis) for a god’s existence, whereas atheism and theism both deal with the presence or absence of a belief in a god.
Chapter two explores the concept of God, primarily focusing on its incoherence and ambiguity. The descriptions of God provided by most theologians and scriptures, Smith argues, all boil down to negative, secondary, and relational attributes. In other words, God is only defined by what it is not, by the capacities it possesses, and by the relationships it has with other things. However, none of these attributes really tell us what God is, just as the mention of an “unie” as something non-human, intelligent, and taller gives us no actual idea of what an unie really is. Smith goes on to claim that the description of God as a supernatural being only complicates this problem, because attaching naturalistic terminology (like ‘loving’, ‘just’, etc.) to a supernatural being is completely unhelpful to our understanding. In the third chapter, all this is taken into account along with the Christian god, and, suffice it to say, Yahweh does not fare well.
II. Reason vs. Faith
Strong as the opening three chapters are, Smith is at his best in the next four chapters, where he covers the poverty of faith and the value of reason. To many people, reason is merely one way of thinking that can be selected from a variety of different ways, and yet Smith explains that reason is not just one option, like a tool in a toolbox, but rather it is the toolbox itself. Reason is the ability we have to think in any abstract, complex or conceptual way, and rational demonstration is not just one way of demonstrating something, it is the ability to demonstrate anything at all. To deny reason is to deny ourselves the means for thinking coherently.
Another subject discussed in Atheism that you will be hard-pressed to find in any contemporary atheist text is chapter five’s evaluation of what Smith calls “universal skepticism”. This was one of the more fascinating portions of the book to me, as it considers different degrees of solipsism and attempts to refute each one. Universal skepticism, the author maintains, is self-refuting because it makes a knowledge claim that we cannot know anything. Any attempt to demonstrate the uselessness of reason will have to use reason itself to accomplish its goal. The suggestion that errors in human thinking should merit a concession to solipsism is also mistaken in it’s failure to recognize that for an error to be an error, there must be some standard of truth and falsity. To reason or argue in favor of universal skepticism is to defeat universal skepticism.
Finally Smith dives into the problems with faith in chapter six. The threats of eternal punishment that accompany the Christian faith are described with particular focus on the question of how fear can motivate actual faith. Fear can drive a person to act, but it is not evident that it can change a person’s beliefs so effectively, especially the beliefs of a person who is unconvinced by the other propositions of a religion. The trouble with faith as authoritative trust is covered too, illustrating the fallacy of appeals to authority. Lastly in the chapter, Smith explains why the “will to believe” cannot yield faith, with reference to Pascal’s famous wager.
In chapter seven, revelation is the topic of choice – specifically why the bible and miracles are not acceptible sources for knowledge, earthly or divine. There’s not much to comment on here, as the arguments are fairly well known. Personal experiences cannot transfer as evidence to anyone else, the bible has its share of errors and contradictions, and even many theologians and Christians have admitted this over the centuries. I will say, however, that it was refreshing to see refutations of a few so-called ‘bible prophecies’ in chapter seven, even if the discussion is brief. With the number of Christians making the claim of prophecy, it’s always been a wonder to me that few atheist books bother to thoroughly attack the issue.
III. God and Ethics
The remaining chapters in Smith’s book critique the philosophical and moral arguments for God, additionally providing a few insights into the author’s take on ethics. First of all, the only arguments for God that are discussed in Atheism are three formulations of the cosmological argument and three formulations of the argument from design. Other arguments are somewhat addressed by previous chapters, like the argument from miracles in chapter seven and Pascal’s wager in chapter six, but there is no critique of the ontological argument or the anthropic argument. The refutations of the arguments that are covered are concise and successful, but the brevity of it all makes chapters eight through ten the weakest section of the book.
Nonetheless, chapters eleven and twelve are a fine return to form, perhaps the most thought-provoking and worthwhile portion of the book to read. Smith is an Objectivist, so many of his own definitions and descriptions of ethics originate from Ayn Rand, but he does a commendable job of linking ethics to real facts of human survival, with reference to medical science as one example that blurs the line of the is-ought distinction. A concern for life is what drives the concept of value in ethics, Smith states. Certain actions can sustain or destroy life, and this is an objective fact, so there are facts to be morally evaluated that play a significant role in determining a course of action. Thus, according to Smith, a system of ethics will only be as good as the facts it rests on.
With this in mind, chapter twelve begins the assault on Christian morality, aptly titled “The Sins of Christianity”. The author explains how Christianity structures itself around rules, as opposed to moral standards, and the difference is everything. “While a standard appeals to the motive of desiring its goal, a rule appeals to the motive of desiring or fearing its sanction”. A sanction is a coercive measure intended to motivate obedience or compliance, and so while a rule has consequences, the foremost concern will be on the sanction that accompanies it. The example Smith uses is a traffic rule, like a stop sign. Most of us do not stop at the stop sign because we worry about colliding with another vehicle, but we stop out because of the threat of fines and punishment.
The obvious analogy to Christianity is the doctrine of hell. God does not simply explain the consequences of our actions to us and let us endure whatever we get ourselves into – there is a sanction in the form of eternal agony waiting for us if we do not abide by God’s laws. Smith also includes sin and guilt as psychological sanctions present in the Christian faith. Religious ethics, he argues, are not conducive to human survival or happiness. Some statistical evidence or case studies would have been helpful here, but unfortunately none are cited.
Concluding the book is a wonderful discussion on the ethics of Jesus. Even still today, many atheists seem to think or speak of Jesus as one of the redeeming elements of the bible and the Christian faith. Yet as Smith reveals, the Jesus character portrayed in scripture is far from a peaceful and loving personality, nor are any of his ideas unique. Jesus’ final words in a parable in Luke 19:27, about a king who orders his enemies brought before him and slain, seem to be glossed over by many theists and atheists. Christ also taught impending doom for those who would not follow him and his teachings. And as Smith demonstrates, the fundamental teaching of Jesus is conformity, just as we find in the bloody and arbitrary laws prescribed in the Old Testament.
IV. A Case Worth Reading
From the multitudes of atheist books published in recent history, I have found George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God to be one of the best. It isn’t perfect, to be sure, but it describes and defends atheism better than many alternative attempts. The critiques of theism are also well thought-out and come from a much more informed position than one may find with Hitchens, Dawkins, or Dennett. There’s no complaining that Smith attacks an antiquated or superficial idea of God, as he consistently supports his understanding of theism by quoting from numerous theologians and scholars. The majority of his criticisms are directed at the Christian god, but many can be easily applied to other deities too.
All things considered, this is one of the few books I will recommend as a solid introduction to atheism.