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by George Smith. Published by Prometheus Books.
Is theism a reasonable and rational position, or can a better case be made for atheism and against faith in the existence of gods? The goal of George Smith's books is to demonstrate that irrational beliefs are in fact harmful and that theism and religion are prime examples of irrationality. The conclusion, then, is that both must be abandoned and new ways of thinking about the world adopted in their place.
The first place he starts is, naturally enough, to define what atheism is. This he does well, explaining the difference between "weak" atheism, which is simply the lack of belief in any gods, and "strong" atheism, which is the outright denial that any gods exist (he uses the less common terms "implicit" and "explicit"). This is the definition which most atheists today understand, which atheists have been using for the past couple of hundred years, and which is attested to in most major, unabridged dictionaries.
But the heart of Smith's book is his discussion about reason vs. faith. According to Smith, reason and faith are two ways of thinking which are diametrically opposed to each other. His explanation of the nature of "reasonable" thinking is very good, and something which most people should read.
Reason isn't simply one "mode" of thinking, or one possible choice out of a variety of equally valid options. Reason is, instead, our very ability to think in abstract, complex ways. Similarly, rational demonstration is not simply one way to demonstrate something, but rather it is the ability to demonstrate anything at all. The denial of reason is thus the denial of our basic ability to think coherently about our lives.
This in turn is contrasted with faith - but here his argument breaks down somewhat. The perception is given that he is making an argument which is valid against all forms of faith and thus all forms of theism, but this is mistaken on two accounts.
First, what he says does not apply to all the ways in which people - even religious people - understand the nature of faith. It is true that it is valid against the usual way in which you will see a religious person using it, and particularly in the way which Christians use it. Because of this, his discussion will be very useful on a practical level, and what he says, when limited properly, is very accurate: "Insofar as faith is possible, it is irrational; insofar as faith is rational, it is impossible."
It is undeniable that a defense of reason is probably the best argument against the "faith" many religionists promote; but in not making it clear that this is one of many ways to understand "faith," he makes an error similar to that of religionists who claim that if the atheist has "faith" in a spouse or in the sun rising tomorrow, then that is equivalent to the theist's faith in their god.
A second error is in the premise that all forms of theism are equivalent - further compounded by the exclusive use of Christianity as the theistic foil for his arguments. Not all theists necessarily resort to "faith" in the way he describes - some refuse to use it at all and insist that their beliefs can be defended with reason alone. They may be mistaken in their belief that they would be successful, but that doesn't change the fact that an assault on one type of faith is not the same as an assault on all forms of faith and all forms of theism.
To a degree, Smith seems to understand this, because he devotes a significant portion of the book to refutations of common attempts to provide rational arguments for the existence of gods. Although these rebuttals are limited because they do not take into account more recent formulations, they do provide a clear, understandable introduction to them and how to go about dealing with them.
All of the book's problems stem, I think, from the question of theory vs. practice. In practice, most atheists will encounter Christians making the sort of faith-based arguments Smith describes and refutes. Because of this, his book is very good and very useful. But in theory, an atheist could easily encounter theists and religions who make different arguments, and the atheist will look foolish trying to formulate rebuttals to positions which the theist does not hold.
Unfortunately, this isn't just speculation - I see it happen all the time that atheists essentially construct straw man arguments against principles which are associated with Christianity and particular ideas of faith, only based on learning that a person is a theist or is a Christian. The chief reason is, I am sure, because they don't often encounter different sorts of theists and because they are most familiar with Christianity. Even worse, some atheist books contribute to the problem when they could be working to eliminate it.
And Smith's book isn't alone in this - not by a long shot. Most of the atheist books out there may start out with a more general discussion about the nature of atheism and broad considerations about general beliefs in the existence of gods, but few stick with just those arguments. Most end up attacking Christianity in the end - understandable, for the practical reasons I describe above, but ultimately problematic.
Too many atheists are simply ignorant of the variety of ways in which theists defend their beliefs, and while educating them about Christian arguments is a good idea, it is self-defeating to only focus on Christianity. It is also self-defeating to mix up anti-Christian arguments with anti-theism arguments, without making the clear distinction between the two. A true "Case Against God" book would not spend much time on Christianity-only arguments, but instead would have left that to a second volume entitled "The Case Against Christianity."
Nevertheless, this book still provides a sound introduction to atheism - what it is, what it is not, and how it can be effectively defended against the most common critiques. It also provides a basis for atheists to critique religious faith and common theistic arguments, so long as they keep in mind the limitations described above.
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