Title: Natural Atheism
Author: David Eller
Publisher: American Atheist Press
• Includes far more than the usual arguments for and against theism
• Explains important aspects of the nature of thinking, science, and reasoning
• No index
• Faulty arguments about epistemology
• Analysis of theism and atheism
• Argues for a return to “natural” atheism that we are born with
• Argues that atheism is a more reasoned, more reasonable position than theism
There are a number of books on atheism available today, more (and of higher quality) than at perhaps any point in time. Some are aimed at popular audiences while others are philosophically inclined. Is there any particular need for yet another one to add to the list? Perhaps — one of the problems with the current selection is that the better choices tend to also be the most philosophical, which means that they won’t be as useful to average reader. What’s needed is a book that addresses important religious and philosophical issues while also being readily accessible to most audiences.
Currently the closest any book comes to this is probably David Eller’s Natural Atheism — and it’s unlikely that any other books will supplant it any time soon. I should stress that I disagree with some of what Eller writes, but that doesn’t mean that his book won’t have a serious impact over the long term.
As with any book on atheism, one of the first things a reader needs to look for is how the author defines the concept: you can tell a lot about where such books are going just from that bit of information. As one might expect, Eller uses the standard definition of atheism being the absence of beliefs in gods, but he doesn’t seem to quite use it consistently.
Early on he writes that “All humans are born Atheists. No baby born into the world arrives with specific religious beliefs or knowledge.” This is true, obviously, but also somewhat beside the point because theism isn’t a specifically religious belief. There are atheists with religion and theists without religion. The phrasing used here gives the mistaken impression that atheism is to be contrasted with religion rather than, correctly, with theism.
Eller then offers "12 steps” to return you back to your “natural” state of atheism that you were originally born with. I doubt that this will actually convert anyone, but it does offer a nice structure for organizing many of the basic arguments and disagreements that occur between atheists and theists. This is information that usually comes standard in books on atheism, and while Eller doesn’t offer dramatically new arguments or information, his presentation and explanations are strong.
It is at this point that most books on atheism stop — they criticize arguments made for gods, offer arguments against gods, and that’s it. Eller, however, has far more to offer and provides resources on how to think critically, how to think about thinking, and how to think about subjects like truth, knowledge, science, and values. All of this is quite important and should set a standard for future efforts.
The one issue where I really disagree — and quite strenuously, I might add — is with Eller’s arguments about the nature of truth, knowledge, and belief. I think that he is completely out of step with contemporary epistemology and is bending the concepts into unnecessary pretzels.
This isn’t the place for a full-scale critique of every point, so it will have to suffice for me to note that justification is not the same as verification (a belief can be justified without also having been verified) and direct observation is not the only rational and sound means for acquiring knowledge (this is actually a caricature that many theists have of atheists).
I believe that Eller is very much mistaken in his ideas about epistemology. I do not believe, however, that this detracts too much from the book overall. The chapter isn’t long and could even be excised without impacting the rest of his arguments. Eller explains to atheists that the purpose of his book is help them
- “recover your certainty, your confidence that your conclusions are sound and your positions justified. You can also recover your sense that you are a good person, that religion does not monopolize the moral ground. You can recover your right to use reason and to trust it to guide you through treacherous territories where falsehood and fanaticism lurk. Most importantly, you can recover your natural right to define your own morality and to construct your own world of reasoning.”
In this, I hope that Eller succeeds.