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Why Atheism? by George H. Smith

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating
User Rating 3.5 Star Rating (2 Reviews)


Why Atheism? by George H. Smith

Why Atheism? by George H. Smith

So why would anyone be an atheist? Why would any question the existence of a supernatural deity, something believed in by a large percentage of people in society? Is there any reasonable basis for atheism and such skepticism — and, if so, what is it?


Title: Why Atheism?
Author: George H. Smith
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1573922684

• Shows why atheism is credible
• Explains difficulties with theism
• Explores historical development of modern atheism

• None

• Shows why atheism is credible
• Explains difficulties with theism
• Explores historical development of modern atheism

Book Review

These are important questions addressed by George H. Smith in his book Why Atheism? Starting with the problem of whether or not atheism is a credible position, he refutes the various arguments raised by theists in an attempt to undermine that credibility and exclude it from serious consideration:

    “To say that atheism is credible is to suggest that the atheist may be right; to say that the atheist may be right is to suggest that the Christian may be wrong; to say that the Christian may be wrong is to suggest that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge; to say that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge is to suggest that each and every tenet of Christianity should be reexamined in the light of reason — and from here all hell breaks loose as the process of deconversion rushes headlong to its logical conclusion.”

Thus, instead of trying to simply justify atheism, he makes the effort to get people to consider it in the first place. Smith feels that this will inevitably lead to atheism, because he seems to assume that every form of theism relies solely on a reason-denying faith, much as he does in his earlier book. But that isn’t necessarily true, because some theists do attempt to base their beliefs on reason — they may not do it very well, but this does mean that simply arguing against faith won’t work.

Also, as with his earlier book, Smith sometimes focuses too much on Christianity, as seen in the above quote. This is wholly unnecessary for his project.

He doesn’t need to use the word “Christian” above, the word “theist” would work just as well. Atheism doesn’t need to focus on Christianity in order to be made credible. Some Christians argue that atheists are simply anti-Christian, and such a focus on Christianity when it is unnecessary simply gives credence to those assertions.

Moving on to questions about the nature of knowledge and belief, Smith also addresses the roots of modern atheism — not only in skeptical philosophy, but also in traditional Western theology. One of the most important figures in this history is Francis Bacon, without whom the course of modern philosophy is unthinkable:

    “In driving a wedge between philosophy and theology by insisting that we “give to faith only that which is faith’s,” Bacon gave his blessing to a secular tendency that, like a slow-acting poison, would eventually prove fatal to the tenets of orthodox Christianity. Bacon’s scientific secularism, while it did not challenge Christianity per se, exiled God to the nether regions of faith and theology, thereby denying him any direct role in the acquisition of natural knowledge.”
Why Atheism? by George H. Smith

Why Atheism? by George H. Smith

Smith also takes time out to deal with ethical considerations. Can a person be ethical without believing in a god? Indeed, is belief in the traditional Christian God itself compatible with ethics? These are serious questions, although they form a much shorter portion of the book than the above topics.

In the end, Why Atheism is a superior book for explaining the nature of a moral, rational and skeptical atheism. A central principle of such an atheism which he discusses early on and which he derives from Nietzsche, is that beliefs should be valued for the reasons which support them, and not for themselves. Beliefs should function as means, not as ends, and they should direct our passions rather than be directed by our passions.

People who rely on faith reverse this relationship, becoming prisoners of their passions and alienated from reason. Although he does not state it outright, an atheist is quite capable of doing this as well, at least when it comes to individual issues and even when in the process of condemning others who rely on faith. If, however, they remember this principle, they will be less likely to fall victim to the same poor habits of thinking which they criticize in others.

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 3 out of 5
Wrong question, Member bconklin0

This book is very readable and somewhat engaging, but I am not recommending it because (a) there are many better, more compelling books in the atheist literature, (b) the focus on Christianity is too narrow, and (c) the title itself betrays the author's basic error in assuming the burden of proving, or at least rationalizing, the negative -- i.e., the validity, or at least reasonableness, of NOT believing in a supernatural being. This latter stands the process of logical reason on its head. The burden of proof should always be on those asserting an affirmative proposition, be it the guilt of one accused of a crime or, as in this case, the existence of a supernatural being or beings. Why must we atheists always be on the defensive? Just because the majority of people (particularly Americans) believe in something that we can see no evidence of (or, put another way, are more gullible than we are)? I submit that the logical starting point should be to assume nothing, and accept only those propositions in support of which one can find convincing evidence that rationally compels the conclusion being asserted. The ultimate resort of all theists is inevitably to something they call ""faith,"" which means nothing more than the blind acceptance of a certain mythology for no better reason than that it is comforting, or that their parents believed it, or that they are unwilling to live with the mystery of some questions that science has not yet been able to answer fully. It is the believers, not the nonbelievers, who have the explaining to do.

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