Philosopher Julian Baggini on Strident, Evangelical Atheism

Philosopher (and atheist) Julian Baggini does a thoughtful “take down” of strident, evangelical atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety here.

Money quote:

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a world-view in its own right. This world view is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death.

Such a worldview needs defending, and a special name, only because for various reasons, it is not the one that most humans have adopted. But the view itself is true whether or not there are people who disagree with it. In a totally atheist world, we may stop noticing that it is a view at all, in the same way that most people do not notice that they believe objects exist whether we perceive them or not. But it would still be a view.

So in my book, I tried to articulate the grounds for this view with as little reference to the religious alternative as possible. The new atheism, however, is characterised by its attacks on religion. “There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds,” wrote Richard Dawkins, quite typically, quoting approvingly Stephen Weinberg, who said, “for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.”
This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist.

And Baggini says this about religion:

[R]eligion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

If you like the way that Baggini talks about these matters, then you might like Baggini’s book, Atheism: An Introduction. You can find it at Amazon here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Philosopher Julian Baggini on Strident, Evangelical Atheism

  1. tccookie says:

    I just came across your blog in the tag surfer, and I appreciated this entry. I’m religious myself, but I hold strongly the “atheistic principles” (other than not believing in God, obviously) you mention here, and I’m glad that you do not fall for the ridiculous and counter-productive hostility of “Dawkins-variety” atheism.

    Truth is truth, as you say. Religious fear of atheism is ridiculous, as is atheist fear of religion. As long as we’re all trying for the truth, differences in belief that result from conclusions drawn from legitimate life experiences shouldn’t conflict in a way that causes the contention that arises around these issues of belief. If one is defensive about his belief and hostile towards’ others, I immediately take that as a sign of lack of conviction based in irrational decision making.

    Anyway, carry on. I often think if I weren’t a member of the church I am I would be an atheist rather than simply joining another church–a lot of religion doesn’t make sense. But, as you imply, a lot does if you look in the right places.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this, I just found your post refreshing and wanted to say so.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for your thoughtfulness and kindness.


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