Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

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Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#1  Postby Aca » May 01, 2014 7:30 am

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/a ... cer-review

To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue. The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition. But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.



Much of the narrative is strictly historical, but there is also a polemical edge. Spencer wants his history to support three contentions, two of which should not be contentious at all. That we should talk about "atheisms rather than atheism" is self-evident. While the likes of Saint-Simon and Comte had a naive faith in the power of science and reason to create an orderly, happy utopia, later existentialist thinkers such as Nietzsche saw that "much must collapse because it was built on this faith" and looked forward only to a "long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval".

Nor is there much to disagree with in the claim that atheism was from the start "a constructive and creative phenomenon", not just concerned to tear down the old order but to erect something more enlightened and rational in its place. Even the various atheistic libertines who thought all morality was an illusion believed that a world without constraint would be superior to the religious status quo.

What is more debatable is the contention that "the history of atheism is best seen as a series of disagreements about authority" rather than one primarily about the existence of God. "To deny God was not simply to deny God," writes Spencer. "It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes it inspired and the judgment that reassured it."
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#2  Postby redwhine » May 01, 2014 7:48 am

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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#3  Postby Paul » May 01, 2014 8:06 am

Much of the narrative is strictly historical, but there is also a polemical edge. Spencer wants his history to support three contentions, two of which should not be contentious at all. That we should talk about "atheisms rather than atheism" is self-evident. While the likes of Saint-Simon and Comte had a naive faith in the power of science and reason to create an orderly, happy utopia, later existentialist thinkers such as Nietzsche saw that "much must collapse because it was built on this faith" and looked forward only to a "long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval".

Fail. Treating atheism as an ideology and then claiming it is several ideologies. Twat.

Nor is there much to disagree with in the claim that atheism was from the start "a constructive and creative phenomenon", not just concerned to tear down the old order but to erect something more enlightened and rational in its place. Even the various atheistic libertines who thought all morality was an illusion believed that a world without constraint would be superior to the religious status quo.

Still treating it like an ideology. Atheism doesn't have a start. Theism started, some people never bought in, some did but then dumped it.

What is more debatable is the contention that "the history of atheism is best seen as a series of disagreements about authority" rather than one primarily about the existence of God. "To deny God was not simply to deny God," writes Spencer. "It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes it inspired and the judgment that reassured it."

Not debatable. Plain wrong. Atheism is about the existence of gods. Nothing else.

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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#4  Postby Fenrir » May 01, 2014 8:23 am

The title of the work in question makes interesting commentary about potential ideological preconceptions all by itself IMO.

The review suggests this book might not be as rank or partisan as many though.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#5  Postby mrjonno » May 01, 2014 9:05 am

That shows a common religious fallacy , that believing in god is the 'norm' and atheists are some weird offshoot of normal society.

To me I treat Christianity in the way in the same way as someone who is into sadomasochism and has a dungeon in their house where they have whipping parties. Sure its weird, freaky but also their right and might be of academic interest in why they do it but its sure is not the 'norm'.

Atheists are not an oppressed minority (in Europe), we are the majority and its Christianity that has the weird freaks and is in danger of dying out
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#6  Postby Will S » May 01, 2014 9:55 am

For me, the oddest paragraph in the review is this one:
Spencer is here promoting the conception of "religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions". On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ's resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good. If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines , "tilting at theological windmills". But as Spencer himself argues, we didn't see "theological liberalism redrawing the lines" until the last decades of the 19th century, and, even then, only a minority accepted the new map.

Well, exactly. It isn't atheists who have 'have spectacularly missed the point'; it's the huge mass of religious people who have claim, and who continue to claim, that religion entails a 'set of verifiable propositions': that there's a God, that Jesus was God incarnate, that Jesus rose from the dead etc. When arguing about such matters, atheists are certainly not 'tilting at theological windmills'; they are directly addressing the factual claims which their opponents make.

It's strange that Julian Baggini should write a review which is basically sympathetic to the book - '...there is much more that is undeniably true and important to know...', yet it seems that, in one sentence, he demolishes the book's central thesis.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#7  Postby Thguoht » May 01, 2014 12:15 pm

mrjonno wrote:Atheists are not an oppressed minority (in Europe), we are the majority


That's not actually true.

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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#8  Postby mrjonno » May 01, 2014 5:52 pm

I'm including atheists and not giving a shit, regular turn out to church in England is 2%. Whatever way you want to spin that 2% is not a lot
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#9  Postby Varangian » May 01, 2014 7:49 pm

mrjonno wrote:I'm including atheists and not giving a shit, regular turn out to church in England is 2%. Whatever way you want to spin that 2% is not a lot


Less than 5% are regular churchgoers in Sweden. Sure, there are many who hold religious beliefs and newagey views, but atheism, agnosticism and "apatheism" are the norm.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#10  Postby Scot Dutchy » May 01, 2014 8:12 pm

mrjonno wrote:I'm including atheists and not giving a shit, regular turn out to church in England is 2%. Whatever way you want to spin that 2% is not a lot


Once again the numbers game. Oh they do love it.

Church attendance is never mentioned. They always start out about how many of these there or those and using the catch all xtians. Here in a city of around 500,000 there are at the last count 4 regular churches. One is a catholic where all the services are in English.

The official figures still don't show the real picture. I live across the road from one of the remaining protestant churches. If 10 -15 people enter the church on a Sunday then that is its max.

Surveys never give a true picture because religions have been playing the numbers game for years.

The catholic church is cutting its dioceses in the country from 50+ to 5! Now work that one out.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#11  Postby ADParker » May 02, 2014 2:26 am

Aca wrote:

Nor is there much to disagree with in the claim that atheism was from the start "a constructive and creative phenomenon", not just concerned to tear down the old order but to erect something more enlightened and rational in its place. Even the various atheistic libertines who thought all morality was an illusion believed that a world without constraint would be superior to the religious status quo.

So basically it is more of the same; equating what some people who happen to be atheists do with atheism, and what the word means, itself. :roll:
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#12  Postby JVRaines » May 02, 2014 2:43 am

"To deny God was not simply to deny God," writes Spencer. "It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes it inspired and the judgment that reassured it."

Oh dear, not this moldy chestnut again. Without God you have to reject social structure, ethics and hope. Uh-huh. Right.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#13  Postby THWOTH » May 16, 2014 1:28 pm

Aca wrote: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/a ... cer-review

Much of the narrative is strictly historical, but there is also a polemical edge. Spencer wants his history to support three contentions, two of which should not be contentious at all. That we should talk about "atheisms rather than atheism" is self-evident. While the likes of Saint-Simon and Comte had a naive faith in the power of science and reason to create an orderly, happy utopia, later existentialist thinkers such as Nietzsche saw that "much must collapse because it was built on this faith" and looked forward only to a "long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval".

Nor is there much to disagree with in the claim that atheism was from the start "a constructive and creative phenomenon", not just concerned to tear down the old order but to erect something more enlightened and rational in its place. Even the various atheistic libertines who thought all morality was an illusion believed that a world without constraint would be superior to the religious status quo.

What is more debatable is the contention that "the history of atheism is best seen as a series of disagreements about authority" rather than one primarily about the existence of God. "To deny God was not simply to deny God," writes Spencer. "It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes it inspired and the judgment that reassured it."

'Denying God', as he puts it, is to deny the legitimacy of those who invoke the authorisation of a deity, but that does not mean that atheists are renegades, upstarts, agitators or usurpers, or that they should be defined as such - and less that contemporary atheism should necessarily be seen in this particular historical context. Because the societies of the developed world generally tolerate political challenge and dissent, and very few people exist in a state of justified fear about declaring a disbelief in this-or-that deity, contemporary atheism is more plainly focused on the question of god-claims and the folderol trailed in their wake.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#14  Postby Animavore » May 16, 2014 2:46 pm

"Denying god(s)" sounds like something you would charge someone with when they refuse to convert to your relgion.

I can't get past the subtitle of the book, The Origin of a Species. Sick of atheism being made synonymous with or tied to an acceptance of modern biological theories. The underlying assumption made when theists do this is that "evolution" is our religion and that Darwin's book is our "Bible".
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#15  Postby THWOTH » May 16, 2014 4:05 pm

Absolutely. It also sets a context of atheists being a set apart from so-called normal society, as-if a separate species of human. The publisher would probably have had some input in the title though, with an eye to the target audience - a title the fervent believer and disbeliever might be happy to have on their bookshelves.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#16  Postby tolman » May 16, 2014 4:08 pm

The basic problem is the linkage of people making criticisms of one or more religions with 'atheism' when it's effectively a commentary on social politics which anyone can take part in, assuming that no-one will try and kill them for trying to take part.

At least in civilised countries, there's pretty much nothing which could be said about religions by an atheist which couldn't be said by an agnostic, and there's a very little [and a fairly well-defined very little] which couldn't also be said by a theist.

If some would-be cult leader started spouting off about being talked to by God and knowing that God wants him to collect a harem of barely-legal girls to service his every need, most theists would basically be as confident as me that the would-be leader is either lying or deluded and that they're spouting self-serving bollocks.
About the only real differences would be that the theist might also consider the influence of supernatural evil entities as one possible reason behind delusion, and might be reluctant to consider or utter criticisms which could be used as arguments against their own beliefs.

If there are multiple atheismS because some atheists might engage in debates regarding the merits or demerits of other religions while some don't, and because there may be a range of views among atheists regarding society's historical and current dependence on religion, then there are multiple CatholicismS for exactly the same reason.
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#17  Postby cavarka9 » May 16, 2014 5:31 pm

They soo want to understand us while safeguarding their faith, that seems to be the endeavor of this dialectical exercise .
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Re: Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review

#18  Postby Thomas Eshuis » May 16, 2014 6:09 pm

:sigh:
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