Expand your atheist library

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Ronald Dworkin,

Matthew Kneale, An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention

Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism

Stephen Bullivant,

John Hughes (ed.), The Unknown God: Sermons responding to the new atheists

Every big quake is followed by tremors. So it is with atheism: having survived the earth-shattering experience of New Atheism, readers are now gently rocked by a variety of publications by, about, against, and for atheists. The five here reviewed range widely in tone, topic and quality.

Ronald Dworkin was an eminent American philosopher before his death earlier this year. Religion without God is the product of his 2011 Einstein Lectures, which he had intended to revise and extend. Three short chapters and a brief afterthought make an informed and subtle case for “religious atheism”, not in the sense of atheist churches, but of those, like Dworkin and Einstein himself, who deny the God of Abraham but cannot abandon the conviction that “some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe” or that “human life has objective meaning or importance”.

The subject allows Dworkin to range through questions of science, the sublime, and the merits of beauty as a guide to truth in chapter two, and the problems of defining and protect specifically religious rights in chapter three. The book concentrates too much into too little space (although the author can hardly be blamed for that) but retains a tone of measured caution throughout.

If Dworkin’s is the book a careful scholar, Kneale’s that of an excited novelist. Irreligious by birth, he embarked on his history of “belief” in order to satisfy his curiosity about why on earth people invented gods and all the paraphernalia that goes with them. This is a history by someone who believes it’s all made up.

This doesn’t make Kneale contemptuous but nor does it make him a scholar, and he treats an awful lot of tentative scholarship as if it were received wisdom and an awful lot of received wisdom as if were established fact. Thus his claims that the prophet Hosea invented Jewish monotheism pretty much single-handedly, or that St Paul re-invented Christianity, will surprise and delight many but will elicit from others a sigh of exhausted frustration.

More problematic than this, and certainly more disappointing, is Kneale’s writing. The book chokes on rhetorical questions – I counted 30 in the first chapter alone – and often reads like a bad GCSE essay: “One day, around 9500BC…”(page 12), “One day, around 2570 BC…”(page 28), “One day, perhaps around 1200BC…”(page 36), “One day probably between 750 and 722 BC…” (page 47). How the author of English Passengers should come to write like this truly does defy belief.

Kneale is at least genuinely interested in religion, which he calls “humankind’s greatest imaginative project”. Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk aren’t. They know that atheism is right and that it isn’t a religion, hasn’t caused atrocities, isn’t intolerant, and so forth, and their books proves it. Perhaps such myth busting is necessary in parts of America but to English reader it comes across as gratingly self-righteous. 50 myths will delight the unfaithful but is not for those who see the world in colour vision.

Stephen Bullivant’s Faith and Unbelief is altogether different, a short, learned, and witty book that looks at atheism from an explicitly Catholic position and asks whether atheism is really the fault of Christians, can atheists be saved, and what is the point of dialogue with unbelievers.

The tone is one of cautious optimism throughout, and the style consistently self-deprecating (the comparison with Blackford and Schüklenk could hardly be greater). Most originally, Bullivant opens with a chapter on the atheism of Christianity, exploring not the short-lived ‘death of God’ movement, but the way that atheism sits close to the heart of Christian theology and experience, drawing on Dostoyevsky, Mother Theresa and Herbert McCabe in the process. The result is a finely wrought miniature, and a valuable guide to those wanting to pick their way through the slowly transforming landscape of contemporary belief and atheism.

There is no need to take the small coterie of polemicists known collectively as the New Atheists particularly seriously.” So writes David Bentley Hart in the last of the nine sermons in The Unknown God. It is one of the few statements in the book with which to disagree.

Hart’s point that the New Atheist gang is too philosophically-shallow, theologically-ignorant, historically-biased, and scientifically-partial to merit a response is understandable. Years hence they will no doubt be read as much as Toland, Tindal, Collins, and Wooston, the terrors of the 18th century deistic scare. But they are taken seriously today which is why Christian thinkers should do the same. The all-star line-up for this volume suggests that already are, for which we should be glad.

The sermons in The Unknown God were preached at Jesus College, Cambridge in Lent term 2011, a service of enormous quality, if varying length, if the book is anything to go by. They are witty, generous and learned and the volume manages to avoid repetition, except in as far as most contributors note the exhausting anger of the New Atheists.

Conor Cunningham spells out the ontological suicide of ultra-Darwinism; John Cornwell cleverly combines the story of three sets of brothers in talking about morality and imagination; Hart rehearses the revolutionary impact of Christianity on the ancient world; Hughes outlines what atheism owes Christianity; Beattie wrestles with scripture and suffering. The book’s only real mistake is to begin with Terry Eagleton, whose talk on ‘Faith, Knowledge and Terror’ is so good, clever and genuinely funny, that the collection never quite reaches this dizzying height again. Still, if one can get over the rather steep price to pay for a book of about 100 pages, The Unknown God is a worthy addition to the anti-atheist library.

Nick Spencer’s Atheists: the Origin of the Species will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014

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