Atheists in Foxholes

By Stan Persky | March 3, 2006

Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 119 pages, $US 9.95, 2003)


The other night, while watching the American network CBS’s version of the evening news, I saw what has to qualify as an early contender for the most macabre and nutty “strange news” item of the nascent year: military funeral protesters! Apparently, there’s a Christian fundamentalist minister named Fred Phelps, who runs the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, and he leads his flock around the country to conduct protests at the military funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

No, the flaky Phelps is not tastelessly interfering with family grief to demonstrate against the unpopular American war in the Middle East, as might be thought. Instead, he’s tastelessly venting his Christian wrath against, of all people, homosexuals. So, then, is Phelps protesting permitting gays in the military who have subsequentlly been killed in Baghdad? Nope, again. Rather, Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbours homosexuals, or “fags,” as he likes to refer to them. This is complicated, no? So, if America got rid of homos, then God would not punish American soldiers in Iraq? Hmm. Whoever said theology was easy?

Back in the 1990s, Fred’s phalange of loving souls used to carry out their protests at the funerals of people who had died of AIDS-related causes, but AIDS funerals have been declining in recent years, or have simply slipped below the media photo-op radar. You’d think that if Fred wanted to denounce homos these days, he’d picket showings of Brokeback Mountain. But no, now the reverend’s protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDS (Improvised Explosive Devices) — a major killer of GIs in Iraq. “The scriptures are crystal clear that when God sets out to punish a nation, it is with the sword. An IED is just a broken-up sword,” explains one of Phelps’ followers. Gee, thanks, I didn’t know that. Nor would I have been able to connect the dots between slaughtered young men in uniform in distant lands and those “harboured” homosexuals, without benefit of such scriptural interpretation.

Phelps and clan (or is that Klan?) should no doubt be carted off to the nearest local Bedlam and be made to stop pestering tearful widows, sisters and other bereaved family members. But since, appearances to the contrary, the U.S. is still a liberal democracy, Phelps is under the protection of the free speech provisions of the American constitution (although various states are busily passing legislation to keep the anti-gay wingnuts at a minimally respectful distance from the interrment rituals).

There’s a final mildly bizarre twist to this theological contretemps. A large group of motorcyclists who call themselves the Patriot Guard, but who look rather like the Hell’s Angels, now roar up to the ceremonies to protect the funeral-goers from the loonies by forming a flag-waving line between the grievers and the aggrieved. Only in America? Well, if only.

In recent weeks, as most media viewers know, TV and computer screens have been filled by mobs of Muslims in cities around the world protesting, sometimes violently, the publication of nasty cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. As a typical mild-mannered Canadian, I of course regretted the publication of these ill-timed attempts to needlessly inflame Islamic tempers. While remaining mindful of the right to freedom of expression (as all typical Canadians are), I also, as a typical Canadian, was quietly content that Canadian mainstream media chose not to reprint the offensive cartoons. But when the ill-tempered cartoon protesters began burning flags, cars, embassies, and eventually each other, as a typical mild-mannered Canadian I of course thought their protests just a tad excessive. Naturally, I hope that the Reverend Fred doesn’t appear at the funerals of those killed in the cartoon melee.

Out of the corner of my eye (I really couldn’t bring myself to focus my full attention on this), I duly noted that in Nigeria, as part of the cartoon protest spin-off, Christians and Muslims were slaughtering each other and burning down each other’s houses of worship. Reportedly, a hundred or so people were murdered in the space of three days. I didn’t even know that Nigeria was engaged in a holy struggle between these two major religious denominations, but it is. Nigeria?, I dully wondered to myself, having previously supposed that Nigerians were followers of some sort of charming Animist faith. The reason I couldn’t fully attend to Nigeria is because I was busy making sure that Iraq wasn’t descending into religious civil war.

In that benighted land, Sunni Muslims were blowing up houses of worship of Shia Muslims, and the latter were retaliating in kind. Unfortunately, you can’t blow up mosques without killing human beings, and within the blink of a TV-watching eye, some hundred and fifty people had been murdered, though both parties forcefully blamed not each other but the occupying American troops for the theological-civil strife, and then went off to burn a few more American flags, and set a few more IEDs for unsuspecting foreign soldiers, whose funerals will be disrupted by Fanatic Fred.

All this in the name of God, Allah, and Jehovah.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in god-unfearing lands. In fact, out of another corner of my eye, I noticed the other day that in godless, totalitarian, consumerist China, a prisoner — formerly, some sort of writer, I think — who had protested against the regime during the Tienanmen demonstrations of 1989 had just been released after 17 years’ imprisonment (his crime was to have thrown a paint-filled eggshell at the portrait of Mao Tsetung that graces Beijing’s main political square), and thanks to years of torture, solitary confinement, and other sensory deprivations, he had been reduced to a permanently gibbering shadow of a human being. At least in godless China, no one was claiming that God had served as an intermediary to this atrocity. Still, I felt a shudder, and thought, there but for the grace of not god but a tenuous liberal democracy, go I.

So, if not all in the name of God, nonetheless quite a lot for the alleged love of Him.

Finally, last weekend, I read a review in the Globe Books section, under the heading, “The battle for the soul of Islam,” of a book by Khaled Abou El Fadl titled The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper, 2006). Well, good, someone making the case for moderate Islam against the extremist Islamists, I thought. Or that was what I was supposed to think. What I actually thought was, While I’m glad there are moderate Muslims, and moderate Christians, and moderate everything else, what would probably be more useful is for everybody to read and hear that all this belief in God — moderate, extreme, and Fanatic Fred plain-barmy — is irrational, without evidence, unjustified, deluded, and extremely unlikely to be true.

Which brings me to Julian Baggini’s little primer, Atheism.


About 20 years ago, a writer friend of mine said that the job of a writer ought to be to find the most difficult subject he or she could think of and to investigate it and write about it. This friend of mine added that he thought that the political, if not necessarily the artistic, job of a writer is, as much as posssible, to prevent people from bopping each other over the head. I’m considering the possibility that maybe belief in God is one of those difficult subjects, especially these days, and that investigation of, and writing about it might reduce the number of people bopped over the head in God’s name.

I never imagined that belief in God would be a difficult subject. Growing up, I thought that we were moving into an increasingly secular ideological world. Of course, not having a God around left more than enough existential problems about the meaning of life to worry about, but it did mean that all those 4th-19th century arguments about, Does God exist?, could be left to history. Not so. Within the last quarter-century, there has been an amazing rebirth, revival and militant resurgence of belief in God and Allah in the United States and in Muslim countries (including places like Nigeria, even). I should mention that this is not (yet) a major problem in mild-mannered, moderate, multicultural Canada. (According to the latest polls, only about 55 per cent of Canadians profess a strong belief in God, though another 20 per cent, in typical Canadian fashion, prefer a “spiritual” New Agey option, the belief that there’s got to be a Higher Something or Other, and some 13 per cent are either agnostics or atheists. This compares to undoubting belief-in-God rates in the U.S. of at least 80-90 per cent, and a comparable figure in Muslim countries. By contrast, godless Frenchfolk, Germans, Australians, Spaniards and others clock in at somewhere between 35 and 50 per cent when it comes to belief in God, and there’s a more or less equal number who are non-believers.)

But while you would think that in the midst of all this fervour, the question, Does God exist?, might be a topic of public discourse, it isn’t. There’s not a godless politician in America who could get elected to dogcatcher if the word got out that he didn’t believe in the scriptural Word. Although post-game athlete interviews on TV frequently feature a person giving all glory to God, seldom does one see a talking head on the tube suggesting that God doesn’t exist and that belief in God is a waste of time.

Julian Baggini is a British philosopher and the editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His Atheism is a 2003 entry in the Oxford “very short introductions” series of pamphlet-books, and is a good place to begin thinking about the non-existence of God. It’s probably a better starting point than, say, philosopher Daniel Dennett’s more recent, ambitious and intellectually tricky Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006).

Like many others, Baggini is a long-lapsed believer (in his case, in Roman Catholicism and Methodism), but unlike some others, he has a sense of humour. Enough so to admit, reflecting on his earlier years, that “it would serve the cause of militant atheism well if I could report beatings by nuns and fondlings in the sacristy by randy priests, but neither gaudy tale would be true.” In fact, there’s nothing other than a benign religious background, with parents who were not “Bible-thumpers” and teachers who were never “anything other than kind.” So, no scars of indoctrination. However, by school-leaving time, “I had given up religious belief altogether,” Baggini says. “I had become an atheist, a person who believes there is no God or gods.”

As someone taking on the label of “atheist,” Baggini is aware that the word “conjures up dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening.” Baggini does his best to suggest that atheism is not quite as gloomy as it’s made out to be, and while it’s simply defined as “the belief that there is no God or gods,” it does not mean the belief that “there is no God and no morality, or no God and no meaning to life; or again no God and no human goodness.” Finally, contrary to some popular images of atheistic beliefs, it doesn’t mean an absolute denial of the existence of God or denial of the possibility of a God. It’s only intrinsically negative when it comes to belief about God, and it’s usually accompanied by “rejection of any supernatural or transcendental reality.” That is, atheists tend not to believe in immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, or supernatural powers. Further, atheism contrasts not only with theism, but also with agnosticism, the claim that “we can’t know whether God exists and so the only rational option is to reserve judgment.” Atheists believe that the preponderance of evidence suggesting the non-existence of God is sufficient to suspend one’s agnostic suspension of belief or disbelief. While we can’t absolutely know whether or not God exists, we know enough that it’s not necessary to reserve judgment.

While atheists aren’t necessarily hard-line physicalists (people who believe that only materials objects exist), they do tend to be motivated by naturalism, “a belief that there is only the natural world and not any supernatural one.” Most atheists, Baggini claims, “see themselves as realists — their atheism is a part of their willingness to square up to the world as it is and face it without recourse to superstition or comforting fictions about a life to come or a benevolent power looking after us.”


The heart of Baggini’s account is his presentation of “the case for atheism.” Its bottom line is that there simply isn’t strong evidence for a God or anything else supernatural, and in fact, there’s quite a bit of what might be called “negative” evidence suggesting the absence of evidence for God, or simply the non-existence of God.

Throughout the argument, Baggini makes a clear distinction between dogmatic or militant atheists and moderate, middle-of-the-road, nice atheists like himself. The philosophical difference is that dogmatic atheists (and dogmatic theists, for that matter) hold indefeasible beliefs, whereas moderate atheists concede that their views are fallible and that if the evidence were otherwise, they would happily change their minds.

On the positive side of Baggini’s case for atheism, there’s overwhelming evidence for the existence of the natural world and the mortality of human beings, and no evidence for anything else. For example, everything we know about consciousness suggests that minds, thoughts, and sentences are produced by material, finite brains, and nothing leads us to think that minds are a feature of souls that continue to exist after our deaths. To get to the case for atheism, a few things have to be said about “how to make a case for anything.” If you’re already dubious about the supernatural, what’s interesting about this issue turns out to be, in large part, the intellectual manoeuvres involved in making cases.

Case-making, Baggini points out, is usually done through a combination of argument, evidence, and rhetoric. “Argument,” in philosophy, is the term used for sets of inter-connected reasons for thinking something is true, and they range from watertight logical syllogisms to looser, real world “abductive” arguments, or “arguments to the best explanation,” as they’re known. Like arguments, evidence can also be strong or weak.

Rhetoric is the odd man out in this triumverate because even though there’s a lot of rhetoric around, “good rhetoric does not make a better case, it merely makes it more persuasive.” Preachers and politicians, Baggini notes, tend traditionally to go for rhetoric. Baggini cites as a rhetorical example the alleged remark of Jesus (in Matthew, 12:30), “He who is not with me is against me,” a rhetorical ploy adopted by President George W. Bush a couple of thousand years later when he declared that countries were either “with us or with the terrorists.” As Baggini says, “This is pure rhetoric because, although potentially persuasive, it has no basis in fact or logic. It is simply not true that a person who is not for Bush or Jesus must be against them.” Making such distinctions is the sort of thinking or frame of mind necessary if there is to be an even minimally rational discussion about the existence of God, although as Baggini ruefully suspects, rationality in these debates tends to be a luxury.

What constitutes evidence, and especially good evidence, Baggini admits, “is a big issue, but the key general principle is that evidence is stronger if it is available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions; and worse if it is confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions.” Baggini argues that “all the strong evidence tells in favour of atheism, and only weak evidence tells against it. In any ordinary case, this would be enougth to establish that atheism is true. The situation is comparable to that of water freezing at zero degrees centigrade; all the strong evidence suggests it does. Only the weak evidence of anecdote, myth, hearsay, and illusionists tells against it.” In the case of theism, the evidence is uniformly weak: it ranges from miraculously weeping statues of saints and the textual claims of biblical books, to near-death experiences and psychics who claim to be able to contact the dead. What evidence there is for God, the afterlife, heaven and miracles is all far from “strong evidence” available to inspection by everybody on repeated occasions.

One sort of argument frequently heard in theistic debates concerns the inconvenient refusal of God to make a definitive appearance. The theistic reply to this rude fact is often the invocation of the principle that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Sometimes this is couched in the form of a challenge: “Well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, can you?” The answer to that is, No, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but people who don’t believe God exists don’t have to prove God doesn’t exist; the burden of proof for the existence of something as extraordinary as God rests with the claimant. Or, as Baggini puts it, “Indeed, it is hard to see what other evidence there could be for something not being there other than the failure to find any evidence that it is there. Something which does not exist leaves no mark, so it can only be an absence of marks of its existence that can provide evidence for its non-existence.” Further, this sort of absence “really is strong evidence for absence.”

It may be in order at this point to take a step back from the details of the God argument and ask, Who are these arguments intended to reach?, or, Who are the potential readers of books like Baggini’s? As anyone who’s ever been in a “Does God exist?” discussion knows, it usually turns out, notwithstanding all the talk about evidence, that there are irreconciliable criterial differences that lie between the disputants when it comes to deciding what counts in determining whether a God exists. The theist either disputes the importance of the absence-of-evidence argument or else shifts ground to reports of a faith experience, which is counted as incontrovertible private evidence (as in, “I simply know that God is with me, and nothing you can say will change my mind”). The non-believer then asks, reasonably enough, How can we know whether those private faith experiences are true or not? I doubt that the impasse can be rationally resolved.

So, books like Baggini’s can hardly be aimed at dogmatic theists. I think their initial readership are atheists or proto-atheists who want to be reassured that there are others in the world who share their views. In fundamentalist parts of the U.S. and Muslim countries, maintaining atheistic views must be a pretty lonely business. Secondly, arguments for atheism are likely directed at people who are genuinely uncertain about but interested in questions of God’s existence. They’re people who are interested in whether rational arguments for the existence of a God amount to anything, and they are people who are willing to consider a question like, “What’s the difference between a faith experience and an hallucination?”

Probably, more people would be amenable to such considerations if there were more public declarations of atheism available. All those football wide receivers who rather bizarrely declare, “First, I give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ, amen!”, when asked in interviews about passes they caught in the endzone, must assume their “testimony” has some impact. Maybe other punditti, asked about, say, a new civic transportation system or reform of some health care scheme, could begin by replying, “Well, since I don’t think God exists, I assume that we’ll have to figure this out by ourselves.” Perhaps if there were enough public avowals of atheism, the subject could get on the general agenda.

Baggini devotes a chapter apiece to “atheist ethics” and the meanings of life for atheists. I think the ethical issue is relatively straightforward. It’s simply not the case that if there isn’t a God, social chaos will ensue. Humans are social animals who prefer to live with each other and are likely to recognize that in order to do so, whether or not there’s a God, they have to devise some rules, such as not arbitrarily bopping each other over the head, and institutions to support those rules. Of course, there’s no guarantee that people, left to their own devices, will produce a democratic, egalitarian moral order, but then, people left to God’s devices have produced more than their share of moral tyrannies.

The meaning of life issue is trickier, I think. Baggini does his best to put a good face on the prospect of life in a universe without a pre-ordained purpose, life which ends in death. I’m more inclined to think, as other philosophers have put it, that there’s a “tragic sense” to life. The tragedy of death can be mitigated by various experiences, in art, eros, mountain-climbing, the creation of non-violent civil arrangements and whatever else, all of which might add up to a “good life,” but I see no good reason to deny that it all occurs within a context of senseless mortality. Given that we’ve become more self-conscious about the absurdity of death in recent centuries, I suppose that ought to incline us to be more sympathetic to various efforts to extend life, if not necessarily to embark upon the sort of immortality project that futurist Ray Kurzweil describes in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005).

On the whole, Baggini’s brief treatise is helpful. It’s written in understandable language, it is well-argued, and it puts a much-needed debate on the table. Oddly, Baggini is not much interested in, or very patient with, the “rational arguments” for and against the existence of a God. This is odd because I suspect a lot of his potential readers are precisely the sort of people who are interested in such arguments. Baggini dismisses such arguments by saying, “to my mind it is not worth spending too much time on them for the simple reason that these arguments don’t provide the reasons why people become religious.” I think this is mistaken on two counts: first, the discussion is not directed to diehard believers who aren’t going to be moved by anything, but to people who are amenable to evidence, both material and conceptual. Such people are the ones most likely to be drawn to these traditional conceptually-based arguments and who want to know whether they amount to anything. Second, since God, if one existed, isn’t the sort of entity that provides physical evidence, the only alternative to “faith experiences” is rational conceptions that argue for the possibility of a God.

In any case, there are three traditional rational arguments, the ontological, the teleological and the cosmological arguments. The ontological argument is associated with a medieval monk named Anselm and hinges on semantic play. The way you get to the ontological argument, as Baggini explains, is to begin with a concept of a God that is “a supremely perfect entity. Now a perfect entity that did not exist is clearly not supremely perfect, since an entity which is the same but existent would be superior. So the concept of a supremely perfect entity must be a concept of an existing entity, and therefore by examining the concept of God alone we can see that God must exist by pain of contradiction.” Many subsequent philosophers have driven trucks through the holes in this argument, but as early as Anselm’s time, a fellow monk pointed out that you could think up a “perfect island” or a “perfect hockey team” (okay, he didn’t say “perfect hockey team”), but that thinking it up didn’t make it exist.

The next idea, the teleological argument, has popped up in contemporary form under the heading of “intelligent design.” It’s the claim that life on earth is intricate, displays evidence of design, and therefore must have been created by a divine intelligence, namely, God. Medieval versions of the argument began with Thomas Aquinas, gained steam in the 19th century, and have reappeared in 21st century courtrooms, to increasingly little effect. That’s because the design argument was decisively refuted by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and nothing since Darwin’s publication of his Origin of Species in 1859 has shaken the refutation.

The final traditional argument is the cosmological one. In its late medieval form, it was an argument about cause-and-effect in relation to the universe. The argument wasn’t very persuasive because while arguing that everything in the cosmos must be caused, it posits an uncaused God as the ultimate cause. The problem is in the doubting question, “But who or what caused God?” This is the form of the argument to which Baggini gives rather short shrift, but I think it’s the modern version of the cosmological argument that’s the most interesting of the conceptual arguments about God.

The modern version of cosmology focuses on the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. As people such as Simon Singh in Big Bang (Harper, 2004) and physicist Brian Greene in The Fabric of the Cosmos (Vintage, 2004) explain, we have a fairly good, albeit weird, evolutionary account of the universe since its inception about 15 billion years ago. An infinitismal “something” explodes, initiating both time and space (and eventually, us). The temptation, however, is to ask, What caused the Big Bang, or, What was there before the Big Bang? The technical answer is either Nothing, or We Don’t Know. But more important, can we even sensibly ask such a question? How can you ask about “before” when there is no time prior to the singular event that also “creates” time, and how can you ask about “there” or “where” before you have “space”?

In the inability to answer questions about the origin of the Big Bang or to even conceptualize questions about the instant of it, there’s a conceptual opening. I don’t know if it’s an opening for a God (and if it is, it doesn’t seem much like the God of the major monotheisms or even the God of wide receivers in football games), but it’s an opening for “something.” In the vastness of time and space, and in light of the recognition of our relative insignificance and its mortal conclusion, you can see how someone might be tempted by such a “something,” and might further be tempted to think of it as a “Higher Something.” I don’t think such thinking yields anything more than 17th and 18th century Deism, but Deism is at least the most rational and least offensive of the theisms. In any case, it’s an argument that I think Baggini ought to engage.

Apart from that complaint, Baggini’s Atheism is sensible, clear and helpful. I tend to be something of a despairing disbeliever, so I’m not sure that it, or similar professions of non-faith, will do much good. Probably, pundits proudly proclaiming disbelief to counter professing professional athletes would be more effective. But given the circumstances, philosophical investigations like Baggini’s are the available alternative to fundamentalist preachers, mad bombers, and the deadly “clash of superstitions.” Left to their own devices, the believers won’t just go away.

Vancouver, March 3, 2006.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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