Sorting the Chaff from the Wheat

A Review of Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003)

Peter S. Williams

Dr. Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, has added atheism to the subjects covered by the Oxford University Press series A Very Short Introduction.  Nigel Warburton, author of a number of introductory philosophy textbooks, nails his colors to the mast by endorsing Baggini’s slim volume on the back cover as: ‘The best short explanation of the best explanation.’  Nailing my own colors to the mast, I must admit to the contrary belief that theism, and not atheism, provides ‘the best explanation’ of life, the universe, and everything.  However, leaving aside the atheistic flag Baggini chooses to run up the mast, I cannot fail to observe that his ship is far from being sea worthy; indeed, it is jerry rigged with so many false analogies and straw men that it deserves a place on the shelf next to Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1957).  Indeed, the fact that Baggini describes Why I Am Not A Christian as ‘A great atheist read’ (p. 106) should indicate to those familiar with Russell’s notorious gift to Christian apologetics the general tenor of Baggini’s successor.

It is always difficult to criticize an introductory text (especially when it is ‘A Very Short Introduction’), because one appreciates the many constraints placed upon an author by such a brief and non-scholastic brief.  However, Baggini sets his sights laudably high and aims ‘to keep the book readable and enjoyable, avoiding academic dryness, whilst at the same time endeavoring to maintain a high standard to intellectual rigor and integrity.  It is for others to judge whether I have succeeded.’ (Preface)  While Baggini succeeds admirably in delivering readability, I am sorry to say that he does not succeed in making good on the latter half of his commitment.  (I can’t quite decide whether this failure added to or subtracted from my reading enjoyment!)

Baggini’s Biographical Notes

Baggini attended a Roman Catholic primary school, and ‘was raised in what could be seen as a gentle, benign religious environment.  Neither of my parents were Bible-thumpers and none of my teachers was anything other than kind.’ (p. 1.)   The ‘constant repetition and reinforcement’ (p. 1.) of Christian beliefs he underwent as a child constituted only a ‘mild form of indoctrination’ (p. 1.) and ‘the power the Church exerted over me was very weak.  When I moved to a non-Catholic secondary school I soon moved over to Methodism, and by the time I left school I had given up religious belief altogether.  I had become an atheist, a person who believes there is no God or gods.’ (p. 1.)

The one effect Baggini claims for his short-lived period of aquiesance with Christianity is that ‘the very word “atheist” would conjure up dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening.  Belief in God and obedience to his will was constitutive of our conception of goodness, and therefore any belief that rejected God was by definition opposed to the good.  Atheists could only belong to the dark side.’ (p. 1-2.)  Baggini launches his atheistic voyage on the basis of the misconception that theism implies that atheists are incapable of knowing right from wrong or, therefore, of being ‘good people’, when in reality it merely implies that no one is capable of being perfect without receiving God’s grace and transforming intervention (an intervention that is never consummated in this world).  Theists believe God’s necessary nature constitutes the objective ontological standard of goodness; the epistemological question of how we know good (and, by contrast, evil) is a separate issue.  Hence Baggini is actually, in a sense, being quite consistent with theism when he says that ‘Goodness and belief in God are, to my mind, entirely separate’ (p. 2.)

However, there is a sense in which Baggini has put his finger on a significant public relations problem for atheism.  Atheism appears to be a negative philosophy in two ways: first of all, it is the negation of theism (a-theism) rather than the assertion of an alternative worldview; and second, the negation of theism appears to many people, both theists and atheists, to entail the negation of objective values (goodness, beauty, even truth).

Like many atheists, whose ‘atheism is motivated at least in part by their naturalism’ (p. 4.), Baggini calls upon naturalism,  ‘a belief that there is only the natural world and not any supernatural one’ (p. 4.) as ‘a positive world view’ (p. 2.) alternative to theism.  Defining atheism so that it means naturalism (thereby excluding the religious atheism of Buddhism) secures Baggini more than the mere denial of God, but what it secures him is simply many more denials, all grounded in the denial that there is anything more to reality than the natural, physical world: ‘the only kind of stuff is physical stuff.’ (p. 6.)

This move from atheism to naturalism actually exacerbates Baggini’s second public relations problem, for naturalism appears to rule out belief in the (nonphysical) human soul (Baggini repudiates eliminative materialism as a logical necessity for physicalists), libertarian free will, and life after death: ‘The atheist’s rejection of belief in God is usually accompanied by a broader rejection of any supernatural or transcendental reality.  For example, an atheist does not usually believe in the existence of immortal souls, life after death, ghosts [neither do many theists], or supernatural powers.’ (p. 3-4.)  More than being a sociological report, this comprehensive list of negations appears to many thinkers, both theistic and atheistic, to be required by the need to be consistent with naturalism.

To overcome his public relations quandary Baggini gives up on life after death and affirms (positively, at last) that: ‘although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. . .  the natural world is home to consciousness, emotion, and beauty and not just atoms and fundamental physical forces.’ (p. 6-7.)  The crucial question is whether this positive affirmation amounts to trying to have one’s cake and eat it.  Can a naturalistic worldview that denies all supernatural and transcendent realities really accommodate ‘the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life’ as Baggini claims?  Theists need not take issue with Baggini when he affirms that ‘Atheists. . . can be more sensitive to aesthetic experience, more moral, or more attuned to natural beauty than many theists.’ (p. 10.)  But it doesn’t follow that ‘There is no more reason for [atheists] to be pessimistic or depressive than there is for the religious to be so.’ (p. 10.)  To justify such a conclusion, Baggini needs to show that these beliefs, experiences and attitudes logically cohere with a naturalistic worldview.  In fact, Baggini ends up explicitly denying the existence of objective values.

Defining Atheism

Baggini is very clear that he wants to argue that theism is false, rather than meaningless: ‘logical positivism’s star has faded and I am unconvinced that the best way to engage with religious believers is to start from the premise that their beliefs are gibberish, rather than just false.’ (p. 109.)

Reiterating his aim to ‘provide a positive case for atheism. . . that is not simply about rubbishing religious belief’ (p. 7.) Baggini deploys the following analogy:

The majority of people in Scotland have what we might call normal beliefs about Loch Ness, beliefs that are ‘so ordinary that they do not require elucidation’ (p. 8.).  They believe that the lake is ‘a natural phenomenon of a certain size, that certain fish live in it, and so on.’ (p. 8.) However, a minority of people believe the loch is home to a monster.  Many people claim to have seen the monster, although no firm evidence has ever been presented.  Suppose the number of monster believing people began to grow until the ‘Nessies’ are no longer a joke, being a ‘Nessie’ becomes the norm, and ‘the people previously thought of as normal. . . are in the minority [and] get their own name, ‘Anessies’ – those who don’t believe in the monster.’ (p. 8.)  Is it true, asks Baggini, to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies (i.e. merely negative)?  Of course not, argues Baggini, ‘because the Anessie’s beliefs predate those of the Nessies’ (p. 8.) and ‘the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even if Nessies had never existed.’ (p. 8.)

The moral Baggini draws from his story is that ‘Atheists subscribe to a certain worldview that includes numerous beliefs about the world and what is in it.  Theists say that there is something else that also exists – God.  If theists did not exist, atheists still would, but perhaps there would be no special name for them.  But since theism has become so dominant in our world. . . atheism has come to be defined in contrast to theism.’ (p. 8-9.)

There are a number of flaws in this argument by false analogy.  For one thing, it is impossible to categorize belief in God as merely belief in ‘something else that also exists’, just one more thing that is believed, on a par with believing in Nessie.  Theism and atheism are in a sense beliefs about the whole nature of reality.  For example, theists and atheists both believe in the existence of stars, but in addition to shared beliefs about nuclear reactions, theists also see stars as created objects sustained in existence by the will of God that shine forth something of the glory and objective beauty of their creator.  Atheists, on the other hand, see stars as uncreated objects that just happen to exist and to look nice to them.  Theists and atheists can see the same stars and accept the same science of star formation etc., but they do not see stars in the same way.  There is common ground, but for both believers and nonbelievers there is also more than common ground at stake.  This ‘more than common ground’ is not a matter of mere subjective ‘seeing as’; both ways of seeing stars is either right or wrong.  In other words, what one believes about God affects what one believes about the rest of reality (just as how one sees the rest of reality affects what one believes about God).  This is simply not true of belief in Nessie.

Then again, it simply isn’t true that ‘the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even if Nessies had never existed.’ (p. 8.)  If Nessies had never existed, then surely no one would have ever thought of positively denying the existence of Nessie.  Likewise, if no one had ever believed in God, it seems unlikely that anyone would ever have thought to positively deny his existence.

Unlike the Nessie story, where ‘the Anessie’s beliefs predate those of the Nessies’ (p. 8.), theism actually predates atheism. [1] As Baggini writes: ‘atheism had its origins in Ancient Greece but did not emerge as an overt and avowed belief system until late in the Enlightenment.’ (p. 74.) 

Baggini’s story relies upon an equation of ‘Anessieism’ with the original, ‘normal’ beliefs about Loch Ness that do not include belief in Nessie.  Baggini’s argument relies upon a disanological equation of atheism with the far from historically normal belief in naturalism.  Historically at least, naturalism has been the ‘parasitic’ assertion that belief in the supernatural is mistaken and therefore all reality is physical, or that reality is only physical rather than physical and supernatural.  Indeed, naturalism arose in ancient Greece partly out of an intellectual dissatisfaction with Greek polytheism.

Baggini Ad Hominem

According to Baggini: ‘Most atheists 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.’ (p. 10.)  Of course, most theists see themselves as realists – their theism 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.  Indeed, many of the truths of Christian theism (e.g. all humans are sinful and subject to judgment) are far from being ‘comforting’.

Baggini accuses theists of ‘blind cheeriness’, of being ‘depressing’, of ‘crass simplicity’, of being ‘darkly comic’, of giving in to ‘comforting idiocy’. (p. 10.)  No doubt these colorful ad homonym generalizations would apply to some theists.  No doubt they would apply equally well to some atheists.  Theists and atheists can psychoanalyze one another until the cows come home [2] , but such analysis can’t vitiate the task of settling the issue of truth, lest we commit the genetic fallacy. [3]

And whether or not atheism leaves ‘fulfillment in our reach’ (p. 11.) as Baggini claims, rather depends upon what sort of beings we are and what sort of fulfillments exist to be reached; which rather depends upon whether or not atheism is true.

Evidence for Anything

Baggini distinguishes between rhetoric on the one hand (‘the use of language to persuade. . . and it can be used to persuade of falsehoods as well as truths’, p. 12), and argument and evidence on the other.  This distinction seems to leave aside all consideration of the role of intuitions in philosophical argument, although he does later refer to ‘the basic laws of logic’ (p. 106), laws which he avers theists subsume to a basic and unwarranted belief in God: ‘the believer often begins with a conviction that God exists that is even stronger than the logician’s belief in their first principles.  This belief trumps all reason.’ (p. 107.)  While I suppose one might possibly glean such an impression from some extreme form of fideistic theism, this assessment would certainly come of something of a surprise to Christian apologists who explicitly affirm their non-negotiable belief in the basic laws of logic (e.g. Norman L. Geisler [4] ).  Few Christian philosophers have thought of God as being above the laws of logic.  Perhaps Baggini is thinking of Alvin Plantinga’s ‘reformed epistemology’ defense of theism as a properly basic belief [5] ; but as Plantinga himself points out, even properly basic beliefs are in principle open to being defeated by other properly basic beliefs.

Baggini suggests that theists are so overwhelmed by the phenomenological certainty that God exists that they cannot participate in rational evaluation of their religious beliefs: ‘they feel the truth of God’s existence so strongly that they can no more doubt it than they can doubt the existence of their own selves.’ (p. 99.)  However, Baggini seems to me to overstate the phenomenological certitude of religious experience somewhat, and I certainly do not see such dogmatic certitude is an implication of Plantinga’s epistemology.  Nor does experience bear out Baggini’s suggestion that religious experience renders theists incapable of rationally evaluating their beliefs.  For example, while a theist may approach an alleged disproof of God with an understandable level of a priori suspicion grounded in what they take themselves to know by prima facie experience, this no more means that they are unable to evaluate that argument rationally than the fact that an atheist will approach an argument for the existence of God with an understandable level of a priori suspicion means that they are unable to evaluate that argument rationally.  People on both sides of the fence can and do change sides after rational inquiry.  One would expect a theist or an atheist to take more convincing one way or the other than an agnostic.

Baggini defines belief in the supernatural as ‘belief in what there is a lack of strong evidence to believe in.  Indeed, sometimes it is belief in something that is contrary to the available evidence. . .  religious belief is a faith position because it goes beyond what there is evidence or argument for.’ (p. 32.)  Readers who are unfamiliar with the tradition of Christian theology, philosophy and apologetics might be misled into accepting this definition, but only such readers would accept it.  Baggini astonishingly represents the story of doubting Thomas [6] , who refused to accept the eye-witness testimony of ten friends for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection (but accepted this reality when he was given his own resurrection encounter), as endorsing ‘the principle that it is good to believe what you have no evidence to believe’ (p. 33.)  Jesus commends people who believe without having to see for themselves, not those who believe without evidence.  Before Jesus graciously offered himself to Thomas for a personal examination, Thomas was hardly being asked to believe without evidence!  As Roger Steer writes:

Faith is not a blind leap in the dark, but personal trust based on rational argument and the weighing of evidence. . .  Jesus had respect for Thomas’ demand for evidence.  There was no expectation that the skeptical disciple should exercise blind trust in the absence of evidence. . .  of course, generations of people since then have been invited to exercise faith without the privilege of sight granted to Thomas, but the point is that through the centuries followers of Christ have never been required to take a step – or make a leap – which is blind or irrational. [7]

Baggini’s critique thus far seems to be more rhetoric than evidence or argument.

Baggini references David Hume’s argument that when it comes to evidence of extraordinary events, such as someone’s claim that their dog spontaneously combusted: ‘the evidence has to be balanced against the much larger amount of evidence that dogs don’t just burst into flames.’ (p. 14.)  However, he doesn’t mention that Hume’s frequently recycled arguments against belief in miracles have received a serious drubbing from a number of contemporary philosophers (both theistic and atheistic). [8] Hume’s argument would justify discounting belief in any event that had never been observed before, without even looking at the evidence for the event in question!

Evidence for Naturalism

Baggini argues that ‘all the strong evidence tells in favor of atheism, and only weak evidence tells against it.’ (p. 16.)  By ‘strong evidence’ he means evidence that is ‘available to inspection by more people on repeated occasions’ (p. 13) [9] , and by ‘weak evidence’ he means evidence that is ‘confined to the testimony of a small number of people on limited occasions.’ (p. 13.)  At least Baggini is prepared to admit that there is evidence for theism; it’s just that he thinks this evidence is weak evidence (evidence on a par with ‘anecdote, myth, hearsay’, p. 16) compared to what he sees as the strong evidence for atheism/naturalism.  A few paragraphs later, however, Baggini suggests that there is ‘a plethora of evidence for the truth of naturalism and an absence of evidence for anything else.’ (p. 17)

Baggini argues that since the contents of human consciousness ‘correlate with particular patterns of brain activity’ (p. 18.), since when brains cease functioning they ‘stop displaying all the signs of conscious life’ (p. 18), and since it therefore seems that consciousness ‘is entirely dependent on our organic brain’, p. 19 (he slurs over the distinctions between being dependent contingently or absolutely and being dependent for ontological existence or for functional expression) therefore: ‘the atheist view that we are mortal, biological organisms is well supported.’ (p. 19.)  Of course, what Baggini means to say is that the naturalistic physicalist view that we are nothing but biological organisms is therefore well supported.  Even if Baggini is right about this (and some Christian theologians would agree that he is) he hasn’t produced a stick with which to beat theism.  The physicality of the human mind does not in itself imply the truth of naturalism or the non-existence of God.  However, Baggini’s observations that consciousness correlates with brain activity and is functionally dependent upon brain activity during our life on earth do not of themselves mandate belief in physicalism, because they are compatible with the belief that consciousness is, ontologically speaking, not absolutely dependent upon the brain for its existence (as opposed to its embodied functional expression).

Surprisingly, the only counter evidence to physicalism Baggini considers is ‘the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences’ (p. 19), evidence which few if any theists would actually cite (and certainly not the best evidence [10] ) for the existence of a non-physical human soul.  Completely ignoring all of the arguments for dualism [11] , Baggini concludes: ‘There really isn’t any stronger evidence since no dead person has ever been able to communicate with the living so freely as to present good evidence that they exist.’ (p. 19.)

Baggini once again resorts to psychoanalyzing everyone who disagrees with him, attributing failure to be convinced by his presentation of the case for physicalism to ‘a strong desire for or belief in life after death.’ (p. 21.)  However, Baggini himself admits that ‘consciousness remains in many ways a mystery’ (p. 18) and that ‘we do not have a rational explanation for how consciousness can be produced in physical brains’ (p. 77).  Nevertheless, he is content to argue that ‘there are rational reasons to suppose consciousness exists because we are all conscious beings.  In this sense it is rational to believe in the existence of what cannot yet be rationally explained.’ (p. 77.)  Hence Baggini rejects dualism for less than compelling reasons, without considering any of the philosophical arguments for the position, and embraces physicalism (which says that minds are nothing but the functioning of brains) while simultaneously admitting that physicalism is (currently, at least) unable to account for consciousness!  It seems to me that his commitment to physicalism is actually a product of his commitment to naturalism rather than vice versa.

Indeed, Baggini argues that reasoning ‘concerning any matters of fact’ (p. 25.) is mainly based upon induction, which is ‘premised on the uniformity of nature [as an atheist, he has no a priori reason to think that nature is even generally ‘uniform’] – the idea that the laws of nature do not suddenly suspend themselves or change’ (p. 25), and that ‘The evidence of experience is that we live in a world governed by natural laws, that everything that happens in it is explained by natural phenomena. . . that to be explained just is to be explained in naturalistic terms.’ (p. 27.)  For Baggini: ‘the inductive method. . . points towards a naturalism that supports atheism. . .’ (p. 27.)  In other words, because science works atheism is true.  Baggini doesn’t consider whether, as several philosophers have suggested, the fact that science works and that the universe is law governed might not actually support the claims of theism.

Baggini’s argument here is once again simply warmed over Hume, susceptible to the same criticisms as Hume’s arguments against belief in miracles, and premised upon an a priori commitment to naturalistic explanations.  Baggini leaves out every ‘nothing but’ his sentences should include.  Theists do not dispute the observation of experience that (as a general rule at least, after all: ‘it does not logically follow that “This is how things always have been, are, and will be’, p. 26.) the world behaves in regular ways that can be codified as natural ‘laws’ - only the reductionistic assertion that the world is governed by nothing but natural laws, an assertion that stands or falls with the question of whether those laws are ‘just there’, or are actually someone’s laws to do with as that someone likes.

It doesn’t follow that because some things are observed to happen according to natural laws that therefore everything must happen according to (nothing but) natural laws.  This point is especially significant when one is considering the question of consciousness, because a number of arguments against physicalism (and for dualism) attempt to highlight a contradiction between the nature of consciousness and the supposition that consciousness is nothing but the function of brain matter according to natural laws.

Baggini’s argument for atheism only truly hits ground zero when he writes that naturalism ‘is simple in that it requires us to posit only the existence of the natural world. . .  it has everything in the universe fitting into one scheme of being.’ (p. 28.)  Baggini is absolutely right to suggest that naturalism is simpler than theism.  If naturalism can indeed fit everything ‘into one scheme of being’ then, by Occam’s razor, that would be a truly powerful argument for naturalism and hence for atheism.  Of course, theists will dispute that everything (even ‘everything in the universe’) can in fact be subsumed or explained by nothing but the naturalistic monism of materialism [12] , and consciousness would be a significant case in point.  Baggini himself admits that assuming naturalism means that consciousness becomes a mystery that has no satisfactory explanation.

Perhaps surprisingly, Baggini makes little play of the traditional problem of evil, merely asking: ‘What best explains the existence of evil in the world?’ (p. 29.)  The way Baggini phrases his question suggests an acceptance of the fact that the so-called ‘logical problem of evil’ is largely considered a lame horse to flog by contemporary philosophers of religion, so that atheologians have shifted emphasis to ‘inductive’ or ‘evidential’ problems of evil.  In either case, it seems to me to be a sufficient rebuttal to point out that the recognition of anything as objectively evil actually ends up requiring the existence of God via the moral argument.  Ironically, the best explanation for the existence of evil in the world is the existence of a good God!  Baggini would be better off trying to argue that God cannot exist because there is no such thing as good and evil.  At least then his argument would not be self-contradictory. [13]

Atheist Ethics

Baggini also admits that assuming naturalism means that one must assume that moral values are not objective facts.  Hence, anyone who thinks that moral values are objective facts will have reason to reject Baggini’s naturalism.

Baggini notes that many people think that ‘God is necessary for morality’ (p. 37): ‘One way in which this supposed necessity is expressed is that in order for there to be a moral law there has to be some kind of lawgiver. . .’ (p. 37.)  Baggini counters this suggestion by appealing to Plato’s notorious Euthypyro dilemma: ‘do the gods choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods choose it?  If the first option is true, that shows that the good is independent of the gods (or in a monotheistic faith, God.)  Good just is good and that is precisely why a good God will always choose it.  But if the second option is true, then that makes the very idea of what is good arbitrary.’ (p. 38.)  He does note that ‘some think the way out of the dilemma is to say that God just is good, so the question the dilemma poses is ill-formed.’ (p. 39.)  However, this sort of response doesn’t impress Baggini because:

We can ask, is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?  If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. . .  So we must choose the second option: God is good because he has all the properties of goodness.  But this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God. (p. 39.)

Of course, one could apply this argument to goodness itself (a concept with which Baggini clearly wants to work: ‘consequences can be good or bad’, p. 49):

‘Is goodness good because to be good just is to be whatever good happens to be; or is goodness good because goodness has all the properties of the good?  If we choose the former answer then goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever goodness happened to be. . .  So we must choose the second option: the good is good because it has all the properties of goodness.  But this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of the good’!

It makes no sense to talk about what God, a necessary being, would be like if He happened to be different than He in fact is, anymore than it makes sense to talk about what goodness would be if it happened to be different than it in fact is!  Goodness does not depend upon what an arbitrary God just happens to be like (or to say, or to choose), but upon the necessary nature of God.  Once one grants the existence of a real moral law, an objective moral order that defines, prescribes and obligates what morally ought to be the case, there are very strong reasons for thinking that such a state of affairs could only obtain if goodness were ‘embodied’, prescribed and obligated by the objective existence of a necessarily existent personal being whose very nature is ‘the good’. [14]

Baggini ends up by rejecting the premise that there is an objective moral law: ‘there is no single moral authority. . . we have to in some sense “create” values for ourselves. . . moral claims are not true or false in the same way as factual claims are’ (p. 41-51), a state of affairs that he candidly admits raises serious philosophical questions, but which he thinks doesn’t matter ‘for practical purposes.’ (p. 52.)

Baggini goes on to appeal to a number of ethical epistemologies (virtue ethics, Kantian and Utilitarian ethics), but this approach leaves aside the primary meta-ethical issue of moral ontology.  It seems to me that taking seriously the claims that ‘moral claims are judgments’ (p. 51) and that it is ‘always possible for someone to disagree with. . . without saying something that is factually false’ (p. 51) would soon issue in rather dramatic practical consequences.  Baggini seems to rely upon people being good in order to keep a universal concept of goodness on the straight and narrow; a project that gets the horse and the cart entirely the wrong way around.  For example, if I were to say that I accepted Baggini’s advocacy of atheism, and declared that since moral judgments can never be factually false I was nevertheless going to support theism against his atheism because I no longer believed myself to be under any factual obligation to deal consistently with evidence and such a stance would be personally convenient for me, I suspect Baggini would think this a rather dire ‘practical’ consequence of his views!

Meaning and Purpose

‘Believing. . . that without God everything is permitted may not in itself provide people with a reason to reject atheism,’ writes Baggini, ‘since it at least opens the gates to a certain amount of potentially desirable debauchery.  What is perhaps more off-putting about atheism is the idea that without God nothing has a purpose.  Sure, you can do what you want because there’s no divine power there to stop you, but what is the point of doing anything at all?’ (p. 57.)  Many atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins) would affirm that without God there is no objective purpose or meaning to human existence, no objective point in doing anything at all.  this is the heart of the public relations nightmare Baggini sets out to solve: ‘many people think that atheists believe that there is no God and no morality; or no God and no meaning to life. . .’ (p. 3).  Baggini’s aims to counter this negative perception of atheism by showing that: ‘Atheism is only intrinsically negative when it comes to belief about God, it is capable of a positive view of other aspects of life as any other belief.’ (p. 3.)  However, Baggini himself makes exactly those negative affirmations that constitute the public relations problem he wants to solve!  If we make things less ambiguous by inserting the missing terms, Baggini himself thinks that there is ‘no objective God’, ‘no objective morality’ (cf. p. 51), and ‘no objective meaning to life’ (‘we can choose our own purposes and goals and thus be the authors of our own [subjective] meaning. . .’, p. 62, my italics).  If we define nihilism as the belief that there is no objective value, meaning or purpose (because there is no God to provide it), then Baggini is clearly a nihilist.

Baggini acknowledges that belief in God implies belief in objective purpose: ‘If we are created by God then our purpose is simply handed to us on a plate. . . since he made us with some purpose in mind.’ (p. 58.)  Just as a knife has a clear purpose because it was designed for a purpose, so human life would have a clear purpose if it were designed for a purpose.  However, Baggini not only thinks that there is no God to provide such a clear purpose to life, he thinks being created by God would provide ‘a very unsatisfactory form of meaning in life’ (p. 59.)  He makes his point with an analogy: ‘Although it is true that the knife has meaning and purpose because of its creator, this kind of purpose is hardly significant for the knife.’ (p. 59.)  Of course not, because the knife isn’t aware of its purpose.  However, Baggini takes this fact to show that ‘when we ascribe a purpose to something in virtue of what it was made for, this locates the significance of that purpose with the creator or the user of the object, not in the object itself.’ (p. 59.)  He then considers an analogy where human beings are ‘bred in laboratories to fulfill certain functions’ (p. 59), and rightly says that thinking that the knowledge that one had been bred to clean lavatories would hardly answer ‘the important existential question about the meaning of life’ because ‘a purpose or meaning given to a creature by its creator just isn’t necessarily the kind of purpose or meaning that we are looking for in life. . .  This is why belief in a creator God does not automatically provide life with a meaning.’ (p. 59.)

Baggini’s thinking about the meaning and purpose of life is massively confused.  He begins with the question of purpose and ends with the question of meaning without making any distinction between the two.  If, and only if, something is made for a purpose (whether that something be a knife or a person) can it have an objective, given purpose.  Whether that something can make anything of its objective, given purpose or not, and what it makes of that purpose given that it is able to subjectively make something of it, is a whole other issue.  Hence it is true to say that if, and only if, humans are created for a purpose is it true to say that humans have an objective purpose.  Atheism cannot secure the reality of an objective purpose for life.

Once we know whether something has an objective purpose, we can ask whether that purpose is a good purpose or not.  The problem with Baggini’s lavatory cleaner, who is created by other humans specifically for this purpose alone, is that his objectively given purpose is not an objectively good purpose for a human being to have.  Cleaning the John is not a bad thing as such, but being created just to clean toilets is intolerable.  And why is this, if not because it a) contradicts the purpose for which humans are meant to exist in the first place and b) if this prior purpose is not a good purpose?  Does it make sense to say, as we surely want to say, that the humans who created our lavatory cleaner did something that they were not meant to do, that was not good for them to do?  I fail to see how any worldview besides a theistic worldview can possibly make sense of such suppositions as these.

Baggini asserts that ‘life seems meaningful enough, since the overall package is a good in itself’ (p. 65, my italics), and that ‘life’s ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself’ (p. 65, my italics), but he has previously asserted that value judgments are not factual claims and are not true or false (p. 51)!  Hence Baggini ought to acknowledge that atheism implies that life has no objective purpose or meaning.

On the other hand, suppose that human beings are the intended creation of God.  Then humans would have an objective purpose, and that purpose would, be definition, be an objectively good purpose, and life would therefore be objectively meaningful.  Baggini admits that such a suggestion is ‘perfectly coherent’ (p. 61), but labels it as an unjustified faith position, when it is clearly a matter of analytical certainty given the reality of creation.  We may have to clean the lavatory, but cleaning the lavatory would not be the purpose of our lives.  The purpose of our lives would be something that was good to achieve.  Still, wouldn’t our freedom be intolerably restricted in such a scenario?

In another flawed analogy, Baggini exhibits a photo of a robot carrying out a task and sarcastically subtitles it: ‘This lucky creature was given its purpose by its creator.  Wouldn’t it be good to be like that?’  The implied critique of theism seems to be that if we were created for a purpose then we would be like robots.  Being like the robot in the picture seems to be unpalatable, despite the allure of having an objective purpose in life, because robots are unthinking machines without free will.  We don’t want to be unthinking machines without free will.  Therefore we had better give up on having an objective purpose in life in order to retain our freedom.  At least, this appears to me to be the implied, and obviously unsound, argument underlying Baggini’s robot illustration.  However, theists believe that God has created humans for a good global purpose (not to be his slaves or servants, as Baggini suggests (p. 59), but to realize objective values in and through relationships, primarily with God himself) and with the freedom both to embrace or reject that global purpose, as well as to freely work out our own unique role within that global purpose.  Hence although belief in God does mean belief in an unalterable, set, objectively good purpose for human existence that we ought to accept, it does not mean believing that one’s life choices are either limited or illusory.

Both theism and naturalism make human beings partially analogous to the robot Baggini pictures.  Theism makes humans analogous to Baggini’s robot in the sense that our existence, like the existence of a robot, has an objective purpose (and a good one at that).  Ironically, Baggini’s naturalism about the mind makes humans analogous to his robot in implying the absence of freedom.

‘I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff and I’ll Blow Your House Down’: Baggini and Arguments for God’s Existence

According to Baggini: ‘The cosmological argument in a nutshell is that since everything must have a cause, the universe must have a cause.  And the only cause of the universe that could be up to the job is God. . .’ (p. 94.)  Having set up his straw-man, Baggini knocks it for six: ‘The argument is to my mind utterly awful, a disgrace to the good name of philosophy and the only reason for discussing it is to expose sloppy thinking.’ (p. 94.)  Baggini is absolutely right about the argument as he summarizes it.  On the one hand, if everything requires a cause, then ‘God requires a cause and the causal chain goes back ad infinitum.’ (p. 95.)  This is a reductium absurdum of the causal principle that ‘everything must have a cause’.  On the other hand, if everything does not require a cause, then the argument provides no reason to think that the universe requires a cause and ‘there is no need to hypothesize God.’ (p. 95.)  Nevertheless, Baggini allows that: ‘It is compatible with reason and what we know to suppose that the big bang was caused by God, and it is possible that all things within the universe must have a cause but that the causal chain, since it must stop somewhere, stops with God.’ (p. 95.)  Baggini is prepared to concede that this line of thought demonstrates ‘the rational possibility of. . . belief in God.’ (p. 95.)

The problem here is not with Baggini’s criticism of the cosmological argument, but with the cosmological argument Baggini chooses to critique; because it is an argument that no half-way competent theist advances outside the imagination of atheists like Baggini.  Where ‘intellectual rigor and integrity’ (Preface) surely suggest that anyone criticizing arguments for a given philosophical position would want to engage with an actual (and if possible representative) argument actually advanced for the position one is criticizing (or at least a summary thereof), Baggini chooses to present his readers with a wholly unreferenced and patently unsound ‘nutshell’ of an argument.  Moreover, he does so as if his summary accurately represented the core of an entire class of theistic argument that in reality comes in a number of distinct versions.  Nor can Baggini escape the charge of employing a straw-man by hiding behind his book’s ‘very short’, introductory format.  There are any number of short, representative cosmological arguments that Baggini could have engaged with, from Thomas Aquinas’ summaries in Summa Theologica [15] to W. David Beck’s version in In Defence of Miracles (Apollos, 1997). [16]   And although there are no footnotes in Baggini’s book, there is a bibliography that fails to reference any works defending the cosmological argument. [17]

Baggini proceeds to dismiss the teleological and ontological arguments in the same cavalier manner.  The design argument is represented entirely by a summary of the anological aspect of William Paley’s famous ‘watchmaker’ argument [18] , and is dismissed with a passing reference to the theory of evolution (‘Anyone still impressed by the argument from design should read Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker’ p. 116.) [19] that begs a number of questions, and a brief mention of Hume’s critique of design.

The ontological argument is similarly given short shrift.  The concept of God, writes Baggini, is ‘a concept of 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.’ (p. 97.)  This is, of course, an invalid formulation of the ontological argument subject to the criticism that existence is not a perfection, but Baggini prefers to present matters back-to-front: ‘The way I have summarized this argument makes its flaw clear: all we can show by logic is that the concept God includes the concept of existence.’ (p.97.)  While it would clearly be unfair to expect Baggini’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ to explain Alvin Plantinga’s logically valid model version of the ontological argument [20] (he does at least reference Plantinga in the bibliography), it doesn’t seem to much to expect him to critique a logically valid summary of the argument. [21] While existence per se may not be a perfection, necessary existence is generally agreed to be more perfect than contingent existence – a fact that yields the logically valid suggestion that since the concept of God is the concept of a supremely perfect entity, and since a supremely perfect entity must by definition exist of necessity if at all possible, then it follows, if we grant the possibility of God’s existence, that God exists.  Baggini affirms that ‘if God exists, God must exist’ (p. 98.), but thinks this fact (something not true of mere mortals) a ‘banal truth’ (p. 98.) because he fails to recognize the implication that God must exist if his existence is possible (something else that is not true of mere mortals).  The atheist is free to reply that God’s existence is in their opinion impossible, but the issue is at least one of metaphysical fact and not argumentative imprecision, of soundness rather than logical validity.  Of course, Baggini does not suggest that God’s existence is impossible, and he admits that the cosmological argument demonstrates ‘the rational possibility of. . . belief in God.’ (p. 95). . .

Baggini misreads Pascal’s Wager as an argument directed at atheists when it is an argument directed at agnostics, and gives short shrift to the orthodox assumptions that Pascal’s argument relies upon, and all without engaging with any of the theological or philosophical justifications for those assumptions (for example, he asserts that: ‘if there is any after-life selection, then surely the main criterion must be virtue’, p. 34.) [22]

Conclusion – sorting the chaff from the wheat

Having blown away the chaff of Baggini’s arguments, there does remain some wheat to appreciate.  For example:

However, even after making allowances for its status as a ‘Very Short Introduction’, it has to be said that this readable and engaging guide to Atheism falls short of the intellectual rigor and integrity to which Baggini commendably aspires.  Baggini attacks straw men (e.g. his summaries of theistic arguments), relies upon flawed analogies (e.g. his Nessie story), fails to make - or to make clear - important distinctions (e.g. the distinction between the concepts of purpose and meaning, between moral epistemology and ontology, between contingent and necessary dependence, between the existence and expression of consciousness), makes ad hominem attacks (cf. p. 10) despite his intention to make a positive case for atheism ‘that is not simply abut rubbishing religious belief’ (p. 7.), and finds himself hoisted by his own petard (value judgments do not concern matters of fact, but life is meaningful because it is a good thing).

From the way Baggini describes his early involvement with Christianity, I would hazard the guess that, like many people brought up in a Christian environment, he never made an intrinsic commitment to Christ, but rather had a purely extrinsic commitment to ‘the Church’, and to ‘religious belief’; a commitment that unsurprisingly fell away as he matured and began to assert his own intrinsic identity as an individual.  People who leave behind a ‘churched’ childhood acquiescence in religious belief can understandably feel that they have outgrown faith, that they have ‘been there, done that’, even that religious belief is intrinsically ‘childish’.  If so, they may then critique their extrinsic childhood understanding of Christianity in the confused belief that they are criticizing Christianity as it might be understood by a theologically literate adult with an intrinsic belief.  It strikes me that some such a scenario would most charitably explain the prevalence of straw men in Baggini’s attacks upon Christianity.

Like Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Baggini’s Atheism: A very Short Introduction is an undeniably good read because it is consistently stimulating and provocative, and because it clearly explicates many of the implications of a naturalistic worldview (no objective values, purpose or meaning, no immaterial soul and no life after death); however, like Russell’s work, it cannot be recommended as anything other than a straw-man representation of atheological apologetics.

[1] cf. Norman L. Geisler, ‘Primitive Monotheism’ @

[2] cf. Paul C. Vitz, ‘The Psychology of Atheism’ @; Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: the psychology of atheism, (Spence, 2000).

[3] For a critique of arguments against the rationality of Christian belief (as opposed to its truth) cf. Alvin Plantinga, , Warranted Christian Belief, (Oxford, 2000).

[4] cf. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, (Baker, 1988); Norman L. Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions About the Christian Faith, (Bethany House, 2001).

[5] Alvin Plantinga, ‘Theism, Atheism and Rationality’ @; Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, (Oxford, 2000).

[6] cf. Ralph F.  Wilson, ‘Learning Faith from Doubting Thomas’ @

[7] Roger Steer, Letter to an Influential Atheist, (Authentic Lifestyle/Paternoster, 2003), p. 137-138.

[8] cf. William Lane Craig, ‘The Problem of Miracles: A Historical And Philosophical Perspective’ @; Norman L. Geisler, ‘Miracles and Modern Scientific Thought’ @; Richard Swinburne, ‘For the Possibility of Miracles’ @; Hendrik Van Der Breggen, ‘Hume’s Scale: How Hume Counts A Miracle’s Improbability Twice’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002; J. A. Cover, ‘Miracles and Christian Theism’ in Michael J. Murray (ed.), Reason for the Hope Within, (Eerdmans, 1999); John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, (Oxford, 2000); Norman L. Geisler, ‘Miracles and the Modern Mind’ in R. Douglas Geivett & Gary R. Habermas (ed.), In Defence of Miracles, (Apollos, 1997); C.S Lewis, Miracles, (Fount); Charles Taliaferro & Anders Hendrickson, ‘Hume’s Racism and His Case Against The Miraculous’, Philosophia Christi, Volume 4, Number 2, 2002.

[9] One might suggest that religious experience would surely count as strong evidence, since it is available to inspection by the majority of people on repeated occasions.

[10] Baggini does admit that there are ‘rare examples of genuinely puzzling evidence for life after death’ (p. 21); cf. Gary R. Habermas & J.P Moreland, Beyond Death, (Good News Publishers, 1998).

[11] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘The Act of Creation: Bridging Transcendence and Immanence’ @; William Hasker, ‘How Not to be a Reductivist’ @; Victor Reppert, ‘The Argument from Reason’ @; Dallas Willard, ‘Knowledge and Naturalism’ @; Peter S. Williams, ‘Why Naturalists Should Mind about Physicalism’ @; William Hasker, The Emergent Self, (Cornell University Press, 1999); J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul, (IVP, 2000); Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, (IVP, 2003).

[12] cf. materials recommended in notes 9 (above), 11 and 13 (below), and the following: Access Research Network @; John A. Bloom, ‘Is Fulfilled Prophecy of Value for Scholarly Apologetics?’ @; William Lane Craig, ‘The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle’ @; C. Stephen Evans, ‘The Mystery of Persons and Belief in God’ @; Gary R., Habermas, ‘The Facts Concerning the Resurrection’ @; Robert C. Koons, ‘The Incompatibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism’ @; Peter Kreeft, ‘The Argument from Desire’ @; Peter Kreeft, ‘The Divinity of Christ’ @; Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, ‘Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God’ @; Alvin Plantinga, ‘Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments’ @; Alvin Plantinga, ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ @; Richard Swinburne, ‘The Justification of Theism’ @; Dallas Willard, ‘Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence’ @; Peter S. Williams, ‘Aesthetic Arguments for the Existence of God’ @; Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, (Ignatius, 2000); William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, (Routledge, 2000); William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987).

[13] On the problem of evil, cf. Benjamin D. Wiker, ‘The Problem of Evil’ @;      Peter S. Williams, ‘Terror from the Skies and the Existence of God’ @; Daniel Howard-Snyder, (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil, (Indiana University Press, 1996).

[14] cf. Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Moral Law, the Mormon Universe and the Nature of the Right we Choose’ @; Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Why I Am Not A Relativist’ @; Paul Copan, ‘Can Michael Martin be a Moral Realist?’ @; William Lane Craig, ‘The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality’ @; J.P Moreland, ‘The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism’ @; Francis J. Beckwith & Koukl, Gregory, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, (Baker, 2001); William Lane Craig (ed.), Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, (Edinburgh University Press, 2002); Brian Davies, Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology, (Oxford University Press, 2000); Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999).

[15] Thomas Aquinas, ‘Does God Exist?’ from Summa Theologica @

[16] For other introductions to the cosmological argument cf. F.C. Copleston, & Bertrand Russell, ‘A Debate on the Argument from Contingency’ @; Douglas Groothuis, ‘Leo and the Mechanic: A Cosmological Narrative’ @; Peter Kreeft, ‘The First Cause Argument’ @

[17] For more in-depth treatments of the cosmological argument, cf: Samuel L. Clark, ‘A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God’ @; William Lane Craig @; Steven T. Davis, ‘Hierarchical causes in the cosmological argument’ @; Shandon L. Guthrie, ‘Theism and Contemporary Cosmology’ @; Robert C. Koons, Lectures on the cosmological argument (2-10) @; Robert C. Koons, ‘Defeasible Reasoning, Special Pleading and the Cosmological Argument’ @; Stephen C. Meyer, ‘The New Cosmology: Theistic Implications’ @; Alexander R. Pruss, ‘A Restricted Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Cosmological Argument’ @; Thomas Rauchenstein, ‘The Thomistic Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God’ @; Michael Sudduth, ‘Why Does the Universe Exist?’ @; Bruce R. Reichenbach, The Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, (Charles C. Thomas, 1972).

[18] William Paley, Natural Theology @

[19] Anyone still impressed by Richard Dawkins should read: Dallas Willard,  ‘Reflections on Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker’ @; Peter S. Williams, ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler and the Public Understanding of Scientism’ @; Peter S. Williams, ‘On the Side of the Angels: Review of Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain’ @; Keith Ward, God, Chance & Necessity, (OneWorld, 1996).

[20] cf. John DePoe, ‘The Ontological Argument’ @

[21] cf. C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion, (IVP).

[22] cf. Peter Kreeft, ‘Argument from Pascal’s Wager’ @; William Lycan & George Schlesinger, ‘You Bet Your Life:  Pascal’s Wager Defended’ in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, (ed.) Douglas Geivett & Brendan Sweetman, (Oxford, 1993); Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999).