Cambridge Companion to Atheism

Edited by Michael Martin

Review by Hong Jong Wook , 2009

The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. By Michael Martin. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007. xix + 311 pp. $29.99.

Theism and atheism appear to involve precisely opposed arguments; this is implied in the word components “a-theism”. Yet they have coexisted in interesting ways and their histories are almost the same. Although some atheists would disagree, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism presupposes such a shared history, namely, that theism has developed in distinguishable stages and atheism has counterattacked at each stage. If this interpretation is sound, then it follows that there can be no atheism without theism.

Edited and introduced by Michael Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism elucidates what atheism is according to its various definitions, historical developments, arguments, and their implications. The book has three parts: background, the case against theism, and implication. The first two chapters in the background offer the ancient and modern history of atheism. According to Jan N. Bremmer, the history of atheism is as long as that of theism. Beginning with Protagoras, the concept of atheism used to include agnosticism, a belief that there is no gods or God, and rejection of gods at all on the premise that the gods cannot be known. Derived from Greek word ‘atheos,’ which originally referred to intellectual minds that rejected deities, “atheism” was once used for philosophical opponents in the first and second centuries. Along with this nuance, Christians at that time were actually called atheists by pagans. Certainly, second century Christian apologists did not take up this charge, but rather attributed it to pagans. This use of the word ‘atheism’ continues to appear in medieval and modern era since atheists are considered pagan as well as the heretics of the Church.

Atheism takes a critical turn after Descartes, Lock, Hume, and Kant though it has its roots in medieval thought. Paradoxically, according to Gavin Hyman, serious modern atheism began by John Duns Scotus, who rejected the ontological difference between God and human beings. Hyman argues that this made God qualitatively the same being as human beings. Another point made in Hyman’s article is that he strategically defines atheism as relative to theism. Since there are different theisms, there are different atheisms and a particular atheism is a rejection or denial of a particular theism. This does not necessary mean that the population of atheism is as much as that of theism, but still there are a good number of atheists.

Phil Zuckerman offers some interesting figures regarding atheism. Based on data, Zuckerman argues that between five hundred million and seven hundred million atheists are all over the world. However, some of the demographics of atheism offered in chapter three are outdated and thus it contains some incorrect information

The main body of the book provides atheistic arguments against theism. Like the presupposition of atheism’s history suggested above, a theist William Lane Craig sets out the argument stage in the first chapter of part II, and atheists follow him to make appearance on the stage. Craig provides contingency argument – everything that exists needs an explanation, cosmological argument – everything that exits has a cause, teleological argument as in Intelligent Design, and moral argument – objective moral value is possible only when it depends on God. His explanations of arguments are relatively short compared to other chapters and appear to be assertions rather than arguments. Each argument is refuted by following chapters. Richard M. Gale refutes the ontological argument and the cosmological argument by explicating Humean logic that existence cannot be deduced from a concept, and that a series of events are not necessarily transitive causal relations. He also does not accept the teleological argument because Darwin’s natural selection is more plausible.

Keith Parsons examines theistic arguments in terms of epistemic possibility of theistic belief. Thus, he specifically refutes Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne for Plantinga’s epistemic foundationalism – a belief formed by a proper cognitive functioning faculty is valid – does not provide any warrant for the belief and Swinburne’s theistic hypothesis – a method learned from scientific explanatory hypotheses – also does not provide with adequate evidence. Evans Fales’ article deals with the concept of naturalism and physicalism in terms of atheism. Fales offers definitions and rough ranges of naturalism and physicalism that both offer philosophical frameworks for atheism. In so doing, Fales attacks supernaturalism, which argues for the possibility of a supernatural personal being.

Daniel C. Dennett supports Darwinism and disagrees with Intelligent Design. According to him, evolutionary biology provides a sufficient explanatory framework for nature. David O. Brink argues that morality actually helps religion not vice versa, and thus, voluntarism – something is good because gods love it – should be rejected and the autonomy of ethics accepted.

Andrea M. Weisberger shows that the problem of evil is not compatible with a particular concept of God such as omniscience and omnibenevolence. The evidence of suffering rejects the existence of a personal God.

Quentin Smith also rejects Kalam cosmological arguments – a medieval Islamic scholastic argument for the existence of God. Smith accepts a premise that “there is a cause of universe,’ but rejects that the cause of the universe is God. Based on the examples of basic laws such as the law of conservation of mass-energy and the law of increasing entropy, Smith argues that the universe is more likely self-caused.

Patrick Grim uses impossibility arguments, which show that neither certain attributes, nor the combination of them are logically possible. Omnipotence – ‘the paradox of the stone’ – and omniscience – how to know not known – are good examples.

The book concludes with the implications of atheism, specifically attending to how feminism, philosophy of religion, and anthropological theories of religion relate to atheism. Based on both William Alston’s “religious making characteristics” and Monroe and Elizabeth Beardsley’s concept of religion, Michael Martin argues that atheism per se is not a religion, but there are atheistic religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Since there are atheistic religions, atheism is not necessarily antireligious, but only rejects supernatural and personal God. Christine Overall also argues against monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By pointing to the suffering, abuse, and oppression of women from these religions, Overall suggests that feminists must see through the power dynamics and influences of monotheistic religions and examine them critically without any attachment. According to her, feminist theology does not do so well. They only offer a justification of reinterpretation of being religious female. Steven G. Gey offers a brief political history of religious freedom in attempting to show that the meaning of religious freedom includes protecting that of atheism.

John D. Caputo explicates how postmodernism is related to theism and atheism. Caputo focuses on the notion of the ‘death of God,’ which, Caputo considers, deconstructs the core center of theology. Caputo’s careful examination of many philosophers such as Lyotard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and Taylor shows how postmodernism makes theism and atheism self-conscious and causes them to shift traditional positions.

In his article on anthropological theories of religion, Stewart E. Guthrie surveys many anthropological theories such as the social-glue theory of Durkheim and the wishful-thinking theory of Freud. Guthrie advocates animism – to regard things as alive with consciousness – and anthropomorphism – to attribute human characteristics to things – as the conceptual feature of religions. In so doing, he argues that religion is a evolutionary product, which is an aspect of teleology. In the final chapter, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi offers a psychological demographic of atheism. Beit-Hallahmi's sources are somewhat outdated, but conclude the book with an strong ethical implication that atheists are good people to have as neighbors.

The book contains extensive coverage of topics concerning atheism in relation to theism, which is appropriate for a guide to the territory. It is important to notice, however, that the theism of the book refers to supernatural personal theism. Thus, this book addresses specifically western forms of atheism against specifically western forms of supernatural personal theism. It deals neither with any eastern forms of theism or atheism, nor with western theisms that reject supernatural personal deities as superstitions. In such cases, the definition of atheism needs to be further specified, and so does the definition of theism. Most of the chapters present arguments against theism. This seems to affirm the presupposition of the book that atheism does not exist by itself, but requires theism to exist – with a premise that there is a clear boundary between theism and atheism. Let’s put this the other way. Can theism exist without atheism? I would answer ‘no’ because atheism certainly serves to criticize, to sharpen, and to advance theism. The critiques from atheism are like inner voices of theism from self-reflection. The questions, challenges, and debates from atheism are main forces acting to make theism more plausible and feasible. This begs another question.

Despite its limitations, including especially the cultural and theological parochialism just described, this book is a very useful survey for those who seek an introduction to the various atheistic arguments against supernatural personal theism.