Philosophers Without Gods

Here’s another book I want to recommend: Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Half the book is taken up by informal descriptions by philosophers of why they don’t believe. Many are very interesting, and the more informal reflections are, I think, a good way of bringing out a distinctly philosophical sensibility leading to nonbelief. Plus, mercifully, no one goes on about ****ological arguments or other traditional themes of the philosophy of religion. One thing I noticed, though, is that moral considerations have a large role in what the philosophers in this book think about God and religion. Usually this is something I don’t care too much about, but then that’s possibly another difference in sensibility.

Especially in the second part of the book, there are a number of contributions that try to do something a bit different compared to more familiar narratives of nonbelief. I want to comment on three that I found especially interesting.

Kenneth A. Taylor’s chapter, “Without the Net of Providence: Atheism and the Human Adventure,” is something I want to celebrate because it’s rare for me to encounter a philosophical essay so in tune with my own sensibilities. In particular, I like the way that Taylor distinguishes between whether something is true and whether it is rational to believe something.

Suppose we ask not what we rationally ought to believe, but how, all things considered, we should rationally prefer to live. The answer cannot be that we should always rationally prefer to lead a life guided by beliefs that are rationally grounded in the evidence or even that we should always prefer that our beliefs be true rather than false. Some beliefs, even if they are both true and rationally grounded in the evidence, may serve only to undermine our deepest, most identity-constituting projects and thus to undermine our very being in the world. Whatever else beliefs are, they are instruments for guiding and supporting our practical projects. If holding a belief would be instrumental to the success of a practical project, then that by itself may give us sufficient reason, in particular sufficient practical reason, for adopting that belief, even if that belief is false or unwarranted by the evidence. [page 151]

Hear, hear! I think this is very important to keep in mind when discussing religion, and not just the different question of whether there is something to supernatural notions or not.

David Owens has a very interesting paper, “Disenchantment,” about some moral dangers inherent in secularism and modern science and technology. What happens, he asks, if we attain the capability to easily manipulate not just the world around us but our own minds and personalities: if we have to decide what kind of person we want to be? If we end with a large range of low-cost choices about what kinds of choices we would prefer to prefer, the result is a kind of vertigo. What, Owens asks, if we face this kind of situation without the moral fixed points provided by religion?

I was also intrigued by Georges Rey’s paper “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Many of us skeptics have had occasion to wonder if some of the religious people we encounter really believe in what they insist they do. We get further suspicious when some of their behavior seems to fit badly with their beliefs: why, for example, all the devastation and mourning if a loved one really has gone on to a wonderful afterlife? Rey develops such questions and intuitions into a very interesting philosophical argument. I think it would have been more compelling if it drew on more scientific research on religion. A good number of people working in this area would agree with Rey that there is something odd about religious thinking and that there’s more than what meets the eye in avowals of belief. But they’d also temper that observation with a knowledge of the ways that supernatural concepts really are compelling for most normal human brains.

Anyway, it’s a good book; take a look.