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50 Great Myths About Atheism – Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk – Book Review

50 Great Myths About Atheism – Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk – Book Review

Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk – 50 Great Myths About Atheism

Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk – 50 Great Myths About Atheism

When reading such a stimulating book, it is tempting to launch into a full-blown “Why I’m Not an Atheist” essay; or a commentary for each of the 50 myths, one by one. Neither are appropriate for this short book review. I’ll try my best to stick to the task at hand.

The authors write in an accessible style. The 50 myths are collected into eight categories, such as Atheism, Ethics and the Soul and Religion and Science. The reader can easily skim the table of contents, and zero in on the most challenging topics.

With 50 myths to choose from, plus a ninth part that summarises the new atheist movement, readers will find a few surprises in the mix. For example, I was unaware that atheists are accused of communism.

For an academic publication, the book reads as light and entertaining, peppered with humorous cartoons from Mohammed Jones’ Jesus and Mo. But this is not simply fluff. The authors are careful to select real objections, not a set of “easy targets”. Each of the myths is thoroughly referenced, and could be used as a primer for further research into any of the topics.

Parts two through five (or myths 11 – 37) hinge on immature “atheism is yucky!” objections. There are such clangers as Atheists Don’t Give to Charity; Atheists Have No Sense of Humor; and Atheism is Depressing. I agree with the authors – none of these objections necessarily follow from atheism.

My own criticisms of atheism are – at least I hope – not emotional, but epistemological. Firstly, I find the debate to be a polarising oversimplification. With a section entitled Have We Defeated Theism? and constant reference to their “religious apologist” opponents, this book often perpetuates this adversarial position.

Theravada Buddhism is briefly explored as a grey area (p. 12). It is not necessarily theistic, in that it doesn’t posit the existence of gods, but it does involve “supernatural” elements. This leads me to my second criticism of the atheist movement – there is no clear definition of what it means to be an atheist.

The word could be interpreted in at least one of two ways: without theistic belief (what I will call the passive version); or against theistic belief (the active version). This ambiguity comes in handy when atheists are argued into a corner.

The authors settle on “people who lack belief in any God or gods” (p. 19) as their working definition – which reads like the passive version. They sympathise with a view that, when they’re not writing books about atheism, it is not as central to their lives as religious belief is to religious people (p. 12). I find this unconvincing. When one blogs; speaks on podcasts and in public forums; and publishes articles and books about atheism, I can’t help but see that as an active form of atheism.

I can see the motivation for this definition. A major criticism against atheism is that you cannot logically prove a negative. Making the positive claim, that God does not exist, is not something that could ever be proven beyond doubt (what if He’s just hiding in a teapot?). The authors confront this head on in Myth 4 – Atheists are Certain There is No God.

Whether this treatment is satisfying or not is up to the reader. However, the entire structure of this book is, itself, a commendable step in the right direction. You cannot prove a negative, but you can falsify the positive claims of your opponents. This is how science progresses so successfully, and this is exactly the approach taken up by the authors here. They line up 50 claims from their opponents, and shoot them down one by one.

If you’re still coming to grips with your own opinion on this issue, this book is a great introduction to the atheist position. If this is your tenth book on atheism, then it will still help strengthen your arguments, but I also recommend picking up some round pegs that don’t easily fit into the square hole this debate creates. Go read some Carl Jung; Joseph Campbell; Baruch Spinoza; William James; Plotinus; Alan Watts… And that’s just a small portion of the western canon – less than half of the options the world’s cultures have generated.

Official book launch

The Co-op bookshop will be holding an official book launch, presented by Dr. Joe Mintoff, with special guest appearance by author Russell Blackford.

  • When: 4:30pm, Tuesday, 22nd October.
  • Where: The Co-op bookshop, Shortland Building, University of Newcastle, Callaghan.
  • Please RSVP to by 15th October.

Direct Democracy

The election circus has packed up and left town, as we all direct our gossip glands away from the carnies and back to the Hollywood tabloids for another three years. But in three years, elections will still suck. I want to ask: do we still need elections at all?

Direct vs indirect democracy

The form of democracy we are accustomed to is known as a representative, or indirect democracy. A small subset of the population are elected to represent the larger community. Our population of 22,000,000 people elected 150 people to go and make decisions on our behalf in the House of Representatives.

The other form of democracy is pure, or direct democracy, where each citizen votes directly on each decision. This is the system Athens had, back when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle hung out.

A ‘new way’ that’s 2,500 years old

Ancient Athenian democracy allowed all citizens a direct vote on the policies of the state. This was not like holding referendums on special occasions, such as our vote on the republic in 1999. All policy decisions were directly determined by the citizens. Granted, they only counted adult men as citizens, and excluded slaves and immigrants, but it was still 30,000 people out of a total population of 250,000.

And they didn’t just have an OK Gross Domestic Product. They invented things like philosophy, mathematics, physics and biology, and flourished as the “cradle of Western civilisation”. Maybe they were on to something.

So why do we have a representative democracy? There are three key arguments.

1 – The ‘too hard’ basket

The first and most basic argument against direct democracy is that it would be too complex and time-consuming to let so many people vote on every little thing.

Hang on. The current political system is failing to provide adequate communications infrastructure, so we should keep it around?

The technology exists now. Australia has been voting people off Big Brother on a weekly basis for twelve years – what now seems like aeons before smart-phones and broadband. This problem is now solved, and we should be re-assessing our limitations.

2 – The blame game

The second argument against direct democracy is that, with so many votes, the impact of each vote becomes negligible. Individuals feel their vote is worthless, and they become detached from the consequences of their decisions.

However, I don’t see how the recent election was immune to this same criticism. Donkey votes happen enough that we have a name for them. The difference is that we’re only voting every three years.

What a representative democracy allows us to do, to our own detriment, is nominate someone to blame. Citizens can blame the representative for being a fool; and the representative can blame their predecessor, the opposition, or the media for their mistakes. Having a representative helps us detach from the consequences of our decisions.

3 – The elitists

The third, and strongest, argument to keep a representative democracy is that large portions of the population are not fit to grasp what’s truly in their own best interests. They are not virtuous or educated enough to make good and wise choices for themselves, let alone everyone else.

I could use the same rebuttal as I had for the first argument, and point out that if the current system has failed to provide adequate education, this is not a good reason to keep it. But I think there is a deeper problem.

Do you honestly want to empower people who inform themselves with TV Week; or throw their rubbish out the car window; or run across busy roads with prams; or spike people’s drinks? If you think these people are on a level playing field and should have as much say as everyone else, I don’t want you in charge either.

However, when deciding who makes the cut, consider the level of education our ancestors received. According to the ‘Flynn effect‘, IQ levels rise over time. A person with average intelligence now would get a genius score on an IQ test if they travelled a hundred years into the past. Bear in mind how long ago Athens was using direct democracy. If the people from the past were fit for government, even our most lacklustre performers should be absolutely caning it, right?

Not necessarily. As the world gets continuously more complex, we adapt. Today’s world has more factors to govern than the ancient world did. It makes sense that standards for leadership remain always ahead of a shifting average.

The horizon moves as we move, always out of reach from the majority. The big question, then, is can our current system of government move as fast as this? Will they remain our best and brightest, no matter how far and fast the population at large progresses? Or is there some point we reach where their response time will slow us down? Are we reaching that point now?

Politicians should be working to make themselves obsolete

Lifting the standards of education and virtue to a point where we can self govern would be a tremendous, but fatal, accomplishment for the politicians. They are not motivated to put themselves out of a job. If we leave it up to them, we will never get there.

A practical, short term compromise

The old solution would be to have a guess at how things could be better, write some pamphlets about it, then overthrow the government with violent revolution. Now, we can create free and open source software prototypes, and test out different models as we collect empirical data.

The population could record what their votes would have been for the next few years, and compare it to how the politicians actually behave, and what the consequences were for those decisions. At the very least, we end up with a powerful polling tool that the representatives will have to listen to, if it’s used by enough people.

Where to from here?

It is impossible to sketch out a detailed solution here – though watch this space.

If you’re interested in developing a prototype, please contact me.

If you’re interested in options and discussion already on the table, check out:

Aristotle: Gay Pride (LGBTIQ)

When I heard this was the Pride week edition, my first response was “Proud of what?” This was due to ignorance, not belligerence, but once I found out it was LGBTIQ Pride Week, and I had Googled the acronym, I decided it was still worth exploring the question. That’s what philosophers like to do.

For Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), pride, often translated as “magnanimity” from the ancient Greek, is the balanced understanding of one’s own, well earned, self-worth.

Your pride sits like a crown on top of your other virtues. If you’re truly worthy of praise, and you know it, you deserve to be proud. Too much pride and you’re up yourself. Too little pride and you’re a bit of a wuss. Your sense of pride should reflect your worth in a way that is just right.

I’m straight, and unless Paul Newman returns in the zombie apocalypse, still looking ok for his age, I probably always will be. Granted, I have a knack for being heterosexual, but have I worked hard and earned the right to be proud about it?

When Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras came up in conversation recently, a straight women asked, in annoyance, “why don’t we have a heterosexual parade?” That old chestnut.

Superficially, this is a fair point. No sexual orientation is earned. A mix of genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors mean we simply end up a certain way.

One might reply “I’m proud to be me!”

Superficially, this is a poor response. If pride was simply a matter of individuality, then every individual has a right to be proud. The concept is diluted and becomes meaningless. If you’ve ever been stirred into a caffeinated frenzy while studying, you’ll know that highlighting all the text on a page is as good as highlighting none of it.

So why should some people be more proud than others about their sexual orientation?

Because, in this social climate, it’s hard to be lesbian; gay; bisexual; transgender; intersexed; or questioning (thanks Google!). It takes courage – another of Aristotle’s virtues – to be out in the open, when who you are opposes a government enforced status quo.

Generations of minorities have had to stand up for their naturally occurring sexual orientation; gradually reclaiming equality. Given these efforts, future generations will not have to protest against ignorance and oppression. They won’t need to be proud. They will grow up in a culture that accepts them, and celebrates their place in the natural scheme of things.

This courage and hard work is something to be proud of.

This article was written to the soundtrack for my house-mate’s new stripping gig. I resisted the urge to write in a gyrating pentameter. Magnanimax!