GOOD NEWS FOR THE RATIONAL:
ATHEISM: A Guide for the Perplexed*
*Kerry Walters. Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Copies available at the Mondragón Bookstore.
I recently watched a controversy at Bucknell over a Commencement speaker who was on record as saying that atheists couldn’t possibly be moral. On the other hand some professing atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are on record as saying that belief in God is fundamentally irrational. Having tried belief in God and found it unsatisfying, I am inclined toward the latter view, but am not inclined to bash people who see the world differently. I know some perfectly rational—and, apparently, reasonably moral—theists, and I have faith that atheism is not a vaccine against either irrationality or immorality.
So I was pleased on a recent visit to Mondragón Bookstore to see this book that professes to approach atheism rationally and philosophically. Walters is a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College and, if memory serves, a part-time pastor (though he does not admit to this latter in the blurb on the back cover). He is well qualified for the task.
He goes about it systematically, beginning with defining atheism, as distinct, say, from agnosticism, or from “God-rebellion” as when one is so outraged at injustice that one condemns the God who is responsible (as an omnipotent God must be). To condemn or rebel against God implies believing in God. He also emphasizes that atheism is directed at the single, personal God of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and should be distinguished from disbelief in other notions of god or gods or the supernatural world.
Atheism, Walters argues, is founded upon naturalism, the belief that the natural universe as we observe it, from subatomic particles to intergalactic space, is the only reality. Theism is grounded on the opposed conviction that there is a “supernatural” world that is superior to the natural world; this is the realm of God. “For atheists and theists to change their minds about God would mean they’d have to either completely throw off their respective worldviews, or so seriously modify them that they’d come to look through very different lenses indeed. The first task is well-nigh impossible, and the second extremely difficult.” (p. 33)
The third chapter effectively demolishes several of the most popular “proofs” of the existence of God, such as the “intelligent design” thesis so popular with religious opponents of evolution theory. Then in the next chapter he explores several ways of claiming that God can’t exist, such as pointing out that if God existed, surely that would be more manifest to the senses. But he really focuses on the “problem of evil: if God exists and is good, why is there so much evil in the world?” (p. 75)
The most interesting chapters (6, 7, 8) deal, respectively, with morality in the absence of God, with meaning or purpose without God, and with “atheist spirituality.” Here Walters is eloquent in describing how morality, purpose, and spirit can and do have meaning even without God. These chapters, perhaps the most original, are certainly the most inspiring.
Believers may find this book useful as a window on how one could be an atheist and still be good, still live a purposeful life. Atheists who prefer dialogue to rhetorical bombs will find it a useful reference. Rhetorical bombers on both sides will prefer to ignore it.