Blackford, Russell, and Udo Schuklenk. 2009. 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Wiley-Blackwell.
This book is somewhat challenging to review as it combines the work of 52 authors. The basic idea is that these individuals were asked why they do not believe in god (primarily referring to the Judeo-Christian god). The book is the answers provided by the 52 authors, with an introduction by the editors. The many authors provide an array of reasons for disbelief, but vary in the quality, rigor, and logic of their arguments.
Before I dig into the reasons given for disbelief, let me first describe some other characteristics of the book. As a quantitative-leaning sociologist, I couldn’t help but look for things to count in this book. I found two. The first was the areas of expertise of the authors. Of the 52 authors, 18 are philosophers (23 if you include ethicists with the other philosophers). The rest of the authors come from a diverse array of backgrounds: writers or journalists (9), activists (7), physicists (4), biologists (3), psychologists (2), politicians (2), and medical doctors (2). The areas of expertise, not surprisingly, are reflected in the reasons given for not believing in a god or gods. The philosophers are more likely to draw upon arguments like theodicy while activists are more likely to draw upon civil rights issues surrounding religion. I discuss this point in more detail below. Assuming the goal of 50 Voices of Disbelief is to illustrate the wide variety of reasons why people do not believe in a god, I believe the book succeeds to some degree with a moderately diverse group of contributors. However, philosophers make up a disproportionate percentage of the authors. While this may be justified by arguing that philosophers are experts in this area and are the most likely to have lucid arguments for their disbelief, a wider array of disbelievers from even more backgrounds would have better accomplished this goal.
While somewhat more difficult to count, I attempted to categorize and quantify the various reasons authors gave for their disbelief. My goal, of course, is not to discern general patterns for disbelief as this book is not a representative sample of non-believers. I did this primarily to give my self a sense of what the main arguments for disbelief were in this book. Quantifying the reasons was more difficult because the authors could offer multiple reasons for their disbelief and because some authors didn’t clearly articulate a reason for not believing. My categorization of reasons resulted in 19 different justifications for disbelief. The most common reason, which was mentioned by 30 different authors, was a broad category that includes the following, closely related reasons: religion conflicts with science or the rigorous criteria of scientific empiricism were applied to religion, scripture, or god, and these came up short. This could generally be considered a “lack of evidence for god or religion” category. The second most widely cited reason was theodicy or the problem of evil, which was discussed to varying degrees of sophistication by 14 different authors. The only other reason that was widely cited was religious pluralism or comparative religion (10 authors). This reason is rooted in the idea that there are lots of religions, many of which are exclusive. The contradictions and conflicting truth claims of the extant religions serve to undermine all of them, a lá Peter Berger (1967). The remaining reasons offered range widely, from childhood trauma and religion being completely ineffectual to having no need for religion or being comfortable without it. Before reading this book I thought, perhaps erroneously, that it would be organized topically by the reasons the authors offered. However, the editors do not seem to have organized the chapters in any clear fashion, and it certainly isn’t organized topically, which can make it a little challenging to read straight through.
As far as reasons go, there was another pattern here I found quite interesting. Of the four people who said that they left religion and/or do not believe in god because traditional religion is patriarchal, three were women (12 of the 52 authors are female). Both of the people who gave the violation of civil rights as their reason for not believing referred specifically to violations of civil rights under Islamic governments. And both of the people who mentioned homophobia as their reason for not believing were homosexuals. This pattern led me to think that perhaps an underlying motivation for many people who do not believe is the desire to liberate themselves from the oppression of religion. However, how religion oppresses is relative. For some homosexual nonbelievers, the oppressive aspect of religion is the denigration of homosexuality (among those religions that do). For some female nonbelievers, the oppression is rooted in patriarchy. And for some white male nonbelievers, who would be the primary beneficiaries of Judeo-Christian religion if they were believers, the oppression may often be cognitive and rooted in the limits religion places on the pursuits of the mind. Of course, these are generalizations based on the reasons offered in this book and don’t hold true for everyone. Even so, this would explain why so many of the white male authors offered “lack of evidence” as their primary reason for not believing and not religious patriarchy or the oppression of homosexuals.
As far as the writing and arguments go, the quality varies substantially. Some chapters were so compelling and well-written that I was disappointed they were so short (e.g., those by Ophelia Benson, Victor J. Stenger, and Edgar Dahl). Others were simply disappointing, either because the arguments were not logically rigorous or were unintelligible (e.g., those by J.J.C. Smart and Frieder Otto Wolf). The editors probably could have been more selective, including just one or two chapters on any given reason and excluding some of the weaker chapters altogether. There is also a range of sympathy toward religion, with some authors taking a very negative, critical stance (e.g., A.C. Grayling and Kelly O’Connor) while others are more sympathetic (e.g., Julian Baggini).
Given the audience of the journal this review is in, it seems appropriate to give special attention to the chapters by psychologists. Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist whose area of expertise was formerly parapsychology. In her chapter she notes that she spent decades researching the paranormal and, despite her best efforts, found no evidence for the existence of anything supernatural. As a scientist, she was ultimately forced to conclude that belief in god is untestable, and whatever claimed evidences for the supernatural that are testable have come up short. As a result, she is no longer a believer.
Marc Hauser’s approach is quite different. In his co-authored chapter with Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics, he and Dr. Singer illustrate quite compellingly that morality does not derive from god. They do this by drawing upon their experimental research that finds atheists and agnostics are at least as moral as are theists but they do not derive their moral worldview from the supernatural. While their chapter does not explicitly state that this is why the authors are not believers, their research provides one more justification for why belief is unnecessary.
It’s clear from reading this book that there are plenty of reasons to not believe in a god. Some of the reasons in this book are clearly more compelling and more widely used than are others. And, at least as far as this book is concerned, peoples’ reasons for not believing appear to be related to how religion has oppressed them. Scholars interested in a non-random sample of generally well-written reasons for disbelief may find this book of interest.
Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Social Reality of Religion. New York: Faber and Faber.
(Note: I reviewed this book for the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. A shorter version of this review will be coming out in that journal soon.)