Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Atheism? by George H Smith


Why Atheism? by George H Smith is a collection of essays about atheism.  Although the essays complement one another, most of them pretty much stand alone, rather than building upon one another.  For better or worse, Smith focuses his philosophical arguments with an emphasis on Christianity.  This was a huge disappointment for me because I chose the book based on the cover’s more ecumenical cover image which has Judeo-Christian imagery as well as Buddhist and Hindu. 

The arguments Smith offers are not well presented in this book.  There are careless editing examples throughout the book.  Given Smith’s own often dense phrasing, these mistakes are all the more glaring.  Having to reread a sentence because it is missing a word, duplicating a word, or missing a letter effectively changing a word’s meaning is annoying at best.  To have it happen at least once per chapter is simply unforgivable and I’ve no doubt the author was disappointed to see his work treated so shabbily.

Although Smith’s essays are persuasive, I found most of them without impact.  I could easily draw on my remembered defenses of Christianity and see why a believer would not find the arguments powerful enough to sway personal conviction.  Halfway through the book, I was prepared to just give up altogether, already discouraged with the author’s focus on one spiritual path, etc.  However, I persevered. 

Finally in chapter 9, “Metaphysical Muddles:  The Ontological Argument,” I found some ideas and concepts into which I could sink my intellectual teeth.  I also found the chapters on the history of atheism interesting (albeit, it is an extremely abbreviated history).  However, I thought that chapter 12, “Some Irreverent Questions Concerning God,” was unnecessary.  It reminded me of the times my poetry friends and I would do a poetry exercise—write a line of poetry and then the next person would write the second line and the next one would write the third and so on until you ended up with a single poem.  The end result was never any good, although there were occasionally a line or two worth saving.  It was more an exercise, an experiment in creativity and the twelfth chapter reminded me of this poetry game—asking questions about God and then responding to each. But really, why bother?  There are enough real issues in religion, society, and philosophy to be explored without trying to figure out if God is an atheist or has orgasms. 

If there are thirteen chapters in a book and I found only three interesting (and really only one was meaty enough to make me want to dig deeper), would I recommend this book?  I wouldn’t necessarily not recommend it.  I think that most Christians would benefit from reading it, assuming they can overcome the impression that Smith is singling them out for attack.  I wish Smith had been more ecumenical, albeit I would imagine it is prohibitive to address one’s self to all the variety out there. 

I do think this was a good first choice in reading about atheism.  Hopefully I can find other books which are not so exclusive in discussing Christianity.  Conveniently enough, the previous person who borrowed this book left their “borrowed books” receipt in the book so now I have a list of other books to consider borrowing. 

Some examples of the carelessness on the editor’s part:

How [is] it that ideas that are learned uncritically in childhood become vested with the dignity of fundamental principles?  (127)

(I inserted the bracketed word.)

When salvation is at stake, when failure to covert [sic[ the atheist may land him in hell, the Christian becomes a spiritual Machiavellian for whom the end justifies the means.  (136)

(I found the above error amusing because it almost works.)

The fear of death, according to Epicurus, originated with the religious doctrine that we will be rewarded or punished in a future life, depending on how we act (or what we our believe) in our present life. (238)

(No matter how many different ways I try to make sense of the parenthetical part, I simply cannot do so.  I am assuming Smith wrote something along the lines of “or what we ourselves believe” but given that this whole book is arguing against making assumptions it is ironic that the publisher can’t hire an editor intelligent enough to catch such blatant errors before taking the copy to print.)

Then on page 238, Smith offers the reader a concept he calls the Epicurian Remedy.  Or is the Epircurean Remedy?  The reader is left to debate this.  “I shall henceforth call this the Epricurean Remedy” it says on page 238 but on the next page we have “Epicurean Remedy” and a few paragraphs later on the same page “Epircurean Remedy.”

I suppose in some alternate reality, which one could philosophically debate, these things would not cause the reader even a moment of confusion but the very quality of the writing is inevitably thrown into question.  I trust that Smith knows how to write well enough that these errors in editing are not a fault on his part but the fact that there are so many has the inevitable effect of making even the arguments feel somehow weaker. 



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