Atheism: The Basics claims to be a “concise and engaging introduction to belief in the non-existence of deities” (back cover), and “engaging” does seem like a fitting description. Particularly in the introductory paragraphs, author Graham Oppy immediately lightens the mood with witty brevity—and the occasional cultural reference—which makes the dive into a new subject less intimidating for the exploratory reader.
In the first chapter, the book advises the reader not to be “fearful of its contents” (1), then provides a helpful exposition of the books structure as well as some advice on how one might go about reading it. In chapter 2, Oppy gets down to the basics by introducing and defining some terms, including a definition of atheism and what atheism—at least according the author—does and does not entail. The chapter opens with some controversial quotes about atheism—which sparks interest—and concludes by addressing each of these quotes in relation to the information that the rest of the chapter provides. This makes for a well-rounded unit that could, for instance, be very helpful reading material for students. The “snapshots from history” in chapter 3 describe twelve (often alleged) atheists, and provides background on the history and emergence of atheistic standpoints. While the selection of notable atheists was somewhat arbitrary, in keeping with the authors own description of chapter (2), these snapshots paint a diverse picture, adding a bit of human interest to make the subject more engaging—and you may wish to make use of that surge of interest while diving into the more complex chapters that follow.
Chapter 4—one of the more complex—discusses “facts and figures” in the form of Oppy providing estimated counts of atheists, and discussing notable research on atheism as well as addressing issues regarding the difficulty of researching atheism. By discussing research into the stereotypes surrounding atheism—such as its (perceived) immorality—chapter 4 also lays the groundwork for chapter 5, which is dedicated to addressing “common complaints” about atheism. These complaints—such as the supposed immorality and irrationality of atheism—are often refuted without feeling defensive or outrightly dismissing them (save perhaps for the complaint that “atheists have no humor,” which is countered with a modest example of an atheist joke that I won’t spoil here). Chapter 6 is the most in-depth, and probably most complex, chapter of the book, focusing on what Oppy calls “strategies that might be pursued by those arguing for atheism” (116). These “strategies” are usually arguments in favor of atheism, and include claims such as “atheism is the default position” (122), and “theistic worldviews are logically inconsistent” (124), which are carefully considered—and usually rejected. In the seventh and final chapter, Oppy attempts to take up the question “where atheism now seems to be headed” (135), and discusses the possible future of what he calls “new atheism” by examining both empirical claims and conceptual arguments. Oppy rejects some claims, such as “new atheism” being a sign of rising atheism, and simultaneously doubts theories claiming that atheism is declining, wisely concluding that it is simply difficult to gauge what is to become of atheism in the future.
Throughout the book a lot of time is spent on what Oppy calls “setting the record straight” (as chapter 2 is appropriately named). In this and further chapters, it is regularly stressed that any conclusions that are drawn may not apply to all atheists. The book constantly addresses the diverse nature of a large group—such as atheists—and the subsequent difficulty of drawing conclusions about said group, especially when mentioning outcomes of scientific research and common (mis)conceptions. While this is, of course, an issue in any type of research, the fervent repetition does become tiring after a while, especially for readers who happen to have some experience in the social sciences.
While the author fulfills his promise of addressing the questions posed on the back cover—such as what is means to be an atheist, what science tells us about atheism, and what reasons there are to be or not to be an atheist—the book does sometimes overshoot the mark when it comes to elaborating on the logic of (a)theism, or what Oppy calls “arguments about the existence of God” (4). This becomes most obvious in chapter 6, which—despite being very insightful—could be deemed a bit elaborate for a book that claims to teach the basics.
According to the back cover, Oppy is “one of atheism’s foremost academic defenders,” and one of these so-called defenses stands out in particular. Oppy refutes the complaint that atheism “is just another religion” (94), as—among other things—there is much more to religion than just worldview, and, in contrast to religion, atheism requires nothing more than the worldview which claims that there are no gods. What strikes me as interesting is that, despite Oppy’s insistence that atheism is not a religion, the way atheism is criticized is eerily reminiscent of the way certain new forms of religiosity are berated. Even the accusation of atheism being a religion mimics some critics of spirituality which, much like atheism, has been labeled “a cultic form of religion,” “irrational,” and “immoral” (Linda Woodhead, “Real Religion and Fuzzy Spirituality? Taking Sides in the Sociology of Religion,” in Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital, Brill, 2010).
All in all, Oppy’s book is well written, lively and—for the most part—concise and accessible. The book does cover much, if not most, of the basics of atheism (as the series claims), and the inclusion of a glossary of key terms as well as suggestions for further reading make for a good starting point. A “concise and engaging introduction” indeed—although, as the author recommends, you should probably skip chapter 6 for your first read.
Maartje Gortworst is a graduate student in Religious Studies at Utrecht University.
Date Of Review:
April 5, 2019
Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Australia.
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