Book Review:

God, it’s hard to be an atheist. You would have thought that once you renounce the divine and throw in your lot with science, logic should be on your side. But Lady Logic is scrupulously fair. You can’t prove that something (i.e. God) doesn’t exist without evidence of a contradiction. The best is to say that His existence hasn’t yet been proved. So the believers declare a draw and mutter ‘each to their own’, while the atheists sulk. Until now, that is.

An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Atheism (Duckworth, 2001), by Daniel Harbour, has been reviewed by more than its fair share of intellectual heavyweights, so it’s time for a lighter touch. The Economist, never one to overuse the superlative, suggested that the book ‘makes what may be the most powerful case available to the widely held but strangely silent creed of atheism’. A more intriguing advocate is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, especially for those who saw his magnificent tirade on work, life and sex during the Mobius conference. Rabbi Boteach proclaims from the dust jacket that the author is an “intellectual steam-roller” and suggests that even devout believers cannot fail to be stimulated. Even discounting Oxford loyalties, this is Songs of Praise indeed.

So what is all the fuss about? Harbour suggests a new twist to the hoary debate, by taking a step back and providing an overarching structure in which to place these issues. As humans, we constantly seek to explain things, and know that we don’t have all the answers. There are two opposing approaches – worldviews – that could be used to build the explanations that we seek. The first is based on assuming as little as possible, and rigorously testing what we discover. This bottom-up approach is called the ‘Spartan meritocracy’ – minimal assumptions, constantly tested. It is in this view that atheism sits.

The opposite worldview is to start with a complex, richly textured view of how the world works, and declare this untouchable, protected by dictates and dogma. This he terms the Baroque monarchy. (However, as a loyal subject of Queen Liz, I would suggest that Baroque dictatorship be more appropriate). It is in this camp that we find theism. It is only the first of these two worldviews that is in any way helpful in advancing our understanding of the world. Thus, his argument goes, since atheism is associated with this worldview, it is necessarily superior to theism.

And nor does he stop there. By extension, the influence of religion on the institutions of government and the people poses serious problems. And since he has the floor, he also pokes holes in the suggestion that atheism should lead to amoral behavior. Not at all, he contends, and turns the question around to look at the influence of theists in the cases of slavery, Jewish emancipation and female suffrage.

Written over a couple of months in reaction to a friend’s repeated ‘silly questions’, the book is illegal in Pakistan and may get him arrested if he enters Egypt. Not bad for an extended essay written by someone still younger than the average HBS admit.

The book ends as it begins, in characteristically forthright style: “I can only concur with King David: ‘The fool hath said in his heart there is no God’. The intelligent person, with a wealth of reasons, would have said it out loud.”

May 6, 2002
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