THE AUSTRALIAN BOOK OF ATHEISM
Edited by Warren Bonett
(Scribe Publications, 2010, 442pp, $35.00. ISBN:9781921640766. Available in major book shops)
The Australian Book of Atheism is a collection of 32 essays by Australian atheists, so each is brief, averaging 13 pages, with no extended argument for atheism. Indeed, none of the major arguments for the existence of God is given serious consideration.
It is divided into seven sections headed: Overview, Personal, Education, Social and Cultural, Politics, Philosophy, Religion and the Brain. Most of the essays deal with the presumed consequences of adopting atheism, such as opposing religious education in State schools and the influence of religious groups in Australian politics.
I can offer only a few samples of the essays.
Chrys Stevenson opens with a potted history of atheism in Australia. He shows atheists have always comprised a substantial section of the Australian population. So what is new? I thought this was common knowledge.
Max Wallace discusses "The constitution, belief, and the state". It is an accurate article in most respects. He notes that the constitution of Australia does not provide for separation of Church and State, a point that needs to be publicised. For separation, it would be necessary for Australia to become a republic, he thinks, because Australia is tied to the idea of an established Church as in England. This is nonsense, for the fact that the England has a State Church has no bearing on the Australian constitution.
Religion and the law
His main complaint is that churches receive preferential treatment in Australia. Were that so, trade unions, sporting organisations, farmers, mining industry associations, etc, would have to be included among the preferred.
The preoccupation of atheists with this matter is exemplified in the following essay, "Religion and the law in Australia." All in the name of liberty, they want to restrict theists in exercising their democratic rights to advocate policy, influence governments or, indeed, have a voice in public affairs.
Robyn Williams is a well known radio broadcaster, so his contribution will attract interest. Such interest would be misdirected for this is one of the shallowest, indeed most thoughtless, contributions to the book. Note the depth of this remark: "I don't mind turning water into wine, in principal [sic], but I can never get the hang of it."
More ludicrous is Tanya Levin: "Far above rubies". She used to be a born-again member of Hillsong. She gives a two page commentary on the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31, which lists the attributes of a virtuous woman. Here is one specimen of her analysis of the text, thus showing she has no idea how to read the Old Testament:
"v.10 Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.
Hillsong interpretation: It is a wonderful thing to be virtuous and people will value you.
Me: Israel must be full of sluts. How much are the rubies compared to camels and shekels, since it only costs 50 shekels to rape a virgin and keep her.
The reference is to Deuteronomy 22:28-29. Levin has not bothered to discover that the 50 shekels is a compensation payment to the virgin's father for his loss of a the customary bride price and that the girl would have great difficulty finding a husband.
I now turn to the section entitled Philosophy, where I had expected to find meaty arguments.
D. Robin Craig attacks the contention that there can be no morality without belief in God. This view is commonly voiced, I agree. He argues that one cannot get "ought" from "is", which I suppose means there are no facts about the universe which support moral rules. Inconsistently he then argues that there is a fact, namely that we all want to go on living, and to do this we must (not a moral "must") be rational. Seeing that religious belief (theism) is irrational, such belief cannot facilitate living.
It is difficult to see that theists do not go on living as do atheists. Nor does Craig offer any reason to believe theists are irrational beyond his sweeping claim (common to atheists) that religion is based on faith, meaning "belief without, indeed in spite of, evidence and proof". Apparently he is ignorant of arguments for God's existence based on evidence and proof.
As far as the Catholic tradition is concerned, it agrees with his contention that one can know moral truths without believing in God. That tradition includes subscription to natural law which is knowable without reference to God. Craig does not grasp that a large portion of Christian theists agree with him.
Jane Caro tries to write humorous articles in newspapers and appears on TV. Her "Why gods are man-made" certainly contains some funny lines. For example, "The idea that women are as fully human as men is something that man-made religions seem to constantly struggle over." Really? The Book of Genesis, which she is fond of parodying, contains the story of Eve's being created from human Adam's rib, not from the rib of a fish. Christians have always baptised women, that is, humans - but not dogs.
The quality of argument of David Horton's "Agnostics are nowhere men" can be gauged by his words: "I don't believe one can be both religious and a scientist (but that is just one of my prejudices)." Who could disagree with that last sentence?
The atheists in this collection think that denial of belief in God commits them to advocacy of: elimination of religious instruction in State schools, euthanasia, deleting reference to the monarchy in the constitution, allowing only a muted voice in public affairs to religious interests, and the cessation of government funding of religious schools, hospitals and charitable services. They overlook the fact that some theists advocate the same policies, so there is no necessary connection between atheism and these policies.
Some general observations:
1. There is no serious engagement with theistic philosophers who offer powerful arguments for the existence of God. Nearly all the writers seem ignorant of these arguments. They mention them, then trot out common criticisms, unaware that there are answers to the criticisms.
2. They repeatedly recite the formula, "Australia is a secular country, therefore ...", as if it were a self-evident truth. Who decided that? It is neither secular nor religious.
3. Repeatedly the writers assert religious faith is belief without evidence. This is sheer ignorance, for all the classical arguments for God appeal to evidence. True, there are theists who lack adequate evidence for their belief. But the same applies to atheists, including most of of the contributors.
Theists have no reason to fear this over-extended pamphlet.