Review of Robin Le Poidevin's Arguing for Atheism (1997)
Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE, UK and 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001, USA, 1996, 159 pp., glossary, bibliography, index, paperback.
As in so many atheistic books, Le Poidevin, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Leeds, does not so much argue for atheism as that he argues against theism. Atheism is still often taken to be the opposite of theism, simply its denial. That is, atheism is taken to deny the existence of a god, especially a god that is supposed to be the creator of all things and to be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. Richard Swinburne, who assumes the existence of such a god, also speaks about god as a "person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal". Some atheists experience such a definition of the word "god" as implying a contradiction, whereas other atheists tend to believe that it is at least extremely unlikely that such a "person" exists.
Le Poidevin discusses the views of Swinburne, but others have done this before him. A particularly devastating attack on theism has been written by John L. Mackie (1917-1981): The Miracle of Theism, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1982. Le Poidevin refers to some of Mackie's writings, including The Miracle of Theism. But he does not refer to an even more important book: Atheism, a Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin (Temple University Press, Philadelphia 19122, 1990, 541 pp.).
In this massive book Martin argues for two kinds of atheism, negative and positive atheism. With this book Martin, a professor of philosophy at Boston University, established himself as a leading theorist of atheism, and it is therefore unfortunate that Le Poidevin does not mention Martin's uniquely thorough defence of atheism. I suspect that Le Poidevin was unaware of Martin's contribution to atheism when he finished the manuscript of his book in November 1995. Martin has also published an important critique of Christianity: The Case Against Christianity (Temple University Press, 1991). This book is less concerned with the topics with which Le Poidevin deals in Arguing for Atheism, but it is more relevant than several other books to which Le Poidevin refers. Martin has recently also published a more popular account of atheism: The Big Domino in the Sky and Other Atheistic Tales, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 1996, 244 pp.
Apart from omitting Martin's important contribution to atheism, Le Poidevin also fails to mention the names and writings of important atheists like Antony Flew, Kai Nielsen, Richard Robinson, George H. Smith, and Gordon Stein, just to mention a few important names. Le Poidevin writes next to nothing about the history of atheism, otherwise he might perhaps have mentioned David Berman's book: A History of Atheism in Britain, Croom Helm, London 1988.
Le Poidevin mentions arguments of classical philosophers like Augustine, Descartes, and Leibniz, but on the whole his discussion is limited to Anglo-American philosophy in the 20th century. It goes almost without saying that he has nothing to say about more popular kinds of atheism as we find these in India, Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. It may, of course, be argued that these popular kinds of atheism, are not very relevant for philosophical arguments. To some extent this is true. But popular kinds of atheism, such as we find them in freethought circles, are relevant also for philosophical discussions as they suggest that a number of freethinkers may experience philosophical discussions as irrelevant. And should not philosophers try to formulate their ideas in terms which are experienced as interesting also for intelligent non-philosophers? Or should we just give up before even trying?
Le Poidevin does not only want to argue for atheism, but he has tried to write an unconventional introduction to the philosophy of religion. In fact he also looks at his book as an introduction to metaphysics. The ten chapters of his book discuss topics like causation, time, possibility, necessity, teleology, determinism, fictional objects, and ontology. But Le Poidevin does not discuss idealism and materialism. As I see it materialism is a form of metaphysics which since the 17th century has been closely related to atheism. Nowadays materialists are generally atheists, even though atheists are not always materialists. To a large extent atheism can be severed from metaphysical views. But as far as atheists tend to have metaphysical views, and to the extent that they argue consistently, they will be materialists.
In spite of the omissions which I have mentioned, I think that Le Poidevin has written a good introduction to atheism. His book is probably less adequate as an introduction to the philosophy of religion, and it is even less adequate as an introduction to metaphysics. Still, Le Poidevin discusses a number of topics which are relevant to the philosophy of religion in a highly competent way. Le Poidevin's book is generally easy to grasp and lucid, and it is well arranged. Even a widely read philosopher may learn new things from Le Poidevin. At the same time his book also seems to be quite accessible to the general reader.
Finngeir Hiorth 4 April 1997
Finngeir Hiorth has published widely in the fields of philosophy, theory of language and Indonesian studies. He is also the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$ 18.- post free, and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp., US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another recent publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp.
"Review of Robin Le Poidevin's Arguing for Atheism" is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.
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