The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Edited by Michael Martin


Pp. xix, 331 , Cambridge . Cambridge University Press , 2007 , $30.00.

After a period when atheism seems to have dominated philosophical departments, William Lane Craig, one of the contributors to this fine volume, suggests that believers are making a comeback. In some circles, such as American philosophical departments, atheism is in retreat after the decline of verificationism and the advent of a new wave of metaphysics.

Yet, far from accepting decline, this volume witnesses to the vitality of atheist ideas across a range of areas. Tracing the origins of atheism back to antiquity, Jan Bremmer opens the volume with an account of the origins of atheism in Greek thought. He shows that it was here that theoretical atheism was discovered and the term atheos was invented. Later used as a term of derision ‘atheist’ became a powerful weapon to label opponents in the emerging ideological battles between Greeks and Romans, pagans and Christians. Gavin Hyman makes the interesting point in considering atheism in modern history that modernity has been so intertwined with atheism that they are practically synonymous. With the possible end of modernity, he raises the issue of whether atheism as a belief system is in trouble, as the old certainties of both atheism and theism seem to have become much more fluid in the contemporary period. Concluding the first part of this volume dedicated to the background of atheism Phil Zuckerman gives a statistical analysis of atheism around the world and shows that whilst belief in God tends to flourish in poorer countries with large populations atheists make up a considerable part of the planet accounting for between 500 to 750 million people.

In Part two various authors examine the case for negative atheism, that is to say, the absence of a belief in God, and positive atheism, that is to say, the belief that there is no God. Defending negative atheism Richard Gale takes on the traditional arguments for theism: the ontological, cosmological, teleological and also considers the modern argument from religious experience and finds each to be deficient and unable to prove their case. Also critical of defenders of theism Keith Parsons reviews the arguments of the influential philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne and finds their respective cases for theistic belief to be wanting. This list of defenders of positive atheism is further elaborated by Daniel Dennett who argues against creationism and intelligent design theories; Evan Fales who questions the validity of theism on the grounds of its supernaturalist presuppositions; and David Brink who defends the case for ethics being free from any necessary belief in God.

In defending positive atheism Andreas Weisberberger argues that it is not reasonable to believe in an all powerful and loving God given the amount of evil and suffering in the world. He finds all the arguments, which try and answer the theodicy question to be unconvincing. Quentin Smith argues that current accounts of cosmology make the notion of a creator God unnecessary and Patrick Grim concludes this second part by developing the case that the three major properties attributed to God in classical theism – omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection are impossible.

In the third and final part of the volume several authors consider the implications of atheism in a number of important areas. Against the accusation that atheism is necessarily anti-religious, Michael Martin outlines how some religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Confucianism can be considered to be atheistic religions although atheism itself is not a religion. Christine Overall defends the position that feminism and atheism are incompatible as even feminist accounts of God end up being complicit with the oppression of women. Steven Gey reviews the history of persecution of atheists in the West and the denial of their political rights. He concludes by proposing the best form of government to be the secular state, which is truly neutral on matters of belief and unbelief and so enshrines a constitutional agnosticism into the governance of society. John Caputo raises the question of the consequences of postmodernism for atheism. He suggests that any too fixed a position whether it be theism or atheism is undermined by the fluidity of the postmodern condition. Stewart Guthrie attempts an explanation of religion as a natural phenomenon by advocating a cognitive approach to religion in which religions primarily construct their worlds on the bases of animism and anthropomorphism. Benjamin Beit-Hallami concludes this final part by offering a general psychological profile of atheists revealing them to be intelligent and upright citizens who are ‘good to have as neighbors.’

Michael Martin's Companion is an excellent survey of a wide range of topics with which the phenomenon of atheism is concerned. It will be a valuable resource for courses on the philosophy of religion and belief and unbelief today. Nevertheless, one drawback of the volume is the sense that one is often drawn into the tug-of-war between atheism and theism rather than in the attempt to move beyond the well-trodden paths of these binary oppositions. In both negative and positive forms atheism sometimes emerges as sharing some of the traits of fundamentalist religions. If atheism is to move forward as a belief system it will have to negotiate the winding curves of a postmodern world which mixes and matches much more eclectically than some of the voices in this fine volume seem to want to believe.