Review: Atheism The Case Against God 90

Atheism The Case Against God by George H. Smith Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1989

This is not a new book, but it was only recently brought to our attention (by our reader, JDBlues, for which we thank him).

Its author, George H. Smith, makes plain what atheism is and is not, demolishes the most common arguments against it, and exposes the absurdities and inner contradictions of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. He sets out the essential arguments of the case and discusses classic works on the subject. His book is both thorough and concise enough to be used as a textbook on atheism.

Where brevity and exactness are required, he is admirably succinct:

Atheism is the absence of a belief in a god, nothing more.

These are the basic beliefs of theism: the belief in the supernatural and the belief in the inherently unknowable.

Eventually, in the final chapter on “the sins of Christianity”, the author gives his personal opinions of the ethics of Jesus, and becomes most entertaining.

Contrary to the opinion of Christian theologians who “unanimously agree that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher in history”, Smith argues that:

– “Point for point, there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus [as the Christian bible records it , there being no other source] which cannot be found in the Old Testament or in the rabbinical teaching.”

– If we consider what Jesus said about morality, “he emerges as predominantly status quo. This poses a problem for Christian liberals. Strip Jesus of his [putative] divinity – as many liberals wish to do – and, at best, he becomes a mediocre preacher who held mistaken beliefs about practically everything, including himself; and, at worst, he becomes a pretentious fraud.”

– However, his precepts “intermingled with threats of gnashing teeth and eternal torment, contain a strong current of harshness and cruelty.”

– “Considered in themselves, the moral precepts of Jesus are sometimes interesting, sometimes poetic, sometimes benevolent, sometimes confusing, sometimes pernicious, and sometimes devastatingly harmful psychologically. None, however, are especially profound.”

Smith explains: “My sole purpose in this discussion is to examine the effects and wider implications of Jesus’ major doctrines, not to lend them the undeserved respect of a counter-argument”.

The effects and wider implications are harmful. They include the demand for obedience and conformity. “When Jesus says ‘believe’, he means ‘obey’.” And what results from that obedience and conformity?

The sacrifice of truth. One can be committed to conformity or one can be committed to truth, but not both. The pursuit of truth requires the unrestricted use of one’s mind – the moral freedom to question, to examine evidence, to consider opposing viewpoints, to criticize, to accept as true only that which can be demonstrated – regardless of whether one’s conclusions conform to a particular creed. … [It is] a fundamental and viciously destructive teaching of Christianity: that some beliefs lie beyond the scope of criticism and that to question them is sinful … By placing a moral restriction on what one is permitted to believe, Christianity declares itself an enemy of truth and of the faculty by which man arrives at truth – reason.

This “monstrous doctrine that one is morally obligated to accept as true religious beliefs that cannot be comprehended or demonstrated [is] the belief that ‘justified’ the slaughter of dissenters and heretics in the name of morality, and its philosophical consequence may be described as the inversion – or, more precisely, the perversion – of morality.” The doctrine is “devastating”. It’s effect is to “divorce morality from truth” and to “turn man’s reason against himself … Reason becomes a vice, something to be feared, and man finds that his worst enemy is his own capacity to think…”

Not only thoughts, but involuntary feelings can take one to hell in Christian belief. And “evil emotions … often consist of … sexual desire”. So to be an obedient Christian is to be inescapably guilty: “one must view oneself fundamentally as a ‘sinner’.”

Commenting on the injunction reported in Luke (6:27-28): “Do not resist evil”, Smith rightly points out that this is a prescription for the toleration of injustice ( which is where the morality of Christianity parts company decisively with the morality of Judaism, though Smith does not raise this point).

Smith succeeds in making the case against God. In doing so, he makes an impassioned plea for reason rather than faith as a guide to happiness for individuals and the human race as a whole. Reason is equatable with freedom, faith with bondage. For not to believe in a god commits one to no other beliefs whatsoever. An atheist as such is not compelled to apply his reason to any other issue: he is free to make his choices, wise or foolish. But the believer, in search of certainty where it is not to be found, commits himself to a lie, and binds himself in its inextricable confusion. As Spinoza – quoted by Smith – puts it, “the concept of god is an asylum of ignorance”.

Jillian Becker  August 28, 2010

Posted under Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Saturday, August 28, 2010

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