50 Voices of Disbelief – Why We Are Atheists
Edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk
Book Review by Fred Hsu
November 22, 2010
Sometimes mistakes have a way of helping me expand my perspective.
A long time ago, I listened to a short essay by a presumably great magician on NPR’s “This I Believe” program. Unlike other essays read on this program, this one was a belief on the non-existence of something. It was titled “This I believe: I believe there is no God.” The essay brought me to tears, as it beautifully expressed my beliefs in exactly the way I could not.
A month ago I ran across a delightful blog entry titled “Imagine No Religion.” I said to myself, “what a well-written little essay for a blog!” It nicely captured essential arguments against organized religions. Then it stripped away from religious leaders their self-bestowed authority to prescribe moral truths.
No sooner had I looked at the footer of this page than I discovered that it was one of 50 essays from the book “50 Voices of Disbelief,” reposted with permission from the author of the essay, Edgar Dahl, and the publishers. I followed the link on the page to Amazon. Normally I would have stopped there, thinking that I could always get this book later when I had free time. But I spotted the name James (The Amazing) Randi on the list of essayists. I put two and two together, and bought this book, for surely it included Randi’s great essay I’d heard on NPR.
As it turned out, The Amazing Randi did not pen that NPR essay. I later learned that Penn Jillette of the Penn & Teller fame did. But once I started reading the 50 Voices of Disbelief, I found that I could not put it down. I am ashamed to admit that I had harbored an illusion of having read all that there was to write about atheism… that is, until I read, back to back, fifty wildly different essays by fifty freethinkers on this one topic in one single book. Suffice to say that I believe every skeptic out there will find at least some essays here written in the style they love, on some atheistic topics that interest them, argued in some ways they have not read before.
Take the essay by Randi, for instance. As a professional conjuror, Randi knows a thing or two about how easily people are fooled by religions and magicians alike. It is not every day that one is schooled by a conjuror on the fine differences between religious leaders and conjurors.
If you are looking for an easy-to-read discourse on philosophical arguments against religion, look no further than “Why I am Not a Theist,” by Prabir Ghosh. You can in fact give this fun article to your theist friends, as Ghosh uses plain sentences and everyday scenarios to illustrate why it was not wise to be religious. While covering the most profound arguments, not once does Ghosh use an academic term.
Yet another well-written essay worth passing onto believing friends is “The Unconditional Love of Reality,” by Dale McGowan. It follows the author’s thirty-year journey in search of the ultimate truth, starting at age thirteen, when he looked into his father’s open casket. Written in a non-condescending tone, this essay may inspire theist friends to retrace the author’s intellectual discoveries.
For the extreme skeptics who are not afraid to embrace controversial ideas, the essays by Athena Andreadis and by Michael Rose and John Phelan on the “bicameral mind” and related hypotheses put forward testable and falsifiable claims on how the “voices from gods” were a byproduct of our past evolution. As humans further evolved introspection, the bicameral mind broke down and the voices from gods stopped, leaving only a small set of people with working bicameral mind, the schizophrenics.
Those fascinated by the emerging field of bioethics will find plenty of articles in this book. These include Edgar Dahl’s “Imagine No Religion,” which started me on this book, as well as “Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God,” by Udo Schüklenk (one of the two editors of this book), on how organized religions restrict our freedom of choice in the beginning of life, during our lives, and at life’s end.
Some non-believers such as myself found our atheistic voices in the vocabulary of evolutionary biology. We are represented, too, in this book of voices of disbelief. The essay by Kelly O’Connor recounted her intellectual transformation. As a Christian evangelist, she read up on evolutionary biology during a prolonged online debate on Creationism in order to debunk evolution, only to turn into an activist atheist herself once she grasped evolution and its implications.
If you are a scientifically-minded person, and you find well-organized writings to your liking, you will greatly enjoy “An Ambivalent Nonbelief,” by Taner Edis, a physicist. Every single sentence follows logically from the previous one. So does every paragraph. And every section. Edis walks the reader through his claims for why traditional atheistic arguments based on philosophy and morality are no longer the best tools we have. Instead, science increasingly plays the central role in today’s dialogues.
If you enjoy thought experiments, you will love the ingenious “Maximally-Evil God” hypothesis illustrated by Stephen Law. This is easily my favorite essay from the book. In the first part of his essay, Stephen lays out the orthodox arguments “for” an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God, using standard apologetics including the free-will theodicy, the character-building theodicy, laws of nature theodicy and the mystery trump card. Then, in the second half, Stephen postulates a Maximally-Evil God, well-supported by the very same theodicies, word for word, except that he replaces all mentions of “goodness” with “evilness.” How can the same arguments work for two opposite types of god? One must actually read this essay to appreciate the geniusness that oozes out of these pages.
There are quite a few formal dialogues by philosophers on atheism. While I enjoyed them, I am not sure all types of readers will. Perhaps those with deeper philosophical inclinations will be thrilled by these essays, whereas I found them merely adequate.
Now that I’ve outlined what I found exciting in this book, I encourage you to buy this book, check out the book from your local library, or otherwise lift it from your best friend’s house. You will then realize that essays I highlighted actually stink. You will have made a mistake. You will have misplaced your trust in my literary judgment.
But I am confident you will find your own favorites amongst the rest of these essays.