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December 14, 2005


I'm interested in the struggle so many individuals, from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists, have undertaken for the cause of atheism - a cause that promises no heavenly reward.

I'm interested in the wages of disbelief: Societies have long punished those who decline to acknowledge the local God (or gods). In Scotland near the end of the seventeenth century, for example, an orphan studying at the University of Edinburgh began sharing -- openly, brashly, unwisely -- his criticisms of religion. The Scriptures, Thomas Aikenhead was reported to have proclaimed, are "so stuffed with madness, nonsense and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them." Based on the testimony of some of his fellow students, Aikenhead was convicted of blasphemy. Repentance would have helped, but the young man's efforts in that direction were not entirely convincing, especially when he explained that his errors had flowed from an "insatiable inclination to truth." Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh on January 8, 1697, a few months before his twenty-first birthday.

Many nonbelievers have lived dramatic lives or suffered, like poor Aikenhead, premature deaths, but I am also after the drama that is to be found in their thought. Shucking off superstition - in the name of an "insatiable inclination to truth" - has been difficult and it has been important. Philosophy and science have flourished on ground cleared over the millennia by disbelief. Oracles, ghosts and angels had to be routed; contradictions discovered; logical failings uncovered. The Greek skeptic Carneades demonstrated, for example, that if the gods were perfect they couldn't exhibit the virtues - courage, say - that come from overcoming weaknesses and flaws. Such criticism of religion falls under the heading of the negative idea of atheism.

Is there also a positive idea? Trying to clarify what that idea might be - untangling it from philosophy and science - will be one of the major challenges I face in researching and writing this book.

And I'm interested in where these ideas stand today: when fatwas are being issued; jihads and crusades being declared; when the orthodox are fighting to retake the textbooks and the courthouses. Are the gods reasserting their hold upon humanity? Or is this just a reaction to the ongoing, even accelerating global spread of secularism?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 14, 2005 11:16 PM


(here from UTI)

When seeing "wages" and "atheism" together I think of Pascal's Wager. While there are many good criticisms of this idea, there's a similar wager which speaks for atheism. Instead of criticising the wager itself, which would probably be like negative atheism, it presents a new wager; similar in terms, it's probably more convincing (or at least, understandable) to one who already feels Pascal was on the right track.

If god does not exist, the atheist is not only right, but has spent his life free of theological worries.
If god exists, and is benevolent, he will likely forgive anyone for false beliefs. The atheist will have lost little to nothing. Meanwhile, most belivers will have been wrong in at least some respect.
If god exists, and is malevolent, he will probably not take kindly to worshiping false gods. Unless you happen to get it just right, he will probably lay his wrath down upon you. The atheist, at least, can say he didn't believe in anything, and may be given a second chance.

Not a particularly good arguement for the same reasons Pascal's wager is weak, but I think it's a way to show a specific "benifit" of atheism to believers, instead of focusing on negative aspects.

Posted by: Ollie at December 23, 2005 8:49 AM

The negative response I'm familiar with to Pascal's wager includes some of the points in this clever "atheist's wager" -- along with phrases like "the infinitesimal chance."

Posted by: mitch at December 23, 2005 9:29 AM

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