Skip to content

Different views of religion among atheists

Thomas Nagel has published a critical review of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" in "the New Republic". I've only read extracts from the review (the original requires a subscription), but from what I've seen Nagel's view is what you would expect from his essays. (See Thomas Nagel and the fear of religion and Thomas Nagel and the religious temperament). That is, he seems to think that the reductionist position as defended by Dawkins fails to take account of important aspects of reality.

I've said elsewhere that there are two types of atheism (probably more than two, really, but at least two). One advocates (preaches?) the out-and-out dismissal of religion as delusion and fraud, exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. The other regards religion as very important even though based on ideas that are ultimately invalid. This second view recognizes that religion, for better or worse, will always be with us. Examples of atheists who hold it include Marghanita Laski, Iris Murdoch, Scott Atran, and Taner Edis as well as Thomas Nagel.

I would have to count myself in the second group, even though there are times (when I read some more than usually outrageous piece of religious bigotry) when I find myself leaning for a moment towards the first group.

Looking through my book reviews recently I was surprised, and a little disconcerted, to find that reviews of books on religion are currently the largest single category (49 reviews), although admittedly this is only one more than the fiction category. (Actually, if you take all the science categories together, including evolution, they considerably outnumber religion, but it's still a lot of books on religion.)

There is no doubt that the topic of religion attracts much more attention from secularists now than it did a few years ago. I'm obviously no less susceptible than anyone else to influence from the zeitgeist so no doubt that is partly why I have read and reviewed all these books on religion. Partly, however, it must be because I am by temperament the second kind of atheist. I don't think it's conceivable that religion will disappear, although I certainly hope that it will never become as culturally dominant as it was in the past.

The really interesting question, of course, is why such improbable beliefs should be so widespread in human societies, even those that are as technologically sophisticated as our own. This is something that Scott Atran tackles in his book "In Gods We Trust", to be reviewed here shortly.

I'm currently reading Scott Atran's book and a review will appear here shortly.


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

Juno Walker on :

Anthony -

I would count myself in the first group of atheists; but lately I've been feeling that the efforts of Dawkins, Harris, et al, might be doing more harm than good, in terms of bolstering the respective redoubts of both the theist side and the atheist side. I agree wholeheartedly with Harris' and Dawkins' views on religion (though not necessarily Harris' views on torture, etc.), but I'm wondering if a less vitriolic attack might be a better strategy.

I don't believe that monotheistic religion will ever be completely eradicated from the human race, but I remain hopeful. I think the best approach might just be a calm, assertive, consistent and persistent explication of the secular worldview, instead of mere ridicule. I do believe that both Harris and Dawkins back up their ridicule with sound arguments (most of the time), but commited believers can't see past it.

Anyway, there's a much more favorable review of Dawkins' book by Steven Weinberg here .


Anthony Campbell on :

Thanks for this link. Nice to have access to the review in full. It confirms what I'd expected: viz., that Nagel's view of the book is an extension of the two articles I;ve discussed here previouly.

Harold Henderson on :

Good point -- these 2 kinds of atheists don't always get along too well, either, but I find myself veering from one kind to the other as circumstances change.

I discovered that it's posted in full at

Enjoy! Since then I've enjoyed parts of "The View from Nowhere," although it can be heavy going.

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
How many legs do snakes have?
Form options