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Daniel Harbour


Daniel Harbour claims to show why atheism is correct, why theism is incorrect, and why anyone who cares about truth should be an atheist. His position is that "accommodating" (i.e. compromising with) theism, though popular, is wrong. We ought to be uncompromising in our rejection of theism, he believes. He advocates an atheism based in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and claims to advance positive as opposed to merely negative arguments for atheism.

This sounds like quite a promising approach, but the book doesn't live up to its claims. Right at the outset we encounter a seeming paradox, when Harbour's acknowledgement section ends with a dedication to, among others, his two godchildren. Can an avowed atheist have godchildren?

In the first chapter we meet a distinction between two world views, which Harbour calls the Spartan meritocracy versus the Baroque monarchy. The meaning of these terms is not intuitively obvious and I found that, for me, they tended to obscure Harbour's arguments rather than to illuminate them. Religion is supposed to be Baroque and monarchical, science (and atheism) are Spartan and meritocratic. I can see what he means but I am not convinced that it adds much to what we already know.

The next chapter is pretty conventional and deals with the classic arguments for God's existence. Not surprisingly, Harbour finds these to be unsound. Subsequent chapters look at the consequences of adopting one or other of the contrasting world views. Is religion needed for the good life? Does the fact that some scientists are also theists show that religion is intellectually defensible? What are the implications of religion, or the lack of it, for society?

In spite of his professed enthusiasm for the values of the Enlightenment, Harbour has a rather curious discussion of the case of a fairly distant relative known as Uncle Morry, who allegedly had the ability to perform paranormal cures and became a full-time spiritual healer. Harbour rejects Uncle Morry's claim that his ability to cure people was evidence of God's existence but appears to take the cures themselves at face value.

The book makes one or two quite interesting points but comes nowhere near providing an adequate discussion of the case for atheism. (For a more comprehensive treatment see Taner Edis's The Ghost in the Universe.)

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

4 August 2005

%T An Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism
%A Harbour, Daniel
%I Duckworth
%C London
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0-7156-2915-8
%P viii + 150 pp
%K religion

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