s Book Review by Anthony Campbell: Atheism and Theism, by J.J.C. Smart and J. Haldane New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

J.J.C. Smart and J. Haldane


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This book offers a dialogue between two philosophers: Smart is an atheist, Haldane a theist. After a brief introduction each contributor sets out his position in a fairly lengthy essay. Smart comes first and Haldane then counters the points raised as well as making some of his own. The authors then reply to each other; there is a short Afterword by both and, for the second edition, Smart and Haldane provide some further reflections based on comments by reviewers of the first edition.

Smart describes himself as a former theist who is now an atheist. In the course of his essay he remarks on the sense of freedom this change of opinion has brought him.

In my experience arguing oneself out of one's religious beliefs can bring about peace of mind, since one does not need all the time to square one's religious beliefs with continuing developments in cosmology, biology and for that matter philosophy.
This is something I can confirm from my own experience.

Haldane, in contrast is not merely a theist but is a Roman Catholic who fully accepts all the dogmas of his faith. For this reason the discussion includes some reflections on the authority of Scripture, something one seldom ecounters in a book of this kind. Much of Haldane's arguments derive from St Thomas Aquinas, the most influential theologian in mediaeval Western Christianity whose views are still central to Roman Catholic thought today.

In his opening essay, written in an accessible style with occasional humorous asides, Smart covers all the main topics one would expect to find. These include the main classic "proofs" of God's existence, free will, and the problem of evil. He pays a good deal of attention to the notion of purpose and plan—teleology. Although most philosophers regard biological teleology as disproved since Darwin, the apparent "fine tuning" of the cosmological constants is harder to dismiss. Smart, as one might expect, points to current speculations about the existence of multiple universes with different values for the constants, only some of which will be suitable for life. He also suggests that the values of the constants may eventually be found to be less arbitrary than they appear at present. While conceding that some of this may seem to be rather ad hoc, he counter-attacks by saying that attributing the fine tuning to God doesn't really do any better as an explanation.

Haldane insists that belief in God does not depend wholly on faith but can be justified by intellectual arguments. This is the standard Catholic position based on Aquinas. He finds the fine tuning evidence for God's existence to be persuasive, and he also accepts the claims for "irreducible complexity" in biology advanced by advocates of "intelligent design". Naturally, he accepts the reality of revelation as set forth in the New Testament and believes that this is evidence for the divinity of Christ.

Smart remarks at the outset that there are hardly ever knock-down arguments in philosophy and therefore it is up to the reader to make up his or her own mind about the questions discussed here. Books of this kind are no doubt helpful for readers who are trying to do this. Although the authors don't reach a consensus, they do agree on what kinds of evidence should count and they share certain assumptions about the nature of metaphysics. They are unfailingly courteous and avoid cheap point-scoring. Ample bibliographies are provided.

19 July 2010

%T Atheism and Theism
%A J.J.C. Smart and J. Haldane
%I Blackwell Publishing
%C Oxford
%D 1996, 2003
%G 0-631-23258-3
%P xiii + 270pp
%K philosophy, religion
%O second edition

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