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Book picture: Sense & Goodness

Book review: Sense & Goodness Without God

My first and possibly last book review

I have a new favorite book, and I'm going to plug the hell out of it. No, I don't get kickbacks or anything. I just think this is a book atheists should know about.

The author

I used to be a fan of Nailed, in which David Fitzgerald tells us why he thinks Jesus probably never existed. He may or may not be right about that, and we may never know. Fitzgerald writes an interesting book and gives a great talk, but as I understand it he's "just" a guy who wrote a book. The stuff he writes about is the result of deep historical research of the scholarly kind. One scholar Fitzgerald gives a lot of credit to in his book is Richard Carrier.

Dr. Richard Carrier, it turns out, is a "real" historian, he's a "famous" atheist running the Secular Web site and he's written (mostly) about religion, especially Christianity, atheism and naturalism. I first saw him in The God Who Wasn't There.


The First Book of Atheism: The God Delusion

In /r/atheism, people often ask for a book recommendation. Probably the world's best known "atheist primer" is The God Delusion by the grandmaster himself, Richard Dawkins. TGD is incredibly well known, beloved of atheists and reviled by the faithful. Thing is, it does a pretty good job of knocking (mostly) the god of Judeo-Christianity and Islam off his perch; there's a bit of philosophic underpinning, a bit of history and evolution, and a lot of badmouthing (all deserved!) of religions and their followers. Let's be honest, though: While Dawkins manages a mostly calm, scholarly tone the book is pretty antagonistic. Not every Christian will appreciate as a Christmas gift a book which declares their religion to be a mental disease.

As an atheist when I first read it, I enjoyed Dawkins' badmouthing of religion, almost as much as Hitchens' even wittier demolition of it in God Is Not Great. But I worry that their tone is too militant for timidly blossoming atheists and/or their Jesus-defending mothers/fathers/girlfriends/wives.

Another problem I see with TGD (and this is where I finally begin to segue to the actual book I'm reviewing!) is that it attempts to kick God and religion out from under the reader's feet; and if it succeeds, if you follow the analogy, the reader is left hanging in midair. It turns out that a religious person adopts a lot of personal philosophy from his religion. If (heaven forbid) TGD succeeds and he loses his religion, he's left with a whole lot of suddenly unanswered questions about the meaning and purpose of life, death, the universe, truth, beauty, morals and perhaps even politics. Lots of freshly minted atheists arrive at /r/atheism's doorstep feeling a bit confused.


Philosophy saves the day!

This is where Carrier's book presents an alternative. First off, it doesn't charge in with blazing guns: It took until about page 250 (of 414) before Carrier started really harping on the point that belief in a god is unnecessary, and the reader might consider doing without that belief.

By this point, the reader will be very well grounded in philosophy and science: In very approachable language, Carrier gently educates the reader about language, reason and logic, i.e. he explains the mechanics of correct thinking. This leads over to an explanation of methods of arriving at the truth, culminating of course in the scientific method. That grounds the reader for a quick tour of cosmology (wherein the author creates a universe out of philosophy, physics and empty space), explains why the universe is deterministic and yet we still have free will; what the universe is made of; how our minds work; how those minds and the rest of us evolved out of the primeval ooze. There's a chapter entitled "The Meaning of Life" but I'm embarrassed to admit I've forgotten what it teaches us. Still, at roughly this point the attentive reader will understand all about everything, from a naturalist point of view.


What There Isn't

"What There Isn't" is actually a section heading in the book, and it's so apt I stole it. Here's where Carrier takes out the trash. Based on all the philosophy and science we know so far, Carrier takes the baton from the late Carl Sagan and his book The Demon-Haunted World, informing the reader that there are no monsters under his bed, in his family's graveyard or heaven, and why this is most probably so. Carrier attacks God, the biggest bogeyman of all, and pits him against his personal philosophy, Metaphysical Naturalism. Don't worry about the fancy name; this is basically what most everybody in /r/atheism believes in anyway. It's the job of people like Carrier to think up names for philosophies that will look good on bestsellers. Back in the ring, God and Naturalism battle it out for 7 rounds until Carrier counts God out. Good riddance!

I particularly enjoyed Carrier's explanations of how religion won its place by subterfuge and violence. I've posted about this in /r/atheism: the secret of Christianity's Success. Lots of the inconsistencies of Christianity and other religions is exposed until the reader finds himself wondering how he could ever believe such nonsense. Carrier doesn't need to badmouth religion, he just lets it embarrass itself.


God, why have you forsaken me?

This is where other books call it a day. After all, more books are waiting to be written and sold! It's to Carrier's credit that he gives us everything he's got. As promised earlier, Carrier nurses our shocked psyche back to health. We lost God but regained our natural morality; it was there all along, falsely rebranded by religion. Carrier explains moral theory and how science and philosophy allow us to define, evaluate and explain morality so we can be moral without bending over for a priest. Carrier's Naturalist approach to morals is a bit different from Sam Harris' definition in The Moral Landscape, but they're pretty compatible. Like Harris, Carrier argues that morality should become a field of scientific study, the better to get a grip on it and to rescue it from religion, which has consistently twisted morality into something ugly.

The transition from ecclestical morality to natural morality should come as a welcome relief to people who had been struggling to be "good" by the standards of the Holy Church. While being "church good" is often a chore, requiring discipline and forbearance, "natural good" comes... naturally. Naturalistic morality aims to make us happy, and that correlates very nicely with our own motives. Being good can be fun and easy, and benefit all those around us. That's the kind of preaching we've been waiting to hear!

Wrapping up some final loose ends, Carrier demonstrates that beauty comes not from God but from nature and its interaction with our mind. It turns out we don't need God as a grouchy custodian of nature's beauty - her gallery is open to all, 24/7.


Philosophy in society

Finally, Carrier shares with us his personal views on politics: The political mechanisms that work well with metaphysical naturalism, then some guiding words about freedom, social reform, executive reform, education and defense - all managed by a secular government. Not to worry, this is not New World Order stuff - Carrier is reassuringly moderate.


Warning

As I've mentioned, this is my first book review since grade school. I'm not sure if I've done the book justice and if it's a suitable review. If you want to be a bit on the safer side, you may want to read the reviews on Amazon's page for the book. If I really screwed up, please send me a PM about it and I'll see what I can do to salvage it.

Absolution

I mailed Richard Carrier and asked him to review my review, just so I wouldn't end up embarrassing him. He gave me a sign!

That's actually very well done. You have real writing talent. I approve!

:)

And if you like reading long and thoughtful reviews, you may enjoy Luke Muehlhauser's in-depth discussion of Sense & Goodness in Common Sense Atheism.


Reddit companion post

Previous: A Matter of Faith, or The Biggest Dick Ever Next: The inherent immorality of religions

changed December 19, 2011