Atheism For Dummies: Guest Post by Dale McGowan


I’m going into writer hibernation and taking a blog break through October 31, while I finish my next book, “Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” This is a guest post from Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan is the editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. His most current title, Atheism For Dummies, was released in March of this year.

Atheism for Dummies coverWhen Wiley & Sons asked me to write Atheism For Dummies, my first reaction was complete disbelief that there wasn’t one already.

There are 1,600 For Dummies books in print, from the pedestrian (Container Gardening For Dummies) to the intellectual (Logic For Dummies, no kidding). There is Religion For Dummies, as well as a title for each of the five majors (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism), several specific denominations (Mormonism, Catholicism) and even a few hyper-specialized religious titles—The Book of Revelation For Dummies and Lost Books of the Bible For Dummies, to name just two. But nothing for atheism until now.

There was apparently an urgent need for a book called Starting an eBay Business For Canadians For Dummies before a book exploring the worldview of a billion current humans.

But they got to it, and they gave it to me, and I still can’t believe my luck. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book, and I don’t see anything passing it up for a long time.

When I announced that I was writing it, several people had the same slightly weird reaction. “The book can be just one sentence long,” they said: “Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.” I heard the same line about a dozen times.

Of course that would be as incomplete as a book on the Grand Canyon that only said, “The Grand Canyon is a big hole in Arizona.” There’s a bit more to say.

Wiley wanted a relaxed, accessible introduction to atheism that didn’t require specialized knowledge. Ideally, a reader should be able to open to any heading and read without having read anything else in the book. In writer’s terminology, this is known as “a bitch.” They also wanted humor and even a little self-deprecation. That was easy. We can be a silly and self-important group at times, and poking fun at myself is a good way to get the reader relaxed and listening.

Even though the book is mostly for the uninitiated, I wanted to make it worthwhile for the rest of us as well. If you don’t mind sitting in the nosebleed seats, I do occasionally shoot a T-shirt your way, including some history that you may not have seen before.

The book starts with the basics—the varieties of religious doubt, terms and labels, Dawkins’ seven-point scale, how someone can be both an agnostic and an atheist, why most people think atheists don’t believe in God and why we actually don’t, and so on.

The middle of the book is a flying overview of the history of atheist thought. For this, I wanted to go as far off-road as possible. I include the major Europeans, but also went into China and India, where atheist philosophy has always been much more mainstream.

I also introduce some especially courageous figures who might be unfamiliar. There’s Ibn al-Rawandi, who stood up in the middle of the Islamic Empire in the 9th century and called Muhammad “a liar” and the Qur’an “the speech of an unwise being” that contains “contradictions, errors, and absurdities,” as well as Raimond de l’Aire, a French villager caught in the net of the 14th century Inquisition who said Christ was created not through divine intervention, but “just through fucking, like everybody else!” He reportedly slammed the heel of one hand into the other a few times for emphasis, a detail the Inquisitor’s scribe for some excellent reason included.

At the request of the polite Canadian publisher, I substituted “screwing” for “fucking” in the book. That’s a shame, but probably better for the Aunt Diane reader anyway. And in case you’re wondering, there’s no record of Raimond’s fate—though atheists were seen as much less threatening than heretics, and so were less often executed.

The pioneering feminists of the 19th and 20th centuries were overwhelmingly atheists and agnostics, as were many abolitionists and other social reformers. It’s a fact too often left out of their stories, so I devoted space to underlining those connections.

mark twain letters from the earth coverSatire never gets enough credit for sticking a finger in God’s eye, so I gave a full chapter to Twain, Carlin, The Onion, Monty Python, The Simpsons, South Park, Mr. Deity, Family Guy, Jesus and Mo, Tim Minchin, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Diderot and d’Holbach are great, but honestly, I think I’ve learned more from the satirists than from the whole Enlightenment.

The last hundred pages or so explore what it’s like to be an atheist today, to see the world naturally, and to live in the midst of a majority that does not. There’s a look at the ways atheists are undercounted, how it’s different to be an atheist in Norway, Quebec, and Peoria, the geographic and demographic trends currently underway, “atheist anger” (thanks Greta!), gender, race, community, parenting, morality, politics, sex, death…stuff like that.

Writing a book that would appeal to atheists and interested believers alike was a serious challenge. The trick was in keeping it descriptive, not persuasive, since atheists don’t need convincing and believers generally don’t want it.

More than anything else, I wanted to create an easygoing introduction that atheists could give to family and friends who just don’t get atheism but are open enough to want to learn something about it. Hearing that atheists are enjoying it as well is a huge bonus, since I was mostly writing for Aunt Diane. It’s about time she had a way to figure us out.

(Thanks to Greta for the invitation to submit this post. Her reward is on page 225.)

Comments

  1. stevebowen says

    Raimond de l’Aire, a French villager caught in the net of the 14th century Inquisition who said Christ was created not through divine intervention, but “just through fucking, like everybody else!” […] though atheists were seen as much less threatening than heretics, and so were less often executed.

    I thought the point about Raimond was that he was a heretic. He believed in God and Jesus, but not in his divinity… He was part of the Albigensian heresy rather than an atheist.
    I have read AFD already and it’s just as good for atheist theonerds like me as for newbies.

  2. benfea says

    The description on the back of the book makes me angry:

    “…atheism is a secular approach to life…”

    No. No, it’s not. Secularism is a secular approach to life. Atheism is a single position on a single issue. It is not in any sense an “approach to life”, secular or otherwise. Secularism, metaphysical naturalism, skepticism, philosophical materialism, etc., can be described as a “philosophy” or “belief system” or “approach to life”, but not atheism. Why do so many people–including an awful lot of atheists–get this wrong?

    If the book reflects what’s printed on the back, then I’m probably not going to like it (although I’m certainly not the target audience for this type of book).

  3. Greta Christina says

    Atheism is a single position on a single issue.

    benfea @ #3: Quoting from the original post by Dale:

    When I announced that I was writing it, several people had the same slightly weird reaction. “The book can be just one sentence long,” they said: “Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.” I heard the same line about a dozen times.

    Of course that would be as incomplete as a book on the Grand Canyon that only said, “The Grand Canyon is a big hole in Arizona.” There’s a bit more to say.

    For many people, atheism isn’t just the single conclusion on a single issue. It is also an entire set of implications that proceed from that conclusion. And the reality is that many people have been organizing communities and political movements around that word and those implications.

    If you prefer to call the single conclusion “atheism,” and the set of conclusions “secularism” or “skepticism” or “humanism” or whatever, you’re perfectly free to do that. But you don’t get to define the word “atheism” for everyone else who identifies with it.

  4. benfea says

    For many people, atheism isn’t just the single conclusion on a single issue. It is also an entire set of implications that proceed from that conclusion.

    The overwhelming majority of us are metaphysical naturalists, but that doesn’t excuse lumping metaphysical naturalism under the word atheism. When we communicate, we should be as clear as we can possibly be. I am totally OK with lumping other stuff under the “atheism+” banner, but not the word “atheism”.

    If you prefer to call the single conclusion “atheism,” and the set of conclusions “secularism” or “skepticism” or “humanism” or whatever, you’re perfectly free to do that. But you don’t get to define the word “atheism” for everyone else who identifies with it.

    Atheism definition at Dictionary.com

    I understand fully that it is sometimes necessary to temporarily redefine words for the purposes of a debate, and I understand that the use of words can change over time based on use, but when there is a dictionary definition available, I prefer to stick to the established meaning and not arbitrarily redefine words, because this improves clarity.

    This is especially important given that theists often play word games during debates by shifting the meanings of words around to arbitrarily suit a particular point (e.g. using “faith” in the “I hope” sense instead of the “conclusion without evidence” sense, or lumping abiogenesis and the Big Bang theory under the definition of the word evolution). Sticking to established meanings of words makes it harder for them to wriggle out using tu quoque fallacies or other engage in other shenanigans. I for one am sick and tired of them arguing against methodological naturalism when they really mean metaphysical naturalism, I’m sick and tired of them arguing against evolution when they really mean abiogenesis, and frankly I’m tired of most of their word games, but because I think engaging them in dialog is valuable and worthwhile, I try to set an example of what I expect from them in these discussions by not arbitrarily redefining words with established dictionary definitions.

    I admit I haven’t followed the blowup with those anti-feminist people all that closely, and I know a big part of that argument involved arguing over the use of the word “atheism”, but I want to establish that I am not alluding to any of that debate with my comments here. I simply seek maximum clarity any time we’re in dialog with theists.

  5. benfea says

    PS — It’s going to take me a while to get used to the syntax on some of those tags. What the heck is the Q tag and what is the cite attribute of the Q tag for? What’s the acronym tag for ? Is there a page somewhere around here that answers those questions?

  6. benfea says

    PPS — the fact that this book is intended in part for a theist audience makes the arbitrary redefinition of the word “atheism” inexcusable. If it’s OK for us to lump metaphysical naturalism, huamnism, etc. under the definition of the word atheism, then how can we complain about the creationists’ tendency to lump totally unrelated things under the definition of the word evolution?

  7. benfea says

    Because theists are so emotionally attached to their conclusions, a lot of the time I will say one thing and they will hear something else entirely. For instance, if I say “That argument does not support that conclusion, and here’s why,” what they actually hear is, “You stupid. Me smart.”

    Most of the work I do when talking to theists is simply making sure everybody is on the same page and that we’re not wildly misinterpreting each other because we’re too wrapped up in our preconceptions about the other group that we fail to hear what the other is actually saying. As someone who used to do phone tech support, I’m a bit sensitive to the fact that two people can mean and hear totally different things from the same conversation. Being as careful as I can be about definitions facilitates keeping everyone on the same page and not getting lost in our respective preconceptions or personal word definitions.

  8. Greta Christina says

    Being as careful as I can be about definitions facilitates keeping everyone on the same page and not getting lost in our respective preconceptions or personal word definitions.

    benfea @ #8: And once again: You do not get to be the one to decide what the most “careful” definition is, or what it should be.

    When I was growing up, the word “atheist” was widely used — including by non-believers — to mean “someone who is certain that there are no gods.” Non-believers in my family in my parents’ generation insisted that they were agnostics, and resisted using the word atheist… even though they had about as much uncertainty about God’s existence as I do (which is to say, pretty much none). But in recent years, many atheists have been rejecting the “100% certainty” definition.

    Pointing to the dictionary and saying “That’s the definition! That’s what the word means!” is a lousy argument. Word definitions change (and dictionaries are often slow to catch up). That’s how language works. Many words have multiple meanings. That’s also how language works. And language doesn’t change from the top down. It changes based on how the people speaking and writing the language use it. Telling atheists not to use a word that they see as part of their central identity, in the way they understand and commonly use it, so you can have an easier time in arguments — and actually getting angry at them about it — doesn’t seem hugely useful to me.

  9. Martyn says

    @ 4. But you don’t get to define the word “atheism” for everyone else who identifies with it’.

    neither do you Greta. Neither do you.

  10. Greta Christina says

    @ 4. But you don’t get to define the word “atheism” for everyone else who identifies with it’.

    neither do you Greta. Neither do you.

    Where did I say that I did? I didn’t. I even said, “If you prefer to call the single conclusion ‘atheism,’ and the set of conclusions ‘secularism’ or ‘skepticism’ or ‘humanism’ or whatever, you’re perfectly free to do that.” It’s not like the way Dale used the word is some freakish idiosyncracy that only he and I use and are trying to foist on the rest of the world. I’m not saying “use the word the way I want you to.” I am recognizing that the word gets used in more than one way — and that the way Dale used it is also used by many many many many many many people.

    Language, by its very nature, is (a) imprecise, (b) constantly shifting, and (c) defined by pretty much everyone using the language. Yes, that can be frustrating at times. Cope.

  11. benfea says

    benfea @ #8: And once again: You do not get to be the one to decide what the most “careful” definition is, or what it should be.

    If I was doing that, you would have a point. There’s a reason I cited the dictionary definition of the word at the beginning of my post. If I am using the dictionary definition and you’re not, then you’re the one arbitrarily re-defining the word.

  12. Greta Christina says

    There’s a reason I cited the dictionary definition of the word at the beginning of my post. If I am using the dictionary definition and you’re not, then you’re the one arbitrarily re-defining the word.

    benfea @ #13: Dictionaries are notoriously behind-the-times when it comes to shifting or broadening definitions of words. Which is not inappropriate: they’re meant to provide the most standardized definitions, so it’s not wrong of them to wait a bit before adding in a new definition, to see if it sticks or is just a fad. But it does mean that words typically acquire new or broader meanings that make it into common usage well before the dictionary catches up. And dictionaries are also notoriously bad and behind-the-times about marginalized groups’ self-definition. Which is seriously not appropriate.

    And it’s not me, personally, all by myself, who is re-defining the word. I’m just one person of many. And the re-definition is not arbitrary. Not that I would have a problem with that — I’m very much a usagist when it comes to language — but it’s not. Seeing atheism as a community, a movement, and a set of conclusions and values which derive from a non-belief in any gods is not arbitrary — it has power.

    Again, I’m not saying your definition is wrong. I’m just saying it’s not the only one. And if your only argument is “The dictionary agrees with me, even though millions of self-identified atheists don’t”… your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.

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