Imaginative Atheism (1997)
Michael Martin: The Big Domino in the Sky and Other Atheistic Tales, Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, New York 14228-2197, U.S.A., 1996, paperback, 244 pp.
With his massive book Atheism, a Philosophical Justification (Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia 1990, 541 pp.) Michael Martin established himself as a leading theorist of atheism in the United States, and in fact, in the whole world. Martin’s book on atheism was followed by his The Case Against Christianity (Temple Univ. Press 1991, 273 pp.) which established Martin as a leading critic of this widespread religion. Martin’s critique of Christianity is very thorough and perhaps unique in its concentration on major Christian creeds.
The Big Domino in the Sky presents the case for atheism in the context of a number of stories. The book therefore is a mixture of philosophy and fiction. Much philosophy is, of course, a kind of fiction, so the extension of philosophical arguments to more common kinds of fiction is quite natural. But it does not happen often that authors of fiction are as qualified in philosophy as professor Martin.
It has been Martin’s intention to present the case for atheism in an enjoyable way. I think Martin has succeeded in his plan. Many of the stories which he has included in this book are very entertaining. There is a great need for entertaining versions of atheism, as many forms of atheism are quite heavy. Often atheistic authors give the impression of being quite dogmatic and insensitive. They attack religions, and in particular Christianity, in a heavy-handed and monomaniac way. Sometimes one even gets the impression that many atheistic authors are fanatic persons with a total lack of humour, in this way sustaining widespread prejudices against atheists.
None of this applies to Martin, quite on the contrary. He has a very sensitive style and a rich imagination. The stories carry us from the eighteenth to the twenty-second centuries (I) with many interesting and intelligent persons, both on the side of the religious believers, but even more, as one might expect from a prominent atheist, on the side of the nonbelievers. Martin has perhaps a tendency to depict the religious believers as somewhat naive, but it is, of course, a fact that many religious believers are naive. Still there are also a number of intelligent and learned religious believers among the figures in the stories. But they too, of course, are loosers in their battles with intelligent atheists.
A recurring figure in Martin’s book is the Preacher with No Name who ca. 2130 started an atheistic movement on the planet Epsilon Ill in the Argon system. This movement spread to mining planets in the system and gained a following of approximately thirty million until it was ruthlessly suppressed during the Revolt against Skepticism ca. 2150. The Preacher with No Name taught four doctrines of nonbelief: God-Fall, God-Doubt, God-Rejection, and the goal of God-Free.
Sometimes the message of the Preacher with No Name was couched in poetic language:
Like the wind out of the west come I
Sweep before me the dust from the sky.
No trumpets blowing, only truth recall,
And from Heaven and Hell God will fall.
At other times the Preacher with No Name sounded like a teacher urging his students to greater intellectual responsibility:
You must have the courage not to believe in things for which you have no evidence! Base your belief on the facts! Reject authority! Think for yourself! There is nothing so sad as a human being whose life is based on unsupported beliefs! If an examination of the evidence shows that there is no reason to believe in God, then you must not believe. This will be hard. You will be going against the tradition in which you were raised. You will be rebuked by your family and friends. More importantly you will have no psychological crutch! You will have no one to pray to! You will be on your own! Have courage!
The Preacher with No Name sometimes sounds like Nietzsche with his message of the death of God. But the Preacher with No Name in his arguments is a much more systematic but also a less poetic person than Nietzsche. Sometimes the Preacher with No Name sounds like Jesus or Buddha. He delivers a Sermon on the Hill and a Sermon by the Sea. But his message is, of course, very different from that of Buddha and even more different from that of Jesus.
People who have read Martin’s books on atheism and Christianity, will, of course, recognize many of Martin’s arguments. Here they occur in simplified and abbreviated versions. The book can be read as an introduction to atheism, and specifically to Martin’s kind of atheism. But the book contains few bibliographical references and has no index. The entertaining, sometimes even fascinating contents of many of the stories, secures that the book has the potentiality of reaching a wide public. The stories are never superficial and in a number of cases quite profound. Let us hope for the sake of positive atheism that Martin’s book will be widely read!
Finngeir Hiorth 17 January 1997.
Finngeir Hiorth is the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$18.-post free, and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248pp., bibliography, US$ 15.-. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his book Atheism in India.
“Imaginative Atheism” is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.