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Review of J.J.C. Smart & J.J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism (1997)

Finngeir Hiorth


Smart, J.J.C. & J.J. Haldane: Atheism and Theism, Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford 0X4 1JF, UK, and 238 Main Street, Cambridge, Mass., 02142. USA, 232 PP., bibliography, index, paperback.


In a review dated 4 April 1997 and entitled "Introduction to Atheism", I wrote about Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Routledge, London and NY 1996, 159 pp., paperback. The present book by Smart and Haldane, therefore appeared the same year and testifies to a renewed interest in atheism in philosophical circles. The present book also testifies to interest in theism in philosophical circles. But theism has generally been given pride of place in books on the philosophy of religion, whereas atheism ordinarily has not been given the same attention in such books. Still, atheism as well as theism are parts of the philosophy of religion. And books on the philosophy of religion that do not pay much attention to atheism are eo ipso inadequate.

Now Smart and Haldane's book is not intended to be an introduction to the philosophy of religion. The book is rather a new installment in a series entitled "Great Debates in Philosophy" and which earlier has been devoted to topics like personal identity, consciousness and causality, agency and necessity, critical theory, and moral relativism and moral objectivity. The series is edited by Ernest Sosa who seems to have managed to establish a good series. In any case, the present book is highly interesting particularly in the parts written by professor Smart.

Smart (b. 1920) has for many years been a professor of philosophy in Adelaide and in Canberra, but is now retired. In 1963 he published the book Philosophy and Scientific Realism. (London & NY). This book made a deep impression on me, and I can say that Smart converted me to materialism. I had been an atheist before I read Smart's book, but having read the book I also became a materialist.

In the book from 1963 Smart mentioned that he had turned away from a roughly neo-Wittgensteinian conception of philosophy towards a more metaphysical one, with a much more intimate relation to the sciences. Philosophy should not only unravel conceptual muddles but should also formulate a world view. And this world view, as Smart saw it, had to be a kind of materialism, or rather physicalism.

Using ideas taken from the prominent American philosopher Quine, Smart argues that mathematics is a part of physical theory as a whole. This means that we must regard mathematical objects as physical, even though they are not material. Thus, for Smart physicalism is more basic than materialism. Hence, he in his last book prefers to describe himself as a physicalist rather than as a materialist, except in the context of the philosophy of mind where he holds that the distinction is not important (p. 10).

Smart mentions in the book under review that he once was a theist, and he would still like to be a theist if he had been able to reconcile theism with his philosophical and scientific views. So he would not be too sorry if his opponent, professor Haldane, would win the argument. From the present book it is clear that Haldane has not been able to convince Smart, but the same is the case the other way around: Smart has not been able to convince Haldane who remains a theist and even a Roman Catholic. Haldane probably sticks to Roman Catholicism because of old habits and for sentimental reasons. Philosophically Roman Catholicism is not stronger than Lutheranism or Islam. John L. Mackie and Michael Martin have smashed theism in books which appeared in 1982 and 1990 respectively, but Haldane does not go into their arguments. Nor does Smart, unfortunately, discuss Mackie's and Martin's arguments in any detail. Both are mentioned in the bibliography, but they do not get much attention apart from that. This is unfortunate, because Mackie's and Martin's books illustrate different ways in which one may approach or advocate atheism. Of other contemporary philosophers and atheists, Antony Flew is mentioned a few times in the text and in the bibliography, but Kai Nielsen has only made it to the bibliography. Well-known atheists like Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Freud etc. are not even mentioned in the book. Smart's past as a theist still hangs on.

Smart is a distinguished and profound contemporary philosopher who has published a number of important books. One of these is a book on ethical theory, written together with another distinguished philosopher, Bernard Williams: Utilitarianism, for and against (Cambridge Univ. Press, UK, 1973). I must confess that I, before I saw the book which is reviewed here, never had heard about professor Haldane. Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga have published more sophisticated defences of theism than Haldane, but both have also been sharply criticized by John L. Mackie, Michael Martin, and others. I may be biased as I am an atheist and a materialist. But I think that Smart is much more profound than Haldane. Smart has a highly refined philosophy of atheism, metaphysics, and ethics. From contacts with "atheists in the street," particularly as they can be found in contemporary freethought circles, I suspect that Smart's philosophy is too profound and too difficult for most of them. Quite a pity!


Finngeir Hiorth 18 April 1997.
Kirkehaugsveien 3
N-0283 Oslo

Finngeir Hiorth, a retired lecturer in philosophy, has published widely in the fields of philosophy, theory of language and Indonesian studies. He is also the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$18.- post free, and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp., US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another recent publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp.

"Review of J.J.C. Smart & J.J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism" 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.