[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Teaching Philosophy 9:1 (October 1986): 90-91. The page numbers below show the position of the text within that pagination scheme.]
An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Gordon Stein, ed.
Prometheus Books, 1980, 354 pages, $14.95 pbk.
This book is a useful reminder that intelligent and articulate critics of religion have existed for some time. It consists of selections from atheistic, agnostics, and rationalistic writings on the following six topics: The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism, The Existence of God, Revealed Religion, The Problem of the Historical Jesus, The Devil, Evil and Morality, The History of Freethought. Stein tells us in the preface that many of these writings are virtually impossible to obtain anywhere else, even in large university library collections. Some of the names of the authors whose writings are reprinted here will be familiar to
readers of this journal (Baron D’Holbach, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Thomas Huxley, Robert G. Ingersoll, W. K. Clifford) while others will probably not be (e.g., W. R. Cassels, Charles Watts, Chapmen Cohen, J. M. Wheeler, Hypatia Bonner) although they were apparently well known in their own time in intellectual circles.
Stein not only provides a helpful introduction to each of the six topics but gives a brief biographical sketch of each of the anthologized authors. A bibliography is provided at the end. The introductions are perhaps the best part of the book since Stein provides helpful summaries of arguments and evidence. However, the brevity of the selections will make the book of limited scholarly value since serious scholars would have to pursue the original sources in greater depth.
As for philosophy teachers, some of the sections in the book will prove more useful than others. The one dealing with the historicity of Jesus should be of particular interest. Stein’s brief review of the evidence suggests that a good case can be made for doubting that Jesus actually existed and he provides references for pursuing this historical question. Unfortunately, however, some of the selections from skeptical New Testament scholars are too short be really helpful. The section on the meaning of atheism is also of particular interest, primarily for showing that in the past many atheists have not meant by atheism what is meant by that term today. Stein makes it clear in his introduction that, although today the has come to mean the belief that God does not exist, for many thinkers atheism has merely meant the absence of belief in God. In this older sense atheism is compatible both agnosticism and skepticism.
Unfortunately, the section on the existence of God will not prove as useful as those teaching a typical course in philosophy of religion might wish. To be sure, standard critiques of the traditional arguments are provided, but these are better covered in good introductory textbooks in philosophy. (See, for example, Michael Scriven’s excellent coverage in Primary Philosophy.) Furthermore, if one wanted to do something different and consider the question of the historicity of Jesus, the selections in Stein are not only too brief but are also too superficial. Thus students would be much better off reading G. A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? or Archibald Robertson, Jesus: Myth or History?
(two books mentioned by Stein). Nor would this book prove to be the book of choice in a course on atheism for here, too, better ones are available: for example, Peter Angeles, Critiques of God; J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism; Wallace Matson, The Existence of God; Kai Nielsen, Philosophy und Atheism.
The book’s major use will be as a source of interesting samples that are not easily available elsewhere of atheistic and agnostic thought. For this alone, it is worth having and thus is a welcome addition to Prometheus’ impressive list of skeptical offerings.