How to Be an Atheist: An Inaugural Lecture Given in the University of Cambridge 12 October 2001, by Denys Turner (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0 521 52632) 39 pp. Paper $12.
This book presents Denys Turner’s inaugural lecture upon becoming Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. It is of interest as an example of what passes for philosophical argument in such a context. The main argument is that an atheist must stifle “a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity” at the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The author argues that “we know that whatever the answer is we are led to contemplate a cause beyond our ordinary understanding of causes” (p. 31). He suggests that the answer to this question is God.
Turner writes: “I know that what requires me to say ‘God exists’ is true also denies me a grasp on what it means to say it” (p. 32). Furthermore: “What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some kind of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question” (p. 33). Finally: “If you want to be an atheist, then, it is necessary only to find that the world is to be a platitudinously dull fact” (p. 39; italics in original).
In Turner’s view the theist has a better time of it. In practice this means engaging in wordplay that covers gaps in reasoning. Here is a sample: “In saying that the world is created out of nothing, you are beginning to say that the world comes to us, our existence comes to us, from an unknowable ‘other’; that is to say, you are claiming that existence comes to us as a pure gift, that for the world to exist is for it to be created” (p. 37; italics in original).
The theist’s pleasure is enhanced by making unsupported and implausible claims. One example: “Children only believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy because adults persuade them to, and often for unimpressive reasons of their own, like contriving cover for the choice of inappropriate presents; whereas theism is closely connected not with adult myths foisted upon children, but with more spontaneous forms of thought which are natural to children’s own minds” (p. 34). What are these “spontaneous forms of thought”? According to Turner, they arise “where theology begins, with a question so childish that now it is adult answers
which are irrelevant and an impertinence: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’” (p. 34). He does not explain how “spontaneous forms of thought” lead children to become Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, usually on the basis of geography.
Even if Turner’s argument made sense, it would not establish that there is a God that does the things that most religious people would require of a God. Why bother with it? Turner answers this question with astonishing frankness: “All the same, importance is important to those who dispose of University funding, and my colleagues’ jobs are at stake in the matter of having worthwhile issues to contest within the Divinity Faculty’s division of academic labours. So, I have an interest of a vested sort in keeping the issue going of whether God exists, and of whether it matters to anyone else but us what the answer is” (p. 4). At this point the atheist must stifle a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity at the question: Why should Cambridge University pay for a case argued with so little conviction, a feeble defense of a meager God? In other words, on what basis does the Norris-Hulse Professor merit the generosity of the Tooth Fairy?
William Faris is a mathematician whose areas of concentration are probability and quantum mechanics. His best attempt at explaining the paradoxical features of quantum mechanics appeared as an appendix to David Wick’s book The Infamous Boundary.