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BOOK REVIEW: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg

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Published by W. W. Norton & Company.

A new generation of atheist literature is hitting our bookshelves and kindles, following in the wake of the bestsellers by Dawkins, Hitchens and their like. Unlike their predecessors, these books are not arguing for the non-existence of God – rather, they are “how to live” guides for atheists. They include Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton and The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. But perhaps the most interesting and provocative of these books is The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg. A quick survey of book reviews suggests that Rosenberg has managed to upset as many unbelievers as believers with his book, which is quite a feat. I was not offended by Rosenberg’s book – indeed it is perhaps the most honest exposition of reality that I’ve ever read by an atheist.

Rosenberg helpfully summarises his arguments in the introductory chapter. Rather than “atheism”, he calls his beliefs “scientism”, a pejorative term he would like to reclaim. Using the mantra “The physical facts fix all the facts”, Rosenberg asserts that the only real knowledge we have is that which comes from natural science. Everything else is illusion.

This idea not only eliminates God and all other spirituality, it also means that morality, free will, conscious thought, and human purpose are also illusions. Rosenberg declares that “history is bunk”. The Humanities are useful only for entertainment, and it is impossible to learn from them. Beyond the bare physical facts of the universe, everything else is illusion.

Rosenberg cheerfully accepts the title of nihilist, and states that all honest atheists should do the same. Yet he doesn’t believe this necessitates despair – after all, the subtitle of his book is “Enjoying Life without Illusions”. Rosenberg believes adherents of scientism/nihilism can lead happy and enjoyable lives.

If you accept his presuppositions (that the material universe is all there is), then I think Rosenberg’s arguments are convincing. He openly admits that his ideas are confronting, and will be rejected by most people. I believe this is why many atheists have responded aggressively to the book – not because his arguments are poor but because they are too persuasive. He has “let the cat out of the bag”, so to speak. He shows decisively that atheists should embrace nihilism – a conclusion that most public atheists strive to avoid. Rosenberg sees things clearly – he is the honest atheist.

Honest, but not entirely consistent. He freely admits his nihilism means “anything goes”; there are no right answers to moral questions.  Rosenberg concedes that this is a “public relations nightmare”, and those who agree with him usually keep their views private. Morality, like God, is an illusion. With remarkable candour, he states –

Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required. Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgements are right, but that they are all wrong… nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value… Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.

However, the story does not end there. Rosenberg is a nihilist, but it is “nice nihilism”. Believing in morality is unnecessary, he says, because humans have evolved to share the same “core morality”. That is, humans will naturally do “the right thing”, even if they don’t believe in the concept of “right”. Only a few “maladaptive” individuals violate these values. Therefore, the atheist is just as likely as the theist to be kind, truthful, generous, and so on. Rosenberg concludes that people have nothing to fear from his nihilism.

There are a couple of problems with his justification of nice nihilism. Firstly, he states that the atheist is just as likely to be moral as the theist; therefore the theist belief in real morality makes no difference to behaviour. But he previously admitted that moral nihilism has no public currency, even amongst those who hold to it. Therefore we actually don’t know what a society based on moral nihilism would look like – although our dystopian authors present visions that are at least as likely as Rosenberg’s.

There is a second, greater, problem with his views. He claims that moral judgements are meaningless, yet anyone reading his book will recognise that he is actually a very moral man. In an interview he claims that “consistent thinkers” will embrace a “left-wing, egalitarian agenda” – an extraordinary statement from someone who claims that morality has no meaning.

Rosenberg states that God is an illusion that we should dispense with. Following his arguments, we would conclude that morality, being as potent an illusion as God, should also be dispensed with. But he is inconsistent on this point. His book is subtitled “living life without illusions”, but morality is an illusion he cannot live without. He embraces nihilism intellectually, but finds it impossible to live a life consistent with this belief.

We should pay credit to Rosenberg for dealing so frankly (even courageously) with issues that other atheist writers avoid or confuse – he is, perhaps, the world’s most honest atheist. For all that, he has described a worldview that no sane person could consistently follow. I can honestly say that his book gave a substantial boost to my faith – it showed that the popular alternative to Christianity was no alternative at all.

For his part, Rosenberg seems to recognise that he brings a counsel of despair. His final lines are possibly meant to be humorous, but to anyone who has read Brave New World, they are simply chilling –

If you still can’t sleep at night, even after accepting science’s answers to the persistent questions, you probably just need one more little thing… Take a Prozac, and keep taking them till they kick in.

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