God’s Funeral by A.N. Wilson

Andrew (‘A.N.’) Wilson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wilson_(writer and http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/18/magazine/the-busy-busy-wasp.html) offered us, in 1999, this study in the decline of religious certainties.

The book focuses on artists and intellectuals and covers Gibbon, Hume, Kant, Marx, Garibaldi, Bentham, George Eliot, Lenin, Tennyson, Carlyle, Darwin, Huxley, Shaw, Hardy, Hegel and Freud among others. Very good on the devastating sense of emotional loss that comes with the abandonment of faith. This is a feature which extends right down to our own times. If you want to understand how we’ve come to inhabit a predominantly secular culture, this is the book for you. The title is taken from a poem by Thomas Hardy (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/god-s-funeral/). Furnished with a magnificent bibliography to follow up all the topics so fleetingly introduced.

Listen to Andrew Wilson speaking about The Age of Doubt in the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 30 minute episode. Available from the link  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00546pj  Wilson is joined by Victoria Glendinning, author, journalist and biographer of Anthony Trollope and Jonathan Swift. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast Thursday 9 Mar 2000.

If this book stimulates an interest in atheism, follow up with this short selection of key works:
People believe in god/gods for a host of different motives and reasons. If you’re at all concerned with the intellectual credibility of belief in god, reach for Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990,  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheism-Philosophical-Justification-Michael-Martin/dp/0877226423/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455261667&sr=8-3). Martin painstakingly and comprehensively demolishes all the arguments which have been offered over the centuries in support of belief.
A shorter exercise in the assessment of the arguments is found in J.L. Mackie’s 1982 book  The Miracle of Theism. (reviewed by me here http://sbr.lanark.co.uk/?p=2679 ) Mackie’s view is that, given the arguments and evidence, it is a miracle that theism (in any of its guises) can survive. This book has the reputation of having rattled decades of Divinity students.
For an account of the history of scepticism, a reliably informative guide is Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht (2004, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doubt-History-Jennifer-Hecht/dp/0060097957/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455656539&sr=1-1&keywords=doubt+jennifer+hecht) An entertaining romp through science, philosophy and literature from Socrates to the present day, Hecht’s book opens up many avenues for further reading and research. A great pleasure.
Also recording the history of sceptical stances and the personal cost suffered by those brave enough to express them is Ludovic Kennedy in All in the Mind: A Farewell to God. (1999, http://www.amazon.co.uk/All-Mind-Farewell-Ludovic-Kennedy/dp/0340680636/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455657135&sr=1-4&keywords=ludovic+kennedy) Kennedy examines the origins of gods from the earliest times, questions the reliability of both Old and New Testaments. He records the growth of European atheism from before the Reformation to the present. Interspersed with this, the author offers his often witty insights into how his own upbringing affected his thinking; and, in the final chapter, tells how he has found his own way to non-theistic spiritual fulfilment.
Don’t miss reading the wonderful Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cambridge-Companion-Atheism-Companions-Philosophy/dp/0521603676/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455443575&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=companion+guide+to+atheism) Eighteen of the world’s leading scholars, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Gale and Keith Parsons present original essays on various aspects of atheism. They cover its history, both ancient and modern. The topic is examined in terms of its implications for a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, religion, feminism, postmodernism, sociology and psychology.
For something a whole lot more polemical the obvious choice is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006, http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-God-Delusion-Richard-Dawkins/dp/055277331X/ref=pd_sim_14_2?ie=UTF8&dpID=51w%2BaIBx-7L&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR103%2C160_&refRID=166Z91WSSZRGNGQRCZK6). Though lacking the sophistication of other proponents of atheism, this upset and worried believers a great deal more because it reached a huge audience.
Should you prefer those more subtle (and I think on that account more devastating) arguments turn to Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-Existence of God (2003, http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Non-existence-God-Nicholas-Everitt/dp/0415301076/ref=pd_sim_14_3?ie=UTF8&dpID=41GOJ8b4gXL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR113%2C160_&refRID=026PBXNPBM67RY210KTD). Everitt argues that the very concept of God is incoherent.
Should you wish for an impassioned, yet still fully reasoned, full frontal attack on religion – Christopher Hitchens is your man. Treat yourself to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007, http://www.amazon.co.uk/God-Not-Great-Religion-Everything/dp/1843545748/ref=pd_sim_14_5?ie=UTF8&dpID=51d-4VJV%2BdL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR104%2C160_&refRID=18FZH39JJZPZA0MAQRNH)
Sam Harris writes along similar lines in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004, http://www.amazon.co.uk/End-Faith-Religion-Terror-Future/dp/0393035158/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455712992&sr=8-4) This is a stark analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today’s world. Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favuor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify destruction and heinous crimes. He asserts that in an era of nuclear weapons we can no longer tolerate views that pit one ‘true’ ‘god’ against another. He argues that we cannot even afford moderate lip service to religion. This is a concession that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to take a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world. This is the only way we can save ourselves.
For a generous parcel packed with insight, and entertainingly written, no bookshelf should be without The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens, first published 2007, 528 pages http://www.amazon.co.uk/Portable-Atheist-Essential-Readings-Non-Believer/dp/0306816083/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455519332&sr=8-1&keywords=portable+atheist) Includes pieces by Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A treasure and a pleasure one returns to time and again.
Why is belief in gods and the supernatural so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, people appeal to unseen forces that guide their destiny, wondering who might be watching them as they go about our lives, and imagining what might come after death. For answers turn to The Belief Instinct(http://www.amazon.co.uk/Belief-Instinct-Psychology-Destiny-Meaning/dp/0393072991/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455446675&sr=1-1) by Jesse Bering. In this lively and masterfully argued book psychology professor Bering (http://www.jessebering.com/, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Bering) unveils the psychological underpinnings of belief.
If you can shake yourself free of these ancient impulses you may not be happier but you’ll be less deceived (book reviewed by me here  http://sbr.lanark.co.uk/?p=2643) Battle the gods and win.
For a lifetime of reading and thought in atheism, follow the bibliographies in the titles discussed above. Also follow the leads in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/   Also listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode on materialism (the bedfellow of atheism) here  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b009ydlj
Further online resources concerning a naturalistic world view can be found at secular web  here http://infidels.org/ , the Brights website  here  http://www.the-brights.net/,  and The British Humanist Association here https://humanism.org.uk/


God’s Funeral

544 pages in Abacus paperback edition.

ISBN 978-0349112657

Andrew (‘A.N.’) Wilson

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