Book Review: Palmer’s The Atheist’s Primer

“Resurgence of classical atheism” is my four words review of Michael Palmer’s 170-paged The Lutterworth Press published book The Atheist’s Primer (Nov. 2012). Palmer explorations and commentary on classical atheists, returned the thrust of philosophically engagement of atheism that is often absent in “New Atheism”.

Singling out Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Marx and Freud’s, Palmer’s chief intent in The Atheist’s Primer, a revised, abridged version of his student-edition The Atheist’s Creed (2010), is to bring out “important philosophical arguments to the force, and to provide a selective overview of the extraordinary richness of the atheistic literature, which extends from the time of the Greeks down to our own day.”(p.11)

In his introduction, Palmer introduced his readers to a “well-worn debate between science and religion”. He explained the charges directed against the later “is that faith never places itself within the cold light of empirical conformation”, and the former, “ is limitation of knowledge to only that which may be observed and verified”.

From that, I suppose, Palmer’s “The Atheist’s Creed” on page 5 would be grouped as a kind of “religious faith”, since what he believes, namely (i)“the cosmos is all that is or ever was and ever will be, (ii) no other reality, divine or otherwise exists”, (iii), human life has no meaning apart from itself; there is purpose in life but no purpose to life, et cetera, cannot be placed within the cold light of empirical conformation.

If science is defined as an objective(and not strictly naturalistic) examination of the facts, and faith (narrowing to Christianity because of Darwin, Galileo, and Newton) as knowledge based on evidence, as Galileo and Newton understood, then there was no conflict between science and religion. James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers (2010) showed that the conflict was between bad science and good science. Oddly, a modern example would be “the cosmos is all that is or ever was and ever will be”(p.5) conflicting with “[a]ll the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning”(Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, Tufts University, Boston (USA), January 2012)

Palmer covered the meaning and origins of atheism in chapter one and two. He wrote that the meaning of atheism, viz., “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of God’, “is not as straight forward as it appears”(13) Palmer brilliantly explained the difference between negative/implicit atheism and positive/explicit atheism. He also clarified the correlation between atheism and agnosticism before diving into spectacular origins of atheism.

A brief introduction to Anselm’s version of ontological argument followed by Immanuel Kant’s critique, is squeezed in one and a half page (p.33-34). Arguments from cosmology as presented by Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas and argument from design by William Paley (34-39), followed by a robust Hume’s responses, mostly on the former (45-50), and Darwin’s critique on later (50-54) are also covered in chapter three.

The problem of evil, I believe, is the only rock-solid argument presented as a positive case for atheism in The Atheist’s Primer covers the whole chapter four. I judged this chapter to be the strongest and challenging side of Palmer’s awesome contributing.

After brilliantly reviewing J. I. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga’s contributions to the logical argument from evil, and concluding that “whether or not we accept that Plantinga has provided a successive reply to Mackie, most philosopher now hold that the logical argument from evil is redundant””(p.66), Palmer showed that contemporary philosophers have shifted their guns towards an evidential problem of evil. Instead of arguing it’s impossible for God and suffering to co-exist (logical problem of evil), defenders of evidential problem of evil argue, it’s improbable that God would exist given the existence of intense suffering.

Palmer is very correct in observing that Plantinga’s defense alone is useless. Merely by showing that existence of God and evil is possible does nothing to show that it probable.

The thrust of evidential problem evil already appeared in Palmer’s introduction. The paradigm of Darwinian evolution, namely “unparalleled barbarity, impersonal and haphazard in form and subject only to the vagaries of environment” according to neo-Darwinians, “is totally at variance with any notion of an omnipotent, benevolent and purposive deity, of a loving God who cares for his creatures but is yet quite prepared to subject them to a life of unremitting brutality and hardship”(p.10)

According to Palmer, “if Darwin is right, then it would appear that we have here an irreducible incompatibility between scientific evidence and religious belief which no amount of theological ingenuity can resolve”(ibid). He introduced William Rowe’s, a leading defender of this view, case:

  1. There exist instance of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby preventing the occurrence of any greater good.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby preventing the occurrence of some greater good.
  3. [Therefore] There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.(p.66)

Palmer explored some of classical attempts to resolve this evidential problem of evil(“theodicies”), and commented on there weaknesses and flaws. The unwarranted pain inflicted upon creatures “obliterating any possibility that an omnipotent and benevolent God exists”(p.74). “The presence of evil testifies to the absence of God; or, if not to his absence, then to his presence as an incompetent villain of sadistic temper.”(p .67)

A weakness in evidential problem of evil, to which Palmer did not resolve, is how do we know that creatures experience intense suffering. I totally agree with Palmer that if there were a God, there would be no gratuitous evils. But how do atheologian know gratuitous evil exist without appealing to ignorance, namely “since I see no good reasons for x, then there is no good reasons for x”?

Palmer presented, comments and criticized the moral argument in chapter five, miracles in chapter six and finally the motivations of belief in chapter seven, to which I, because of space, will address in my second re-review. I will also go back to chapter three of The Atheist’s Primer to explore Palmer’s comments and critiques of arguments from ontology, cosmology, and teleology.

Strength of Palmer’s The Atheist’s Primer

Palmer appropriately returns us to the classical philosophical atheistic challenges against theism. His work is beyond praise and I believe greatly needed in time when “New Atheism” is endanger of eliminating the thrust of classical atheism, which squarely and fairly focused on arguments for and against existence of God.

Weakness of Palmer’s The Atheist’s Primer

Palmer did not present Plantinga’s resurrection of ontological argument as Plantinga succeeded, I believe, to formulate a version that is not affected by Kant’s criticism. He also left out Muhammad Al-Ghazali (ca.1058–1111) cosmological argument; “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.” (Bulletin de l’Institut Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale 46 1947: 203) which I believe finds favor in modern cosmology.

I would have love for Palmer to included and deal also with Rene Descartes “causa dei” theodicy, which is reinforced in neo-Cartesian theory in chapter four.

Conclusion, Endorsement And Gratitude

I would recommend The Atheist’s Primer to all Christians and atheists who love pondering the case for and against existence of God and are worn-out by New-Atheism’s shortage of philosophical engagement in this most important subject.

Thank you Fiona Christie at James Clarke & Co. Ltd, The Lutterworth Press for providing me uncorrected proof copy of The Atheist’s Primer for review purposes only.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Palmer’s The Atheist’s Primer

  1. Been following your blog for awhile now Prayson, and your a hell(sorry, couldn’t help myself) of a writer. I don’t agree with everything you say, as I am more of a Gnostic, but you always present your topics clearly and profoundly. Keep up the good blog!

  2. Thanks for the good review. Currently, the Atheist’s Primer paperback is not yet available in the Amazon – from Lutterworth Press (although scheduled for 15. Oktober 2012).
    I hope your uncorrected proof copy indicates it will come soon :-).

  3. Thanks for the review. I might check it out. I dealt with academic atheism in college, then New Atheism recently. I want to make sure that I’ve encountered the best stuff out there, though. Thanks!!

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