The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 32.0°F | Fair
Article Tools

★★★✩✩

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions

By Alex Rosenberg

W.W. Norton

2011

The advice not to judge a book by its cover proves wise in the case of Alex Rosenberg’s latest tome. A fetching title and subtitle, which seem to fly out of the page from a Big-Bangish burst of white over the background of a colorful deep-space image, promise hours of thoughtful and imaginative reading about how freethinkers can enjoy life without resort to nonsense. It’s a beautiful, exciting cover, for what turns out to be a rather dull and overall underwhelming book. The book starts strong, by boldly stating its goal, namely answering the “unavoidable questions” in life. It also demarcates its audience: “This is a book for atheists,” we are told, for “people who are comfortable with the truth about reality.” It is certainly not for “people who believe in religion,” not even for “just doubters and agnostics” that are still undecided. No. It’s solely for those who “have moved past that point” and know for certain that “belief in God is on par with belief in Santa Claus.”

Sounds like a book for me! I thought. “If science made you an atheist” — it did, it did! — “you are already as strongly committed to the serious scientific answers to the unavoidable questions as you are to atheism” — I am, I am! For Rosenberg, science and atheism seem to be entangled as quasi-synonyms in a synergistic embrace. Along with atheism, we are told, comes science as a worldview with a “demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality, one that has been vindicated beyond reasonable doubt.” And vice versa: an “unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism.” Atheism can claim as part of its worldview the answers that science has found to the “persistent questions” in life. “From the nature of reality uncovered by science, consequences follow. This book is about those consequences.” Wow!

At this point, with the crossbow of suspense stretched to its maximum, I’m hooked: I’m the audience for this book, and it is about to reveal to me the answers that science, that ultimate tool for knowledge generation, can provide about the eternal questions to all those that have cleansed their minds of religious superstition. Chapter one, since its early pages, presents a machine-gun-like summary of the key questions and their answers in a nutshell: There is no God, the nature of reality is what physics says it is, the universe has no purpose, life has no meaning, we exist due to dumb luck, prayer does not work, there is no soul, no free will and no afterlife, there is no moral difference between right and wrong (“anything goes”), love is an evolutionary trick, history is bunk and humans can’t learn from it. So far so good.

Yet I can only wish the book had stopped here, since the rest of it is a snoozefest that only detracts from the excitement the author built in the opening pages. Reiterating that Newtonian physics precludes an ulterior purpose in heavenly mechanics (chapter two) or that Darwinian evolution can produce complex life forms without a designer (chapters three and four) is preaching to the choir if the audience is, as stated in the preface, composed of thinkers that became atheists through science. The 52-page discussion on how there is no true good and evil since physical reality has no moral preference could be summarized by Mad Men’s Don Draper: “The universe is indifferent.” After that, things start going downhill at an even steeper slope: don’t trust your “deceiving conscious” (chapter seven), the physical Paris and the act of thinking of Paris are unrelated (chapter eight), introspection is an illusion and you have no free will (chapters nine and 10), knowledge about history cannot lead to progress (chapter 11) and you should learn to stop worrying and love Prozac (chapter 12).

The only passage that really tickled my intellect lies between pages 102 and 113, where the author argues that evolution provided humanity with a core morality, composed of pretty benign principles that on the long run would benefit its survival. Sample principles are “don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby, especially your own” and “protect your children.” The principles in this core morality are so obvious that “no one has ever bothered to formulate” them. In addition, are factual beliefs, correct or incorrect, which change from one group to another.

An example of a factual belief of West African Muslims, we are told, is that “some genital cutting makes [girls] attractive to potential future husbands; some sewing up protects them from rape.” When core morality combines with the factual beliefs of a group, it produces the local moral system we see in that group. The examples of how harmless principles of core morality can combine with incorrect factual beliefs to produce morally controversial practices, such as female genital cutting, are mind-opening. The author argues convincingly that the disagreement on these moral issues is “a disagreement about factual beliefs, not core morality.” If only the rest of the book was this enlightening! But it is not.

Rosenberg’s book sets for itself a list of objectives so high that it was all but doomed to fail from the start. However, it did not have to fail in such a boring manner. The endless repetition of ideas, the gratuitous complication of simple arguments, and an abundance of circular references involving atheism and science feeding on each other (not unlike Melville’s frenzied sharks repeatedly eating their own guts), makes the reading of this volume something akin to torture.

I reject the author’s claim that scientific knowledge cannot be put into stories, whereas religion can. As evidence I submit the ever taller pile of fascinating popular science books that are published every year. But I do embrace his call to live life without illusions or fear, with the caveat that even that point was made in a protracted manner. The same idea was better said — again — by Don Draper, when as an answer to Roger Sterling’s question of “What else is there?”, he quipped: “I don’t know. Life being lived? I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.” After suffering through the 350 pages of Rosenberg’s zigzagging philosophical treaty, so do I.