across the pond
Allen Smith on an important new book
from America that is filled with acerbic
humour, is a valuable reference source and
is a joy to read.
Atheism, when we gays
discuss the term invented by theists,
quickly leads to a discussion of what
philosophers have thought about nonbelief.
If we enrol in a
philosophy class, we find that atheism has
been relegated appropriately to the religion
departments. In philosophy, however,
nonbelief is found in works by David Hume
(who rejected belief in God and in any
hereafter), John Stuart Mill and
Voltaire (both wrote about some sort of
original life source but rejected any
survival after death), and Bertrand
Russell (like Hume, a lucid and
How to document
philosophers’ views when we are challenged?
A momentous book has just been published in
January: God and the Philosophers
(Prometheus, 2009, 330 pages). It is by the
late Paul Edwards, the acclaimed
editor-in-chief of the eight-volume
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967).
In an introduction, Dr
Timothy Madigan describes Edwards as a
master storyteller who wrote an
“idiosyncratic exploration of the views of
dozens of Western thinkers on the existence
and nature of God, not all of whom were
necessarily nonbelievers or antireligious”.
but never married, Edwards had almost
finished the book but had not yet submitted
it to a publisher. When he died of heart
failure in 2004, Madigan and I were allowed
to be the first to enter his apartment.
Sometimes on hands and knees, we searched
the octogenarian bachelor’s ramshackle large
residence in the Apthorp, one of the most
prestigious buildings in Manhattan.
Madigan, with difficulty,
was able to find everything, about which as
an editor he had advised Edwards, and
together we were surprised to come across
the famed atheist’s original but hidden and
Box, the contraption invented by
sexologist Wilhelm Reich, his
The “Orgone Box”
God and the
Philosophers shows how the concept of
God has changed over the centuries, and
Edwards gives much credit to Hume and
Russell but also to Tom Paine and
Friedrich Nietzsche. The work details
how the scientific revolution of the 17th,
the Enlightenment of the 18th, and the
evolutionary materialism of the 19th
centuries led to the rise of the analytic
and existentialist philosophies in the 20th
century, preparing the way for the growing
role of atheism in the 21st. Although
Edwards was an admirer of Richard Dawkins,
Daniel Dennett and Christopher
Hitchens, he died in 2004 and did not
critique them. Neither did he write about
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell’s
homosexual student, himself a major
The chapter on “the most
influential unbeliever of the 20th century,”
Bertrand Russell, is a tour-de force.
“God of my
The final chapter tells
how, when a believer as a child in Austria,
Edwards humorously prayed that God would
kill Herr Lehrer Wagner, a teacher he
disliked. An omnipotent God, he reasoned,
could surely manage the task by shooting
death rays that would penetrate the
teacher’s skin and destroy his heart. Years
later, upon seeing a photo of a fat American
general (Norman Schwarzkopf Jr), Edwards
recognised him as “the God of my childhood”.
He then seriously continues “the modus
operandi problem – how does God do it?” by
citing an Adolf Grünbaum article that
demolishes one of Richard Swinburne’s
similarly childish cosmological arguments.
The Edwards book, filled
with acerbic humour, is not only a valuable
reference source but also is a joy to read,
whether by casual readers or students.
Theists will attack, and philosophers will
praise, the book for decades.