Over the last decade, "New Atheists" such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have pushed the issue of atheism to the forefront of public discussion. Yet very few of the ensuing debates and discussions have managed to provide a full and objective treatment of the subject.
Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know provides a balanced look at the topic, considering atheism historically, philosophically, theologically, sociologically and psychologically. Written in an easily accessible style, the book uses a question and answer format to examine the history of atheism, arguments for and against atheism, the relationship between religion and science, and the issue of the meaning of life-and whether or not one can be a happy and satisfied atheist. Above all, the author stresses that the atheism controversy is not just a matter of the facts, but a matter of burning moral concern, both about the stand one should take on the issues and the consequences of one's commitment.
Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science who specializes in the philosophy of biology and is well known for his work on the relationship between science and religion, the creation-evolution controversy and the demarcation problem within science. He was born in England, attending Bootham School,York. He took his undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol (1962), his master's degree at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario (1964), and PhD. at the University of Bristol (1970).
Ruse founded the journal Biology and Philosophy, of which he is now Emeritus Editor, and has published numerous books and articles.
Overall, I was disappointed with this book. Michael Ruse is the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, and is thus in an excellent position to provide an up-to-date, sophisticated introduction to the subject. Unfortunately, this book is not it. I wonder if "What Everyone Needs to Know" is Oxford's euphemistic entry into the "For Dummies" genre.
The book is simply sloppy. Numerous typos and some formatting errors mar the text, for which author, editor and publisher all bear some responsibility. More damagingly, the book rambles and glosses over important points. For example, the author at one point raises the question of whether there is societal prejudice against atheists. This is a worthwhile question, but instead of providing survey evidence or examples of discriminatory practices, he tells an anecdote about people who stopped coming to his annual Christmas party once he began writing against creationists. Really?
Another major problem is the treatment of morality, which is scattered around the book and never dealt with head-on. Where it does come up, the treatment is utterly incoherent. For example, he says, "We can all agree unambiguously that rape is wrong." But on the very next page, he gives an example of Russian soldiers in WW2 raping German women and saying they deserved it. So apparently, the evil of rape hasn't been unambiguously clear to all people. Throughout history, and even in the world today, what constitutes rape is a subject of fierce controversy. There are cultures in which coercing one's spouse into sex is not considered rape. There are cultures in which raping others is societally obligated to avenge a wrong done to one's family. So who does Ruse mean by "we"? One suspects that Ruse is simply taking his socio-cultural position as normative and calling that objective morality.
Ruse's writing is poor as well. In general I found the register too low—lots of British slang and unnecessary personal anecdotes. One is reminded of a preacher who attempts to liven up his sermon by throwing in a joke every few minutes rather than simply crafting an inherently interesting speech. He sometimes refers to the readers in the second persons, but on at least one confusing occasion refers to himself in the second person. The reader has to realize that she is suddenly taking on the role of the first-person interlocutor.
Nevertheless, some of the chapters in this book, unsurprisingly those closest to Ruse's scholarly work, are quite good. He gives a decent though not terribly original overview and deconstruction of the traditional arguments for God's existence. Much better is his discussion of whether science, including naturalistic explanations for the origins of religion, can in fact disprove religion (no). I found the nuance in his section on the benefits and ills of religion refreshing, as these discussions usually suffer heavily from selection bias. I also found quite interesting his discussions on atheistic alternative religion and the prospects of meaning-making within a naturalistic framework.
Sadly, this is not the must-have book on atheism I hoped it would be, and still suspect Ruse might be capable of producing if he really tried. But it is probably a better introduction to the topic than the highly polemical works of the New Atheists and their critics.
Michael Ruse provides us with a balanced discussion of religion and its modern off-spring, atheism. As a theist (Christian) I can't pretend to agree with him all the way, but there's no denying that this book is far more insightful and intelligently written than, say, "The God Delusion" by New Atheist extremist Richard Dawkins. I'm glad I read it, and I did learn some things from it.