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The Australian Book of Atheism
Edited by Warren Bonett
Review by Peter Kirkwood
The Australian, January 15, 2011
My perception of contemporary atheism is strongly coloured by its high-profile proponent Richard Dawkins.
While in agreement with much of his argument for atheism and his criticism of religion, I often find his tone alienating. When he's in strident anti-religion mode, his rhetoric is tinged with the same sort of fundamentalist fervour he finds so abhorrent in his religious opponents. So I approached this book with some trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised. It is very readable and, for the most part, reasonable in tone. And it's enlightening both in the content of individual essays and in the wide range of voices and points of view expressed.
As the back cover blurb explains, The Australian Book of Atheism brings together "essays from 33 of the nation's pre-eminent atheist, rationalist, humanist and sceptical thinkers". These include many of the usual suspects, such as broadcaster Robyn Williams, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke and author and academic Leslie Cannold.
But there are many lesser known and, in some cases, surprising contributors who deliver gems. For instance, Chrys Stevenson, in an essay titled Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-wing Loonies, gives insight into atheism in Australia since European settlement, and why this country provides fertile soil for a secular and atheist ethos.
Medical doctor Colette Livermore, who was a nun in Mother Teresa's order, gives a fascinating account of her journey away from faith into atheism. Teacher Kylie Sturgess writes about her experiences working in faith-based schools, including an Islamic one, and how she reconciles her atheism with the religion of the students and her fellow teachers. Comedian, singer and performer Tim Minchin delivers a whimsical poem that decisively critiques the flaky New Age views of a female acquaintance appropriately named Storm. And philosopher Tamas Pataki probes and sheds light on the troubling connection between religion and violence.
These are just some of the highlights and, of course, in such a comprehensive collection the quality varies. But editor Warren Bonett has done a good job in maintaining overall quality and balance. This sense of balance is perhaps its greatest strength. On a number of issues, there are at least two essays offering differing views, on the one hand more neutral or accommodating of the religious perspective, and on the other more in opposition. For instance, many of the essays present the more hardline atheist stance that religion is mere superstition that is ineluctably going to fade away in the face of evidence, reason and science. At variance with this, in his excellent analysis of fundamentalism, science lecturer Martin Bridgstock writes
Fundamentalism is not going to go away, and its supporters are numbered in the hundreds of millions. In my view, we should be prepared to co-operate with people whom we may disagree with on other issues. Moderate religious believers of all kinds may be our natural allies.
This book offers much in understanding local nuances in the present global upsurge of atheist voices. And it shows, if you'll excuse the religious allusion, that atheism is indeed a very broad church.
Peter Kirkwood's most recent book is The Quiet Revolution: The Emergence of Interfaith Consciousness