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I suppose it may be possible that we as a people are more accustomed, because of the reality of the internet, to the ability to look up random definitions for every anything that is out there waiting to be looked up. I know for myself at least, I’m constantly googling new words, like seriously almost every day. Just yesterday in fact, I looked up sibylline, which as you are now about to learn is an adjective describing something prophetic. Seriously, the only thing I do more than googling new words is using my Farlex Free Dictionary app to look them up for me.
So anyway, we’re used to convenient ways for looking up new words and subjects, possibly more than ever before. And then there’s other great-fun websites that provide crass or at least irreverent ways to explain some of culture’s less officially Webster-stamped terms, phrases, and acronyms. Basically what I’m saying is that we have grown to enjoy the ease of learning new words and what they mean and especially when their definitions are funny or witty or even slightly irreverent.
And my point in bringing this up is because it seems Andrew Sneddon’s new book A is for Atheist: An A to Z for the Godfree Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016) is designed perfectly for just the kind of person who likes witty, fun, and even sometimes slightly irreverent definitions of atheisty subject matter while also being willing to set Google aside and actually crack open a physically-bound book. Or at least to set the book on a shelf where people will see it and inquire about it so as to generate substantive group dialogue.
Andrew Sneddon is a professor of philosophy at the University of Ottawa with fields of interest in ethics, philosophical psychology, and philosophy of action. As you might expect, Sneddon lives in the city where he teaches. And as he puts it on A is for Atheist’s back cover, he lives with “two dogs and another ape (see Apes).”
Yes, go see the apes. And do remember that you are entering a book of definitions. That said, this actually presents us with a great opportunity to sample one of Sneddon’s entries. Flipping to Apes, we discover a brief three-sentence explanation, followed by a customary list of cross-references. “Apes: We are. Pretty great ones, but apes nonetheless. Keeping this in mind is helpful for cultivating humility (both intellectual and moral) and for warding off the felt need to explain things about our lives in terms of god and the supernatural. See Animals (the Human Ones), Humility, Meat Machines, What’s the Case for Atheism?, and You.”
Yes, those really are the names of actual entries in A is for Atheist.
But let’s back up a moment. What exactly is the point of this book anyway, you may ask. (If you haven’t, go ahead and do so now.) Is it maybe more of a cute coffee-table-type-of-book? Maybe fuel for a blazing round of drunken trivia? Or does it attempt to offer readers something… more?
To answer this question, Sneddon offers an introduction (11-17). He recounts a time of great frustration over the rather discouraging comments once made by the Catholic church’s most recent Pope Benedict and then laments how commonly misunderstood atheism is in general and atheists are in particular. It’s in the recounting of that story that Sneddon tells us he wrote A is for Atheist in an attempt to rectify the problem. But like all great rectifications, he attempts to do so with a little humorous flare.
Sneddon explains that while a good many atheists were once religious believers, most religious believers have never actually been atheists. This is why so much misunderstanding, and therefore mistrust, exists among the religious. Because they have no firsthand experience of what atheism means or looks like. Whereas most atheists, Sneddon says, have firsthand experience of both.
So Sneddon recommends that religious believers find a real-life atheist to help dispel some of those false assumptions and understandable misunderstandings. And in case you can’t find a real-life atheist, Sneddon says, well, that’s why he offers this book in their place.
Now, Sneddon realizes hardened religionists aren’t likely to turn to his work for the answers to their questions. Rather he writes to his “fellow curious travellers” and to those “doubting believers” who are open to questions and the discovery of real answers. And so Sneddon offers here a topical reference guide to those who simply want to humbly learn more about atheism and what it means to live the godfree life, about the values involved and the perspective embraced.
And he does so by offering something of an encyclopedia of entries ranging from a single sentence on Freethinker (“An old name for atheists, still used by some.”) to eighteen pages on Morality.
Though I fear attempting to read A is for Atheist straight through may grow a bit laborious, it can be great fun to keep it near your desk and flip to various entries from time to time. Or at least, that’s how I’ve found it useful as someone approaching the book without the proverbial boat-load-of-questions-in-need-of-answering. If, however, you might find yourself as one looking for solid answers on the life and perspective of godless humans, you can find them here, and just like any other encyclopedic reference book, you can look for them alphabetically.
If, for instance, you want to know the typical atheist’s approach to the soul or spirit, you can look up the entry entitled Soul (in the “S” section) and discover a four-page offering that begins, “We don’t have these, in any religiously interesting sense.” You can then look up Spirit (also in the “S” section) and read a two-paragraph entry that begins with “A tricky word.”
And then you can land your eyes upon the entry directly under Sprit to indulge “Spirit in the Sky,” you know, as Sneddon clarifies, “One of very few half-decent overtly religious songs in the rock and pop genres. So thanks, Norman Greenbaum.” We then find the next full page devoted to the rapturous praises of Led Zeppelin, Velvet Underground, George Harrison, and others.
As mentioned above, this isn’t just an instruction manual for students of atheism, it’s also just fun word-stuff for the rest of us.
Though our philosophy professor includes plenty of entries such as Ockham’s Razor, Ontological Argument, Straw Men, and What’s the Case for Atheism?, he makes it clear in his introductory comments that his real ambition is to clarify the values-set of the atheist perspective. “I have given most of my attention to values,” Sneddon writes. “Not to god, or gods, not to the supernatural, not to science: values. The reason is that, well values matter. Moreover, the most pernicious falsehoods out there about atheists concern values” (15).
Thus entries on Moral Math (or, Good vs. Bad Effects of Religion and Atheism) and Morality (or, On Loving the Good with and without God) and Irony (and Meaning in Life) and Tragedy (or, Despair about the Meaning of Life) and Tradition (or Custom) and Simplicity and Community and Wholeness and Wonder and Transcendence and, yes, Values. There’s also one on You because guess what, Sneddon seems to think you are also of value from the atheist perspective. Unlike me who took note during the entry on Bullshit and has been eager in its application ever since… The entry on Golf, however, that sounds fantastic.
But not the Quiz! (found under “Q”). That just sounds like Bullshit’s sequel.
But anyway, yes, to sum this whole thing up, I think you’d do well to grab your own copy of A is for Atheist (get it here). It’s fun and informative and packed with all the exciting wit of your favorite college ethics prof. It’s not exactly a coffeetable book, per se, but your coffeetable could a great place to keep it. Especially when some visitors come by who could really use a worthy conversation piece. Enjoy!