The friendly atheist

In recent years, the tone of debate between theists and atheists has become decidedly unfriendly. UPEI professor of Philosophy Dr. Malcolm Murray attempts to restore some respect to the debate in his latest book: The Atheist’s Primer.

“The question of whether or not God exists is what brought me to philosophy in the first place,” says Murray. “I grew up in an atheist family, but I wanted to understand why it was that people I knew to be sensible believed in God.”

As a teen, Murray sought answers in the Bible. He studied Zen Buddhism. And then, in his first philosophy class, an incident helped put him on the path that would become this book.

“The teacher asked those who believed in God to stand on the left side of the class, those who didn’t on the right. I was one of two on the right,” says Murray. “Then he asked those of us who believed in love to go to the left, those who didn’t to the right. I believed in love, so I went to the left.”

The only person on the right side of the class was the other student who didn’t believe in God.

“And I thought that discredited him, because he didn’t believe in anything. But the class—even the teacher—turned on me. They said I was hypocritical in my beliefs. I was flabbergasted. I decided then to seek justification for what it was I believed in, and what I didn’t.”

The early result was a monthly column in a Waterloo, Ontario, paper in which he discussed the philosophy of religion. That experience made him realize there was a book to be written on the same subject.

“In the book, I lay out many of the arguments theists use to defend their belief, and then I break them apart. I try very hard not to be offensive; I really think theists would enjoy reading it. In fact, most of the people I asked to review early drafts of the book were theists.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Murray doesn’t blame religion for the world’s evils. He tries instead to use philosophical arguments to justify atheism.

“There’s an interesting debate about where suffering comes from, and why a god would allow it. One answer is that suffering exists to aid our moral development. God gave us free will. And if we use our free will to alleviate suffering, we have developed our moral character to make us fit for heaven.

“But the assumption there,” continues Murray, ”is that morality, itself, is good. Morality is just a tool humanity invented to reduce suffering. Without suffering, morality would be useless—similar to how a can opener would be useless in a world without cans.”

The Atheist’s Primer is published by Broadview Press, and is available at the UPEI bookstore.