Atheism for Beginners: A course book for schools and colleges

By Michael Palmer

A comprehensive coursebook introducing students and teachers to the non-theistic side of the debate over God’s existence and its rich philosophical pedigree.

ISBN: 9780718892913


“Hurray for Michael Palmer!” is how Michael Martin, the distinguished American philosopher, greeted Palmer’s The Atheist’s Primer (The Lutterworth Press, 2012). Atheism for Beginners, by providing a coursebook for schools and colleges, differs from its predecessor in being designed first and foremost for teachers and their students. Yet despite this difference in focus and format, the intention remains the same: to reinstate the importance of philosophy within the debate about God’s existence and to act as a corrective to the largely science-based criticisms levelled against religious belief by Richard Dawkins and the so-called “New Atheists”.

In Palmer’s lively history of atheism, extending from the ancient Greeks to the present day, we meet the enduring philosophical arguments against God and the great literature in which they are expressed. Atheism for Beginners is user-friendly and presumes no special grounding in philosophy. Throughout assistance is given by numerous aids to learning: there are exercises, marginal notes, essay questions, bibliographies and a glossary. Also provided are fourteen short biographies of famous atheists. In these respects Palmer follows the format first presented in his widely-read Moral Problems of 1991, long established as a core text in the teaching of philosophy.

In Atheism for Beginners, Palmer covers the main atheistic arguments, discussing issues such as creation, morality, evil, miracles and the motivations of belief. Particular attention is paid to the work of Hume, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, with a special chapter devoted to the development of “disproof atheism”. Atheism is often criticised for being unduly pessimistic: that without God there is nothing to look forward to, no life after death, no final righting of wrongs and no hope of salvation. But this, Palmer argues, is “a slander against the atheistic outlook”. He concludes, therefore, on a positive note, explaining that happiness and personal fulfilment are to be found in the very materialism that religious belief rejects.

Additional information

Dimensions 246 × 189 mm
Pages 238
Illustrations b&w

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Trade Information EDPOD

About the Author

Dr Michael Palmer was educated at Lancing College and St John’s College, Durham. A former Teaching Fellow at McMaster University and Humboldt Fellow at Marburg University, Dr Palmer has taught at Marlborough College and Bristol University, and was for many years founding Head of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at The Manchester Grammar School. His Moral Problems (Lutterworth, 1991; 2nd ed, 2005), remains the most influential school coursebook in philosophy of its generation.

His other works include Freud and Jung on Religion (1997), The Question of God (2001), Moral Problems in Medicine (2005), the two-volumed The Philosophy of Religion (2008), The Atheist’s Creed (2010) and The Atheist’s Primer (2012). One of the most widely-read of contemporary philosophers, his work has been translated into many languages.


The Atheist’s Creed

1. The Meaning of Atheism
     i. Definition of Atheism
     ii. The Variety of Gods and the Many-Gods Objection
     iii. Study Questions
     iv. Guide to Further Reading

2. Creation
     i. The Beginnings of Atheism: Its Rise and Fall
     ii. The Christian Theory of Creation
     iii. The Re-emergence of Atheism
     iv. Hume on the Argument from Cause
     v. An Infinite or Finite Universe?
     iv. Study Questions
     v. Guide to Further Reading

3. The Design of the World
     i. Two Monkey Trials
     ii. The Argument from Design
     iii. Hume’s Criticisms of the Design Argument
     iv. Darwin’s Criticisms of the Design Argument
     v. Post-Darwinian Criticisms of the Design Argument
     iv. Study Questions
     vii. Guide to Further Reading

4. The Argument from Evil
     i. Moral and Non-Moral Evil
     ii. Evolution as Non-Moral Evil
     iii. The Problem of Evil: A Logical or Evidential Problem?
     iv. The Problem of Evil: The Logical Argument
     v. The Problem of Evil: The Evidential Argument
     vi. Study Questions
     vii. Guide to Further Reading

5. The Moral Argument
     i. Moral Relativism and Religion
     ii. Criticisms of the Moral Argument
     iii. Nietzsche’s Critique of Religious Morality
     iv. Study Questions
     v. Guide to Further Reading

6. Miracles
     i. Some Miracles
     ii. Definition of a Miracle (1)
     iii. Definition of a Miracle (2)
     iv. Hume’s Critique of Miracles: Are Miracles Impossible?
     v. Hume’s Critique of Miracles: Are Miracles Improbable?
     vi. Conclusion
     vii. Study Questions
     viii. Guide to Further Reading

7. The Impulse to Believe
     i. The Experiences of Faith
     ii. Projection Theory: Ludwig Feuerbach
     iii. Marx’s Projection Theory: Religion as the Opium of the People
     iv. Freud’s Projection Theory: Religion as a Universal Obsessional Neurosis
     v. Conclusion: Is Atheism Pessimistic?
     vi. Study Questions
     vii. Guide to Further Reading

8. Disproving God
     i. The Logic of God’s Attributes
     ii. Arguments from Incoherence
     iii. Two Theistic Defences
     iv. Some conclusions
     v. Study Questions
     vi. Guide to Further Reading

Appendix: Select Biographies
Epicurus (342-270 BC)
Jean Meslier (1664-1729)
David Hume (1711-1776)
Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789)
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)
Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891)
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
A.J. Ayer (1910-1989)
Richard Dawkins (b. 1941)

Index of Names
Index of Subjects


Endorsements and Reviews

The style is clear and approachable, and the reading doesn’t require specific knowledge of the philosophical field. … The aim is to teach students how to think logically in order to make them able to critically judge various theistic/creationist/fatalistic arguments that religions advance in their support and to not let them be deceived by logically incoherent and slanted reasoning. … The last chapter is particularly interesting as it deals with recent developments of Disproof Atheism – by contemporary philosophers as Alfred J. Ayer, John N. Findlay, Michael Martin, Nicholas Everitt, etc.
Enrica Rota, in L’Ateo, No 4, July 2013

It is this balanced and careful writing that makes this book so useful. As a repository of much information about philosophers and a very clear statement of their views with careful referencing to their writings it will be of use to teachers of courses in the philosophy of religion at all levels in schools and colleges as well as to students.
Francis Loftus, in REtoday, Vol 31, No 2

Palmer’s offering is a first and a welcome contribution to both secular and religious education. … Atheism for Beginners is exactly what it claims to be – a textbook for instructors and students. It is an extremely good one at that. I would also suggest that it is also helpful for clergy, church leaders and lay people interested in learning more about the lives and thinking of friends and neighbours claiming to have no belief.
Michael K. Jones, United Church of Canada, in Theological Book Review, Vol 25, No 1