Phil 230: Atheism: a philosophical analysis   (Vailati) Fall 2011

Office: PH 2212

Office Phone: x3370

Office Hours: M 11-12; T 5-6 and by appointment if necessary   Please, identify yourself as taking this class

Webpage with class material:


Atheism, the lack of belief in the existence of any god, is probably as old as religion, and therefore much older than any of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  Today there are roughly 750 million free atheists, mainly located in the western world.  Although the frequency of atheists in the US is rather low and being a declared atheist largely prevents one from achieving public office, most likely you know some atheist. 

This course studies the philosophical issues surrounding atheism.  Its aim is to provide students with standard atheistic criticisms of theism and atheistic answers to objections traditionally launched against it, such as the charge that atheism, if true, would destroy morality and render our lives meaningless. Readings are mainly from contemporary sources.



1.        M. Martin ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism  (CUP, 2007),  [C]

2.        L. M. Anthony ed., Philosophers Without Gods (OUP, 2007), [P]

3.        Handouts

4.        Online material to be downloaded from my homepage:


A nice companion book for this course is E. K. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)

A good and cheap collection of both historical and contemporary atheistic literature is C. Hitchens, The Portable Atheist. Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007)



Week 1: A brief account of positive and negative atheism and some facts about atheists.  Readings: C 47-65, 300-313. Download: H. L. Menken, Memorial Service

The attack on atheism.  Reading: C 69-85.


Week 2-3: The argument from design and its problems. Readings:

Download Paley’s argument.

Dawkins’ handout;

Handout by Davies;

Handout of Martin’s Atheistic Teleological Arguments.

September 5: holiday

End of week 3: first quiz


Week 4: Standard atheistic critiques of the Cosmological Argument.  Reading:

Download a few notes on mathematical infinity

Download Clarke’s argument.

C 86-101

C 182-198.


Week 5 (first half): Experiencing God? Mysticism and Sensus Divinitatis

End of week 5: second quiz


Weeks 5 (second half)-6: An influential argument for positive atheism: The Argument from Evil.  Reading:

C 166-181

P 231-242

Handout: Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness justifies Atheism. 


Week 7: Showing of Shadowlands.  Reading: Handout from Lewis’ A Grief Observed.  Class discussion

End of week 7: third quiz


Weeks 8-9: An evolutionary analysis of religion?  Reading: C 283-299. 


Week 10: Becoming an atheist.  Readings:

Handout from Darwin’s letters and autobiography

P 41-58

P 69-79

P 80-89

Handout: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, How (and why) I became an Infidel

End of week 10: fourth quiz


Weeks 11-12: Is an atheistic system of ethics possible or desirable? Can an evolved morality be objective? 

Reading: Download Craig Lane’s article.

P 215-230

C 149-65.

End of week 12: fifth quiz 


Week 13: The meaning of life.  Readings:

Handout from Nagel;

Selection form Wilenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. 

Download SEP article


November 21- 27: Break  

Week 14: Death. Reading:

Download: Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus and selection from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.          

End of week 14: sixth quiz; Paper due


Week 15: Showing of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.   

Final discussion




·         One 5 page double spaced paper, worth 25% of the course grade.

·         6 quizzes, some take-home, some in-class, cumulatively worth 30% of the course grade.

·         A presentation, worth 20% of the course grade.

·         A final exam, worth 25% of the course grade.


There may also be some pop quizzes for extra points.  Only students present when these quizzes are administered will be allowed to take them.  No exceptions, ever.



You are encouraged to give me rough drafts of your paper up to one week before the paper is due.  Understand that the closer to a finished paper your rough draft is, the more precise and useful my comments will be. 



A presentation should last about 20 minutes and have the following structure:

1.      Statement of the main point made by the author(s) you discuss

2.      Brief statement of the main argument(s) supporting the point

3.      Brief discussion of the difficulties of the author’s position and arguments

Make sure your presentation is clear and well organized so that students who have read the material can follow it.




Please, turn off your phones; avoid texting and reading material irrelevant to the course.  Be respectful of other people.  This does not mean that you should not criticize their views, even forcefully; however, avoid personal invectives.