Thinking in Action
The series offers many possibilities. I was tempted by Zizek's On Belief, but it has already been pilloried by John Holbo. Instead, I settled on two: On Humanism, by Richard Norman, and On the Meaning of Life. (Further volumes that may be of interest to this audience: On Anxiety and On the Internet.)
On Humanism is a nice corrective to Straw Dogs. For Norman, "humanism" is not blind faith in progress, or in some radical difference between us and other animals, but, principally, belief in ethics without God. This a pretty modest conviction, I think. The style is sober and unpretentious. Not much here will be new to philosophers: a critical review of standard arguments for the existence of God, an attack on the "divine command theory" of morals, a survey of utilitarianism and objections to it. The book would make a good introduction to philosophy – although, in that role, it could do with a guide to further reading.
It is not flawless. In rejecting God, Norman assumes that a belief is unjustified unless we can provide a reason for it that would apply to others. He does not acknowledge the notorious difficulties in meeting this foundationalist demand. For instance, in questioning religious experience, he argues that knowledge of the content of perception always depends on having "reliable independent grounds" by which to establish its cause. This could be the premise of a valid argument for scepticism about the five senses. It is therefore not a good premise to use in argument against belief in God.
The more interesting claim, anyway, is that we can make sense of ethics without God. Norman gives the usual objections to the divine command theory: if God's commands are not arbitrary, they must appeal to an independent standard of right and wrong; and it is in any case bad to be motivated by mere commands, or out of fear punishment and desire for reward. You might think that no-one holds so crude a view, but I can point to at least one: my geographical forebear, John Clarke of Hull (1687-1734). In an accounting of the most influential philosophers to come from my home town, he would, unfortunately, be first. His brief glory was to have been refuted by Francis Hutcheson – though it is a tribute to the retrograde character of British philosophy that he was taken seriously at all.
The best part of Norman's book is the final chapter, which begins with a puzzling fact.
Looking back [...], I cannot escape the feeling that everything I have said is obvious. [...] That view sits uneasily alongside the recognition that most of [it] would be rejected by most human beings, now and throughout history.If it is apparent to Norman, and to me, that there can be ethics without God, why has it been orthodox to assume otherwise? He doesn't really attempt to resolve this quandary, and perhaps it lies outside his, and my, expertise. Let the sociologists go to work. But I can't resist a speculation. God seems necessary, I think, not directly for ethics, but for life to have meaning. (Ethics would be threatened by the death of God only if, as I doubt, it depends upon the meaning of life.) If atheists like me want to make sense of the moral-philosophical significance of religious belief, it is this inscrutable question that we must address.