Book Review: The Portable Atheist

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Not "essential" as its title claims, but a usefully broad sampling of atheist thought for the reader who wishes to be better versed in the voices of nonbelief.

The Portable Atheist, edited by Christopher Hitchens, is intended to serve as an introductory guide and perhaps an armamentarium for atheists. The book contains a wide variety of pieces, essays and poems - some original to this collection, most not - written by renowned freethinkers both modern and historical, all of them presenting the case for a godless cosmos in some fashion or another. Hitchens contributes a lengthy introduction, written with his usual brash flair, plus some brief remarks at the beginning of each chapter introducing us to the author featured therein. All in all, there are 47 different pieces, covering the history of dissenting thought from ancient writers like Lucretius, Spinoza and Hume to modern authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Of course, a writer of Hitchens' stature and contacts was able to secure the requisite permissions; his participation is very likely what made the book possible.

First, the good. One thing that made me especially happy was that, in addition to the prose, the book contained a fair number of freethought poems - some of which were written by authors whose atheist sympathies I had never known about. There's material in here to fill out at least a few more of my Poetry Sundays, and it's a wonderful and much-appreciated reminder that nonbelief can promote a flourishing art and culture, rather than just expressing itself in philosophical polemics.

In prose, there were many superb choices as well. To my mind, the standout pieces were:

All of these are well worth reading, and certainly have the potential to broaden any nonbeliever's mind and give rise to a solid, literate, well-grounded atheism.

Now, the bad. Although for the most part I have no objection to Hitchens' choices, there are a few things I think could have been improved upon.

First - and to my mind the single most glaring omission - there's nothing in this book by Robert Ingersoll! How could any compendium of atheist thought through the ages not include the nineteenth century's most famous and eloquent freethinker? Ingersoll was a prolific author and composed many pieces that would have been eminently suitable to include here, ranging in tone from cutting polemics to laugh-out-loud satirical discourses. He drew huge crowds everywhere he went, he was a friend of the famous and the powerful, and he was undoubtedly the driving force behind America's "golden age" of freethought. I can only imagine that he was overlooked somehow; I hope a future edition, if there is one, will remedy this deficit.

Second: This book could have used more pieces by female authors. Out of forty-seven chapters, only four feature women: a cutting refutation of an evangelical author by George Eliot, a discourse on the philosophy of atheism by Emma Goldman, an essay on non-religious morality by Elizabeth Anderson, and a personal account of deconversion, original to this book, contributed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

All four are excellent choices - in particular, Eliot's razor-sharp dissection of the fallacies of a militant evangelical preacher would have made her right at home on Pharyngula or any of the other well-known blogs of today staffed by no-nonsense atheists, and in my mind was one of the highlights of the book. (The preacher's arguments themselves were almost identical to the ones we encounter all the time today from Christian apologists - it's sad to see how little has changed, but good to know that there have always been freethinkers ready to point up the flaws in orthodoxy.) And Hirsi Ali's account of her deconversion, though brief, was incredibly moving and was a perfect way to close out the book.

Still, there are many more female freethinkers who could have been featured here to offset this gross gender imbalance. How about historical authors such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (like a selection from her "Woman's Bible"), Ernestine Rose, Margaret Sanger, or Madalyn Murray O'Hair? On the modern side, how about Susan Jacoby, Anne Laurie Gaylor, Taslima Nasrin, or Julia Sweeney?

Third: A few of the pieces here could have stood to be edited or removed altogether. The one that comes most prominently to mind is an excerpt from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Admittedly, it does contain some suggestive arguments, but Hobbes strongly claimed to be a believer and we have no definite evidence to the contrary. The book could have stood to go without this one.

Also, by far the longest piece was an excerpt from Ibn Warraq's The Koran. The piece itself was fine, and it's a valuable thing that Hitchens prominently featured the writings of some ex-Muslims as well as nonbelievers coming from more Christian societies. However, much of this piece concentrated on critiquing the Old and New Testaments (to undercut the basis of Islamic belief), which made it seem somewhat out of place. It would have been better edited down to focus on the parts dealing with Islam, which many readers may be less familiar with.

In sum, this book was an imperfect but well-conceived and useful guide to the many voices of nonbelief throughout history. It's not essential reading for an atheist, if only because the arguments made by theists have changed little in hundreds of years, and so our replies haven't needed to change either. Any well-informed nonbeliever will already know how to deal with the religious fallacies challenged and criticized in this book. But it is a welcome introduction to some of history's most famous nonbelievers, including some who deserve to be better known. I look forward to seeing the few omissions in selection repaired in a revised edition (or maybe "The Portable Atheist, volume 2")?

January 11, 2008, 7:52 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink33 comments
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Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Last night I saw The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. The movie, like the book, is set in a fantastic and richly imagined parallel universe, similar to our own world but different in many important ways. In Pullman's steampunk world, human beings' souls live outside their bodies, in the form of talking animal familiars called daemons; the icy north is ruled by fearsome armored bears and clans of flying witches; and an evil church that extends its grip over the world battles the defenders of freethought to suppress the truth about a mysterious particle called Dust. The church views Dust as the physical evidence of original sin and wants to stamp out all knowledge of it, but a few brave scholars believe it is the gateway to a limitless infinity of possibilities.

The heroine of the movie, Lyra Belacqua, is an orphan girl raised by the masters of Jordan College in a parallel London. A shadowy organization known as the Gobblers has been kidnapping children for unknown purposes, and when one of Lyra's friends is snatched, she vows to set out and rescue him. In her quest she finds allies, including a band of traveling Gyptians seeking to recover their own lost sons and daughters; the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and a loyal armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. But her greatest help may be the instrument of the movie's title: an "alethiometer", a clockwork device given to her by the master of Jordan College which, if read and interpreted correctly, can give the true answer to any question. Ultimately, Lyra's quest takes her to the frozen wastelands of the North Pole, where she faces the sinister Magisterium and its chief agent, the poison-sweet Mrs. Coulter, and learns the truth about the evil experiments it's been conducting on the stolen children.

At least in America, there's been a minor uproar over this movie, because the book's author, Philip Pullman, is an avowed atheist who's salted the novels with anti-religious and freethought themes. (The second two books of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, pick up the plot of a literal war against God - although in the books he's called "the Authority", and depicted as an aged pretender rather than the true creator of everything.) Fulminating bigots like William Donohue of the Catholic League have demanded a boycott, and newspaper columnists have fretted that this movie's intent is to "teach atheism to children". (I don't remember hearing any complaints about how the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was intended to "teach Christianity to children".)

Predictably, the movie's producers tried to head off this criticism by watering down the anti-religious themes from the book. The evil organization, which as I recall is explicitly depicted as the Church in the original novels, is here only called the "Magisterium". Rather than an explicit struggle against religion, the heroes' opposition is depicted more as a struggle against authoritarianism. Also predictably, these changes had no effect on the self-appointed guardians of dogma, who only need to catch the merest whiff of dissent to thunder about "disrespect" and demand that the offender be censored and punished to make them feel better. Nevertheless, more of Pullman's theme was left in than I had expected, including the equation of Dust with original sin. Mrs. Coulter gives a speech in which she claims Dust came about because the first people disobeyed the Authority, although the movie does not go into any detail on who or what the Authority is. I also thought it was more than a little heavy-handed to depict all the top officials of the Magisterium as having daemons that were serpents or preying mantises (although Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey is a wonderfully evil creation).

I've read Pullman's original books, and I can definitely recommend them. They're wonderfully detailed and richly imaginative creations. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from the comparison. It wasn't bad, but the script did feel rushed and obligatory, as if the writers were trying to cram in as many events from the novel as possible. On a purely numerical level they succeeded, but the result was a plot that careened from one event to the next, dumping loads of exposition on the viewer at every turn, rather than giving the characters time to breathe. Nevertheless, some of Pullman's ideas do shine through. Lyra in particular was a great heroine, capturing the fiercely independent, defiant spirit of the books.

That said, anyone who's expecting the books or especially the movie to serve as the standard-bearer for atheism is likely to be let down. For all the great freethought ideas contained in them, they're not tightly reasoned anti-religious polemics. The books are a story, an imaginative fiction. In our world, there is no literal Authority to kill, no Dust to tell us the truth the church has tried to cover up. The story should be judged on its own merits, not pressed into service to support a real-life cause. The most we can expect from this or any other story is to encourage children to ask questions and consider new possibilities, which is all to the good. It's to be expected that even this little hint of freethinking will provoke roars of outrage from the pompous pretenders who fear alternative stories, and who can all too easily recognize themselves in the corrupt and tyrannical authority figures skewered therein.

December 15, 2007, 1:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments
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A Christmas Carol

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

"Mercy!" he said. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"

"Man of the worldly mind!" replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?"

"I do," said Scrooge. "I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

In chapter 16 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a beggar, Lazarus, and a rich man. Though he is miserable on earth, when the beggar finally dies he is received into Heaven and dwells at the side of the patriarch Abraham. Meanwhile, the rich man who enjoyed the comforts of the world finds himself burning in the torments of Hell. He cries out to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to cool his tongue with water, but is rebuffed. Then the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his father's house, "for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment." Abraham replies, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Abraham's reply has been used by generations of Christian apologists as a defense against the argument from divine hiddenness, who argue that if a person chooses not to believe the extraordinary and unsubstantiated claims of the Bible without evidence, they would not believe those claims with evidence either.

But this is a severely distorted view of human nature. Of course atheists would believe if we were shown evidence equal in persuasive power to the claims of Christianity; why in the world would we not? And the fallacy of this apologetic defense is shown most clearly in, of all places, Charles Dickens' beloved classic A Christmas Carol.

As my readers are doubtless well aware, this book tells the story of the bitter-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is convinced to repent of his avaricious, selfish ways and become a man of rich heart and generosity after being visited by four ghosts on one fateful Christmas Eve night. As opposed to the Bible's unrealistic excuse, this story paints a far more realistic picture of what would happen if an evil man received supernatural proof that he had been wrong. By revisiting the forgotten sentiments of his past, peering into the lives of those harmed by his stinginess, and experiencing and the dread fate awaiting him if he does not change his ways, Scrooge realizes his folly and changes his ways completely. Yet Christian apologists would have us believe that this story is wildly unrealistic, and that if such a thing were to actually happen, Scrooge would dismiss the spirits' visions with a harrumph of disbelief, and the next day be about his business as if nothing had happened. Clearly, Dickens' plot is by far the more plausible of the two.

Yet even as this story supports the atheist position by vividly dismantling the usual theodicies, in another way it falls short of fully grasping the implications of its own theology. No matter how radical the change in Scrooge's character, he is only one man. Both in Dickens' England and today there was and is a great ocean of need, far more than any one person, however wealthy or generous, could hope to alleviate. Indeed, the two men who come to Scrooge's door at the beginning of the story to solicit donations for the poor paint a picture of the situation:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

..."Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices."

There must be many thousands of misers like Scrooge. Why do they all not receive spectral visitations to steer them onto the right path? Surely this would not be too much effort for ghosts who can bend time and space to their whims, still less for whatever higher power lay behind their sending. (Indeed, the first ghost to visit Scrooge, the shade of his old business partner Jacob Marley, shows him literally hundreds of other forlorn spirits wandering the world, wishing they could advise the living to steer clear of the paths they chose.) And why, for that matter, would such happenings be confined to Christmastime? People suffer from poverty and hunger three hundred and sixty-five days per year, not just one.

It is ridiculous to believe that Scrooge was in some way worsened or harmed by this experience, that this is something God should not have done. On the contrary, where before both Scrooge and the people around him (like the Cratchits) were miserable and unhappy, this experience brought much light and happiness into both their lives and saved at least one soul from an eternity of damnation. There is no downside whatsoever to Scrooge's transformation, and the story's recognition of that fact is largely why it is such a beloved classic.

As opposed to the parables of the Bible, which are driven primarily by the need for theological justification, there are many fine writers - even religious writers - whose keen grasp of human nature shows up the flaws in this self-serving theology. There is simply no reason why God, if such a being existed, would not establish an orderly cosmos full of love and happiness. (I wrote earlier this month about a similar scenario imagined by another famous religious writer, in "The Theodicy of Narnia"). And there is no reason not to correct people who have strayed onto the wrong path, both for the happiness it brings them and for the joy it brings to those around them. What truly beggars belief is that there are some theists who would apparently prefer to see people remain cold-hearted and miserable - both at Christmas and throughout the year - in the name of preserving their free will. To the contrary, wrong decisions made in ignorance are not genuinely free at all. The best and freest choice is one informed by reason working within the dictates of compassion and loving kindness. Our hearts already understand that message well enough. It is due time for our creeds to catch up.

December 14, 2006, 8:27 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments
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New on Ebon Musings: The Pilgrim's Progress

A new essay has been posted on Ebon Musings, a review of the famous Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. The review follows the book's format in chronicling the journey of the main character, "Christian", from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, commenting on the trials and tribulations he experiences along the way, and concludes by summing up what the allegory teaches us about the nature of Christianity itself.

This is an open thread. Comments and feedback are welcome.

May 18, 2006, 12:08 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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A Visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral

It was in late December of last year that I visited St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City for the first time. It was a cold, wet evening, alternating between rain and flurries of snow, and a friend and I had gone downtown to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. But the cathedral was on the way, and we could not pass up the chance to see another Manhattan landmark.

The change in the atmosphere was noticeable as soon as we passed through the massive bronze doors. Outside on Fifth Avenue was a typical Manhattan winter night: snowflakes swirling through the air, hundreds of pedestrians heading in both directions beneath the eaves of buildings, long lines of cars whose headlights and brake lights blended with the traffic lights into a sea of blurred red and white glow, the background noise of the city.

Inside the cathedral, however, the air was solemn, still. A central aisle ran the entire length of the cathedral to the altar, where an intricate arch rose like an eruption of gold. Dozens of rows of wooden pews lined either side of the aisle; despite the late hour, many of them were filled with people, and many more crowded around the perimeter of the nave.

But by far the most striking feature, as with most cathedrals I have visited, was the sense of space. Two rows of carved stone pillars rose in graceful arches to support an enormous vaulted ceiling high overhead. In that soaring space, every footstep, every whisper seemed to become multiplied, blending together into a soft white noise that reverberated in the air. The vast scale, the towering space overhead, very effectively conveyed the message of being in the presence of something larger than any individual.

Along with many other visitors and sightseers, I indulged my curiosity and circulated around the perimeter of the cathedral. Set into the walls of the nave, beneath giant stained-glass windows, were niches containing statues of saints. The saints' alcoves were enclosed by racks of small votive candles; at one of them, I saw an elderly man drop some coins into the heavy donation box, then take a slender wooden stick from a jar of sand, hold it in the flame of one of the lit candles, and use it to kindle one of his own.

At the far end of the cathedral, to one side of the altar, was a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a small florist's shop worth of bouquets. Some were fresh and bright, others drooping and faded. Most of the people in the first few rows of pews by this statue seemed to be deep in prayer. Several rows back, a man with straggly gray hair and a battered coat sat slumped over, apparently asleep rather than praying. There was a foul odor in the air around him, the stink of long-unwashed skin; I guessed he was homeless. No one seemed to be bothering him, though no one sat near him either.

Despite everything else I saw, my mind kept returning to the hugeness of it all. The effort that went into building this place must have been staggering, especially considering that St. Patrick's was built in the late 1800s, before modern technology. To plan every intricate detail, to quarry and carve and transport the stone, to erect the structure, to create the magnificent stained-glass windows, all must have taken unimaginable labor and dedication. Only a truly genuine devotion could have compelled the architects and the builders.

But then again, St. Patrick's, beautiful as it is, is hardly unique in that respect. Every human culture has been inspired, often by religion, to create works of enormous scale and majesty. The Pyramids of Egypt, built to entomb deceased god-kings, the massive and enigmatic stone heads of Easter Island, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the giant stone Buddhas of Afghanistan tragically destroyed by the religious fanatics of the Taliban all serve as examples. There is no disputing that religion can be a powerfully uniting force, encouraging people to join together to accomplish mighty things. But we must never forget this impulse toward unity can work terrible evil as well as good, depending on how it is directed.

I do not think it at all strange that I, an atheist, can admire the architecture of a great cathedral, or listen with pleasure to a religious symphony, even though I think the beliefs that inspired them are false. In each case, what I respond to and admire is the human skill and craftsmanship that went into creating these things. Places like St. Patrick's are part of the human cultural heritage, an enduring witness to long periods of history, and though I think the money and resources that went into building them could have been better spent, now that they exist they should be preserved.

It is unfortunate that we do not make buildings like this anymore. Of course, we still build large structures, but almost invariably we build them because they have to be large, not because they can be. Great size and space can be a matter of aesthetics, not merely of function. The human sense of spirituality, of awe and wonder, is something that goes sadly neglected today, when I believe that it should instead be inspired. That said, it is unfortunate that so many of the achievements that speak to this sense arise from religion. Religious belief inherently divides people from each other, when instead our creations should serve to bring us together and help us remember that we are all related. As beautiful and majestic as St. Patrick's Cathedral and other expressions of the human spirit are, if we were to unite not as Christians or Muslims or atheists but simply as human beings, I believe we could create things far more wonderful.

March 18, 2006, 11:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink10 comments
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Living Up to the Renaissance Ideal

In my previous post in this category, Know Everything, I expressed my desire to know every fact there is about the universe, to know how to solve every problem that has been solved. This goal is, of course, impossible. We cannot do that, so what can we do?

I have always admired the Renaissance ideal - the person who is knowledgeable in many areas, and constantly learning about more. Given that we can never know everything, this is probably the best we can achieve, and I think it is what we should aspire to. It is better to know a little about a lot, in my view, than a lot about a little.

There is nothing wrong with specializing, of course; human knowledge will never increase otherwise. But I also firmly believe that every educated person should have at least some exposure to a broad diversity of fields of knowledge. Spreading one's experience over as many fields has possible has numerous advantages: it makes it more likely that one's knowledge will have useful everyday applications; it makes it easier to perceive important connections that may help the field where one does specialize; and it offers a person the best chance to formulate a worldview that they can justify and defend themselves, without recourse to blind appeals to authority, and minimizes the chances of overlooking some important, potentially worldview-altering fact.

With that in mind, here is my modest proposal for the fields of knowledge with which a modern-day Renaissance human should be acquainted. (I should note that the points listed below are the same ones about which I have been and still am striving to educate myself. Imperfect though my efforts may be, the ideals I advocate are the same ones I strive to live by.)

First, and most important, I believe that every person should receive a thorough grounding in the principles of reasoning, both inductive and deductive, and in the scientific method. Although it is important that people understand science's findings, it is more important that they know how to think and how to correctly evaluate an argument; in this way they can judge the merits of any claim, even in subjects with which they are unfamiliar, and are less likely to be duped by the fallacious and biased arguments so common in our society.

Second, once a foundation of scientific thinking exists, I believe every person should work toward a basic, if not a technical, understanding of the major theories in every scientific field. In physics, this would be relativity and quantum mechanics and the attempts to merge them; in chemistry, atomic theory and the periodic table; in biology, the theory of evolution; in geology, plate tectonics and continental drift; in cosmology, the Big Bang. These are the unifying ideas that give structure to entire disciplines of science, and all people should at least be acquainted with what they say and why scientists consider them likely to be true.

Third, people should understand and know something about mathematics and philosophy. Though these areas do not in themselves reveal truth about the world, they are, when used correctly, tools that can be used to assist in gaining this understanding. Mathematics gives our thoughts precision and elegance, while philosophy wielded with skill can clarify the boundaries of our knowledge, give shape to the possible, and point the way toward further refinement of our understanding.

Fourth, I believe that every person should read some of the great works of human literature, including if possible the sacred texts of several major world religions. Regardless of whether these texts contain truths about the world, they do if nothing else contain truths about the minds of the species that created them. I would of course also advocate study of the writings of history's most prominent freethinkers, as well as a selection of literature from every era and culture.

Finally, I believe every person should know how to create something - whether it be to manage a garden, program a computer, play a musical instrument, or whatever else. Working with one's mind is important to keep it in thinking shape, but there is also a subtle joy in creating with one's hands. In an age of mass production and mechanization, the value of the handcrafted, the personal, is all the greater. It allows us to express our individuality in a way that hopefully brings benefit and happiness to oneself and to others. That is, after all, the chief purpose, the highest end, served by gaining knowledge or by any other human endeavor.

February 18, 2006, 6:53 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments
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