(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:
- a firecracker of an essay by George Eliot (about which more later);
- a story of David Hume’s last moments, written by a religious friend who hoped to see a deathbed conversion from the famous philosopher and went away disappointed;
- an autobiographical piece by the great John Stuart Mill explaining how his father raised him as a nonbeliever;
- a stinging, hilarious piece by Bertrand Russell satirizing the absurd beliefs of his day and of the past;
- an excerpt from Farewell to God, the book written by Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s one-time preaching partner, explaining how he became an agnostic;
- a lecture by Ian McEwan, “End of the World Blues”, humorously and informatively lacerating the holders of apocalypse delusions through history;
- and a powerful essay by Salman Rushdie, taking the form of an open letter to the recently-born six billionth human being, stressing the necessity of independent, critical thought and the danger the human species faces from dogma.
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.
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”)?