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:

  • 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.

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″)?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reed Braden

    [link] Posted here.

    I very much agree that there should have been more female voices heard in Mr. Hitchens’ compendium of Atheist thought, and I’m most upset that Ayn Rand (who, Christopher revealed to me and a group of my friends in Washington D.C. last year, he is not highly fond of for certain reasons and lauds for others) was omitted. Her barbed voice and her opinions on the religious world would have made me content to read through a partial inventory that noticeably omits Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Margaret Sanger, and the other brilliant women you mentioned. I’m also a bit uneasy that you didn’t mention her as one of the glaring omissions.

    I felt the same way about Ibn Warraq’s piece. It was intelligent and well-formed, as is to be expected of the wonderful apostate, but it was far too long in comparison to some of the pieces that were circumcised (Hitchens will hate that I used that word) far too roughly and left too short. The section was sixty pages and then another essay by Warraq follows. If I wanted to read this much of Ibn Warraq, I would pull Why I Am Not a Muslim off my shelf and delve into it again.

    I would disagree with you that these writings are not essential to a serious Atheist. While the arguments haven’t changed much, it’s a great comfort to those of us bombarded by religious nonsense to see that not only are other people dealing with this problem as well, but that this is not a new offence–that Atheists and other freethinkers through the ages have had to combat the same tired arguments that we face today. Also, it has much more of an impact, I think, in conversing with the religious, to quote Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Percy Bysshe Shelley or George Eliot than to quote, say, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Even when it’s the same argument! These are the people, remember, who will take anything at more than its face value if it is over a century old!

    Another thing that irritated me about Hitchens’ selections is the brevity of his sections on H. L. Mencken and George Orwell. Hitchens has said many times before that Orwell would be his hero if he had such things and I am not the first to say that Hitchens is today’s H. L. Mencken. To see these two brilliant authors spurned with short pieces that argued little saddened me.

    It is so easy for me to brood about my dislikes, and I fear I have done so too long. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed this latest romp through Freethought history and I look forward to another, hopefully by the same literary master who gave us this one.

  • the chaplain

    I’ve just bought this book recently and haven’t read it yet. It seems that it will be a fairly good companion to susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt, both of which I’ve already read and thoroughly enjoyed.

  • Tommy

    I bought “The Portable Atheist” a couple of months ago, but I have not read all of it. By its very nature, it is the kind of book where you can pick and choose the selections that most interest you, instead of reading from the first page to the last.

    I agree with a lot that Adam has written above. Another piece I liked was Mark Twain’s ruminations on the Fly.

    The length of the book devoted to Ibn Warraq probably meant that others had to be left out such as Ingersoll.

    All in all, The Portable Atheist is a mixed bag, but mostly for the good, and is worth getting. I didn’t feel the need to read Hitchens “God Is Not Great”, but his introduction to The Portable Atheist is a blistering cannonade in and of itself.

  • Kevin Morgan

    I’ve just bought this book recently and haven’t read it yet. It seems that it will be a fairly good companion to susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt, both of which I’ve already read and thoroughly enjoyed.

    I too have recently gotten this book and it’s sitting in a stack of books to be gotten to in no particular order. Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers” was an excellent book and I’m about half-way through Jennifer Hecht’s book “Doubt” which is also a fascinating history of philosophy. I just finished Carl Sagan’s posthumously published “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, a collection of his Gifford lectures in Scotland which I can also recommend.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m no big fan of Hitchens, but this compendium is certainly worth the price. I too would liked to have seen some Ayn Rand in it, and was disappointed that Twain was given such short shrift. The first section of “Letters from Earth” would seem ideal to me.

  • Greta Christina

    “This book could have used more pieces by female authors. Out of forty-seven chapters, only four feature women… 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?”

    Gee. What a surprise. Hitchens being a sexist prick. I’m deeply shocked.

  • theistscientist

    fwiw, and being a theist, and surely not in my ambit to give tactical advice to the uhm “opposition”,but I dont think I would trumpet Madalyn Murray O’Hair too much,in public relations terms, you probably couldnt ask for much worse of a champion for the secular humanist cause than she, she was an extraordinarily angry, bitter, racist, and yes ,even sexist, malcontent, and she died an almost “prophetic” death. In fairness, theism has some analogs, but we try to hide them from the customer base!

  • terrence

    Gee, angry, bitter, racist, sexist malcontent???? Good grief and thank goodness there ain’t none of them on the THEIST side……

    And reading these comments about the omissions from the book which are mostly guess what AMERICAN?!?!?!? Who would like to pitch in to assemble the next edition Vol 2 perhaps of The American Portable Atheist which would be rich with Twain, Ingersoll, O’Hair, Stanton, Sanger, Sagan, and by the way did I say TWAIN?!?!?!

  • theistscientist

    well how about “American atheism meets the real world”, where track records of the efficacy of an ideology speak volumes: the atheism of Mao Tse Tung, the atheism of Joseph Stalin, the atheism of POl Pot, the atheism of the Khmer Rouge, the atheism of North Korean dictators, the atheism of Eastern Bloc dictators, the atheism of Albania,the atheism of Fidel Castro, the atheism of the North Vietnamese, and then the genocide, the burning of bibles, the burning of churches, the execution of priests and missionaries,….. kindly keep in mind that the inquisitions killed about 30,000 people, and the crusades less than a 200,000. Oy vey, the butchers’ bill is extraoridnarily skewed against atheism!Pardon our theist angst at atheists coming to power here in the U.S.! Mighty bad track record of atheists in power.

  • OMGF

    And all those you cite were irrational in their way. Atheists are calling for rationality, not megalomania. Plus, theists have a pretty brutal track record too. And, last I looked, it was theists (Xians actually) that were clamoring for control of this country and the ability to force others to believe as they do (although not all Xians of course).

  • theistscientist

    sorry OMGF, you aint winnin this one! the butchers bill does your side in. Its historical fact, maybe someday , atheism will gain power (somewhere) and not butcher god damn((sorry my bad) millions of people, but, ahem, thus far, your record of “atheists in power” is absolutely terrible.Its so bad that even secular historians with no dog in the fight are petrified of atheism (list of 25 secular scholars who say atheism is a disaster!).

  • OMGF

    Forced atheism is a disaster, just as forced belief of any kind is a disaster. You seem to want to impart a position on me and others that we don’t hold, that we want to force others into atheism. No one here has advocated that. No one here is trying to force anything onto anyone.

    And, in your calculations you forgot some key things. One thing you forgot is Hitler’s death toll. Another you forgot is all the deaths by Bush and his holy war against the Middle East, etc. You also didn’t factor in the higher populations and the advance of technology which makes it easier to kill more people at once. Had crusaders had nuclear technology, do you think they would have hesitated in using it?

  • Ebonmuse

    theistscientist has been banned for repeated derailings of threads with preaching and personal attacks.

    EDIT: Also for spamming the site with obscene and hateful comments, which have all been removed.

  • Jim Baerg

    I almost wonder if someone else was using his name & email in the last day or 2. He started off quite civil.

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh. Never mind my last reply to him in the “varieties of moderation” thread.

  • lpetrich

    I wonder if that book’s Bertrand Russell contribution was An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish — it’s a classic essay on that subject, covering a wide range of follies:

    But if conformity has its dangers, so has nonconformity.

    Some “advanced thinkers” are of the opinion that any one who differs from the conventional opinion must be in the right. This is a delusion; if it were not, truth would be easier to come by than it is. There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths.

  • vjack

    Thanks for the review. This book has been on my to-read list for awhile, but I have not bought it yet. I think it sounds like something I would probably like.

  • Ebonmuse

    Yes, lpetrich, that was the book. I hadn’t read it before, although I have read Why I Am Not a Christian – I’ll definitely have to check out the whole thing now.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Is it actually portable? As in, can I carry it in a reasonably-sized coat pocket and wave it at the guy who keeps asking people to pray with him at the bus stop?

    I’m with Mr. Baerg on this one. Is it possible for someone to have hijacked theistscientist’s identity without his knowledge? Or should we just chalk it up to frustration, a couple of insomniac nights, etc.?

  • Ebonmuse

    It was a fairly hefty book, actually: about 450 pages, and I had the paperback edition. You could carry it under your arm, but it’s not going to fit in a coat pocket. I confess I was a little puzzled by the title; aren’t all books portable? Unless this was meant as a point of contrast to, say, a set of granite Ten Commandments tablets?

    As for theistscientist, if someone’s hijacked his identity, he didn’t try to contact me to tell me so. All the comments he left or tried to leave were from the same IP and displayed the same writing style – including the several dozen raving, obscene, scatological comments he unsuccessfully tried to post last night after I banned him. Quite possibly he’s suffering from emotional problems, but even if so, Daylight Atheism is not the place for him to work them out.

  • Ebonmuse

    Reading through the earlier comments, I can agree that Ayn Rand would have been another fitting author to include. I don’t much care for her philosophy myself, but if we’re thinking of the book as a listing of influential atheists, then she certainly deserves to be there. Not only would it have partially redressed the gender imbalance, it would have been a nice contrast to Karl Marx (who’s also in there, and for probably the same reason) demonstrating the diversity of atheist thought, and a good lesson to those who would stereotype us as all belonging to one political ideology.

    (Frankly, I thought Marx’s piece was one of the weaker ones in the book. It was the piece containing his famous “religion is the opiate of the masses” line, but other than that the rest of it is dense and jargon-heavy, and he seems so infatuated with his own cleverness that he never really gets around to making anything resembling a coherent argument.)

  • Blake Stacey

    As an experiment, just now I downloaded three atheist blog entries and put them into a LaTeX document file. I picked the first three which came to mind: PZ Myers’s “We stand awed at the heights our people have achieved”, Greta Christina’s “Atheists and Anger” and Russell Blackford’s “Fundamentalism”. With a little editing for consistency (punctuation, basically), they read like chapters in a book. So, who’s up for God and the Internet: An Anthology of Atheist Blogging?

  • LindaJoy

    Hi Ebonmuse- just a quick question in reference to the banning of theistscientist- do you have guidelines posted on this site? Thanks-

  • Ebonmuse

    Yes, please consult the comment policy which is linked to from each post.

  • LindaJoy

    Ebonmuse- thanks- I guess I never scrolled down far enough to see that comment policy link. I managed to be banned as a troll from Talk to Action by Frederick Clarkson by getting into theological conversations that didn’t seem to be bothering the other posters, but sure bothered Fred. I’m sure it is a fine line to walk in managing a site, but he was really nasty about it. Thanks for all you do….

  • bbk

    It’s definitely not very portable. My only thought is that the name was chosen as some sort of reverse psychology humor.

    I wouldn’t say it’s an introductory compendium or even an armamentarium. It’s more of an atheist pride piece, and it does a good job. The book is laid out more or less chronologically and it picks and chooses lesser known writers, lesser known pieces by well known writers, and unique perspectives from people who were influenced by atheistic thought. Reading it from front to back gave me an enriched sense of the broad history and intellectual tradition of atheism.

    Many of the selections were from authors that I’ve studied from grade school through college whose atheist writing was neatly avoided by the instructors. The classic example is Emma Goldman, who I’ve come across in a lit course, labour history course, even in a public speaking class. There would always be a focus on her anarchism, as irrelevant as that is to us today, but never a mention of her atheism. Same is true about Joseph Conrad, George Elliot and Mark Twain in high school. As for Conrad, I own a collection of his “complete works” but it did not include the commentary he wrote regarding The Shadow Line, which was included here. Even though it wasn’t some blockbuster refutation of god, I was thrilled to read him declaring his atheism,

    Yet another great piece was the one by Lucretius. Lucretius makes Plato sound like a rambling fool. It’s a wonder to me why some of the best philosophy departments in the US only mention Socrates in their introductory courses as if that’s the holy grave of ancient philosophy. Maybe Lucretius is too “modern” for an ancient philosophy course.

  • Ebonmuse

    No worries, Linda – I don’t ban people for debating, or for disagreeing with me. I banned theistscientist because he left the same comment in about half a dozen threads calling all atheists mass murderers, and when I deleted all but one of those for spamming, he then went back and started posting raving, obscene comments and threats in as many threads as he could. Suffice to say, that sort of thing will get you banned. Not much else will.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Uck. I’m glad I missed that.

    Lucretius makes Plato sound like a rambling fool.

    To be fair, that’s probably not a very difficult task. Even his contemporaries didn’t think much of Socrates/Plato’s intellectual prowess. (See Aristophanes’ “Clouds”, etc.)

  • Lynet

    Yeah, but Aristophanes was deliberately trying to make a ridiculous picture so as to make people laugh. I wouldn’t call opinions expressed in Greek comedy necessarily representative of broader opinion. Given that Aristotle’s status as one of Plato’s best pupils must have been instrumental in getting him a position tutoring the young Alexander the Great, I’d say Plato must have become pretty highly regarded by some.

  • DamienSansBlog

    To my everlasting shame, I’m not very boned up on Macedonian pedagogical politics. Was Aristotle selected for Alexander on his own merits, or on Plato’s fame?

  • bbk

    I don’t feel qualified to have even prompted this sidebar discussion. But, when I read Aristotle he sounded so derivative of Plato that I quickly knew I wouldn’t be interested in delving into his stuff too deeply. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say Aristotle is a good indicator that Platonic views were popular among the upper class. What I’ve always wondered is what part of society would have been more inclined towards the atomist view.

  • 8thwonder

    There is an issue for Atheists that this and the other books and blogs (by and for Atheists seem to ignore: ATHEISTS (however defined) ARE THE MOST ABUSED, MOST MALIGNED AND LEAST POLITICALLY ACCEPTABLE MINORITY GROUP IN AMERICA!

    A very informal survey of my friends and acquaintances indicated that most of them would prefer to live next-door t a registered sex-offender, child molester or islamo- terrorist than an avowed atheist.

    As ATHEISTS, we are socially and politically ostracized. We have no protection under any federal or local anti-discrimination laws, no right to tax-exemptions, no recognizable identity or symbol of unity.

    We exist as a bunch of splinter groups, with different motives, agendas and targets.
    We rant, rave, argue, debate, discuss, beg, plead and cajole to be heard in a society which views us little better than rats or termites, seeking to destroy their social and religious cultures.

    Until we settle our own differences, unify under an identifiable banner, speak authoritatively with a strong and purposeful voice, and replace our rancor with reason, we will get nothing except scorn and go nowhere outside our own small circles.


  • Betty Opinante

    As an evolving athiest who was imprinted with religion in parochial schools I understand my past feelings of awe and reverance connected with faith. Since my early twenties I questioned aspects of faith, dogma and belief in God but I remain an closet athiest, reluctant to give up my faith community and the connectedness I find in people and customs from childhood.
    Nonetheless I live between two worlds and can’t return to my former self although I understand that my faith once lost, for me can’t be resurrected.
    I read all the modern athiests I have learned about and I do wish they were not so strident in their nonbelief as people of faith are about their beliefs. It does not serve people such as Hitchens and Harris to stoop to the attack levels they decry in believers.