(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: A scholarly survey of the atheism of dead white guys.
Much like Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, Dr. Michael Palmer’s The Atheist’s Creed is intended as an anthology of atheist thought from historical to modern times. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Palmer traces the development of atheist thought to the European Enlightenment, then branches out into selections by historical and modern writers that explore atheist views on morality, theodicy, miracle claims, and assorted theological arguments for the existence of God. In each chapter, he provides a brief overview of the subject matter, then goes on to quote extended excerpts from the writing of various historical personages on that topic. Not all of the authors showcased here claimed to be atheists themselves; but the ones who didn’t, like Thomas Paine and David Hume, made important arguments that laid the path for later freethinkers to follow.
I’ll start with what I liked about the book, which is that Palmer is clearly in full command of his subject material. The earlier chapters, in my opinion, were the strongest. His chapter on the Greek philosophers, like Epicurus, Lucretius and Sextus Empiricus, was excellent: he shows where their views sprang from, how they defended them to contemporaries, and recounts some interesting historical facts I hadn’t known. I can offer similar praise for his chapter on the Enlightenment philosophers, which shows how these freethinkers were surprisingly bold and daring in an era still dominated by medieval church hierarchies. (This book gave me a desire to read more about the Baron d’Holbach, who fearlessly claimed the title of “atheist” for himself and who nurtured many other renowned freethinkers at his famous salons. It may have been the only time in history that so many remarkable minds were under one roof!)
With all that said, I have two major criticisms to lodge against this book: one that’s about what’s not there, and one that’s about what is. I’ll start with the latter.
First: The later chapters of the book, which concern atheism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, give pride of place to the writings of Freud, Marx, and especially Nietzsche. While Palmer praises all three of them effusively, he fails to note clearly that subsequent science has thrown all their signature ideas into grave doubt: Freud’s belief in suppressed sex drives as the cause of all psychological illness, Marx’s belief in the inevitability and the desirability of communist triumph, and Nietzsche’s ideas of eternal recurrence and opposition to evolution. None of these people command much respect among the modern atheist movement for that very reason – not to mention the near-universal modern rejection of Nietzsche’s bizarre and disturbing nihilism. It’s here that the book’s uncertainty of purpose is most apparent: is it intended as an anthology of historical atheism or a compendium of things that modern atheists do believe or should believe? Its overall organization suggests the latter, not the former, which is why I think all three of these were poor choices.
Now, I don’t have a bright-line rule for this kind of thing. I don’t insist that every anthology contain set percentages of women and minorities. But in a book like this one, one that’s intended to contain a representative selection of atheist thought through the ages, how is it possible that not a single woman was included? Not a single person from outside Europe and the United States?
I don’t think anyone would argue that there are no prominent atheists who fit that description. There are plenty of smart, eloquent female freethinkers, both then and now; there are nonbelievers from all cultures and continents. The only way to account for their otherwise inexplicable exclusion from this book is the sort of unconscious bias that the atheist movement still has to do a lot of work to overcome. Female freethinkers and atheists of color exist; their contributions are real and should be acknowledged, and their history deserves to be better known. Regrettably, this book doesn’t advance either of those aims.