Book Review: The Atheist’s Creed

(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.

Second: I really have to point out that, of the twenty-seven anthologized essays that fill out this book, every single one of them was written by a white male of European descent. I criticized The Portable Atheist for not including nearly enough women, but it’s a parade of diversity compared to the selections here.

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.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    Beginning with the ancient Greeks,…

    What, no Carvaka coverage? That would have both extended the chronology and enlarged the ethnic scope.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, maybe, as a companion to this book (or others like it), someone could compile an anthology that only contains writings by women and people of other ethnicities. In other words, a book about whether or not there were atheists in the groups that were left by the wayside, and what these atheists had to say.

    I would love to hear about atheists in India and China centuries ago, and even more so about atheists in Africa, that were not directly and strongly influenced by European settlers: I would love to hear about the Chinese person who believed that the ancestors their neighbours revered are dead and no longer with us, or the Indian person who believed that the dead do not reincarnate, and that the caste system is thus just a matter of luck, or the member of the Zulu tribe who believed that there is not basis (other than human whim) to the chieftain’s claim that he was selected by the gods to lead the tribe.

    If these people ever did exist, I’m sure their perspectives would seem very alien to us, even while being in parts quite familiar, and that would be quite a reading experience.

    If I am talking through my hat, and I think I well may, please feel free to correct me.

  • jim coufal

    The reviewer seems to equate “freethinker” with “atheist.” In American society, and probably in much of the world, I think one has to be a freethinker to be an atheist. But can one be a freethinker without being an atheist?

    There certainly are and have been many great women freethinkers and atheists and they should be included in such anthologies.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Sure, one can be a freethinker without being an atheist; however, it doesn’t strike me as being germane, given the title of the book under review.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Obviously I don’t know how the book portrays Nietzsche, since I haven’t read it, but your characterization isn’t really correct, Ebon. That’s not a surprise though, given that most of what has been written about Nietzsche, and as a result what is thought about him in society at large, is far from the mark. Scholars like Brian Leiter, Maudemarie Clark, and Bernard Reginster, just to name a few influential ones, interpret Nietzsche far differently (and more accurately) than most of what was written about Nietzsche until, say, the past 20 years.

    Regarding the eternal recurrence, nowhere in his work does Nietzsche actually claim that it is metaphysically true. Such theorizing would violate all of Nietzsche’s commitments. Rather, think of the eternal recurrence as a thought experiment about whether one is and could be satisfied with one’s life as one has constructed it. The idea, as I understand it, is if the thought of the eternal recurrence of all events horrifies you, you need to change how you live and think so as to develop amor fati – love of fate. Only if you can affirm every moment can you really be thought to have said “Yes!” to life – which is what Nietzsche was really all about: combatting nihilism and the denial of life by Christianity.

  • Brock

    One small quibble. Lucretius was a Roman, not a Greek, and wrote in Latin.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’ll take your word for it, Mat, if that’s what Nietzsche was getting at with his talk of eternal recurrence. However, I still take issue with his moral nihilism. In one of Palmer’s excerpts, he calls things like compassion and kindliness the “slave virtues”, invented by the powerless to elevate their lack of power into moral virtue, and advocates some kind of social-Darwinism worldview where the strong will dominate the weak.

    I don’t think this is at all a good model for atheists to follow. Palmer does complain that Nietzsche doesn’t get much mention in the works of the New Atheists – but he seems oblivious as to why this is.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Yes, Nietzsche is most decidedly NOT an egalitarian, or a fan of democracy, one of the defining views of so-called “New Atheists” as well as Enlightenment values. I don’t look to him for moral guidance, but I do think his prose is extraordinary, and his commitment to naturalistic, especially psychological, explanation is laudable. Many of his ideas regarding what motivates us, individually and socially, are insightful, I think – worth pondering at the least.

  • Rowen

    I’d like to preface this with that I’m seriously asking this question. (I’ve been doing some google searches, and haven’t had much luck. Well, at least I have to be REALLY broad before I start to get results.)

    If we’re gonna lambaste this book for not having historical female/minority atheists, can we provide some examples of some? I know, and read of some modern ones, but it seems like the critique isn’t about just the modern freethinkers.

    I’ve often wondered if what’s perceived as not being inclusive (when we talk about history) is some people being unaware of the bias history has. For exampl

  • The Vile Scribbler

    However, I still take issue with his moral nihilism. In one of Palmer’s excerpts, he calls things like compassion and kindliness the “slave virtues”, invented by the powerless to elevate their lack of power into moral virtue, and advocates some kind of social-Darwinism worldview where the strong will dominate the weak.

    I’m really surprised to see this here. The idea of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi social Darwinist has been repeatedly debunked since Walter Kaufmann, at least. Solomon and Higgins recently wrote a very straightforward book almost entirely devoted to addressing the misconceptions about him.