“The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever” Edited by Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2008)

Portable Atheiststarstarstarstar

Christopher Hitchens has made quite a name for himself with his National Book Award nominated book, God is Not Great, and before the paperback edition is even out, Hitchens returns with an edited collection of “essential readings for the nonbeliever.”  The Portable Atheist may not necessarily be that “portable,” as it is a thick and oversized paperback; but is nevertheless a unique collection of Atheist writings taken from the history of the written word.

The collection begins with a lengthy introduction from Hitchens as he waxes rhapsodic about the growth of Atheism as a belief, the futility of religion, and how it has caused more harm than good.  The first piece comes from Titus Lucretius Carus in his De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things), a Roman philosopher who lived in the first century BCE.  Lucretius discusses the theory of atoms and how everything is composed of these minute building blocks; an everyday fact of life now, but something that was laughed at and mocked for much of history.  In the brief passage, Lucretius speaks of devastating storms and catastrophic events not attributable to the gods, but of something quite natural and ordinary; he even hints that there is no afterlife.  Mark Twain, a staunch evolutionist and ever a satirist of religious faith has this to say: “Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.”

Emma Goldman, a Russian-born anarchist who became a champion of civil liberties and labor rights in the United States, who was deported to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, was a strong voice in the early Atheist movement: “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”  H. L. Mencken who worked against religious fundamentalists trying to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and was made famous for his accounts of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925, in this amusing piece asks: “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?”  For the numberless amount of gods throughout the history of humanity haven’t survived – some completely forgotten, others barely recollected – and his final almost solemn comment is: “All are dead.”  Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame offers an insightful piece about being certain in his Atheist beliefs and how it is important to use the time we have now and not to waste time on thinking about the afterlife: “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

The renowned Atheist proponents are all featured in The Portable Atheist: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett; as are authors like H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and John Updike; so are poets such as Percy Blysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin; as well as scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan.  It is a fascinating and captivating collection of Atheist writings that one can simply pick up at any point, wherever one may be, and pick a reading of their choosing – whatever length or format they wish.

The final piece is from bestselling author of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who “escaped” Islam and its oppressive faith; she offers up this sobering outlook: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is Atheism.  It is not a creed.  Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell.  Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love.  There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

God Delusionstarstarstarstarstar

Dawkins latest book is as brutal and honest as its title.  For those who aren’t looking to have their faith and beliefs gravely challenged, you may want to skip this book.  However, Dawkins is looking for everyone to read this book with an open mind, whether you’re devoutly religious, agnostic or atheist.  Having an open mind is actually one of the New Ten Commandments Dawkins cites.

The book begins in a calm and orderly manner, with an opening chapter on the “god hypothesis,” where Dawkins talks about the idea of a god through history and how we are now in a time where medicine and science have come such a long way from the days of thinking the world is flat, balancing the humors, and believing there was a demon or god causing  every catastrophe.  And yet religion – especially Christianity – remains stagnated in the ideas of men from thousands of years ago.  As the book progresses, Dawkins seems to grow more impatient with religion and its wholehearted certainty in a book and a god.

He does an impressive job of going from chapter to chapter in defending different stances on science, always providing the evidence – a facet, he says, religion is lacking. One point Dawkins makes that I really found fascinating was his evolutionary reason for the existence of religion, in that it was a component of our very early societies in helping to unite communities and keep them together as a whole. As human beings, we strive for companionship and the evidence speaks for itself when we look back to the time when there was a shift from the nomadic hunting and gathering societies to settling down in groups and communities, which started farming, large scale food production, and ultimately leading to technology, writing, law, art and so on.

After this, Dawkins tackles the question of morality and makes it a very big deal that everyone understand we keep this separate from religion and not think them one and the same. The Bible is full of murder, rape, fratricide, torture – for a book on teaching us how to lead supposedly “good” lives, this book has a very strange way of trying to do that, says Dawkins. So he goes back into our ancestry to the days of Cro-Magnon, in the time when all humanity cared about was trying to survive. He posits that this was when we began to develop a sense of morality, because in being good to others, families and groups were formed, which helped improve survival. If we’d stuck to stealing and killing, we wouldn’t have lasted past that first winter.

Another big issue with Dawkins is the labeling of children as belonging to the religion of the parents without any consent from them: they’re Protestant children, or Muslim children, or Jewish children; even though in all likelihood they are far too young to comprehend what this applied label means. These children of heavily religious and fundamental families don’t have a choice.   One of the most horrific things I learned about in The God Delusion are the so-called “Hell Houses,” where children – ideally twelve year olds, because this is the perfect age for indoctrination – are taken through a labyrinth of horror revealing the terrible sins of sex before marriage, homosexuality, and abortion, and what happens in hell if one were to commit any of them.  A cast of actors rehearse these scenes to create the greatest sense of terror in the children – yes, there’s even a tall and scary looking man playing the part of Satan.

At the beginning of the book, one can sense that Dawkins is open to accepting the existence of religion, so long as it gets modernized and becomes part of the twenty-first century.  However, by the end of the book, Dawkins is fuming over the many pitfalls and handicaps of religion, especially where it causes pain and suffering to others.  While the author’s hope is to make everyone agree with his ideas and opinions, Dawkins at least wants people to think about what he is talking about, to make people contemplate these ideas with the evidence, and then to make an informed decision on their beliefs.  The existence of a god cannot be proved or disproved, Dawkins says, but the chances seem very likely that there isn’t one.  He gives an example of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which while most of the world thinks little more than a joke; if rumors of the Flying Spaghetti Monster had started thousands of years ago, might some of us be believing in this pasta god today?

While Dawkins didn’t set out to enrage people, with the title and content of this book, it was inevitable.  Yet, I think some compliment is deserved for both Dawkins and the publisher in having the courage to put this book on the shelves, and since it’s publication, The God Delusion has spent many weeks on top ten lists across the country which, if anything, says a lot about people beliefs in this country at this time.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 21st 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.