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

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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.”

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

“The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Compté-Sponville, Translated by Nancy Huston (Viking, 2007)

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We are living in a time when Atheism is becoming an increasingly popular belief system for many people around the world.   While the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are looking to expose religions for their apparent hypocrisy and cause of violence and many of the world’s problems; the renowned French philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, author of A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, seeks to educate people about a less antagonistic form of Atheism which he refers to as an Atheist spirituality.

André Comte-Sponville has very little in common with Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris, for he is not out to challenge people’s beliefs and make them convert to reality and science.  He respects everyone’s religion and/or beliefs, for they are always entitled to them.  He just believes, like many of us, that all the religions of today are simply not true.  However,  the ideas of being a good person in a lot of the world’s religions are to be admired and used.

The book is split into three parts, and in the first, “Can We Do Without Religion?,” he dispels the idea that religious people are often a proponent of the idea that morality cannot exist without religion; Comte-Sponville takes his time in explaining that this is simply not true.  While it is possible to be without religion, there are three key elements that exist in religion, and that we as human beings also have instilled within us: communion, fidelity, and love.

Comte-Sponville says that “it is possible to commune with something other than the divine and the sacred” and that “no society can dispense for any length of time without communion.”  As people in this world, we simply need to be around and with other people, it is what makes us human, and what makes our civilization exist, but also run relatively smoothly.  No religion is necessary here, but the communion with other people is key, to exist in this world.

With regards to fidelity, Comte-Sponville says, “Fidelity is what remains when faith has been lost.”  This is where our “moral, cultural, and spiritual” values come from as people of this world.  The automatic and common sense understanding of what is good or bad, right or wrong; to feel bad when causing someone (be it another person or another animal) pain and discomfort makes one feel bad also.  While these important values of society are often part of the foundation of religions and have so been instilled in us, the religion is not required.

I don’t believe in God or anything akin to a supernatural deity, but I know that stealing and causing pain to others is wrong, and would make me feel bad whether I want it to or not.

“Love is more precious than hope or despair,” Comte-Sponville says, as he discusses how most religions seem to have a driving hope for the future, for something to happen, for one to eventually die and ascend to heaven, or whatever the afterlife beliefs may be, and this is often coupled with a requirement to do certain things in this life to a creed written in a book long ago.  But then why is the saying “you only live once” also so true and often used?  We are people, we are alive now, and this our life, existing right now.  It’s not about what happened before, or what is going to happen; these cannot be changed and affected; the now is all we can control.  The love is for humanity as a whole, to love each other coupled with communion and fidelity, to marvel at how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished.

Comte-Sponville ends this section with: “Is there life after death? No one can say.  Most Christians believe there is.  I do not.  There is life before death, however.  On that much we can agree, at least!”

In the second part, “Does God Exist?,” Comte-Sponville discusses this with three arguments that led him not to believe in God:

1) The weakness of the so-called proofs of God’s existence,

2) If God existed, he should be easier to see or sense,

3) His refusal to explain the supposed existence of God by the Bible and automatic faith, which he understands even less.

The other three arguments which led him to believe that God does not exist are:

1) The existence and enormity of evil in the world,

2) “The mediocrity of mankind,”

3) That God seems to fulfill our dreams and wishes to such at degree that it seems apparent he was created to fulfill them in every way; “this makes religion an illusion in the Freudian sense of the term.”

While Comte-Sponville does say that the above reasons do not completely rule out the possibility of God’s existence, there has yet to be anything beyond the parameters of the reasons mentioned above, best summed up with: “Religion is a right, and so is irreligion.”

In the final part, “Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?,” Comte-Sponville discusses a spirituality separate from beliefs, faith, or religion.

It was here I was shocked to discover something I’d been doing for most of my life.

Atheist spirituality, for Comte-Sponville, is a love, respect, and appreciation for the world and the universe in its completeness, infinity, and entirety.  He best illustrates this in a specific moment in his life when he was out camping with some friends and while walking a trail at night, he stopped momentarily, looked up, and studied the many millions of stars in the infinite black universe; coupled with this was the communing with nature in the forest, and for a moment he experienced a sense of euphoria and complete happiness; an ecstatic joy that he had never felt before.

Having spent many moments of my life in similar ways, whether it be studying the magnificent night sky, or appreciating a collection of beautiful clouds on a sky-blue day, or admiring the tessellation of colors on the trees, leaves, and sky background.  It makes one stop and realize the incredible complexity of reality and all the millions of details that have been seemingly miraculously (though that can be explained by science) brought together to produce something so breathtaking.

There are similar ideas in the Buddhist and some of the eastern religions.  Comte-Sponville says that a similar experience can be received from a particularly moving piece of music, and in this way – coupled with the communion, fidelity, and love – one once again marvels at the incredibility of humanity.

André Comte-Sponville does not seek to convert those of religious belief, or to turn Atheists against those beliefs and people.  Everyone is entitled to believe what they want; what we have to respect is the right to this, and that it is our choice as human beings, and not our choice to tell others what to believe.  Comte-Sponville tells a story about a lecture he was giving once on godless spirituality and afterward was approached by a Catholic priest who came to thank him and tell him that he’d very much enjoyed his lecture.  Comte-Sponville’s response was, “‘Surely you can’t agree when I say I don’t believe in God or the immortality of the soul!,’”  where the priest responds with, “‘Oh . . . those are just secondary matters!’”

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

Originally written on February 9th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens (Hachette, 2007)

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Christopher Hitchens has spent some time in journalism: a book reviewer for the Times, a staff writer for the New Statesman, chief foreign correspondent for the Daily Express, a regular columnist for the Nation, and a regular writer for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly.  As a foreign correspondent and travel writer, he has written from more than sixty different countries.  He is also the author of such books as Letters to a Young Contrarian and Why Orwell Matters.  Hitchens now takes on a subject of growing discussion and debate in a time when the number of atheists in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, is apparently growing either because they are abandoning all religion or they are simply “coming out” and admitting to their atheist beliefs.  A short time ago “atheist” was a hated label for one to admit to having, but now with a slew of atheist and anti-religious books, including Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion, Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, to name a few, with no doubt many more to be published; Hitchens addresses a subject that is slowly creeping into mainstream media (Dawkins made Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People list this year) and becoming a commonplace conversation in many households across the country.

What I find quite uncanny, having read most of the books mentioned above, is how each author avoids covering the same examples and details when discussing the same subject matter.  The authors find new and different ways of exposing the futility of religion and pushing forth their atheist beliefs.  Hitchens joins the ranks here in presenting a new side to a growing subject matter.  What makes God is Not Great different is that while many of the other books calling for the end of religion gloss over the different faiths of the world, they ultimately focus on Christianity, being the largest and most visible faith in this country; Hitchens doesn’t hold back and has chapters not just on Christianity and its various denominations, but also extensively attacks the Muslim religion and its denominations, Buddhism, Mormonism, as well as small religious sects around the world such as Shintoism and Jainism.

Hitchens puts his journalistic background to good use here in citing many different examples of how each religion causes more pain and suffering than good.  In most cases, these are examples that feature situations that Hitchens was either involved in or learned about it while in that specific country.  He best illustrates this in the second chapter of the book when he talks about serving on a panel with Dennis Prager – one of America’s notorious religious broadcasters – who challenged him to responding yes or no to a simple question: Hitchens was to imagine himself in a strange city one evening whereupon he saw a group of men coming towards him; the question is would he feel safer or less safe if he was to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting?  Hitchens then spends the next five pages explaining specific situations from a list of places simply beginning with the letter “B”: Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad.  In each city, he gives examples of why he would not feel safe, and in so doing covers the world’s major religions.

Daniel Lazare of the Nation in the May 28th issue in the article “Among the Disbelievers” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070528/lazare) discussed the different atheist and anti-religious books mentioned above.  Lazare’s problem with all these books is that when religion is done away with, there is nothing but an “empty vessel” to fill the vacuum.  The point needs to be made here for all these authors who wish to see religion become less prominent and less powerful, and to be made clear to Lazare, which is this: the Dawkins, Dennetts, Hitchens, and Harris of the world don’t need something to fill the absence of religion.  With science and empirical evidence, they have all the answers they need, and when a new scientific theory comes along with evidence to cancel out the old theory, then it is replaced, and science changes.  The point that Hitchens repeatedly makes is that one big problem with religion is it being based on beliefs and ideas that were made and written down long ago, in some cases over thousands of years ago, when the world was an ignorant and very different place with very few true answers to everything.  In the year 2007, it seems inconceivable that so many people in the world have complete and unquestionable belief in ideas and thoughts that were made in a time when thunderstorms and earthquakes could not be scientifically explained.

Hitchens ends God is Not Great with this ominous statement: “We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.  ‘Know yourself,’ said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy.  To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”

AUDIOBOOK VERSION: In some ways, the audiobook version of God is Not Great can be considered the superlative version by some.  Christopher Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, is originally British, who moved to the United States in 1981; nevertheless as all proud English do, his accent is still strong, his lip still “stiff and upper.”  So when one listens to the thoughts and ideas, the hopes and dreams from Hitchens with his own words, the power and empathy comes across the speakers or headphones and one is hypnotized in some ways with the calm voice speaking clearly and intellectually about the state of religion in the current world.  At the end of each chapter and section, there is a small string piece to perhaps clear one’s thoughts or to give one time to contemplate on what they have just been told.  When the author is the reader of their own audiobook, one should also seek out that version and in that way they get the most out of the book.

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

Originally written on June 9th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

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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.