“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.”

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

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.