Book Review: The Portable Atheist

[Originally posted January 1, 2008 at]

Christopher Hitchens seems to revel in his role as the Bad Boy of Unbelievers. With books like The Missionary Position (a scathing criticism of the late and soon-to-be-canonized Mother Teresa) and his recent bestseller God Is Not Great, Hitchens tweaks the conservative establishment, and he’s not afraid to engage in public debate with such right-wing luminaries as Dinesh D’Souza and the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue. But his “pro” positions on the War in Iraq and the War on Terror have led to accusations from his atheistic (and overwhelmingly leftist) fellow travelers that “Hitch” is a thinly veiled neo-con. 

So intriguing is the personality of Christopher Hitchens that often the messenger seems to overwhelm the message. (What to make, for example, of his alternatively self-effacing and self-aggrandizing two-part “make-over” featured in Vanity Fair?) It is interesting, then, to learn that with his latest project, Hitchens takes a step back and allows his skeptical predecessors and peers to take center stage.

In The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, Hitchens has selected a wide range of writings stretching back to antiquity and leading all the way to the present with never-before-published works. He begins with excerpts from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC), which derided religious piety and revived the works of ancient Greek philosophers like Epicurus, who first posited the atomic theory of matter. Hitchens then leaps forward a millennium with verses from the Persian poet/philosopher/scientist Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), who might best be described as an Islamic agnostic:

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far;
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

Antiquity is left far behind with a second leap, this time to Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) and his chapter on religion from his classic Leviathan. From there Hitchens hits most of the expected voices from the past: Spinoza, Hume, Darwin, Twain, Freud, Mencken, Einstein, Russell and Sagan. Among the unexpected delights are Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism”) and H.P. Lovecraft (“A Letter on Religion”).

The voices of the living fill roughly the last half of the book, with contributions (mostly reprinted, but some new) from a veritable who’s who of atheism, including: Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Muslim apostates Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Magician/skeptic Penn Jillette offers his brief but entertaining “There Is No God” (which was originally aired as part of National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series, although Hitchens seems unaware of this in his introduction). Victor Stenger offers a fascinating but altogether puzzling explanation to “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” by saying head-scratching things like “Since ‘nothing’ is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable.” 

Hitchens is left with the unenviable task of deciding whom to include and whom to leave out; nonetheless two individuals stand out by virtue of their omission: Ayn Rand, founder of Objectivism and author of the influential (and still controversial) novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; and Julia Sweeney, the comedienne/monologist whose one-woman-show Letting Go of God is a powerful, emotional account of how one’s reason can triumph without sacrificing one’s humanity.

With a word like “portable” in the title, one would expect a book that is compact and succinct. The Portable Atheist isn’t exactly a bug-crusher or a doorstop, but it is a 500-page chunk of trade paperback. As shudder-inducing as the suggestion might be, Hitchens easily could have dropped the pre-Enlightenment entries and trimmed the remainder down to the most essential of the essentials. For example, this anthology could have done without the Updike excerpt and about half of the sampling of Ibn Warraq. A 250-page digest concentrating on the post-Darwinian era would have been ideal.

Despite the seeming contradiction between title and tome, The Portable Atheist is an intellectually stimulating collection, an excellent resource for the active skeptic, and a welcome continuance to the ongoing conversation (or is it an argument?) between faith and skepticism.

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