The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, selected and introduced by Christopher Hitchens (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6) xxvi + 499 pp. Paper $17.50.
Voltaire, who does not appear in The Portable Atheist, remarked that revolutions are made of pocketbooks. This reasonably hefty volume will fit into few pockets and will appeal most to those who already think straight and need no inspiration to revolution. I think it unlikely that supernaturalists will bother to turn to its pages to see what sensible people have thought through the ages. The ages in question are the last two thousand years or so (we have to hope that they are not the last, of course), beginning with the urbane Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century b.c.e. and ending with the courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali in our current century. Lucretius is a distant outpost; most of the entries are from the Enlightenment to the present day.
The learned and erudite Christopher Hitchens was confronted with a huge task, for he sometimes had to unearth covert writings and assemble them in sequence. Few would, I suspect, argue with most of his choices, ranging as they do across the ages, the political and social spectra, and the varieties of scholarship. Each of us could probably think of others who might have been included, but it is his book, not ours.
Each of the forty-seven extracts, which range in length from little more than a page (that other Blair, George Orwell, is represented by less than a page with a brief extract from A Clergyman’s Daughter) to many tens of pages (the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq gives us sixty pages of fascinating analysis of the Qur’an), is introduced by a short, contextual paragraph. Here, I did feel that I was not always getting value for my money: Hitchens is often very brief and sometimes offhand with his introductions, having apparently spent his powder in a lengthy and engaging introduction; but perhaps he thought we are sufficiently well educated to make up our own minds.
Hitchens, like me, would no doubt be mightily surprised if he found himself in the company of his selected authors when in due course he passes over and wakes up in Heaven. No doubt all friendships fail in an eternity of blissful co-nonexistence, but I suspect that he, like me, would enjoy the company of some of his authors more than others. Karl Marx, I suspect from his writing (represented here by a contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) would be an utter bore best avoided at dinner, and Thomas Hobbes (represented by a scrap of Leviathan) would not be the lightest of companions. There would, I think, be the surprising presence of John Betjemen to leaven the company on his brief visits from the Established Church and in particular his jolly satire from In Westminster Abbey: “But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be, / Don’t let anyone bomb me.”
After Marx, George Eliot (on evangelical teaching, an attack with resonances for our own day) is a light relief, although perhaps just a little intellectually overbearing for a whole eternity of dinners.
Pellucidity of writing increases with the ages even if rationality in general does not, and modern writers have the edge when it comes to agreeable literary companionship. Thus we shall find at our perpetual dinner parties Daniel Dennett, of course, who is represented by a double helping of lucid prose (with extracts from two sources, one on his near encounter with death in a recent surgical episode, which did not compel him into a self-seeking pact with God, and one an extract from Breaking the Spell). There is also the ever-lucid and perceptive Richard Dawkins, with a feast of three contributions, including, expectedly and appropriately, one from The God Delusion).
Hitchens has selected his authors from both the humanities and the sciences. Inevitably, because of the span of ages represented here, the former outnumber the latter, for scientists have only quite recently realized that they have an obligation to speak aloud about the true nature of the world as the ultimate rationalists. Even Lucretius, in writing “Nevertheless there are some, unaware of the fixed laws of matter, / Who think that Nature cannot, without supernatural power, / Thus nicely fit to manners of men the sequence of seasons . . . ,” though an early beacon of rationality, was not a scientist in the modern sense. The earliest of the true scientists who appear in this volume is that once-aspirant priest Charles Darwin, with an extract from his autobiography wherein he explicitly departs, while remaining sensitive to (or perhaps just plain overawed by) his religious wife, from his earlier culturally conditioned belief and expresses what most of us must think: “Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists.”
That other founder of our current scientific worldview, Albert Einstein, also has his say. There are those among the general population of believers who gloat over statements that at a superficial level seem to show that great thinkers add their support to religious belief, and many point to Einstein as at least a dithering believer. Hitchens is rightly stern in his dismissal of the Einstein-as-Believer theory and begins his series of extracts from a variety of letters with the unequivocal: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
It is gems like this that render this portable reader so potable. I have already mentioned Dawkins. Another scientist represented here is that extender of some of Einstein’s contributions and maintainer of his attitudes, Steven Weinberg, with an extract from Dreams of a Final Theory that alludes to his well-known remark that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” On the edge of the scientific lies Michael Shermer’s ever-piquant contributions to skepticism, and it is quite proper that he is represented by one of the funniest entries, his scientific revision of the Genesis story. I must also mention Sam Harris, that vigorous and seemingly fearless wielder of the rationalist’s scimitar, who is represented by an extract from his book The End of Faith. How gratifying it is that scientists now have the courage and inclination to add their voice to the dissemination of reason.
Bertrand Russell is represented not by the obvious Why I Am Not a Christian but by his engaging essay An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, which though written over sixty years ago, should be declaimed from the pulpits, rostra, and minarets of the world. Some of the contributors have suffered, or at least have had to take evasive action in face of the terror applied by the faithful—driven as they are, they claim, by love—in order that they might evade premature death. I have already mentioned the lengthy and gloriously scholarly extract of Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim and his need to hide his identity from those who claim to be inspired by the love of God. Salman Rushdie is another who was hunted by the officially sanctioned and encouraged myrmidons of Allah, represented here happily not by the largely unreadable (or so I found) The Satanic Verses but by his contribution to the United Nations-sponsored anthology addressed to the six-billionth human child expected to be born that year (1997), which he has revised for this volume. Most moving of all, th
ough, must be the fitting culmination of this volume, the essay written especially for it by Ayaan Hirsi Ali on her decision to say farewell to gods. It is a fitting farewell to the dangerously misguided, powerful, hypocritical, mendacious fools who underpin the thoughts that inspired the contributions to this volume.
Overall, I am pleased to have this anthology at my elbow, for it has opened my eyes to many lesser-known writers and to the lesser-known writings of the better known. But I am left with a sense of sadness. If people have thought like this off and on for two thousand years, why has the infection of superstitious belief survived for so long? Can these current green shoots of truth and reason now grow into sturdy plants, or will these thoughts forever flicker like candles in the general gloom?