Of Fright and Freethought

S.T. Joshi is a prolific author and critic credited with almost single-handedly bringing H.P. Lovecraft, once denigrated as a mere pulp writer, into the literary mainstream and winning him recognition as the father of modern horror fiction. Joshi’s restored original texts are available from Arkham House as well as in a series of annotated collections of Lovecraft’s work from Penguin. Later, Joshi widened his scholarly scope to deal with the work of Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machem, M.R. James, and the weird-fiction genre as a whole. In the past decade or so, sensing there were yet more worlds to conquer, Joshi has become a leading freethought author as well. His major books include H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, The Weird Tale, God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, H.L. Mencken on Religion, and The Agnostic Reader.

This interview is condensed from one originally conducted by Robert M. Price, a Center for Inquiry Institute research fellow, and broadcast on Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry. To hear the interview in its entirety, please visit www.pointofinquiry.org.

Robert Price: Were you an atheist before you read H.P. Lovecraft, or was it his arguments that convinced you?

S.T. Joshi: I was a sort of a passive atheist before reading Lovecraft, specifically his letters, where most of his atheist writing occurred. I grew up without any religious training whatsoever. My family came here from India when I was five years old. My father called himself a secular Hindu. He did not want his children, my two sisters and myself, to be indoctrinated into any religion, even Hinduism. We were not dissuaded from believing in any religion: we were simply allowed to make up our own minds on the issue.

I remember a couple of books in my family library, elementary introductions to religion of various sorts. I briefly browsed through these, and they all struck me as preposterous. It was really only when I read Lovecraft’s letters that I thought, wow, atheism seems to be the thing.

Price: Lovecraft called himself a materialist, a rationalist, et cetera, but did he ever call himself a humanist, in the sense of secular humanism?

Joshi: I don’t think so. Lovecraft evolved this idea of cosmic indifferentism—the idea that the universe doesn’t care a whit about the human race or anything on this planet. We are simply insignificant insects lost in the vortices of space and time. Now to say that doesn’t mean that human beings can’t care about each other, and so when he’s talking about ethical, political, or sociological matters, he said, yes, human beings are obviously important to themselves, and here are certain things we can do to make life on this Earth better. But I don’t ever recall Lovecraft specifically declaring a humanist stance in that straightforward way.

Price: How would you summarize this cosmicism, this philosophy that underlies Lovecraft’s horror stories?

Joshi: What Lovecraft is saying in the horror tales is that we are indeed ants dancing on a grain of sand, to use Voltaire’s metaphor back in the eighteenth century. These cosmic entities that by some strange chance descend upon Earth are really symbols for the inscrutability of the universe. The fact that a scientific rationalist could still maintain that the universe is inscrutable is of some interest. Lovecraft was aware that even though science and human knowledge had progressed to a certain degree, we really hadn’t gotten very far. So that what Lovecraft wanted to express in his fiction was human fragility in the face of vast vortices of space and time.

Price: Lovecraft, of course, notoriously was something of a racist. Should that matter to modern readers?

Joshi: It really is the worst black mark on Lovecraft’s character. In my judgment, it’s an intellectual failing more than a moral failing for him because he was living in an age when the intellectual pillars of racism were being systematically knocked down by biologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, and he simply didn’t listen to that evidence. It was the one area of his thought where he was not open to new evidence, and that astounds me. At the same time, I think the racist element of his thought is logically separable from the rest of his thought, particularly his atheism. So to that degree, we can simply segregate it and say, well, this is an unfortunate aspect of his thinking, it’s too bad, but many other aspects of his thought remain valuable in spite of that.

Price: What do you think about the New Atheist writers—Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens? What do think of their work and their approach?

Joshi: I have high respect for all of them, although I think there are some small problems or fallacies in all of their writings. And I for one applaud their militant atheism. I think we really need much more of that. Religious thinkers and religion in general have had an easy ride for many centuries.

But the problem with militant atheism is, what effectiveness does it really have? There is the tendency to preach to your own choir, and there’s a doubt that you’re reaching those who are still sitting on the fence, let alone those who are already convinced of their religious views. Nevertheless, my own combativeness leads me to applaud their ventures.

Price: Do you think there’s really anything more to say on atheism? Or are we beating a dead centaur?

Joshi: I’m afraid the arguments that even people like Dawkins and Hitchens have uttered are pretty much the same as Bertrand Russell was saying half a century ago or Lovecraft was saying longer ago than that, or that Thomas Henry Huxley was saying a century and a half ago. The arguments have gotten a trifle stale, and it’s because religion simply doesn’t have any new arguments. The atheists’ arguments are so sound and so overwhelming that religion has nothing to stand on. The best they can do these days is say that religion is some sort of psychological comfort, and I don’t doubt that it is, but what is the value of a comfort that’s based on a falsehood? The point is, what more is there to say except to keep on saying the same things over and over again? Maybe sheer repetition will have some effect.

In spite of the apparent dominance of religion in our culture, I actually think that much of our culture has really become quite secular. If religion is treated with kid gloves, it also is oftentimes marginalized in conventional culture. You need to gain a certain historical perspective to understand how overwhelmingly dominant religion was in all of society up to about the middle of the nineteenth century. Atheists can now lead perfectly unencumbered lives. The one area where I think we could make some progress is for atheists, agnostics, and secularists to band together for political influence.

S.T. Joshi is a prolific author and critic credited with almost single-handedly bringing H.P. Lovecraft, once denigrated as a mere pulp writer, into the literary mainstream and winning him recognition as the father of modern horror fiction. Joshi’s restored original texts are available from Arkham House as well as in a series of annotated collections …

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