The Portable Atheist
Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever
by Christopher Hitchens
Da Capo Press, Introductions copyright 2007
499 pages, softcover
Review by Jim Walker
Christopher Hitchens, the world renown journalist, anti-theist, and author of the best selling book, God Is Not Great, has selected various essays from skeptics and nonbelievers throughout history. The writings range from the Epicurean, Lucretius, of the 1st Century B.C.E. to Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the 21st Century C.E. (See the complete list of authors from the Contents listed below).
Those who know and love Hitchens writings may feel disappointed that he did not write all of this book. Don't. You get the best of two worlds which includes, not only some of the best arguments against god and religion by some of the best minds in history, but you get a great introduction from Hitchens himself, along with a lead-in preceding most of the chapters. It also includes writings from today's most famous atheists, now known as The Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens).
Hitchens introduction also includes his famous challenge to theists, observed and derived out of debates with Christians during his promotional tour throughout America for his last book. As far as I know, this challenge appears here first in print, and well worth the price of the book if you have not heard the challenge.
According to Hitchens, arguments for atheism divide into two main categories: those that dispute the existence of god (at least an intervening god) and those that demonstrate the ill effects of believing in god (religion). This book illustrates the power of observation and reason that go against god and religion. No theist to date has come close to answering these arguments successfully.
As each chapter proceeds from the earliest writings to the latest, you see the progression of reasoned thought against god belief. Spinoza's pantheist version of god conflicted with the idea of a personal god that must have appeared outrageous for the 17th century. Today, Hume's observations against miracles seem obvious, but during his day, probably no one had a good argument against them. Emma Goldman began to observe the 'god-of-the-gaps' (although she did not call it that) in that the god idea grows more impersonal and nebulous in proportion to understanding natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events. H. P. Lovecraft learned the difference between dream life and real life, something that theists don't seem to understand to this day. Carl Van Doren understood no moral obligation to believe the unbelievable any more than trying to do the undoable.
The essays become even more powerful and pointed in the 20th century. Ignorant Christians love to quote Einstein on god without realizing that "god" can have many meanings, some of which correlate with atheistic thought. Einstein's quotes from Selected Writings on Religion, provides ample evidence that his 'god' did not resemble a personal god at all. Bertrand Russell understood how fear serves as the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty in the world. Carl Sagan's two essays represent masterpieces of reasoned thought about our demon-haunted world and the problems about the god hypothesis. J. L. Mackie's "balance of probabilities" comes out about as strongly against the existence of god as it can get. Daniel Dennnett knows who to thank for his life saving surgery; not god, but the cardiologists, surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and nurses. Religions celebrate faith without evidence but medicine considers it a sin, and the absence of supernatural faith allowed Dennett to live! Dawkins, in a chapter from The God Delusion, Why There Almost Certainly Is No God, explains that the argument from improbability comes close to proving that god does not exist; that change and design both fail as solutions, and that natural selection serves as the only known workable solution for our existence.
The knowledge we have gained as a result of quantum mechanics (the most successful scientific theory to date) also bears against the argument from design. Most Christians haven't a clue about quantum mechanics, yet this established theory maintains that everything (and I mean everything) consists of the building blocks of subatomic particles that behave in unpredictable ways. Chance (that awful word for Christians), underlies everything that exists. And if you bank on the Big-Bang as correlating with a designer, forget it. The hypothetical singularity of the "creation" could only have exited in a quantum state where causation could have no meaning and where pure chance ruled. John Updike provides a layman's understanding of "how things popped up out of nothing"; Victor Stenger makes an interesting observation on the Plank limit and that if the universe came from a Big-Bang, structure could not have existed; it could only have come out of chaos, not structured design. He concludes, "Observation in cosmology look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God." Stephen Weinberg opines on the problem of the so-called constants of nature (the Anthropic principle) in that they vary in several cosmological theories, and that as physicists discover more about fundamental principles, they seem to have less and less to do with us.
Ibn Waraq gives us a lengthy history of the Koran, its various forms and its problems, and even the possibility that Muhammad did not exist! A. C. Grayling shows why religionists who call an atheist a fundamentalist, makes no sense. And lastly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim, gives a personal reason why she became an infidel.
With the weight of its intellectual history between its pages, I don't think "Portable" describes this book accurately. With one short of 500 pages long, you may need a backpack or a small wheelbarrow to carry this tome about. But this proves a good thing if you consider the value for the buck and the valuable information it contains. Once this knowledge enters your head it, indeed, becomes portable, and especially powerful as ammunition against theistic arguments.
A few quotes from the book:
The rejection of the man-made concept of god is not a sufficient condition for intellectual or moral emancipation. Atheists have no right to go around looking superior. They have only fulfilled the necessary condition by throwing off the infancy of the species and disclaiming a special place in the natural scheme.
--Christopher Hitchens (Introduction to The Portable Atheist)
I would make bold to aver and maintain that the order of Nature Never by will of the gods for us mortals was ever created...
--Lucretius (from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, Book I)
Men talk of heaven,--there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,--there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,--
O Love, there is no other life--but here.
--Omar Khayyam (from Rubaiyat of Kahayyam)
[T]he opinion that such spirits were incorporeal, or immaterial, could never enter into the mind of any man by nature; because though men may put together words of contradictory signification, as spirit, and incorporeal; yet they can never have the imagination of any thing answering to them: and therefore, men that by their own meditation, arrive to the acknowledgement of one infinite, omnipotent, and eternal God, chose rather to confess his is incomprehensible, and above their understanding, that to define his mature by spirit incorporeal, and then confess their definition to be unintelligible: or if they give him such a title, it is not dogmatically, with intention to make the divine nature understood; but piously, to honour him with attributes, of significations, as remote as they can from the grossness of bodies visible.
--Thomas Hobbes (Of Religion, from Leviathan)
I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.
--Benedict de Spinoza (from Theological-Political Treatise)
The more tremendous the divinity is represented, the more tame and submissive do men become his ministers: And the more unaccountable the measures of acceptance required by him, the more necessary does it become to abandon our natural reason, and yield to their ghostly guidance and direction.
--David Hume (from The Natural History of Religion)
[N]o human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion
--David Hume (from Of Miracles)
That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not Universal) should be any argument in its favor, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among men of genius and science that Atheism alone is ground, but among these alone is cherished an hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected.
--Percy Bysshe Shelley (from A Refutation of Deism)
The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments--of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue--are complete sceptics in religion...
--John Stuart Mill (from Autobiography)
Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself.
--Karl Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)
No one can have talked to the more enthusiastic Methodists and listened to their stories of miracles without perceiving that they require no other passport to a statement than that it accords with their wishes and their general conception of God's dealings...
--George Eliot (from Evangelical Teaching)
The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.
--Charles Darwin (from Autobiography)
Theology, in logical, leads straight to Pantheism. The Infinite God is everything. All things are bound together as cause and effect. God, the first cause, is the cause of all effects down to the most remote. In one form or other, that is the conclusion to which all theology approximates as it is pushed to its legitimate result.
--Leslie Stephen (from An Agnostic's Apology)
This notion of miracles belongs to the infancy of the mind, and cannot continue when once the human intellect has begun to frame a systematic picture of the universe.
--Anatole France (from Miracle)
[W]e have this curious spectacle: daily the trained parrot in the pulpit gravely delivers himself of these ironies, which he has acquired at second-hand and adopted without examination, to a trained congregation which accepts them without examination, and neither the speaker nor the hearer laughs at himself.
--Mark Twain (from Fables of Man)
The methods of the priest and the parson have been very curious; their history is very entertaining. In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers.
--Mark Twain (from Europe and Elsewhere and A Pen Warmed Up In Hell)
With all due respect, then, to the metaphysicians and religious idealists, philosophers, politicians or poets; the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.
--Emmma Goldman (from The Philosophy of Atheism)
I recognise a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities. I confess to an overpowering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake--whether the environment and laws that affect me are external and permanent, or the transitory products of my own brain.
--H. P. Lovecraft (from A Letter on Religion)
An honest unbeliever can no more make himself believe against his reason than he can make himself free of the pull of gravitation. For myself, I feel no obligation whatsoever to believe. I might once have felt it prudent to keep silence, for I perceive that the race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves for conformity; but just now, happily, in this breathing-spell of toleration, there are so many varieties of belief that evan an unbeliever may speak out.
--Carl Van Doren (from Why I Am an Unbeliever)
Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of "God" to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers of God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is not nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.
--Sigmund Freud (from The Future of an Illusion)
From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest, I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.
--Albert Einstein (from Selected Writings on Religion)
[F]rom everything being thought of as being due to the gods, we get their interference only on special occasions --occasions that become more and more rare as human knowledge becomes more and more precise.
--Chapman Cohen (from An Old Story)
The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.
--Bertrand Russell (from An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish)
The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn't a real god. They didn't believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn't believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.
--Carl Sagan (from The God Hypothesis)
The balance of probabilities, therefore, comes out strongly against the existence of a god.
--J. L. Mackie (From The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God)
A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an afterlife would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists.
--A. J. Ayer (from That Undiscovered Country)
[W]hereas religions may serve a benign purpose by letting many people feel comfortable with the level of morality they themselves can attain, no religion holds its member to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does!
--Daniel C. Dennett (from Thank Goodness!)
The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist.
--Richard Dawkins (from Why There Almost Certainly Is No God)
We are forced to conclude that the complex order we now observe could not have been the result of any initial design built into the universe at the so called creation. The universe preserves no record of what went on before the big bang. The Creator, if he existed, left no imprint. Thus he might as well have been nonexistent.
--Victor Stenger (from God: The Failed Hypothesis)
Far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct, the Bible is more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.
--Elizabeth Anderson (from If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?)
Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.
--Penn Jillette (from There Is No God)
In a nuclear age, and in an age of serious environmental degradation, apocalyptic belief creates a serious second order danger. The precarious logic of self-interest that saw us through the Cold War would collapse if the leaders of one nuclear state came to welcome, or ceased to fear mass death.
--Ian McEwan (from End of the World Blues)
The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless.
--Stephen Weinberg (from What About God?)
As human knowledge has grown, it has also become plain that every religious story ever told about how we got here is quite simply wrong. This, finally, is what all religions have in common. They didn't get it right.
--Salman Rushdie (from "Imagine There's No Heaven")
As we shall see, there is no such thing as the Koran; there never has been a definitive text of this holy book. When a Muslim dogmatically asserts that the Koran is the world of God, we need only ask "Which Koran?" to undermine his certainty.
--Ibn Warraq (from The Koran)
Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence--that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants--he becomes capable of anything.
--Sam Harris (from In the Shadow of God)
Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breath-taking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen in Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.
--A. C. Grayling (from Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?)
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.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali (from How (and Why) I Became an Infidel)
1. LUCRETIUS, from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Book I, Translated by W. Hannaford Brown 2.
OMAR KHAYYAM, from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Paraphrase from Several Literal Translations by Richard Le Gallienne 3. THOMAS HOBBES, Of Religion, from Leviathan 4. BENEDICT DE SPINOZA, Theological-Political Treatise 5.
DAVID HUME, The Natural History of Religion
6. JAMES BOSWELL, An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, Esq. 7. PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, A Refutation of Deism 8. JOHN STUART MILL, Moral Influences in My Early Youth, from Autobiography 9. KARL MARX, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right 10. GEORGE ELIOT, Evangelical Teaching 11. CHARLES DARWIN, Autobiography 12. LESLIE STEPHEN, An Agnostic's Apology 13. ANATOLE FRANCE, Miracle 14.
MARK TWAIN, Thoughts of God, from Fables of Man Bible Teachings and Religious Practice, From Europe and Elsewhere and A Pen Warmed Up In Hell 15. JOSEPH CONRAD, Author's Note to The Shadow Line 16. THOMAS HARDY, God's Funeral 17. EMMA GOLDMAN, The Philosophy of Atheism 18. H. P. LOVECRAFT, A Letter on Religion 19. CARL VAN DOREN, Why I Am An Unbeliever 20. H. L. MENCKEN, Memorial Service 21. SIGMUND FREUD, From The Future of an Illusion, Translated and edited by James Strachey 22. ALBERT EINSTEIN, Selected Writings on Religion 23. GEORGE ORWELL, From A Clergyman's Daughter 24. JOHN BETJEMAN, In Westminster Abbey 25.
CHAPMAN COHEN, Monism and Religion
An Old Story
26. BERTRAND RUSSELL, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish 27.
PHILIP LARKIN, Aubade
28. MARTIN GARDNER, The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming 29.
CARL SAGAN, The Demon-Haunted World
The God Hypothesis
30. JOHN UPDIKE, From Roger's Version 31.
J. L. MACKIE, Conclusions and Implications, From The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God 32. MICHAEL SHERMER, Genesis Revisited: A Scientific Creation Story 33. A. J. AYER That Undiscovered Country 34. DANIEL C. DENNETT, Thank Goodness! 35.
CHARLES TEMPLETON, From A Farewell to God, A Personal Word
Questions to Ask Yourself
RICHARD DAWKINS, Why There Almost Certainly Is No God
Atheists for Jesus
37. VICTOR STENGER, From God: the Failed Hypothesis, Cosmic Evidence 38. DANIEL C. DENNETT, A Working Definition of Religion, From "Breaking Which Spell?" 39. ELIZABETH ANDERSON, If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? 40. PENN JILLETTE, There Is No God 41. IAN McEWAN, End of the World Blues 42.
STEVEN WEINBERG, What About God? From Dreams of a Final Theory 43. SALMAN RUSHDIE, "Imagine There's No Heaven": A Letter to the Six Billionth World Citizen 44.
IBN WARRAQ, The Koran
The Totalitarian Nature of Islam
45. SAM HARRIS, In the Shadow of God, From The End of Faith 46. A. C. GRAYLING, Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist? From Against All Gods 47. AYAAN HIRSHI ALI, How (and Why) I Became and Infidel
Credits and Permissions
- To obtain this book, click below:
The Portable Atheist
Other books by Christopher Hitchens:
God Is Not Great (Hardcover), 2007
Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (hardcover), 2007
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (hardcover), 2005
Why Orwell Matters (paperback), 2003
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (paperback), 1997