The Portable Atheist, edited by Christopher Hitchens

The Portable Atheist

I used to agree with Christopher Hitchens about 98% of the time, and found him a highly skilled and entertaining writer and speaker. Late in his life I agreed with him more like 68% of the time, but continued to find him a highly skilled and almost as entertaining writer and speaker.

One area where I remained in agreement with him and very much enjoyed his stuff is religion. Like Richard Dawkins, he is very direct in stating his positions. He offends many religious believers thereby, but—and again I would say the same about Dawkins—this is as a byproduct of frankly speaking the truth, not as a matter of going out of his way to intentionally hurt people.

The Portable Atheist is a collection of writings from 47 historical and contemporary figures, not including Hitchens’s own editorial contributions. The “Atheist” of the title is to be understood very loosely, as the book also includes agnostics, deists, people who were critical of something specific about the prevailing religion of their time and place, people who were believers publicly but wrote things from which you can infer they were secretly nonbelievers or at least had their doubts, etc.

Before I get to specifics, I’ll make a couple of points about my general reaction to the book.

One, many of these pieces I’d already read, so the material felt stale to me at times. I feel like I’ve read about this stuff, thought it through, taught it in philosophy classes, written about it, and argued with people about it so much in my life that I’m sick of it.

Two, relatedly, I felt a certain frustration at times reading this, because it brought me back to how tiresome it can be to debate these things, because the opponents so often are intellectually dishonest or delusional. Their beliefs are sometimes so obviously ludicrous that it’s hard to imagine any premises and logical rules that would somehow be more obvious, such that they would agree to them and see how they refute their position.

It’s really not that hard—if for some peculiar reason you’re of a mind to do so—to start from a position of insistence that the tooth fairy is real, and then just to keep dealing in an ad hoc way with each objection. That’s what irrational people do.

Reading this book I kept thinking about how zero of it, no matter how cogent, would penetrate the defenses of people who implicitly value their present comforting religious beliefs over truth.

There’s no question the part of the book I liked the least was the first roughly hundred pages. It’s organized more or less chronologically, so that’s the pre-20th century material—Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, etc.

I know I’m capable of understanding that material if I go slow, and if I reread the denser parts, because the bulk of it is stuff I read before and mostly understood. (Except the little bit that’s in verse. I have no aptitude for understanding that, and never have. That might as well be in a foreign language.) But it’s not material that I’m sufficiently interested in at this point of my life to want to make that kind of an effort. So my eyes glazed over for long stretches of those early selections.

After that it definitely picks up. Not that all of the later pieces are easy to follow and/or fascinating, but on average I got into them considerably more than I had the earlier selections.

Bertrand Russell’s piece is very good of course, though it didn’t have as much of an impact on me as it otherwise might have since it was one of the ones I had already read.

The piece by Martin Gardner (another non-atheist, by the way) on the legend of the “wandering Jew” I found quite interesting, having somehow never encountered that legend before. I’m sure I’d heard the phrase, but I didn’t know the story behind it.

Also interesting, and rather chilling, is Ian McEwan’s discussion of the sometimes insanely violent Christian apocalyptic movements in history.

I do think some of the pieces include fallacious, simplistic dismissals of religious belief. A lot of times the argument boils down to: Here’s something some religious people believe or some religious leader has said; it’s self-evidently ridiculous; so believers are wrong.

My feeling is that maybe 90% of the stuff about religion that is contrary to common sense like that probably is wrong, but 10% I actually like. There are moral perfectionist things, moral purist things, suffering and martyrdom things, that could be found in Kant, Tolstoy, Gandhi and other people that I admire a great deal, which I am largely in agreement with, but which I feel like some of the contributors to this volume would find as laughably delusional as anything else in religion, because it’s contrary to what the typical sensible non-religious person finds agreeable.

I think a little of that crazy outside-the-box stuff has or might have some merit to it, and I don’t like to see the baby thrown out with the bath water, at least not without a lot more of an argument.

Carl Sagan is way too dismissive of the classical theist arguments. Which is not to say that those arguments are cogent—they very likely aren’t—but the reasons they aren’t tend to be rather involved and require a lot more sophisticated approach than Sagan uses. He’s arguing against straw men.

It’s not clear he even grasps the ontological argument. And I recall a theist argument from Kant much different from what Sagan attributes to him, though it’s possible he’s talking about something else from Kant.

Sam Harris’s piece is one of the best in the book. He provides a long litany of cases where religion has made the world a much worse place than it otherwise would have been. It’s to my mind a very warranted indictment of religion for unspeakable cruelty, violence, and deception throughout history.

The bulk of the anti-religion pieces in the book are anti-Christianity specifically, since in the Western tradition, that was the dominant belief system that everyone argued for or against.

Hitchens does include some pieces that go after Islam though. I would think that’s not only to avoid making the book all about one religion, but also to fit his own beliefs of what a threat militarized Islam is to the world today. So, for instance, by far the longest piece in the book—over 60 pages—is by the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq against Islam.

The anti-Islam stuff is interesting, and I’d say largely convincing. Even if religion in general tends to be false and harmful, different religions at different places and times differ in just how bad they are. You can make a pretty good case that Islam today is the worst of the major religions, that it’s the most like the witch hunts and other idiocy of medieval Christianity. Not that it doesn’t have plenty of competition, but it may be the worst of a bad lot right now.

I think you still have to be careful about such things, though, especially in a society eager for any excuse to demonize those who are of a different race or religion. When I think about movies I’ve seen about even as awful a place as Iran, for instance, so many of the young people, maybe the majority, aren’t brainwashed monsters eager to kill for Allah. They’re just regular folks trying to survive day by day. For a lot of them, insofar as they are religious at all, it’s just lip service the same as in the United States or anywhere.

The Portable Atheist is certainly valuable. Personally I got very little out of parts of it, and liked other parts of it quite a bit. So my subjective reaction to it was mixed, but my overall opinion of it when I step back to assess it more objectively is clearly favorable.

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