Essential Reading For Nonbelievers?

"Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." - Christopher Hitchens

The Publisher of Christopher Hitchens' latest book writes:

From the #1 New York Times best-selling author of God Is Not Great, a provocative and entertaining guided tour of atheist and agnostic thought through the ages—with never-before-published pieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Christopher Hitchens continues to make the case for a splendidly godless universe in this first-ever gathering of the influential voices—past and present—that have shaped his side of the current (and raging) God/no-god debate. With Hitchens as your erudite and witty guide, you'll be led through a wealth of philosophy, literature, and scientific inquiry, including generous portions of the words of Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many others well-known and lesser known. And they're all set in context and commented upon as only Christopher Hitchens—"political and literary journalist extraordinaire" (Los Angeles Times)—can. Atheist? Believer? Uncertain? No matter: The Portable Atheist will speak to you and engage you every step of the way.

Publishers Weekly said:

Hitchens, an avowed atheist and author of the bestseller God Is Not Great, is a formidable intellectual who finds the notion of belief in God to be utter nonsense. The author is clear in his introduction that religion has caused more than its fair share of world problems. "Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." The readings Hitchens chooses to bolster his atheist argument are indeed engaging and important. Hobbes, Spinoza, Mill and Marx are some of the heavyweights representing a philosophical viewpoint. From the world of literature the author assembles excerpts from Shelley, Twain, Conrad, Orwell and Updike. All are enjoyable to read and will make even religious believers envious of the talent gathered for this anthology. What these dynamic writers are railing against often enough, however, is a strawman: an immature, fundamentalist, outdated, and even embarrassing style of religion that many intelligent believers have long since cast off. It could be that Hitchens and his cast of nonbelievers are preaching to the choir and their message is tired and spent. However, this remains a fascinating collection of readings from some of the West’s greatest thinkers.

A fascinating collection of readings?

Posted December 05, 2007


Avid Reader said...

Hitchens produces interesting stuff and this anthology was certainly an interesting read. I will comment on various sections later as I can see from the lack of comments to date that the rest of you may still be in the reading phase.

Early on in the book is the chapter discussing Thomas Hobbes’ “Of Religion” from Leviathan where he ridicules religion through the ruse of attacking paganism. A great part is where he writes about man’s search to know the future ……

sometimes in the aspect of the stars at their nativity; which was called horoscopy; sometimes in their own hopes and fears, call ‘thumomancy’, or ‘presage’; sometimes in the prediction of witches, that pretended conference with the dead; which is called ‘necromancy’, ‘conjuring’, and ‘witchcraft’; sometimes in the casual flight, or the feeding of birds; called ‘augury’; sometimes in the entrails of a sacrificed beast; which was ‘aruspicina’; sometimes in dreams; sometimes in the croaking of ravens; sometimes in the lineaments of the face; which was called ‘metoposcopy’; or by ‘palmistry’ in the lines of the hand: sometimes in unusual accidents as eclipses, comets, rare meteors, earthquakes, uncouth births, and the like, which they called ‘portenta’ and ‘ostenta’ because they thought them to portend, or foreshow some great calamity to come.

Wonderful stuff!


Michael N. Hull said...


One of the most surprising parts of Hitchens’ book was “A Refutation of Deism” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Having known Shelley to date only through his poetry it was amazing to read how brilliantly he argued the case against Deism with arguments that are those still articulated today such as the question of ‘who designed the Designer?’ Even more amazing is that he was holding the same ideas that Darwin was later to develop a half century before Darwin. Consider this quote as an example:

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion (sic) between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between everything which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endure, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation

Incidentally, I once quoted a few lines from Shelley in a scientific paper I wrote on the movement of liquids under the influence of electrical fields. The paper was accepted by the reviewers but they wanted ‘the poetry removed’. I refused indicating that the lines from Shelley expressed in ‘poetic’ terms what I was trying to explain with the scientific data. I was then told that “poetry and science don’t mix” and to this I replied: “Says who?” The paper was accepted as submitted and became the most requested reprint that year.


Janet Witherspoon said...

Not only Shelley but George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans)! What a brilliant essay entitled ‘Evangelical Teaching’ on the preacher Dr. Cummings. One wonders if he ever read her devastating critique of his intellectual abilities:

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.

The poor wretch must have died when he read that!


PRD said...

The arguments today in support of atheism from Dawkins, Harris, Dennett (and Hitchens himself) have not changed much since the times of the writers in this anthology! Darwin was struggling with the problem of suffering and found an explanation for his concerns in his theory of evolution. Makes one wonder why Dawkins et al. bother to write the books they do since the arguments they put forth are not adding anything new to the discussion.

Is anyone else getting a lesson in Latin from these writings and insight into some pretty obtuse theologies? Some of the great examples I have come across so far and explained with the help of Wikipedia are:

Ignis fatuus - The will-o'-the-wisp or ignis fatuus, or in plural form as ignes fatui ("fool's fire(s)") refers to the ghostly lights sometimes seen at night or twilight — often over bogs. It looks like a flickering lamp, and is sometimes said to recede if approached. Much folklore surrounds the legend, but science has offered several potential explanations. In modern times, especially in the United States, these lights have been sometimes called ghost lights or spooklights especially by believers in the paranormal.

Filoque - In Christian theology the filioque clause (filius meaning "and [from] the son" in Latin) is a heavily disputed clause added to the Nicene Creed in 589. It forms a divisive difference in particular between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church centered on the relative divinity of the Father compared to the Son. In the place where the original Nicene Creed reads "We believe in the Holy Spirit ... who proceeds from the Father", the amended, Roman Catholic version reads "We believe in the Holy Spirit ... who proceeds from the Father and the Son". The addition is accepted by Roman Catholic Christians but rejected by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Many Eastern Catholic churches (Eastern in liturgy but in full communion with the pope) do not use the clause in their creed, but profess the doctrine it represents, as it is a dogma of the Roman Catholic faith. Insofar as Protestant churches take a position on the doctrine, acceptance of the filioque is normative. After the schism of 1054, the Eastern and Western churches attempted to reunite at two separate medieval councils, and the filioque was an issue at each. Despite Greek concessions, neither the Second Council of Lyon (1274) nor the Council of Ferrera-Florence (1438 - 1535) achieved the desired union. The clause is most often referred to as "the filioque" or simply filioque.

Who knew?


Michael N. Hull said...


Did you skip caput mortuum or was this one that you knew? ;-)

For the sake of others Wikipedia gives:

Caput mortuum - Caput Mortuum is a Latin term meaning 'death's head'. In alchemy, it signified a useless substance left over from a chemical operation such as sublimation. Alchemists represented this residue with a stylized human skull, a literal death's head. In its current limited usage, the caput mortuum represents decline and entropy. Caput mortuum (also spelled caput mortum or caput mortem) is the name given to a purple variety of iron oxide pigment, an "earth color". It is used in oil paints and paper dyes. The name for this pigment may have come from the alchemical usage, since iron oxide (rust) is the useless residue of oxidization.


Helen Wright said...

It strikes me that our old friend, Holloway, has a lot in common with Leslie Stephen who makes a pretty good case for his position of agnosticism based on “as nobody can explain evil, nobody can explain anything. And so we are left staring at one big mystery with ‘mystery’ simply being the theological word for ‘agnosticism’.

I agree with Stephen when he says that “the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute, and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance.


Michael N. Hull said...


I basically made these same agnosticism comments in a discussion I have had at William Crawley’s blog.

There is no conflict between science (particularly evolution) and religion but between two world views (naturalism and atheism) for which both sides must look towards science for resolution. As Lennox puts it does inanimate matter give rise to 'mind' or is it 'mind' which is in control of matter.

Lennox asks: What fact is ultimate? The atheist's ultimate fact is the universe; the theist's ultimate fact is God. In which direction does science point - matter before mind, or mind before matter? And this boils down to the question of whether the physical laws of matter are a property of matter (naturalism) or defined for matter by an ‘intelligence’ (theism). Is a law of nature drawn up by a legislator (theism) or is it merely the summary of observed facts (naturalism).

In this book by Hitchens Emma Goldman had an interesting quote about the naturalism position: “Things do not act in a particular way because there is a law, but we state the ‘law’ because they act in that way (Joseph McCabe in “Existence of God”).

Here is another way to frame the issue: I have a series of circles and I note that if I divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter I get a number (3.141592…) which goes out to infinity. This number is exactly the same and infinitely ‘fine tuned’ no matter how many circles that I examine. Now if I change just one integer in this infinitely long number, say I substitute the one millionth integer in this series by changing it up or down by say 1, then circles can not exist! The naturalism position is that the number pi is simply a mathematical description of what the picture of a circle ‘is’. They are both the same thing in their essence. On the other hand, the theist says that an intelligence defined pi and thus circles can be depicted for what they are.

So here I retreat to my previously stated position of agnosticism – I remain an agnostic theist and an agnostic scientist – asserting that there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence.


Duncan Clemens said...

Throughout this book many writers bring up the problem of evil/suffering which reinforces for me my own misgivings about the existence of a loving God. I don’t think the churches, at least those that I am familiar with, have ever made a good defense of this problem that I can accept.

I found Mark Twain stated the problem very well in the way that I have wrestled with it when he wrote in “Thoughts of God” from “Fables of Man”:

It is plain that there is one moral law for heaven and another for the earth. The pulpit assures us that wherever we see suffering and sorrow, which we can relieve and do not do it, we sin, heavily. There was never yet a case of suffering or sorrow which God could not relieve. Does He sin, then? If He is the Source of Morals He does – certainly nothing can be plainer than that, you will admit. Surely the Source of law cannot violate law and stand unsmirched; surely the judge upon the bench cannot forbid crime and then revel in it himself unreproached.?

Emma Goldman in her piece on “The Philosophy of Atheism” made the same point with the comment:

Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness? Yet after thousands of years of such preachments the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race. Confucius cares not for the poverty, squalor and misery of the people of China. Buddha remains undisturbed in is philosophical indifference to the famine and starvation of the outraged Hindoos; Yahweh continues deaf to the bitter cry of Israel; while Jesus refuses to rise from the dead against his Christians who are butchering each other.

Perhaps we need a different thread to discuss the theodicies of theism because I think some of the arguments strike me as no better than the debates over string theories in physics.


James Carnaghan said...

As a lifelong atheist I found Carl Van Doren’s piece on “Why I Am an Unbeliever” just perfect. He put in five pages, with clarity and humility, the position for atheism that Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett etc have failed to do with numerous polemical books. I had to smile and nod my head as I read: “The pessimists among believers have peopled the void with witches and devils, and the optimists among them have peopled it with angels and gods. There are breathing myths, there are comforting legends, there are consoling hopes. But they have, as the unbeliever sees them, no authority beyond that of poetry. That is, they may captivate if they can, but they have no right to insist upon conquering.


Helen Wright said...


I too see that trend in the book – the struggle of theism with the problem of suffering. Einstein seems also to have held this position as one of his major concerns with a ‘personal God’ when he writes: “I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only his nonexistence could excuse Him.”

Chapman Cohen seems to be a precursor to Ayn Rand don't you think? This quote of his could be directly out of Atlas Shrugged … ‘all healthy mental life is the expression of harmony between our ideas of facts and the facts themselves … one may confidently assert that the man or the philosophy that ignores facts will sooner or later come to grief”


Elizabeth Murray said...

As an atheist I remained puzzled why normal people can believe mythical stories literally. Is it because they are just ill-read?

For example, most literate people know that in ancient times all famous people were born in ‘supernatural’ ways and Hitchens’ anthology makes this point quite effectively.

Why is the first of these statements accepted as true and factual while the others are not?

1) Mary was visited by the Holy Ghost and subsequently as a virgin gave birth to Jesus

2) The God Jupiter visited Perseus’ mother in a shower of gold.

3) When Catlicus caught a ball of feathers which floated down from heaven and held it to her bosom the Aztec God, Huitzilopochtli was born

4) A maiden was bathing one day when she found a red fruit on her clothing. She ate it and the founder of the Manchu dynasty was born

5) The virgin daughter of a king of the Mongols woke one night and found herself embraced by a green light – she subsequently gave birth to Genghis Khan

6) Horus was born of the virgin Isis.

7) Mercury was born of the virgin Maia

8) Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia.

Reason rules!

Derek Bell said...

As a scientist I like Carl Sagan and enjoy his TV stuff so I was particularly attracted to his two chapters both of which were very lucid.

The Demon-Haunted World was quite disturbing but one wonders if one can put the blame for it on religion and not really on the ignorance of primitive man. Can one really argue that the hanging of a woman and her nine-year-old daughter as witches for taking off their stockings and therefore causing a thunderstorm is 'religious'?

His chapter on The God Hypothesis is a nice summary of the present arguments from a 'natural theology' perspective but as a scientist I found his scientific arguments against the existence of a God or Gods somewhat dissatisfying. To ask why God did not write His words on the moon in large capitals to get His message across definitively is not science but polemic.

Then in his argument on consciousness he says:

Human conscousness is what happens when you get to something like 10^11 neurons and 10^14 synapses. This raises all sorts of other questions: What is consciousness like when you have 10^20 synapses or 10^30? What would such a being have to say to us any more than we would have to say to the ants?

This is a question I have seen you, Michael, bring up on numerous occasions and I think Sagan dealt with this in a very unsatisfactory and non-scientific manner when he continued:

It does not seem to me that the argument from consciousness proves the existence of God. We have an alternative explanation that seems to work pretty well. We don't know all the details, although work on artificial intelligence may help to clarify that

Weak! Weak! Weak!

D. Bell

PRD said...

How I love Updike! Even though he writes as a novelist he put all of these philosophical questions together in a delicious dialog.

How's this you scientists for Updike describing your science! Michael, you metaphoricist, read this and leap for joy!

Dale feels crushed beneath Kriegman's beady, shuttling, joyful, and unembarrassed gaze. "But," he weakly argues, this is all metaphor."

"What isn't?" Kriegman says .... you can't quit on reason .... Look, you know computers. Think binary. When matter meets antimatter, both vanish, into pure energy. But both existed; I mean, there was a condition we'll call 'existence.' Think of one and minus one. Together they add up to zero, nothing, right? Picture them together, then picture them separating - peeling apart..... Now you have something, you have two somethings, where once you had nothing."

"But in the binary system," Dale points out,... "the alternative to one isn't minus one, it's zero. That's the beauty of it, mechanically."

"O.K. Gotcha. You're asking me, What's this minus one? I'll tell you. It's a plus one moving backward in time ...."

So there you have it take a plus one moving forward in time and a plus one moving backward in time (as a minus one) and then both came out of zero (nothing). Matter and antimatter are together nothing and both came out of nothing.

Get it?


Elizabeth Murray said...

My fellow atheist, Daniel Dennett, is an ungracious man and I say that with some regret as I personally like much of the stuff he writes. But his article "Thank Goodness" was infantile in his thoughts following his heart surgery. To thank his atheist friends who were 'thinking' of him during his illness while castigating his religious friends (of which he has many) for 'praying' for him during the same period was rudeness taken to its extremes. And to further suggest that his 'praying' friends could have spent their time better in doing some good in the world was rudness proceeding from his madness.

Reason rules!

Brian McKay said...

I enjoyed Dawkin’s piece on 'Gerin Oil' which he satiricaly writes about as a fictional drug to parody religion; gerin oil is an anagram of the word ‘religion’.

In small amounts it is considered harmless; medium usage causes a disconnect with reality where users expect private wishes expressed to come true; large doses causes hallucinations.

A criticism that I have of Dawkins is with his statement “Why there almost certainly is no God”. I can give numerous instances of times in my life where I was ‘absolutely certain’ about some matter or other only later to find out that the opposite was true.


Michael N. Hull said...

One of the arguments that comes up in support of theism is the proposition that there can be no basis for a moral code without a divine authorative source.

I thought that Elizbeth Anderson did a nice job of demolishing this argument by pointing out all of the heinous acts of the OT done 'in God's name' or by his request. If these are the basis of a moral code then an act such ethnic cleansing becomes justifiable. Many heinous acts can be morally justified because Scripture tells us that God performs or commands them.

As she points out Plato asked: "Are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right?

If the latter is correct then can a basis of moral action be found in her suggestion that morality can be understood as a system of reciprocal claim making in which everyone is accountable to everyone else. This moral code is underwritten by the authoriy we all have to make claims on one another.


Neil said...

I love the comment from Susan Sontag that we are 'surrounded by piety without content'. I think this is quite true of many church attendees - they are obviously pious but without any deep theological knowledge of what they are being pious about.


Elizabeth Murray said...

There is quite an interesting discussion on the arguments some have put forward that the Jesus story is in fact mythical in the same sense as are stories about for example Apollo. Strangely Hitchens introduces this criticism of Christianity in presenting the long chapter which discusses the Koran.

I know that many of the stories surrounding Jesus are actually very similar to stories that were present in the pagan mystery religions i.e. there were other 'dying and rising' Gods such as Osiris, and the Mithraic mysteries had rituals very similar to Christianity's baptism and the Eucharist.

One thing that I learned from this chapter, however, was that the writings of Paul are among the earlies of the Christian story. Yet and I quote:

The letters of Paul were written before Mark's Gospel and yet they do not mention many of the details of Jesus's life that we find in the Gospels: no allusions to Jesus's parents, or to the Virgin Birth, or to Jesus's place of birth; there is no mention of John the Baptist, Judas, nor of Peter's denial. They never refer to his trial before a Roman official nor to Jerusalem as his place of execution. They mention none of the miracles. Even when doctrines attributed to Jesus in the gospels would have been of obvious use to Paul in his doctrinal disputes, there is no mention of them. The early post-Pauline letters, written before A.D.90, also fail to give any convincing historical details. It is only with the later post-Pauline letters, written between A.D. 90 and 110 do we get those details from the Gospels.

The point being that Paul seems to have known nothing about the life of Jesus and its details and only after the Gospels were written did letters start to mention these details.

Reason Rules!