The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever – by Christopher Hitchens

October 25, 2008 at 2:18 am 2 comments

Just like the Bible can also be appreciated by non-believers, due to its impact on world history, it is not required to be an atheist to appreciate this anti-religious anthology. 

First of all, what I liked about it was that it was actually of a less polemical nature than Hitchens’ own writings. Sure, there are polemics in it, but there are also several more personal – vulnerable, if you will – accounts of struggles with belief and unbelief, such as the excerpt from Darwin’s autobiography, or James Boswell’s (himself a believer) fascinating account of his last interview with David Hume shortly before the latter’s death. 

The book also does us a service by indirectly reminding us that Karl Marx should not just be judged by the evils of the Gulag Archipelago, but be treated as someone with many noble and worthwhile thoughts. 

Other highlights of the book were George Eliot’s “On Evangelical Teaching,” which I had not read before and which might just as well have been written about TV evangelists of today. Eliot, speaking from more than 150 years in the past, eloquently described my own church background in which I grew up. A fascinating – almost prophetic – experience. 

I was also a bit surprised by the amount of very clear statements Albert Einstein had made about his religious position. I had been under the impression before that Einstein’s position required quite a bit of interpretation, and that the view of Dawkins and Hitchens was just one among many. The quotes helped me to become undeceived in this regard. 

The only critique I have against the anthology is that the inclusion of many of Hitchens’ friends seems somewhat preposterous. The historical impact of Lucretius, Hobbes, Spinoza, Marx, Darwin, Twain, Einstein etc. is firmly established, and their inclusion in this anthology is a fitting homage. But to then continue with Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the like turns an anthology of great historical weight into an advertisement for New Atheism. 

Perhaps Shermer, Dennet, Harris and their friends will one day all be considered on par with Marx and Einstein, but it’s too early to tell. If I wrote a book on essential political figures, I wouldn’t move from Alexander the Great and Napoleon to my local governor, either. 

I am tempted to take a star off for that. Let’s make it half a star. 4.5/5 for “The Portable Atheist.”

Entry filed under: Books/Book Reviews, Critique of Religion. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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