[29 June 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
To stir secular intellectuals, American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett last year published Breaking the Spell. British scientist Richard Dawkins soon followed with The God Delusion.
At the same time, writer Sam Harris has kept grabbing middlebrow readers with Letters to a Christian Nation and other work. And, earlier this month, caustic British American culture critic Christopher Hitchens goosed atheism to best-sellerdom—his God Is Not Great debuted at No. 1 on the all-important New York Times list.
Any surprise that atheism now turns up as a gift book, the kind stackable by the register? If atheism’s going mass, after all, you need not just a sacred text but an easily portable one.
The Atheist’s Bible, compiled by former Columbia School of Journalism dean Joan Konner, gains its more-than-tchotchke credibility from the authority of its creator—an odd standard to apply to a pro-atheism book, but there you are.
Credit Konner with caginess. The book presents no conventional introduction. A few footnotes suggest classic balance (“Atheists can be as intemperate, unreasonable and extreme as fire-and-brimstone preachers”). On the whole, however, The Atheist’s Bible organizes hundreds of aphorisms and excerpts to sway an uncertain mind—that is, a mind uncertain about both God’s existence and whether it wants to spend valuable summer time plowing through Dennett, Dawkins or Hitchens.
So consider The Atheist’s Bible your atheism beach book, your big-A graphic novel, your “Atheism for Dummies,” a slim book that permits you to feel like a high-achieving apostate every 20 seconds while you build up strength for serious blasphemy when cooler weather returns.
It accomplishes many tasks. For one, it balances the uncritical, submissive tone toward God and religion that dominates American mass media. You get that every day in every way. This book (and review) airs the other side.
Second, it reminds us that before D, D and H—the current Three Musketeers of Non-Belief—there were Aristotle, Hume, Voltaire, Tom Paine, George Eliot, George Santayana, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Katharine Hepburn and a slew of others.
Not a bad dinner party—or reality show. Such secularists expressed many of the atheistic thoughts and arguments we read today, albeit in more elegant prose.
Multiple thinkers here, for instance, echo Aristotle’s ancient claim that “men create the gods after their own images,” for reasons of intellectual primitiveness. “Religions are like glow-worms,” wrote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “They need darkness in order to shine.” For Santayana, “Fear first created the gods.”
Although God and religion remain separate concepts—hostility to the first needn’t imply hostility to the second—the atheistic tradition includes the latter, even from such religion-friendly sources as Blaise Pascal. He wrote that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Napoleon thought religion “keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Freud regarded religions as “mass delusions.”
Konner’s choices also remind us that Bible-bashing is next to godliness among atheists. Issac Asimov viewed the Bible as “the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” Paine described it as “a book of lies and contradictions,” “the work of a demon” more than “the word of God,” and denounced its “obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries ... the unrelenting vindictiveness.”
Voltaire shared Paine’s disapproval, defining the Bible as “what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach.” Leading 19th-century American atheist Robert Ingersoll castigated it for presenting a God who upholds slavery, commands soldiers to kill women and babies, supports polygamy, persecutes people for their opinions, and punishes unbelievers forever.
The clergy also catch it on the chin. “Every step that the intelligence of Europe has taken,” wrote Victor Hugo, “has been in spite of the clerical party.” Emile Zola agreed: “Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!”
A core tenet of atheism, Konner’s selections confirm, is the weakness of evidence for God, understood in accord with the view of 19th century British scientist W.K. Clifford that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Thus, Samuel Butler contended that “if God wants us to do a thing, he should make his wishes sufficiently clear. Sensible people will wait till he has done this before paying much attention to him.”
As mainstream culture regularly demonstrates, believers possess lots of standard replies to atheistic points—evidence is not the point of faith, the joy of belief proves its truth, and so on. One payoff of The Atheist’s Bible, for nonbelievers, is that it provides ammunition for second-round retorts. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic,” remarked George Bernard Shaw, “is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Similarly, it provides sources for atheists and scientists who reject reconciliation between science and religion. “Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion,” says Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, “should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”
For atheists, the trick is to find alternatives to belief in God and religion. For Pearl Buck, it was “faith in human beings.” For Frank Lloyd Wright, “Nature.”
In the end, one leitmotif runs through The Atheist’s Bible: Certainty kills.
“If we believe absurdities,” Voltaire warned, “we shall commit atrocities.” H.L. Mencken echoed the thought: “Men become civilized not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.”
Will atheism soar enough for hotels to put an Atheist’s Bible in every room? Konner is probably unconcerned. Atheists live for the here and now, a truism she recognizes in the epitaph that closes her book:
“Here lies an atheist.
“All dressed up
“And no place to go.”