The Portable Atheist

On the New York Times Best Seller List, 2007 was a banner year for infidels. It witnessed the rise and sustained success of a relative slue of books whose pointed dismissals of religion and God garnered an unexpected audience among American readers. The works included The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (both of which were released in the fall of ’06), God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and, most eventfully, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

The novel trend which these titles spurred on – namely, anti-religion thriving as a cash cow in a dependably religious country – wasn’t quick to be deciphered. Simple curiosity? Knowing one’s enemy? Possibly the rumblings of a waking secular rationalist giant, devotees of the so-called “New Atheism”? The impetus remains elusive but the results could mark a watershed in America’s noted history of religiosity.

If a formidable anti-God movement was to galvanize, Christopher Hitchens would undoubtedly count himself among its proudest in the ranks. A British expatriate now living in Washington D.C., this combative, contrarian, and supremely informed man of letters has written widely on what he views as the scourge of religion. Christian fundamentalism, Zionism, and Islamism have all drawn his caustic ire. Hitchens even put the angelic Mother Teresa under an unforgiving microscope in his memorably titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

From an early age, he knew himself to be an unbeliever and, when once pressed if he’d ever uttered a prayer to the almighty, Hitchens responded that, in a bind on one occasion, he requested an erection from whatever god that would intervene. Such is his disdain for the faithful, which culminated in last year’s God is Not Great. This wide ranging and vociferous book created a palpable stir on cable news programs and the New York Times Best Seller List, where it remains (as of January ’08), despite its release last May.

Hitchens’ crusade against the godly presses on with The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, the contents of which he personally selected and prefaced. Here he concedes the spotlight to a dream team of like and learned minds. From Lucretius to John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx to H.L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell to Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan to Sam Harris, Hitchens places himself firmly on the shoulders of scientific, philosophical, and literary giants.

The breadth of those enlisted and their frequently eloquent entries account for much of this book’s intellectual pleasure. The arguments encompass the technical, the moral, and the historical. Bits of poetry, biblical parodies, and considerations of “irreducible complexity” follow one after another in an exhaustive spree of erudition and creative insight. They may not always convince, but their collective potency is dauntingly compelling.

In contrast with the strident pitch of God is Not Great, The Portable Atheist offers a variety of tones and dispositions which don’t always strike such a confrontational chord. As expected, Hitchens delivers a frontal assault in the introduction, complete with his singularly vivid flourishes – “unchallengeable celestial dictatorship”, “masochistic modesty”, and “dogged and greedy yokels (a description of the Jews under Moses)”. Yet the author’s forebears and contemporaries seldom approximate his happily immodest treatment of religion.

Many of the selections are marked by very human moments whose resonance transcends confessional differences. James Boswell’s recollection of his time shared with a dying David Hume relays the latter’s stunning ease of mind while in the throes of his witching hour. Hitchens used this passage to counter the popular notion of “deathbed conversion”.

Quite the opposite is an excerpt from Darwin’s Autobiography, where the father of evolutionary biology notes the thorny and reluctant nature of his drift from faith. Commenting on the supernatural, another master of letters, Joseph Conrad, writes with earnestness and humility in a preface to his novel The Shadow Line that “The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is ….”

Most poignant and timely is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel” which sounds notes of political, sexual, and cultural liberation as if her bondage was withering away as she stroked her pen. The sum effect of these accounts is to soften the stigma of “otherness” that atheists seem to unfairly bear.

Hitchens’ aim isn’t one of fraternity between believer and nonbeliever, though. He wants to dismantle the underpinnings of religion, especially from the scrupulous vantage of science. To that end, he corrals writings and quotes from, among others, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger, and Steven Weinberg. They address the “creationists’ love affair with ‘gaps’ in the fossil record”, the extreme unlikelihood of miracles, and the surfeit of evidence for supernatural intervention in the cosmos. Readers unversed in advanced science (and this reviewer is at the front of that line) will find themselves handicapped in the face of such challenging expertise. The disadvantage is upsetting and also instructive: the faithful cannot consider scriptural knowledge alone to be adequate in the marketplace of ideas.

Though, in fairness, the atheist camp isn’t immune to smug simple-mindedness and shrill histrionics any more than the godly. In Dawkins’ piece “Atheists for Jesus”, sophomoric expression creeps in: “Religious beliefs are irrational. Religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb.” Humor is not the book’s strong suit. Science and reason are.

To no shock, advances in both fields haven’t heralded a moderating influence on fanaticism. Sectarian strife, an historical constant, has taken even more prominently to the global stage in the 21st century. Images of suicide bombings, occupation, and crumbling civil societies are sadly ubiquitous and have fueled the passions of the “New Atheism”. This will not soon abate. Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their fellow travelers will continue to put out and promote works in the vein of The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The Portable Atheist whose popularity should signal an alarm to believers: their foothold in the battle of ideas is far from entrenched and the prospect of “the end of faith” holds great appeal for many.

RATING 7 / 10