Title: The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Publisher: Da Capo Press
• Nice mix of modern and early authors
• Collection contains both fiction and nonfiction writings
• Why not more female authors?
• Collection of writings related to atheism, skepticism, and freethought
• Provides a sampling of atheist critiques of religion over the course of Western history
Unfortunately, a large number of people who want to attack atheists and atheism don't seem to have read much further than the last couple of atheism books — and even then, it was only a very superficial reading. Given how relatively simple atheism is, it's amazing and depressing just how deeply people manage to misunderstand it. Then again, given how deeply people despise disbelief in gods or the supernatural, perhaps people need to misunderstand atheism in order to avoid confronting all its implications and challenges.
Despite the mistaken use of the label "New Atheists," there is a lot of continuity over the past couple of centuries among atheist authors in their critiques of religion, theism, and superstition. Not every argument is identical, and even when the same basic argument is being offered there can be variety in how it is presented.
This evolution of atheist critiques of supernatural religion is one of the virtues of Christopher Hitchens' book The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Well known for his own atheist book God Is Not Great, Hitchens treads some very heavily-traveled ground here in editing a compendium of atheist writings. Do we really need yet another book of essays, isolated chapters, and other selections from atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and skeptics of the past? What could we get out of this latest offering that we didn't get from the past half dozen that we bought — or the others that we simply skipped? Those are good questions, and reasons why I was skeptical of Hitchens' book, but in the end I think he succeeds in making his book more than "just one more" collection of atheist essays.
First, and perhaps most basic, is Hitchens' introductions — both his introduction to the book as a whole as well as his introduction to each piece. As with his own book, Hitchens makes it clear that his overall editorial intention is to indict religion as the most source of so many of humanity's 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." No matter how good an editor's introductions are, though, collections like this stand or fall on the strength of the texts selected.
So many collections focus on texts which are easiest and cheapest to obtain, which means old translations and texts which are either in the public domain or inexpensive to get the rights to. This leaves out just about any recent authors except perhaps Carl Sagan, but Hitchens has brought together ancient, early modern, and contemporary authors to create a collection unlike any other.
Of course we have material from Lucretius, Shelley, and Hume, but also Marx. It's rare to see Marx' critique of religion in these collections. Even better is the inclusion of material from Dawkins, Dennett, Templeton, Weinberg, Grayling, and Harris. These authors are, until now, only available in their own books and thus read in isolation, but Hitchens makes it possible for people to read a bit from all them side-by-side and in the context of modern skepticism. There are even a couple of pieces which are original to this book and thus unavailable anywhere else.
This is not to say that the selection of texts is without problems. Although there are fewer prominent female than male atheists, it should have been possible to include a couple more female authors here. The very long text from Ibn Warraq is also a curious choice — I think it's great that something of his is here, and a critique of Islam is definitely appropriate, but this particular piece isn't the strongest or best possibility in my opinion. It's unlikely that this anthology will convince religious theists to change their minds, especially if they hew to the same old prejudices which have become popular.
Publisher's Weekly, which has demonstrated a bias against atheists in the past, says in their review that "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." So, since only "many" intelligent believers have cast off this sort of religion, does this mean that some "intelligent" believers continue to accept it? What sort of definition of "intelligent" is the reviewer using if it's compatible with "immature" and even "embarrassing" religious beliefs?
Unfortunately, these sorts of religious beliefs remain hugely popular in America — even if many believers have cast them off, many more continue to accept them uncritically and unreservedly. The sort of religion being targeted by all these authors is exactly the sort of religion which is incredibly influential and even more problematic in modern society. It can't be ignored and it can't be dismissed as limited to just a few marginal groups which could be ignored.
Liberal believers may complain about the tone and intensity of atheist critiques of religion, but they aren't producing much of their own strong critiques of these sorts of beliefs. On the contrary, they are more likely to defend religion and theism in a manner which ultimately, if inadvertently, helps fundamentalists and extremists. That's why anthologies like Hitchens' are so important.