The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings Book Summary

Title: The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever
Author: Christopher Hitchens

TLDR: A collection of writings spanning centuries, from Lucretius to Richard Dawkins, challenging religious dogma and arguing for atheism’s intellectual and moral superiority. The book explores the origins of religion, critiques its doctrines, and champions reason, science, and human values as guides to a better world.

Introduction:

In his introduction, Hitchens draws a powerful analogy between religion and a deadly plague, arguing that religious doctrines, like dormant bacilli, lie hidden within ancient texts and continually threaten to reemerge and poison society. He criticizes the notion that religion is a prerequisite for morality, asserting that countless atrocities have been committed in the name of faith and that nonbelievers are just as capable of leading ethical lives. He argues that atheism is a necessary step towards intellectual and moral emancipation, freeing individuals from the shackles of superstition and enabling them to appreciate the marvels of the natural world and the beauty of art and literature without recourse to supernatural explanations.

Hitchens acknowledges the psychological appeal of religion, recognizing the human need for comfort and meaning in the face of death and uncertainty. However, he contends that such comfort is illusory and that facing reality with courage and honesty is ultimately more fulfilling. He emphasizes the need for a clear-eyed rejection of theocratic tyranny and calls for a renewed commitment to reason, science, and human values. He concludes by suggesting that this anthology serves as a weapon against faith itself, aiming to strengthen the resistance to the faith-based and promote a more enlightened world.

Chapter 1 – From De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius:

This chapter presents excerpts from the epic poem De Rerum Natura, written by the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius in the first century BCE. Drawing on the earlier ideas of Epicurus and Democritus, Lucretius argues for a materialistic view of the universe, contending that everything is composed of atoms in perpetual motion and that there is no need to invoke supernatural forces to explain the world’s phenomena.

Lucretius challenges the theistic notion of creation ex nihilo, arguing that “nothing can be made out of nothing.” He contends that the order and regularity we observe in nature are not the product of divine design but rather arise from the inherent properties of matter and the laws of physics. He further criticizes religion as immoral, citing the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice as an example of the cruel and irrational acts to which religious belief can lead.

By emphasizing the power of reason and observation to understand the natural world, Lucretius offers a powerful counterpoint to the superstitions and dogmas of religion. His work serves as a cornerstone of the atheistic tradition, reminding us that the universe is not a product of divine fiat but rather a magnificent and awe-inspiring realm governed by natural laws.

Chapter 2 – From Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Omar Khayyám:

This chapter presents excerpts from the Rubáiyát, a collection of quatrains attributed to the Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer Omar Khayyám in the eleventh century CE. Through his verses, Khayyám expresses a skeptical view of religious dogma and embraces the pleasures of life in the here and now.

He questions the existence of an afterlife, suggesting that “there is no heaven but here” and “no hell but here.” He challenges the authority of religious texts like the Koran, arguing that even unbelievers know it best. He criticizes the hypocrisy of religious leaders who claim to interpret God’s will while indulging in their own desires for power and control.

Khayyám’s verses celebrate life’s simple pleasures—wine, women, and song—and urge readers to savor the present moment rather than dwelling on an uncertain future. His work serves as a reminder that life is to be lived and enjoyed, not squandered in pursuit of illusory spiritual rewards.

Chapter 3 – Of Religion (from Leviathan) by Thomas Hobbes:

This chapter presents an excerpt from Leviathan, the seminal work on political philosophy written by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. Although outwardly conforming to the religious orthodoxy of his time, Hobbes subtly critiques religion by satirizing its origins and highlighting its dependence on superstition and fear.

Hobbes argues that religion arises from humanity’s ignorance of the natural world and their consequent anxiety about the future. He contends that people invent gods to explain phenomena they do not understand and to placate these unseen forces. He suggests that polytheism, in particular, is a product of fear, with people creating a multitude of deities to account for the diverse and often unpredictable events that affect their lives.

He further argues that religion has been used by political leaders to control the masses, citing examples of rulers who have claimed divine sanction for their authority or who have used religious ceremonies and doctrines to keep their subjects in check. Despite his subtle criticisms, Hobbes ultimately defends religion as a necessary tool for maintaining social order and promoting obedience to the laws.

Chapter 4 – Theological-Political Treatise by Benedict de Spinoza:

This chapter presents an excerpt from Theological-Political Treatise, a work by the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, published anonymously in 1670. Considered a heretic by both Jewish and Christian authorities for his unorthodox views, Spinoza argues for the separation of church and state and defends the freedom of thought and expression.

Spinoza contends that superstition arises from fear and ignorance, with people inventing religious beliefs to cope with the uncertainties of life and to appease unseen powers. He criticizes the use of religion by political leaders to manipulate the masses and argues that true piety flourishes only where freedom of thought is protected.

He analyzes the Bible, challenging its claims to divine authority and arguing that its interpretation should be based on reason and historical criticism rather than blind faith. By emphasizing the power of human reason to understand the world and to determine moral principles, Spinoza offers a powerful counterpoint to religious dogma and calls for a more enlightened and tolerant society.

Chapter 5 – The Natural History of Religion by David Hume:

This chapter presents excerpts from The Natural History of Religion, a work by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, published in 1757. Hume analyzes the origins of religion, arguing that it arises from fear and ignorance rather than reason or experience.

He contends that polytheism is humanity’s first and most natural religion, arising from the tendency to ascribe agency to natural phenomena and to personify unseen forces. He argues that monotheism, although often presented as a more sophisticated form of belief, is ultimately a product of the same psychological impulses that generate polytheism.

Hume further criticizes the concept of miracles, arguing that the evidence for any miracle is always outweighed by the vast and uniform experience we have of the regularity of nature. He contends that it is always more probable that people are mistaken or lying about their experiences than that the laws of nature have been violated.

Hume’s skeptical approach to religion challenges the foundations of faith and encourages readers to view religious beliefs with a critical eye. His work has had a profound impact on philosophical and theological thought, undermining the traditional arguments for the existence of God and highlighting the importance of reason and evidence in understanding the world.

Chapter 6 – An Account of My Last Interview With David Hume, Esq. by James Boswell:

This chapter presents a firsthand account of the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s final days, recorded by his contemporary, the biographer James Boswell. Boswell, a devout Christian, was both fascinated and appalled by Hume’s resolute atheism, even in the face of death.

Hume, suffering from a terminal illness, expresses his skepticism about the existence of an afterlife, arguing that it is more probable that we cease to exist upon death than that we continue in some other form. He questions the morality of religion, suggesting that it can lead to hypocrisy and cruelty. He dismisses the traditional arguments for the existence of God, contending that they are based on faulty logic and unfounded assumptions.

Boswell, though disturbed by Hume’s unbelief, acknowledges his intellectual brilliance and his equanimity in facing death. The account serves as a reminder of the diversity of human beliefs about the afterlife and highlights the importance of intellectual honesty, even in the face of ultimate uncertainty.

Chapter 7 – A Refutation of Deism by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

This chapter presents an excerpt from A Refutation of Deism, a pamphlet written by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Shelley, a committed atheist, argues against the deistic notion of God as a first cause or designer of the universe.

He contends that the argument from design is flawed, arguing that it is based on a false analogy between human artifacts and the natural world. He suggests that the order and regularity we observe in nature do not necessarily imply the existence of a designer, just as finding a watch on the ground would not prove that it was created by a watchmaker.

Shelley further argues that even if the universe were designed, this would not prove the existence of a benevolent or even a personal God. He suggests that the imperfections and evils we observe in the world are inconsistent with the traditional conception of God as all-powerful and all-good.

Shelley’s work challenges the deistic attempt to reconcile reason with religion, arguing that the evidence for the existence of God is insufficient and that the concept of God itself is problematic. He encourages readers to embrace a naturalistic view of the universe, finding beauty and meaning in the world without recourse to supernatural explanations.

Chapter 8 – Moral Influences in Early Youth: My Father’s Character and Opinions (from Autobiography) by John Stuart Mill:

This chapter presents an excerpt from the Autobiography of the English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, published in 1873. Mill recounts his upbringing as an atheist, shaped by the intellectual and moral convictions of his father, James Mill, a prominent philosopher and advocate of utilitarianism.

James Mill, a former believer in Christianity, rejected religion on both intellectual and moral grounds. He found the traditional arguments for the existence of God to be unconvincing and was repelled by the notion of a God who would create a world filled with suffering and then condemn most of humanity to eternal damnation.

John Stuart Mill, raised without religious belief, developed a strong moral compass based on his father’s teachings and the ethical principles of utilitarianism. He came to view religion as a harmful force in society, promoting superstition, intolerance, and a degraded conception of morality.

This chapter highlights the possibility of developing a strong moral compass without religious belief, arguing that reason and experience are sufficient guides to ethical conduct. It further critiques the harmful influence of religion on society, suggesting that it can undermine both intellectual progress and moral development.

Chapter 9 – Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction by Karl Marx:

This chapter presents the introduction to Karl Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, written in 1843. Marx, the founder of Marxism, argues that religion is a product of social alienation, serving as an opiate that dulls the pain of oppression and exploitation.

He contends that religion arises from the real distress of human beings living in an unjust and dehumanizing world. He suggests that it offers illusory comfort and hope, distracting people from the material conditions that cause their suffering and preventing them from taking action to change their circumstances.

Marx famously describes religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” He argues that the abolition of religion is necessary for the true emancipation of humanity, allowing people to confront reality without illusion and to create a more just and humane society.

This chapter highlights the social and political dimensions of religion, suggesting that it can be used to justify and perpetuate inequality and oppression. It further emphasizes the importance of material conditions in shaping human beliefs and behaviors, arguing that religion serves as a distraction from the real problems facing humanity.

Chapter 10 – “Evangelical Teaching” by George Eliot:

This chapter, originally published in the Westminster Review in 1855, presents a scathing critique of evangelical Christianity by the English novelist George Eliot. Eliot, a former believer in Christianity who later became an atheist, analyzes the rhetoric and tactics of evangelical preachers, exposing their intellectual dishonesty, their lack of genuine charity, and their perverse moral judgments.

She argues that evangelical Christianity appeals to the passions and prejudices of the masses rather than to their reason and intelligence. She criticizes the preachers’ use of “argumentative white lies,” their reliance on apocryphal anecdotes, and their tendency to misrepresent and even contradict themselves in order to defend their doctrines.

Eliot further critiques the evangelical preachers’ lack of genuine charity, suggesting that their love is confined to members of their own sect and that their teachings foster hatred and intolerance toward those who hold different beliefs. She argues that their emphasis on the imminent Second Coming and the eternal damnation of unbelievers distracts people from the true moral demands of Christianity, which are to love one’s neighbor and to promote the well-being of humanity.

This chapter highlights the dangers of religious dogmatism and fanaticism, arguing that they can lead to intellectual dishonesty, moral corruption, and a destructive intolerance of others. It further challenges the notion that religion is a prerequisite for morality, suggesting that nonbelievers are just as capable of leading ethical lives and that genuine charity and compassion are independent of religious belief.

Chapter 11 – Autobiography by Charles Darwin:

This chapter presents an excerpt from the Autobiography of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who revolutionized biology with his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin recounts his gradual loss of faith, spurred by his scientific discoveries and his reflections on the diversity and imperfections of the natural world.

Darwin, initially a devout Christian, began to question his beliefs during his voyage on the Beagle, where he observed the vast array of living organisms and their adaptations to different environments. He found the traditional arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from design, to be increasingly unconvincing in light of the evidence for evolution.

He further questioned the morality of Christianity, finding the notion of eternal damnation to be repugnant and morally indefensible. He gradually came to accept that the universe was not governed by a benevolent creator but rather by the blind forces of natural selection, a process that produced both beauty and cruelty, order and chaos.

This chapter highlights the intellectual and moral challenges posed by the theory of evolution to traditional religious beliefs. It further emphasizes the importance of scientific evidence and rational inquiry in understanding the world, suggesting that they can lead to a more profound and awe-inspiring appreciation of nature than any religious dogma.

Chapter 12 – “An Agnostic’s Apology” by Leslie Stephen:

This chapter, originally published in the Fortnightly Review in 1876, presents a defense of agnosticism by the English writer and critic Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf. Stephen, a former Anglican clergyman who later became an atheist, argues that the limits of human reason preclude us from knowing anything about the existence or nature of God.

He distinguishes between “Gnostics,” who believe that human reason can transcend experience and attain knowledge of the supernatural, and “Agnostics,” who deny this possibility. He criticizes the Gnostics’ attempts to define the nature of God, arguing that they are engaged in a futile and even blasphemous exercise.

Stephen further contends that even if we could know something about God, this knowledge would not necessarily be comforting or morally helpful. He suggests that the traditional conception of God as all-powerful and all-good is inconsistent with the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

He concludes by arguing that agnosticism is the only intellectually honest position, given the limits of human knowledge and the irresolvable controversies that have plagued theology throughout history. He encourages readers to focus on the things we can know and understand about the world, leaving aside speculation about the supernatural.

Chapter 13 – “Miracle” by Anatole France:

This chapter, taken from Anatole France’s 1896 work The Garden of Epicurus, presents a skeptical view of miracles by the French novelist and critic. France, a committed atheist, argues that the concept of a miracle is inherently contradictory and that no miracle can ever be established as a fact.

He contends that the very definition of a miracle—as a violation of the laws of nature—is problematic, since we do not fully know the laws of nature and therefore cannot be certain that any given event is a violation of them. He suggests that what may appear to be a miracle at one point in history may later be explained by scientific discoveries.

France further argues that the belief in miracles is a product of ignorance and superstition, with people attributing agency to natural phenomena they do not understand. He cites examples of purported miracles that have later been explained by scientific investigation, such as cures attributed to saints’ relics or the appearance of new stars.

He concludes by asserting that a truly scientific mind should be open to the possibility of new discoveries and should not prematurely declare any event to be beyond the realm of natural explanation. He encourages readers to embrace a naturalistic view of the world, seeking to understand events in terms of the laws of nature rather than resorting to supernatural explanations.

Chapter 14 – “Thoughts of God” by Mark Twain:

This chapter presents excerpts from Fables of Man, a collection of essays by the American novelist and humorist Mark Twain, published posthumously in 1906. Twain, a skeptic about religion, uses his characteristic wit and irony to critique the traditional conception of God, highlighting its inconsistencies and its incompatibility with the world we observe.

He begins by satirizing the argument from design, suggesting that if God designed the fly, then He must be a cruel and malicious being. He further criticizes the notion of divine mercy and compassion, arguing that God’s interventions in human affairs are often indistinguishable from mere common justice and that the world would be a better place if people followed their own compassionate impulses rather than waiting for God to act.

Twain also critiques the Bible, highlighting its contradictions and its endorsement of barbaric practices such as slavery, witch hunts, and genocide. He suggests that the Bible is a product of its time, reflecting the ignorance and cruelty of ancient societies rather than the wisdom of a benevolent God.

This chapter challenges readers to view religious beliefs with a critical eye, questioning the traditional attributes of God and highlighting the inconsistencies between religious dogma and the world we observe. Twain’s use of humor and satire serves to expose the absurdities of religious belief and to encourage readers to think for themselves about the nature of God and morality.

Chapter 15 – Author’s Note to The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad:

This chapter presents Joseph Conrad’s author’s note to his 1917 novella The Shadow Line. Conrad, a Polish-born British novelist, clarifies his intention in writing the story, emphasizing that it is not meant to be supernatural but rather a realistic exploration of the psychological effects of a moral shock on a young man.

He contends that the world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries without recourse to the supernatural, which he considers a “manufactured article” created by minds insensitive to the complexities of human experience. He argues that his aim in The Shadow Line is to depict the transition from youthful idealism to a more mature and nuanced understanding of the world, shaped by experience and loss.

This chapter highlights Conrad’s commitment to psychological realism and his skepticism about the supernatural. It suggests that the true marvels and mysteries of life are to be found in the human heart and in the intricate workings of the natural world, not in the fantasies of the supernatural.

Chapter 16 – “God’s Funeral” by Thomas Hardy:

This chapter presents a poem by the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, published in 1909. Hardy, who struggled with his own loss of faith, offers a poignant and melancholic reflection on the decline of religious belief and the sense of bereavement it can engender.

The poem depicts a funeral procession for God, with mourners lamenting the loss of their faith and questioning what will fill the void left by their belief in a higher power. Hardy acknowledges the comfort and solace that religion once offered, but he also recognizes the inevitability of its decline in the face of scientific discoveries and the growing skepticism of the modern world.

The poem ends with a glimmer of hope, suggesting that while the traditional conception of God may be dead, there may yet be a “pale yet positive gleam” on the horizon, pointing to a new and more enlightened understanding of the universe.

Chapter 17 – “The Philosophy of Atheism” by Emma Goldman:

This chapter presents an essay by the Russian-born American anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman, published in 1916. Goldman argues that atheism is not simply the absence of belief in God but rather a positive philosophy that embraces human reason, freedom, and the pursuit of justice and beauty in this world.

She contends that theism has historically served to oppress and exploit humanity, justifying inequality, war, and persecution in the name of God. She criticizes the theistic conception of morality as based on fear and the promise of rewards and punishments in an afterlife, arguing that true morality springs from human sympathy, compassion, and a sense of justice.

Goldman further argues that atheism frees humanity from the shackles of superstition and dogma, enabling people to think for themselves, to take control of their own lives, and to create a more just and humane society. She sees atheism as a necessary condition for human progress and the realization of a world where freedom and beauty prevail.

Chapter 18 – “A Letter on Religion” by H. P. Lovecraft:

This chapter presents a letter written by the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft in 1918. Lovecraft, a committed atheist, critiques religion as intellectually dishonest and aesthetically repugnant, arguing that it offers a stunted and childish view of the universe.

He criticizes the “pragmatic” view of religion, which holds that its value lies in its usefulness for promoting morality and social order, arguing that the truth of religious claims must be examined independently of their alleged consequences. He contends that the honest thinker demands a scientific explanation of the world and is outraged by the deliberate inculcation of demonstrable falsehoods by religious institutions.

Lovecraft further argues that theism offers a limited and anthropocentric view of the universe, with humans mistakenly imagining themselves to be the special objects of God’s concern. He embraces a naturalistic view of the world, finding awe and wonder in the vastness and mystery of the cosmos, without recourse to supernatural explanations.

Chapter 19 – “Why I Am an Unbeliever” by Carl Van Doren:

This chapter, originally published in Forum magazine in 1926, presents a personal statement of unbelief by the American literary critic and biographer Carl Van Doren. Van Doren, raised in a religious household, recounts his gradual loss of faith, spurred by his intellectual curiosity and his reflections on the history of religion and the diversity of human beliefs.

He argues that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are unconvincing and that religious doctrines are ultimately based on human wishes and fears rather than on evidence or reason. He suggests that the existence of countless gods throughout history, each claiming to be the true God, undermines the credibility of all religious claims.

Van Doren further contends that the belief in an afterlife is a product of the human desire to escape death, not a demonstrable fact. He finds the concept of immortality to be both improbable and ultimately unnecessary, arguing that life on earth is sufficiently meaningful and fulfilling without the promise of a future existence.

He concludes by arguing that atheism is not a bleak or cynical outlook but rather a courageous and optimistic embrace of reality. He suggests that unbelievers have contributed much to the advancement of knowledge, art, and morality, and that their skepticism and intellectual honesty are essential for the progress of humanity.

Chapter 20 – “Memorial Service” by H. L. Mencken:

This chapter, published in 1924, presents a satirical eulogy for the dead gods of history by the American journalist and critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken, a staunch atheist, mocks the absurdity of religious belief, highlighting the countless gods that have been worshipped throughout history, only to be forgotten and abandoned.

He lists the names of forgotten deities from various cultures, from Jupiter and Huitzilopochtli to Odin and Quetzalcoatl, emphasizing their supposed power and the elaborate rituals that once surrounded their worship. He suggests that the graveyard of dead gods is vast and crowded, with their tombs lost and their legacies forgotten.

Mencken’s satirical approach serves to deflate the pretensions of religion and to highlight the ephemeral nature of religious beliefs. He suggests that the gods are nothing more than human inventions, subject to the same whims of fashion and the same processes of decay and oblivion as any other cultural artifact.

Chapter 21 – From The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud:

This chapter presents excerpts from The Future of an Illusion, a work by the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, published in 1927. Freud analyzes the psychological origins of religion, arguing that it is a product of infantile wishes and fears that persist into adulthood.

He contends that religious beliefs are “illusions,” that is, wishful fulfillments that are not necessarily false but are motivated by desires rather than evidence. He suggests that religion arises from the child’s need for protection and security, which is initially provided by the father but later projected onto a more powerful, supernatural being—God.

Freud further argues that religion offers illusory comfort and solace in the face of death, uncertainty, and the injustices of life. He suggests that it serves to suppress our instinctual desires, to impose a rigid moral code, and to distract us from the real problems facing humanity.

He concludes by suggesting that as science and reason advance, religion will inevitably decline, although it may persist as a private neurosis or a symptom of social and psychological immaturity.

Chapter 22 – Selected Writings on Religion by Albert Einstein:

This chapter presents a selection of writings on religion by the renowned physicist Albert Einstein. Einstein, widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, expresses a skeptical view of religion, arguing that it is based on superstition and fear rather than reason or evidence.

He rejects the traditional conception of God as a personal being who intervenes in human affairs, finding it to be both intellectually naive and morally problematic. He embraces a more pantheistic view of God, identifying God with the order and harmony of the natural world, as expressed in the laws of physics.

Einstein further emphasizes the importance of morality, but he sees it as a purely human concern, not dependent on religious belief or divine authority. He suggests that ethical behavior should be based on sympathy, education, and social ties, not on the fear of punishment or the hope of reward in an afterlife.

This chapter highlights the incompatibility of a scientific worldview with the traditional conception of God and religion. It further suggests that the true source of awe and wonder is to be found in the marvels of the natural world, as revealed by science, not in the fantasies of the supernatural.

Chapter 23 – From A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell:

This chapter presents an excerpt from A Clergyman’s Daughter, the first novel by the English novelist and essayist George Orwell, published in 1935. The novel follows the protagonist, Dorothy, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, as she undergoes a crisis of faith and loses her belief in God.

In this excerpt, Dorothy finds herself unable to pray sincerely during a communion service, her mind distracted by the mundane details of her surroundings and the hypocrisy of those around her. She experiences a sudden sense of peace and joy, however, when she glimpses a ray of sunlight illuminating the green leaves of a tree outside the church.

This episode highlights the fragility of faith and the possibility of finding beauty and meaning in the natural world, even in the absence of religious belief. It further suggests that genuine religious experience may be more closely tied to aesthetic appreciation and a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature than to belief in dogma or supernatural beings.

Chapter 24 – “In Westminster Abbey” by John Betjeman:

This satirical poem, published in 1940, exposes the self-centeredness and hypocrisy often lurking beneath religious piety. Betjeman, known for his love of traditional English culture and his gentle humor, uses the setting of a service at Westminster Abbey to lampoon a lady’s prayer, filled with nationalistic fervor, social snobbery, and a callous disregard for the suffering of others.

The lady prays for God to bomb the Germans (but to spare their women), to keep the British Empire intact, and to protect her own comfortable life and investments. She expresses a superficial piety, promising to attend evening service when she has the time and to work for God’s kingdom—after she has enjoyed her luncheon date.

This poem subtly critiques the tendency to use religion as a cloak for self-interest and prejudice, highlighting the gap between professed beliefs and actual behavior. It suggests that true piety requires a genuine concern for the welfare of others, not just for oneself and one’s own nation or social class.

Chapter 25 – “Monism and Religion” by Chapman Cohen:

This chapter presents excerpts from “Monism and Religion,” an essay by the English rationalist and freethinker Chapman Cohen, published in 1925. Cohen argues that monism, the philosophical view that the universe is ultimately composed of a single substance, is incompatible with theism and leads inevitably to atheism.

He contends that monism implies a strict determinism, with all events following necessarily from the initial state of the universe, leaving no room for divine intervention or free will. He suggests that the individual is not an independent entity but rather a product of social forces and that morality arises from social relations rather than from divine commands.

Cohen further criticizes the religious notion of the individual as “doomed” by monism, arguing that a proper understanding of the individual’s place in the social organism enhances rather than diminishes his or her significance. He suggests that social progress depends on modifying social conditions, not on appealing to individual morality or relying on divine intervention.

This chapter highlights the philosophical and ethical implications of monism, arguing that it offers a more coherent and realistic view of the universe and human nature than theism. It further critiques the religious tendency to overemphasize the individual, suggesting that a proper understanding of the individual’s social embeddedness is essential for both moral development and social progress.

Chapter 26 – “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish” by Bertrand Russell:

In this witty and insightful essay, published in 1943, the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell examines the diverse forms of intellectual rubbish that have plagued humanity throughout history, from religious dogma and superstition to unfounded generalizations about human nature and national character.

Russell begins by critiquing the traditional claim that humans are rational animals, arguing that history provides little evidence for this assertion. He cites examples of irrationality among the clergy, noting their resistance to scientific discoveries and their tendency to attribute natural disasters to divine punishment.

He further examines the persistence of superstition, highlighting beliefs in astrology, witchcraft, and the magical properties of gold and precious stones. He critiques generalizations about human nature and national character, arguing that they are often based on prejudice and ignorance rather than evidence.

Russell concludes by offering simple rules for avoiding intellectual rubbish: observe the world for yourself, be wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem, seek out opposing views, and cultivate a healthy skepticism toward all claims that lack sufficient evidence.

Chapter 27 – “Aubade” and “Church Going” by Philip Larkin:

This chapter presents two poems by the English poet Philip Larkin, “Aubade,” published in 1977, and “Church Going,” published in 1955. Larkin, a skeptic about religion, offers poignant and melancholic reflections on death, the meaninglessness of life, and the decline of religious belief.

In “Aubade,” Larkin contemplates the inevitability of death and the “total emptiness forever” that awaits us. He critiques the traditional religious attempts to dispel the fear of death, finding them to be both unconvincing and ultimately futile.

In “Church Going,” Larkin visits an empty church, observing the remnants of religious ritual and speculating about the future of churches when they fall completely out of use. He acknowledges the “seriousness” of religion, recognizing that it has served as a focus for human aspirations and anxieties, but he also recognizes its ultimate obsolescence in the face of modern skepticism.

These poems capture the mood of existential angst and uncertainty that pervades much of modern literature, highlighting the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in a world where traditional religious beliefs have lost their hold.

Chapter 28 – “The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming” by Martin Gardner:

This chapter, originally published in Free Inquiry magazine in 1995, explores the legend of the Wandering Jew, a mythical figure condemned to wander the earth until the Second Coming of Christ. Martin Gardner, a renowned writer on science, mathematics, and skepticism, traces the origins and evolution of the legend, highlighting its connection to Christian apocalyptic beliefs and its role in perpetuating anti-Semitism.

He argues that the legend arose in the Middle Ages as a way to reconcile Christ’s prophecy of his imminent return with the obvious fact that he had not come back within the lifetime of anyone who had known him. The Wandering Jew, condemned to an earthly immortality, served as a living reminder of Christ’s promise and a symbol of the Jews’ rejection of him as the messiah.

Gardner further examines the literary and artistic representations of the Wandering Jew, from medieval folklore and Renaissance drama to nineteenth-century novels and twentieth-century films. He highlights the legend’s enduring appeal, suggesting that it reflects a deep human fascination with immortality and the end of the world.

This chapter illuminates the complex relationship between religion, myth, and history, showing how religious beliefs can inspire both creativity and cruelty, and how legends can evolve over time to reflect the changing anxieties and aspirations of different cultures.

Chapter 29 – From The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan:

This chapter presents excerpts from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, a work by the American astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, published in 1995. Sagan critiques the persistence of superstition and pseudoscience in the modern world, arguing that science offers a powerful antidote to these irrational beliefs.

He begins by tracing the history of belief in demons, from ancient Greece to the medieval witch hunts, highlighting the role of fear and ignorance in perpetuating these superstitions. He suggests that belief in alien abductions, a contemporary phenomenon, shares many features with ancient demonology, reflecting a deep human tendency to project our anxieties and fantasies onto the unknown.

Sagan further critiques the pseudoscientific arguments for creationism and intelligent design, arguing that they are based on a misunderstanding of science and a deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence for evolution. He defends the scientific method as the best tool we have for understanding the world, emphasizing its commitment to evidence, reason, and open inquiry.

He concludes by urging readers to embrace a scientific worldview, cultivating a healthy skepticism toward all claims that lack sufficient evidence and recognizing the importance of critical thinking in a world awash in misinformation and superstition.

Chapter 30 – From Roger’s Version by John Updike:

This chapter presents an excerpt from Roger’s Version, a novel by the American writer John Updike, published in 1986. The novel follows the protagonist, Roger Lambert, a divinity school professor, as he confronts the challenges posed to his faith by a brilliant young graduate student, Dale Kohler.

In this excerpt, Dale presents Roger with the cosmological arguments for the existence of God, based on the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life. Roger, although initially skeptical, finds himself drawn into a discussion of the origins of the universe and the possibility of a purely naturalistic explanation for the emergence of life.

This chapter explores the intellectual and emotional complexities of faith, highlighting the challenges posed to traditional religious beliefs by scientific discoveries. It further suggests that even those who are committed to a scientific worldview can find themselves wrestling with the ultimate questions of existence and the possibility of a higher power.

Chapter 31 – “Conclusions and Implications” from The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God by J. L. Mackie:

This chapter presents excerpts from The Miracle of Theism, a work by the Australian philosopher J. L. Mackie, published in 1982. Mackie offers a comprehensive critique of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, concluding that the balance of probabilities strongly favors atheism.

He begins by examining the challenge of nihilism, the philosophical view that life is ultimately meaningless and purposeless. He argues that while nihilism is a real possibility, it can be countered by a “fundamental trust” in the world, based on a fallibilist but optimistic empiricism on the intellectual side and on the invention of value on the practical side.

Mackie further examines the various arguments for theism, including the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the moral argument, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experience. He finds all of these arguments to be unconvincing, either because they are based on faulty logic, unfounded assumptions, or insufficient evidence.

He concludes by addressing the moral consequences of atheism, arguing that morality is not dependent on religious belief and that nonbelievers are just as capable of leading ethical lives as believers. He suggests that the naturalistic view of morality, which sees it as a product of human evolution and social relations, offers a more coherent and realistic foundation for ethics than divine command theories.

Chapter 32 – “Genesis Revisited: A Scientific Creation Story” by Michael Shermer:

This chapter, originally published in Skeptic magazine, presents a humorous and satirical retelling of the Genesis creation story in the language of modern science. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a prominent science writer, uses this imaginative exercise to highlight the absurdity of trying to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of science.

Shermer’s retelling incorporates concepts from cosmology, physics, geology, and evolutionary biology, such as the big bang, plate tectonics, natural selection, and the fossil record, into the traditional biblical narrative. He satirizes the creationists’ attempts to find scientific support for their beliefs, highlighting the contradictions and inconsistencies that arise when one tries to force the round peg of science into the square hole of religious dogma.

This chapter serves as a reminder of the vast gulf that separates a scientific worldview from a religious one, highlighting the importance of evidence, reason, and critical thinking in understanding the origins of the universe and the diversity of life on earth.

Chapter 33 – “That Undiscovered Country” by A. J. Ayer:

This chapter, published in 1988, presents a personal account of a near-death experience by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer, a prominent advocate of logical positivism and a lifelong atheist. Ayer, who suffered a heart attack and was clinically dead for four minutes, recounts his unusual experiences during this time, exploring their implications for the possibility of an afterlife and the existence of God.

Ayer describes being confronted by a bright red light that he felt was responsible for governing the universe and encountering two beings who were in charge of space. He further recounts a sense of urgency to put things right, as if the laws of nature had ceased to function properly. He suggests that these experiences, while possibly delusional, may offer some evidence that consciousness can persist beyond death.

However, Ayer emphasizes that even if these experiences were veridical, they would not prove the existence of God or a future life in the traditional religious sense. He maintains his atheistic convictions, arguing that there is no good reason to believe that a god presides over either this world or any supposed next world.

This chapter explores the philosophical and personal implications of near-death experiences, highlighting the challenges they pose to traditional materialistic views of consciousness and the persistence of personal identity. It further emphasizes the need for a critical and skeptical approach to such experiences, recognizing the possibility of delusion and the limitations of anecdotal evidence.

Chapter 34 – “Thank Goodness!” by Daniel C. Dennett:

This chapter, first published on the Edge website in 2006, presents a personal reflection on a near-death experience by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, a prominent advocate of atheism and a leading figure in the field of cognitive science. Dennett, who underwent emergency surgery for a dissected aorta, expresses gratitude for the scientific and medical advances that saved his life, celebrating the “goodness” of human reason and ingenuity.

Dennett contrasts the high standards of moral responsibility found in the secular world of science and medicine with the more forgiving attitudes often found in religion. He criticizes the religious tendency to rely on faith and good intentions rather than evidence and rigorous testing, arguing that such an approach undermines the pursuit of truth and can lead to harmful consequences.

He further critiques the belief in the efficacy of prayer, citing scientific evidence that intercessory prayer does not work and arguing that those who persist in this practice are undermining respect for reason and empirical inquiry. He encourages religious people to find more effective ways to express their concern for others, such as contributing to charitable causes or engaging in political activism.

This chapter celebrates the power of human reason and scientific inquiry to improve the world, arguing that they offer a more reliable and morally responsible approach to solving problems than religious faith or supernatural intervention.

Chapter 35 – “A Personal Word” from A Farewell to God by Charles Templeton:

This chapter presents excerpts from A Farewell to God, a memoir by the Canadian evangelist Charles Templeton, published in 1996. Templeton, who was once a close associate of Billy Graham, recounts his loss of faith and his reasons for rejecting Christianity.

He describes his growing skepticism about the literal truth of the Bible, spurred by his exposure to science, philosophy, and historical criticism. He further questions the morality of Christianity, finding the notion of eternal damnation to be repugnant and the doctrine of divine election to be incompatible with a loving and impartial God.

Templeton recounts a conversation with Billy Graham in which they discussed their divergent views on faith and reason. Graham, committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible, argues that his preaching has power only when he proclaims it as the inerrant word of God. Templeton, unable to reconcile his faith with his intellect, chooses to pursue a path of critical inquiry and ultimately abandons Christianity.

This chapter highlights the intellectual and emotional challenges posed to traditional religious beliefs by modern knowledge and the personal struggles that can accompany the loss of faith. It further offers a glimpse into the world of evangelical Christianity, exposing its tendency toward dogmatism and its reliance on emotional appeals rather than evidence or reason.

Chapter 36 – “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God” from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

This chapter presents excerpts from The God Delusion, a work by the English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, published in 2006. Dawkins, a prominent advocate of atheism, presents a forceful and witty critique of religion, arguing that the evidence overwhelmingly favors the nonexistence of God.

He begins by satirizing the argument from improbability, using Fred Hoyle’s analogy of a hurricane assembling a Boeing 747 from a scrapyard to highlight the absurdity of the creationist claim that complex organisms could not have evolved by natural selection. He argues that Darwinian evolution is the only known solution to the problem of biological complexity, demonstrating how cumulative, nonrandom processes can produce highly improbable outcomes.

Dawkins further critiques the concept of “irreducible complexity,” a favorite argument of intelligent design proponents, arguing that it is based on a failure of imagination and a misunderstanding of the gradual, step-by-step nature of evolution. He cites numerous examples of biological structures, such as the eye and the bacterial flagellar motor, that have been falsely claimed to be irreducibly complex, demonstrating how they could have evolved through a series of functional intermediates.

He concludes by arguing that the “God of the Gaps” strategy, which appeals to divine intervention to explain anything that science cannot currently explain, is fundamentally unscientific and ultimately self-defeating. He suggests that the true marvels and mysteries of the universe are to be found in the laws of nature, as revealed by science, not in the fantasies of the supernatural.

Chapter 37 – “Cosmic Evidence” from God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger:

This chapter presents excerpts from God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, a work by the American physicist Victor Stenger, published in 2007. Stenger argues that modern science has provided sufficient evidence to reject the hypothesis of a creator God, contending that the universe and its laws can be explained naturalistically without recourse to supernatural intervention.

He examines the implications of the creation hypothesis for cosmology and physics, arguing that the evidence for the big bang, the expansion of the universe, and the conservation of energy does not support the notion of a miraculous creation. He contends that the universe appears to have originated from a state of zero energy and that the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of space-time.

Stenger further argues that the universe shows no signs of divine intervention, with all observed cosmic phenomena being explicable in terms of natural laws. He critiques the kalâm cosmological argument, a popular argument for the existence of God based on the supposed beginning of the universe, arguing that it is both logically flawed and scientifically unfounded.

He concludes by suggesting that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can be answered scientifically, pointing to the possibility that a state of nothingness is inherently unstable and that the emergence of a universe from nothing is a natural process that does not require a creator.

Chapter 38 – “A Working Definition of Religion” from “Breaking Which Spell?” by Daniel C. Dennett:

Dennett proposes to define religions tentatively as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” He acknowledges this definition’s limitations, recognizing that there will be variants and exceptions. The definition aims to distinguish religion from social groups centered around non-supernatural figures like Elvis Presley, as well as from “black magic” practices that seek to command rather than appease supernatural agents.

Dennett further explores the complexities of religious belief, recognizing that not all who profess faith understand it in the same way. Some may view prayer as symbolic or metaphorical rather than a literal conversation with God. Such individuals, while they may identify with a religious tradition, do not necessarily adhere to a belief in a supernatural agent who intervenes in human affairs, and thus their creed may not qualify as a religion according to his definition. He acknowledges the existence of “spiritual” individuals who hold deeply personal, non-institutionalized beliefs, distinguishing them from those who participate in organized religions.

Dennett’s proposed definition, though provisional and subject to revision, highlights the importance of belief in supernatural agency as a core feature of religion. He recognizes the diversity of religious experience and the challenges of categorizing a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as religion.

Chapter 39 – “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” by Elizabeth Anderson:

This chapter, from the 2007 anthology Philosophers Without Gods, directly challenges the common theistic argument that morality is impossible without God. Elizabeth Anderson, a prominent American philosopher, argues that the moralistic argument, often used to reject atheism, applies more forcefully to theism.

She contends that if one takes seriously the evidence for theism, particularly the moral teachings of Scripture, one is forced to conclude that many heinous acts are morally permissible or even required. She cites numerous examples of God’s cruelty and injustice in the Bible, from punishing people for the sins of others to commanding genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Anderson examines various theistic attempts to reconcile God’s supposed goodness with the evil depicted in Scripture, finding them all to be unconvincing. She argues that the only way to avoid the morally repugnant implications of the Bible is to reject its literal truth and to embrace a more liberal theology that acknowledges the historical and cultural context of its writings.

However, Anderson further argues that once one begins to question the inerrancy of the Bible, there is no stable ground short of rejecting its claims to extraordinary evidence about God altogether. She contends that the same extraordinary types of evidence—revelations, miracles, religious experiences, and prophecies—are cited by all religions, often in support of contradictory beliefs, undermining their credibility as a source of knowledge about God.

Anderson concludes by arguing that the authority of morality lies not with God but with each of us, springing from our practices of reciprocal claim-making and our shared responsibility to one another. She suggests that appeals to divine authority can undermine morality by encouraging believers to ignore the claims of those they consider to be outside God’s favor.

Chapter 40 – “There Is No God” by Penn Jillette:

This chapter, from the 2006 anthology This I Believe, offers a personal statement of atheism by Penn Jillette, the outspoken half of the renowned magic duo Penn and Teller. Jillette argues that the burden of proof lies with those who claim that God exists and contends that there is no compelling evidence to support such a belief.

Jillette suggests that “not believing in God is easy” because it requires no work to refute an unproven claim. The real challenge, he argues, is to actively seek evidence for God while acknowledging the ease with which one can be misled by wishful thinking and confirmation bias.

He further describes how his atheism informs his life, promoting gratitude for the good things he experiences, encouraging him to treat others well, and fostering intellectual humility and a willingness to learn from his mistakes. He sees atheism as liberating, freeing him from the constraints of dogma and allowing him to embrace the wonders of the natural world and the complexities of human experience without resorting to supernatural explanations.

Jillette’s personal and direct style makes this a compelling read, highlighting how atheism can provide a foundation for a meaningful and ethical life.

Chapter 41 – “End of the World Blues” by Ian McEwan:

This chapter, originally delivered as a lecture at Stanford University in 2007, explores the history and persistence of apocalyptic beliefs, both religious and secular. Ian McEwan, a renowned British novelist, examines the psychological and social factors that contribute to end-time thinking, highlighting the dangers of such beliefs in a world armed with weapons of mass destruction.

McEwan begins by reflecting on the ephemerality of human existence, using the imagery of photography to highlight the certainty of death and the impermanence of our earthly concerns. He contrasts individual mortality with the apocalyptic vision of a collective demise, examining the history of end-time movements in Christianity and Islam, from medieval millenarian sects to contemporary apocalyptic preachers and terrorist groups.

He analyzes the Book of Revelation, the central text of Christian apocalyptic belief, noting its enduring appeal and its role in shaping both medieval European history and contemporary American culture. He highlights the book’s bizarre imagery, its numerological obsessions, and its tendency to demonize opponents and to justify violence in the name of God.

McEwan further explores the connections between religious and secular apocalyptic beliefs, citing examples of twentieth-century totalitarian movements, such as Nazism and Soviet communism, that embraced a secularized version of the apocalyptic narrative, with the will of God replaced by the will of history. He suggests that science, while providing us with the means to destroy ourselves, has not provided a sufficiently compelling counter-narrative to the ancient apocalyptic myths that give meaning to many people’s lives.

He concludes by urging readers to embrace a more rational and less fatalistic view of the future, recognizing the importance of human agency in shaping our destiny and the need for a clear-eyed assessment of the risks and challenges facing humanity. He suggests that scientific curiosity, rather than blind faith, is our best guide in navigating the uncertainties of the twenty-first century.

Chapter 42 – “What About God?” from Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg:

This chapter, taken from Steven Weinberg’s 1992 book Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature, explores the relationship between science and religion, arguing that the more we learn about the universe, the less likely it seems that it was created by a God who cares about human beings.

Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, begins by reflecting on the historical process of “demystification” that has characterized the progress of science, from the Copernican revolution to the Darwinian theory of evolution. He suggests that as science has explained more and more of the world in purely natural terms, the traditional role of God as an explainer of mysteries has steadily diminished.

He examines the arguments for the existence of God, finding them all to be unconvincing. He critiques the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the moral argument, and the argument from religious experience, arguing that they are based on faulty logic, unfounded assumptions, or insufficient evidence.

Weinberg further argues that even if a “final theory” of physics were discovered, it would not provide any evidence for an interested God. He suggests that the laws of nature are chillingly impersonal, showing no special concern for life or intelligence.

He concludes by expressing his own skepticism about the possibility of finding spiritual comfort in science, suggesting that the universe itself seems pointless. He acknowledges the temptation to believe in a God who cares about us, but he finds the honor of resisting this temptation to be a more intellectually and morally satisfying position.

Chapter 43 – “Imagine There’s No Heaven” by Salman Rushdie:

This chapter, originally published in 1997 as a letter to the “six-billionth world citizen” in a UN-sponsored anthology, offers a powerful and eloquent defense of atheism and a passionate plea for a world free from the tyranny of religion. Salman Rushdie, a renowned Indian-born British novelist who has lived under a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel The Satanic Verses, argues that religion is both demonstrably false and intrinsically harmful.

He begins by addressing the newest member of the human race, offering a critical perspective on the religious creation myths that will inevitably be presented to the child. He suggests that all religious stories about our origins are demonstrably wrong and that their continued influence is a testament to the power of blind faith over reason.

Rushdie critiques the religious opposition to birth control, arguing that it has contributed to overpopulation and human misery. He further examines the role of religion in fueling violence and conflict, suggesting that while not all religious people are extremists, the “silent majority” of believers who fail to condemn terrorism and persecution are complicit in the crimes committed in the name of their faith.

He argues that the true path to wisdom lies in embracing human knowledge and reason, rejecting dogma and superstition, and living in accordance with the values of freedom, tolerance, and compassion. He encourages the child to “imagine there’s no heaven,” suggesting that such a world would be one where the sky’s the limit for human potential and where ethical choices are made on the basis of reason and empathy, not divine command.

Chapter 44 – “The Koran” from Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq:

This chapter presents excerpts from Why I Am Not a Muslim, a work by the ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq, published in 1995. Warraq, whose real name is kept secret for fear of reprisal from Islamic extremists, offers a detailed and critical examination of the Koran, arguing that it is not the divine word of God but rather a product of its time and place, reflecting the beliefs and values of seventh-century Arabia.

He begins by analyzing the traditional Muslim view of the Koran as the infallible and uncreated word of God, revealed to Muhammad in perfect Arabic and preserved without alteration. He challenges this dogma, citing evidence of variant versions and readings of the Koran, grammatical errors, foreign vocabulary, and passages that appear to have been abrogated or interpolated.

Warraq further critiques the doctrines of the Koran, arguing that its monotheism is not demonstrably superior to polytheism, that it promotes fatalism and a morally repugnant conception of God, and that it enshrines barbaric punishments and a totalitarian vision of society.

He examines the Koranic accounts of biblical figures such as Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, and Noah, highlighting their lack of historical accuracy and their dependence on Jewish and Christian sources. He further critiques the Koranic accounts of the creation of the universe and the origin of life, arguing that they are at odds with modern scientific knowledge and replete with contradictions and absurdities.

Warraq concludes by suggesting that the Koran, while containing some admirable moral teachings, is ultimately a product of its time, reflecting the ignorance and cruelty of seventh-century Arabia. He argues that its teachings are incompatible with modern values of freedom, equality, and tolerance and that a genuine reformation of Islam would require a fundamental reinterpretation of the Koran itself.

Chapter 45 – “In the Shadow of God” from The End of Faith by Sam Harris:

This chapter, from Sam Harris’s 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, examines the history of religious violence and persecution, arguing that religious faith is a major source of human suffering and that the world would be a better place without it.

Harris begins by describing the horrors of the Inquisition, highlighting the Church’s use of torture, imprisonment, and execution to suppress heresy and enforce its dogmas. He contends that the Inquisition was not a perversion of Christianity but rather a logical consequence of the doctrine of faith, which allows people to believe anything, however absurd or cruel, without evidence.

He further examines the persecution of witches and Jews, arguing that these historical episodes demonstrate the dangers of religious intolerance and the power of superstition to justify violence and injustice. He suggests that anti-Semitism, although often expressed in secular terms, is rooted in the theological demonization of Jews by Christianity and Islam.

Harris concludes by discussing the Holocaust, arguing that it was not only a product of Nazi ideology but also a consequence of the centuries-long persecution of Jews by Christian Europe. He critiques the Catholic Church’s complicity in the Holocaust, noting its failure to condemn the Nazi genocide and its willingness to help SS officers escape justice after the war.

This chapter offers a chilling reminder of the dangers of religious extremism and the need to challenge religious beliefs that inspire violence and intolerance.

Chapter 46 – “Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?” from Against All Gods by A. C. Grayling:

In this witty and insightful essay, taken from his 2007 book Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness, the British philosopher A. C. Grayling deconstructs the theistic accusation that atheists can be “fundamentalists,” arguing that the term is meaningless in this context and reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of those who use it.

Grayling argues that the term “fundamentalist” applies only to those who adhere to a set of dogmatic beliefs, typically derived from a sacred text, that are considered to be inerrant and immune to criticism. Atheism, by definition, is not a set of beliefs but rather the absence of belief in God.

He further critiques the theistic attempt to portray atheism as a “religion,” arguing that religion is fundamentally defined by belief in the supernatural, while atheism explicitly denies the existence of supernatural entities. He suggests that naturalism, a worldview that sees the universe as a natural realm governed by natural laws, is a more accurate and descriptive term for the atheistic position.

Grayling concludes by suggesting that the theistic resort to accusations of “fundamentalist atheism” is a tactic of diversion, designed to shift attention away from the harmful consequences of religious belief and to portray atheism as equally dogmatic and intolerant. He encourages atheists to reject the label “atheist” altogether, embracing the more accurate and less contentious term “naturalist.”

Chapter 47 – “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

This chapter, written specifically for The Portable Atheist, presents a moving and powerful account of the Somali-born Dutch activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s journey from devout Muslim to outspoken atheist. Hirsi Ali, who has lived under threat of death from Islamic extremists for her criticism of Islam, describes her gradual loss of faith, spurred by her experiences with religious oppression, her intellectual awakening, and her embrace of Western values of freedom and individual autonomy.

She recounts her childhood in Somalia, where she was subjected to female genital mutilation, forced into an arranged marriage, and indoctrinated into a strict and unforgiving interpretation of Islam. She describes her escape to Holland, where she found refuge from her oppressive family and clan and began to explore a new world of intellectual and personal freedom.

Hirsi Ali further describes her years at university, where she studied political science and discovered the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza, Freud, Darwin, Locke, and Mill. She recounts her struggle to reconcile her Islamic faith with her growing intellectual skepticism, ultimately choosing to embrace reason and evidence over dogma and superstition.

She describes the events of September 11, 2001, as a turning point in her life, forcing her to confront the inherent violence and intolerance of Islam and to definitively abandon her faith. She embraced atheism as a liberating force, freeing her from the shackles of religious dogma and the fear of divine punishment, and allowing her to live in accordance with her own reason and conscience.

Hirsi Ali concludes by asserting that atheism is not a creed or a dogma but rather a commitment to intellectual honesty, a willingness to face reality without illusion, and a determination to live a meaningful and ethical life based on human values. She encourages others who are struggling with religious doubt to embrace their skepticism and to find their own path to a life of freedom and self-respect.

This diverse and compelling collection of writings, spanning centuries and continents, offers a powerful and enduring testament to the enduring power of human reason to challenge religious dogma and to envision a world where freedom, knowledge, and compassion prevail. It serves as a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand the arguments against religious belief and the philosophical and ethical foundations of atheism.

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