The Portable Atheist:
Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever
Edited by Christopher Hitchens. (Da Capo Press Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2007. 499 pages.) ISBN-13: 978-0-306-81608-6.
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 6, 2010
Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist contains 47 selections from some very famous and non-famous people on the value of atheism as well as a 14 page fiery introduction by Hitchens. Hitchens prefaces each selection with pertinent information about the author and relevant information about his views.
Some of the writers are Benedict de Spinoza, David Hume, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, George Orwell and John Updike.
Spinoza, for example, describes the pernicious and stymying effect of superstition. Superstition "is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear." It is based on "a dim notion of God." People are afraid of "the anger of the gods." When they think that some event is unusual, they mistake their phantom ideas, their "superstition for religion, (and) account it impious not to avert the evil (they think they see) with prayer and sacrifice." This occurs so frequently that "one might think (that) Nature (is) as mad as themselves."
Darwin, for example, wrote that he thought that the idea of divine miracles is "incredible." He was convinced that "the old argument (proving that God exists) from design in nature…fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered." He discusses whether there is more happiness or misery in the world and decides that it is the former because if the world was overly cruel, animal and people would stop having children. Yet the presence of so much cruelty in the world persuaded him that an intelligent deity does not exist.
Some people dislike Hitchens' strong frequently insulting language and his descriptions of his adversaries in his introduction and other books. He calls them "fools," "stupid," inept." He calls the Archbishop of Canterbury "sheep-faced" in this volume. This is the cleric who claimed, as did many others, that the recent flood that destroyed thousands of homes in one part of England was a punishment inflicted by God for homosexuality throughout England.
Is this what religion should be teaching? Could a sane person really believe that God would punish innocent people for what they think another person commits? Shouldn't clergy recognize the basic teachings of science about natural climatic occurrences? Aren't the clergy in this instance, and in many others, misleading the people that are depending upon their advice? Who is the sinner here?
Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Palestine, contended that humans should be religious and follow the doctrines of their religion but they can learn from atheism. They need to observe, examine, ponder, think critically, be skeptical, deny foolish ancient superstitions, reject traditions based on only blind faith, see the facts of this world, and join hands with all people of all faiths in improving themselves and society.
Thus, this book is good for religious and nonreligious people. Religious people should not allow the book to wean them from religion, but from ungrounded primitive misconceptions that are associated with religious belief.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org