I don’t think I’ve written a book review since high school, or perhaps an early college English class. But after finishing the Portable Atheist by Christopher Hitchens, I feel compelled to comment on it.
The book is an anthology of epic proportions, covering hundreds of years of essays, articles, and excerpts from brilliant minds from across the globe. It is described as “Essential readings for the nonbeliever” which is a fitting subtitle, but I fear that along with the book’s title, it will alienate both believers in deities and those who have an unfounded distrust of atheists.
Before I get to the collection of material in this book, there is Mr. Hitchens’ introduction. Hitch’s writing has a remarkable flow, an almost melodic quality to it that is at once lyrical prose and a vocabulary and history lesson. He is so persuasive in his arguments that resisting them is an exercise in futility. His ability to paint a picture with words can create an emotional reaction that packs a powerful physical punch:
“The pre-history or our species is hag-ridden with episodes of nightmarish ignorance and calamity, for which religion used to identify, not just the wrong explanation but the wrong culprit. Human sacrifices were made preeminently in times of epidemics, useless prayers were uttered, bogus “miracles” attested to, and scapegoats-such as Jews or heretics or witches-hunted down and burned. The few men of science and reason and medicine had all they could do to keep their libraries and laboratories intact, or their very lives safe from harm. Of course, when the evil had “passed over,” there were equally idiotic ceremonies of hysterical thanksgiving, propitiating whatever local deities there might be…”
The introduction alone makes the book worth the expense, but Hitch also writes a brief introduction to most of his selections for the book that set the stage for the essays that follow. The selections are organized chronologically and illustrate that even during periods in our history when religion seemed to be an overpowering force, reason and logic lived as a beacon in the storm of superstition and fear.
While atheists will certainly enjoy reading the brilliantly articulated arguments against belief, I encourage anyone with a love of knowledge, of history and of debate to read it. If you are a religious person you may feel that your beliefs are under assault, but if you are willing to look at your beliefs objectively, and take a journey through the history of resistance to the church, you will be rewarded with brilliant and thought provoking narratives.
Since it’s a collection of independent writings, you can stop at any point and return to it without missing a beat, which I did several times. There were a few times where I had to stop and read something else before returning as the history of religious zealotry is violent and man’s cruelty to their fellow man knows no bounds. The excerpt from Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” literally shook me to the core and it took me several hours to recover the ability to function normally. Albert Einstein’s writings were wonderful as was Charles Darwin’s autobiography. An article from Elizabeth Anderson “If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” was so compelling I wrote to Ms. Anderson to commend her for it and received a lovely reply.
Growing up in Christianity, with a good understanding of Judaism acquired through marriage, I was least familiar with Islam and I found Ibn Warraq’s selection from his book “Why I am not a Muslim” to be instructive and eye-opening.
There were a few selections I did not read as carefully as others, and I may revisit those in the future. A book like this is not read once and put away to gather dust, but can be referred to often when needing a bit of enlightenment. As an atheist residing in a predominately Christian portion of the United States, it can seem like an awfully lonely place. To find common ground with so many brilliant people, who stood as atheists in trying and difficult times, is inspirational as well as educational.