Book Review: The Portable Atheist Edited by Christopher Hitchens

This book is one of the first attempts to bring together some of the finest atheist literature throughout human history and put them together in one convenient volume. From the philosophers of ancient Greece to modern multi-disciplinary philosophers, pundits, thinkers and scientists, Christopher Hitchens includes the widest range of people and literature possible. Hitchens introduction reads more or less as a bite-size summary of his own written works on the subject as well as a quick history of atheist thought.

Hitchens introduces each writer in turn, giving an outline of their life and an explanation of the included text. This gives a real personal touch from Hitchens and makes the collection feel as though a lot of care has been put into their selection.

Lucretius’ On the nature of things is the first work. It is incredibly powerful prose on atom theory as believed 2000 years ago and the concept that the gods (Lucretius suggests – if they exist) having zero interest in the actions of living creatures. This thought increasingly rings true for many people today.

Next we jump to medieval Iran with a work called Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. A mathematician and astronomer also known for a satire and wit that might have found him a regular panelist on Have I Got News For You if he were alive today, this is an eye-opening poem where Khayyám pleads to the reader to take solace in wine and women(!) for “there is no god up there”. Some of it is amusing, some enlightening and some moments of “oh my god! Did he really say that?!”

Third is a section from Thomas Hobbes Leviathan. This eloquently written essay segment is a defence of Christianity against a form of dogmatic paganism. There is some debate whether it is actually a defence of Christianity or whether the intent was ironic critique designed to undermine Christian faith.

We then move into perhaps more familiar territory. Spinoza followed by a couple of articles by David Hume including The Natural History of Religion are typically included before Percy Shelley refutes deism. We move more or less chronologically onward with writers and works that become more familiar through time. They’re all here: Darwin, Marx, Russell, Lovecraft, Sagan, Shermer, Dennett, Dawkins, Rushdie, Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I was surprised not to see Richard Holloway. Oddly, no Nietzsche either. The former omission I can understand, the latter not so much.

There are in total 47 works to read (so I’m not going to bore you by summarising them all! I’m going to round off with a list of my personal favourites:

* Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (see above)
* Darwin’s autobiography – a short section discussing his time aboard the Beagle
* An Agnostic’s apology by Leslie Stephen
* Thoughts of God by Mark Twain
* The collection of quotes by Einstein should put to rest any claims by all flavour of Christians to claim him as one of their own. Sadly, it won’t but there is no clearer demonstrations of his views than in this book
* An outline of intellectual rubbish by Bertrand Russell (amusing in places)
* Carl Sagan’s The God Hypothesis
* Imagine there’s no heaven (a letter to the six billionth World Citizen) – Salman Rushdie

This is a phenomenal collection which means that despite the title, at an immense 500 pages it isn’t particularly portable! I thought that the series of very short snippets from much larger works might have irritated a little bit but the editing is careful and they stand alone well as essays on their own.

This is though an essential collection from the dawn of history of atheist thought from a wide range of sources, edited by one of the greatest secular thinkers of our time. A must for any non-believer’s collection and one to dip in and out of.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Portable Atheist Edited by Christopher Hitchens

  1. This sounds like I should get a physical copy. I’d love to read some Rushdie and Hitchins, too. How long did it take you to get through it? I like the idea of reading it slowly over the years.

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