09 December 2012

A Devil’s Curate’s Egg

The Portable Atheist
by Christopher Hitchens

Notwithstanding the presence of Omar Khayyam, Boswell and Mark Twain, this anthology is not light reading. On the contrary, it is serious stuff, and at times very heavy going.

The tone is set in the Introduction, from which Hitchens’ admirably waspish humour is curiously absent. Serious, indeed grave, it takes thirteen pages to explain just why the anthologist believes religion is wicked and needs to be put down. There is little in it I did not agree with; but sadly, there is also little in it that Hitchens has not said before, and said better, in God is Not Great and some of his other writings. It was dull reading, I'm sorry to say, and entirely failed to whet my appetite for the selections to follow.

These selections seem to be arranged chronologically, or mostly so. Hitchens must have considered Epicurus’ famous summation of theodicy too well-known to warrant inclusion, so we begin with an excerpt from Lucretius, in plodding blank verse which this reader, at least, was unable to finish. Next we are treated – O blessed relief – to a few verses from the Rubaiyat; but immediately afterwards one is invited to plough through closely-argued excerpts from Hobbes, Spinoza, George Eliot and David Hume: all good stuff, but hardly what one would call plain sailing.

Boswell's account of the death of Hume (a sanguine unbeliever to the last) and a refutation of deism by Shelley leaven the transition from the Enlightenment to the modern era; but once arrived, we immediately stumble over a selection from Marx’s ‘Contributions to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right’ – mere word salad, effectively meaningless apart from that famous remark about the ‘opium of the people’. I suppose it was put in out of sentiment, because Hitchens was once a Marxist; there can be no other excuse for it in an otherwise intelligent book.

But at least things from then on get less intensely philosophical. There are reader-friendly contributions from the likes of Anatole France, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and H.L. Mencken. I liked especially the pieces by Freud, Bertrand Russell and Martin Gardner here included, as well as two poems by Philip Larkin: ‘Church Going’ and the familiar (though none the less blunt, brave and terrifying for that) ‘Aubade’.

Moving on to more contemporary writings, we have Carl Sagan’s famous ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, along with cogent and readable pieces by A.J. Ayer, Richard Dawkins, Elizabeth Anderson and Steven Weinberg. I particularly enjoyed the last, and was equally gratified to re-read a favourite piece of auctorial showing-off by John Updike, taken from his novel Roger's Version. However, the selections from Daniel Dennett (‘Thank Goodness’ and ‘A Working Definition of Religion’ from Breaking the Spell) are not the best examples of his writing that I have read; J.L. Mackie’s ‘Conclusions and Implications’ is impenetrable; Ian McEwan’s ‘End of the World Blues’ is rather affectless and dull; and Michael Shermer’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ is just plain silly.

Things really perk up, though, toward the end of the book. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imagine There’s No Heaven’ is terrible – pontificatory and embarrassingly, dad-dancingly out of touch – but this is the only hurdle in the way of a brilliant gallop to the finish-line. Most of the horsepower is deployed in two essays by a Muslim ‘apostate’ going under the pen-name of Ibn Warraq: ‘The Koran’ and ‘The Totalitarian Nature of Islam’. The first makes mincemeat out of various arguments propounded in support of claims that the Koran is divinely inspired, ethical, or accurate either historically and scientifically; the second, which deals largely with Islamic law, its interpretation and enforcement, is chillingly described by its title. We then have a long piece by Sam Harris, a sardonic jewel by the heroically coiffeured Oxford don A.C. Grayling, and finally a short, affecting little autobiographical essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

For this reader, the selections from Ibn Warraq were the freshest and thus the most interesting works in this anthology. The fact that the author courted death by publishing them makes them still more impressive.

Summing up: there is plenty of intellectual meat in The Portable Atheist, as well as some superb writing, but it could have been improved by choosing a different sequencing plan, one that allowed for the more frequent alternation of deep philosophical argument and angry polemic with writing that offered more literary and aesthetic pleasure. A topic-based scheme would probably have done the trick. I also wish Hitchens had cast his net a lot wider; these selections are mostly quite conventional. And how come all we get of Primo Levi is a paragraph quoted in the Introduction?


  1. Hi Richard Very well written as usual.. Do hope you spend more time writing these days..

    I must get down to ploughing thru the Portable Atiest as I rather love indulging in Hitchens ascerbic wit even when I dont always agree with his ideologies... You might find the attached post of interest...

    Vanja Antonijevic
    Dec 09, 2008
    Vanja Antonijevic rated it 5 of 5 stars false
    Although, as can only be expected, it is missing some crucial works, and allows for only small excerpts of others, it an excellent collection overall.

    The first third of the book will allow you to understand the philosophical intellectual history of atheism/agnosticism (Lucretius (c. 60 BCE ), Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, Marx, Eliot, Darwin, Twain, Freud, Einstein, Orwell, and Russell). The rest of the book has more modern and recent arguments, that I believe are more systematic and convincing.

    My favorites:

    (1) Hume: He takes the idea of miracles to task.
    (2) Mill: Rationally explains his lack of faith.
    (3) Marx: Ever wondered what the "opium of the people" really means?
    (4) Mencken: A witty memorial service to all the "dead" gods
    (5) Einstein: Always one of the best when it comes to collecting eloquent and humorous short quotes
    (6) Russell: Puts superstition to task.
    (7) Mackie: Discusses possible consequences of adopting atheism
    (8) Shermer: Excellent parody of what one would have to believe if one wishes to reconcile what we know scientifically today with the teachings of the Bible.
    (9) Dawkins: Probably the best presented argument for the unlikelihood of the existence of God, and a good refutation of some of the most powerful objections of theists. His book, "The God Delusion", is a more complete explanation.
    (10) Stenger: The best attack on the cosmological arguments for God.
    (11) Anderson: Wonderful summary of the type of moral things God does in the Bible, tells others to do, or simply permits. The bottom line: clearly no truly good moral person should look to the Bible exclusively for guidance.
    (12) Weinberg: Another cosmological discussion, but he is more sympathetic to religion.
    (13) Warraq: A long but devastating attack on the Quran. Also good for those that do not really understand the type of things actually written in Islamic religious doctrine (or for that matter, how these religious books came about). (less)

    1. Thanks, Sheh. This is from goodreads.com, isn't it? My own review above also appears, in a slightly different form, on that site.