Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' "The Portable Atheist": Book Review


As many reviews on Amazon precede mine, I will offer a sample of the places I found most engaging. Christopher Hitchens received plaudits from some and suspicion from others, even fellow travelers, for what seemed in the wake of his "god Is Not Great" bestseller a cash-in with not as much editing of the inclusions as a rapid assemblage. Too many of the 47 excerpts drag on; a careful compiler would have excised portions and given overviews, while translating passages from other languages and footnoting arcane references as so much material is drawn from sources long ago.

His introduction, on the other hand, pleases. It's a joy to read Hitchens, whether you agree with him or not. Early on his contrast between god-like cats and dogs who treat us like gods (15) establishes his point memorably. His frank question why "semi-stupified peasants in desert regions" receive revelations of their Creator vs. those among the rest of mankind resounds. (18) His humility that whether innate or inexplicable, we can still laugh at our folly of invention humbles us against such faith-claims. (25) As he cites his friend Richard Dawkins, we are all atheists of some sort, for who among us still worships Jupiter? (20) Hitchens thunders against theocracy as the original totalitarianism, the tyranny exerted against anti-theists who take on a more active stance of opposition against the despots determined still alive among us who exact punishment against thought-crime. (23)
Hitchens pithily and typically sums up the struggle: "the main enemy we face is 'faith-based.'" (29)

Among the entries, I perked up with Thomas Hobbes' examination of the four causes for the "natural seed" of religion. (45) David Hume's extended foray into the contradictory elements of a deity demanding both praise and terror serves as an early examination of the force that compels our fealty. (61) Then the poet Shelley tackles both the argument by design (89), and the fact that even two centuries ago, "men of genius and science" championed atheism (94) attests to this venerable legacy.

Leslie Stephens' name may be less familiar than the three mentioned above, but he responds to Cardinal Newman's appeal to conscience for belief in God with the plain admission that such an appeal "has no force for anyone who, like most men, does not share his intuitions." (155) Anatole France wittily captures the conundrum at Lourdes, full of crutches "in token of a cure." His friend points "to these trophies of the sick-room and hospital ward" to whisper: "One wooden leg would be more to the point." (168) Emma Goldman reasons how in every age, God has been forced to adopt himself to human affairs, a petty meddler rather than an eternal, awesome force for goodness. (186)

Bertrand Russell earns his allotted span in this anthology. He encourages the dogmatic reader to read papers of opposing views, good advice still. "If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason to think as you do. (275) Carl Sagan wonders logically why God is so visible in the biblical world while so obscure in ours. (318) Dawkins conjures up Mt .Improbable, where the seeker can climb by a gentler back slope towards rational discovery rather than a leap up the front precipice, as a way towards clarity. (387)

Victor Stenger's chapter 37 on cosmic evidence is lengthy but rewarding, as he dismantles arguments. A zero energy universe, rather than a miracle, is exactly its "mean energy density" for one appearing "from an initial state of zero energy, within a small quantum uncertainty" initially necessary. (314) While John Updike's rambling conversation in his novel Roger's Version puzzled me at first, the explanation of how quantum fluctuations or tunnels via Higgs Bosons sparked what became time and space prepared the way helpfully for the learned astronomical discussions by scientists in later pages.

Ibn Warraq's in-depth exegeses from Why I Am Not a Muslim similarly fill out a need here to get away from a steady attack on the Jewish and Christian versions of an Almighty. He also debates the principle within Islam of supersession, a series of revelations urging departure from earlier forms of belief to higher and then single ones. "If there is a natural evolution from polytheism to monotheism, then is there not a natural development from monotheism to atheism? is monotheism doomed to be superseded by a higher form of belief, that is, atheism--via agnosticism, perhaps?" (396) Wise words.

H.L. Mencken, for those contemplating pagan or pantheistic retreats, lists outmoded powers above and below to illustrate the dead voices of forgotten or outmoded forces once called upon by millions of our ancestors. Michael Shermer's discussion of the legend of the Wandering Jew seems superfluous, but Sam Harris' "In the Shadow of God" states a fundamental warning. "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence--that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants--he becomes capable of anything." (457) A twist on the Grand Inquisitor of The Brothers Karamazov (the latter tale not here) as to God and morality?

Back to Dawkins, he notes how the Bible fails as a "truly independent guide to moral conduct," serving instead as a "Rorshach test" where people pick out what reflects their own morals and interests. (341) The God in this volume fails, he adds, to ultimately care about his creation. (336) Steven Weinberg seconds this. "But the God of birds and trees would have to be also the God of birth defects and cancer." (372) Salman Rushdie reflects: "Only the stories of 'dead' religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you." (381) A.C. Grayling denies that an atheist should label him or herself as one. "The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is 'naturalist,' denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws." (475) This spins back to Hitchens' start.

That is, he broadens the other contested term. "Religion is, after all, more than the belief in a supreme being. It is the cult of that supreme being and the belief that his or her wishes have been made known or can be determined." (loc. 393) This may be reductionist for scholars of the philosophy of religion. I aver so, but Hitchens tries to focus on the disputes among atheists over an "intervening" divinity. Men and women will continue, he avers, to create such. "We are unlikely to cease making gods or inventing ceremonies to please them for as long as we are afraid of death, or of the dark, and for as long as we persist in self-centeredness." (loc. 385) One last reminder, from the introduction again. "If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life." (loc, 418) Hitchens, for all the scattered evidence marshaled here untidely at times against the presence of such a querulous God, endures as a presence. (Amazon US 1/5/17)

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