The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Unbeliever (Christopher Hitchens, 2007)

Arguments for Unbelief
To be charitable, one may admit that the religious often seem unaware of how insulting their main proposition actually is. Exchange views with a believer even for a short time, and let us make the assumption that this is a mild and decent believer who does not open the bidding by telling you that your unbelief will endanger your soul and condemn you to hell. It will not be long until you are politely asked how you can possibly know right from wrong. Without holy awe, what is to prevent you from resorting to theft, murder, rape, and perjury? It will sometimes be conceded that non-believers have led ethical lives, and it will also be conceded (as it had better be) that many believers have been responsible for terrible crimes. Nonetheless, the working assumption is that we should have no moral compass if we were not somehow in thrall to an unalterable and unchallengeable celestial dictatorship. What a repulsive idea!

Books of readings—when carefully chosen by a thoughtful editor on a topic of perennial significance—are both a helpful resource and a delight. A helpful resource because without them we’d have to do all the research and gathering ourselves, and most of us would prefer to spend our time pursuing other tasks. They are also a delight because the selections can be read as we desire, and so can be dipped into and reflected upon as needed.

There have always been unbelievers, people who find religious belief neither compelling nor convincing. Not so long ago unbelievers tended to be on the defensive because the society at large tended to assume religious belief. That is changing rapidly, however, in our 21st century pluralistic world. Now, at least in the West, the public square tends to be secularized, religious faith has been privatized, and so it is belief rather than unbelief that tends to be on the defensive. It should not be surprising then, to find an assertive—some would say aggressive—atheism launching a sustained attack on religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. Rather than put us on the defensive, however, we should welcome the chance to think through the issues with care and respond with thoughtful winsomeness.

Christopher Hitchens is one of these assertive atheists. “By all means let us agree that we are pattern-seeking mammals,” he says, and that, owing to our restless intelligence and inquisitiveness, we will still prefer a conspiracy theory to no explanation at all. Religion was our first attempt at philosophy, just as alchemy was our first attempt at chemistry and astrology our first attempt to make sense of the movements of the heavens. I myself am a strong believer in the study of religion, first because culture and education involve a respect for tradition and for origins, and also because some of the early religious texts were among our first attempts at literature. But there is a reason why religions insist so much on strange events in the sky, as well as on less quantifiable phenomena such as dreams and visions. All of these things cater to our inborn stupidity, and our willingness to be persuaded against all the evidence that we are indeed the center of the universe and that everything is arranged with us in mind.

A thoughtful, well-read literary essayist with an incisive wit and sharp mind, Hitchens is author of God is Not Great. He has also released The Portable Atheist, a volume of 47 readings defending unbelief and challenging belief from Lucretius’s (99-55 BC) On the Nature of Things to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s (1969- ) How (and Why) I Became an Infidel.

I have only one quibble with The Portable Atheist. The subtitle should be Essential readings for both believers and unbelievers. Get a copy. Read it thoughtfully. Use it in family devotions with older children. Discuss some of the selections with Christian friends. Read and discuss selections with non-Christian friends. The Portable Atheist represents one of the crucial conversations going on in our world—Christians need to be part of it.


The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Unbeliever, selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press; 2007) 480 pp. + index.