after roughly three months of on-and-off reading, i finally finished the portable atheist: essential readings for the nonbeliever, which is a collection of essays, excerpts and writings concerning religion, belief, atheism, and science. it was compiled by the late christopher hitchens, a journalist and somewhat notable spearhead for humanistic ideals in the face of the decidedly misanthropic climate that the modern world occasionally experiences.
prior to reading the portable atheist, i had read his main work on religion, god is not great. i found it a refreshing read following dawkins’ the god delusion, albeit rather lacking in “proof” that extended beyond merely pointing at the inconsistencies and atrocities of religion and expecting the reader to become convinced. despite this, its venomous qualities left an impression upon me. this is part of the reason why i enjoyed the portable atheist - it had an interesting blend of loathsome venom and pure reason. the variety contained within held a fair amount of promise and ultimately did not fail to deliver.
as follows, i’m going to highlight a few of my favorite selections from the book. before i do that, however, i’d like to make one important note. hitchens, no doubt, set out to “convert” people from religious thought towards a more skeptical view of the world. barring that, i’m sure that he at least desired people to question the foundations of their belief even if they are not willing to change their minds about it one way or the other (although i can’t say for certain - i’m not familiar enough with his ideologies to make any definitive remarks).
prior to starting this book, which would have been around christmas of this past year, i most likely would have called myself an atheist entirely. looking back, i feel as if i was too quick to not only divorce myself from the possibility of any sort of spiritual thought but also to antagonize religion due to its impingement upon a “rational, scientific world view.” bear in mind that this was in the middle of my immersion into the collective world of such thinkers as carl sagan, michio kaku, richard dawkins, and roger penrose. while i feel as if i can ultimately never turn to a “personal religion” to either form a basis for my morality or explain the natural world, i cannot say for certain that religious (or, at least, spiritual) thought should be antagonized as hastily as it is by some. i disagree with fundamentally anti-scientific beliefs and the process of allowing a collective doctrine to govern individual morality and ideology, but i’m not so sure that spirituality as a whole should be disregarded. interestingly enough, it was a reading of jack kerouac’s on the road that helped me to realize this, but i feel as if that’s a story for a future post. my main point is that religion, science, spirituality, and morality are not as black and white as i had previously thought. i’m beginning to realize more and more as the days pass that i’m ultimately too young to solidify a belief in anything - especially with the sparse amount of world experience that i have. life (and existence, for that matter) is too complex to be as compartmentalized as some would wish the world to be. with that, on to the highlights!
david hume - the natural history of religion, of miracles // i have fond memories of reading hume’s “dialogues concerning natural religion” for my introduction to philosophy class last year. while i knew nothing of hume’s beliefs or even who he was at the time, the structure of his arguments and his use of logic as a tool in and of itself resounded strongly with me. i was actually very surprised after having read the dialogues to learn that he wrote them in the eighteenth century; they seem very modern. hume’s excerpts within the portable atheist showcase the duality of his reasoning as it pertains to both empiricism and logical rigor. his arguments are concise and cut immediately to the point. i feel as if his arguments against the very idea of a “miracle” provide a solid foundation for rational thought in the face of mystical claims.
sigmund freud - the future of an illusion // given that i began my college career as a psychology major, i’ve been very aware of freud’s ideas over the past few years. nonetheless, i’ve never actually read anything of his - my delight with the conversational tone of his writing definitively showed me that primary sources are almost exclusively more enjoyable than any sort of summary. in “the future of an illusion,” freud targets the foundations of religion from both a sociological and a psychological standpoint, showcasing the very “human” nature of religion as a cultural phenomenon. having read this excerpt, i developed a strong interest in a sociological study of religion, which has led me to many wonderful places in my research. while i do not necessarily find freud’s ideas to provide strong convictions against religious thought, his highlights of the evidence for the cultural evolution of religion cause one to wonder wherein the future religion lies. this selection tied in well with a class that i had taken last semester, behavioral biology, as both showed me that the simple things in life are often very complex in origin and evolution. religion is no exception.
carl sagan - the god hypothesis // taken from sagan’s the varieties of scientific experience, this selection cherishes sagan’s love for truth in the face of adversity. sagan identified himself as an agnostic, which is definitely an interesting position for him to take given that he very keenly criticizes religion in “the god hypothesis” (and indeed, in the entirety of the varieties of scientific experience). if anything, his agnosticism only further expounds upon the fact that he is truly skeptical at heart. taking this subtext into account, sagan’s ideas concerning religion as an explanation for the natural world become powerful in both their scope and their depth. sagan reasons against the idea of a personal god through use of questioning and inquiry, most decidedly not staking claims where no claims can be staked. his skepticism and rational inquiry are inspirational if only because they serve as a reminder of an interesting duality - as humans, we can never know some things for certain, but also as humans, we can always ask the questions that will take us incredibly close to this knowledge.
victor stenger - god: the failed hypothesis // this is, i believe, the most scientific selection in hitchens’ compilation. as such, its ideas go beyond cultural explanations of religion and delve into scientific alternatives to the “god hypothesis.” i found some of stenger’s explanations to be fascinatingly immense (particularly his demonstration of how “something” can easily arise from “nothing”) and the strength of his ideas only served to reinforce this immensity. while i cannot claim to possess the knowledge necessary to fully understand the implications of many of his ideas, i find them to be very interesting and intellectually challenging enough to leave me wondering. while some of stenger’s ideas merely open up more questions and raise a number of possibilities, his overall attitude of scientifically approaching the question of god as an explanation for the world is one that possesses a strong quality of endurance in the face of criticism.
ayaan hirsi ali - how (and why) i became an infidel // oddly enough, i don’t have a lot to say about the last selection in the book. i’ll leave it merely at this - the personal nature of this short essay leave an impact upon me that i was unable to find in some of the more “rigorous” analyses of religion contained elsewhere in this collection and that serves to add an extra dimension to my comprehension of religion as a totality. while testimony can never replace fact or reason, it cannot be denied that religion is an inherently human phenomenon and as such, its effect upon the individual cannot be ignored.
again, this book is an interesting read and one that i would recommend to believers and nonbelievers alike. some of its writings can certainly be taken with a grain of salt, but others have the potential to leave an impression upon anybody with an open mind. while i was ultimately left with more questions left unanswered than i had before, i found the experience both illuminating and invigorating. life is, as i stated before, complex. religion is simply another reminder of that fact.