Gregg Sapp's Reviews > The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

The Portable Atheist by Christopher Hitchens
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A term often used as synonymous with atheists if “free thinkers.” I don’t believe that it is an entirely positive attribution. While many people would like to consider themselves independent and objective in their opinions, certainly, the label of “free thinkers” also evokes a bohemian sensibility combined with an arrogant righteousness. It does take a certain amount intellectual audacity to reject traditions of a putatively divine origin that the majority consider sacrosanct. Still, there’s also something about denying the godly nature of existence that is also humbling. If human beings aren’t here in this world to fulfill some transcendent purpose, than what’s the point, really?

The selections in “The Portable Atheist” portray free-thinkers at their most bold and blasphemous. Most essays convey a smug contempt for the institutions and doctrines of religion, often by adducing the most horrific consequences resulting from their practice. The prose is clever and razor sharp, although, in reality, it isn’t hard to point out the logical flaws and fallacies in any religious tradition. Based as they are upon mythology and pre-scientific thinking that was, much later, codified into dogma by priestly power brokers, religious creeds are almost invariably at odds with common sense. Fundamentalists of any ilk have no refuge against rational criticism other than blind faith, which is impervious to criticism. So, why bother?

The collection’s gadfly editor, Christopher Hitchens, has included some masterpieces of wit, satire, and invective designed to arm free-thinkers whenever they have to do intellectual battle with believers. In truth, they don’t need the help. Still, with contributions from such philosophical heavyweights as Spinoza, Hobbes, Marx, and Hume, as well as literary luminaries like Eliot, Hardy, Twain and Updike, there is plenty of ammunition for a fight. Einstein, of course, is represented, although his voluminous writings also contain passages cited by believers, so who is to say what convictions were truly in his heart?

Setting aside quibbles about various writers and works that may have been omitted, what I feel is really missing is any honest discussion of the existential angst that often comes with being an atheist. What about the lamentations of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard regarding the inherent suffering of life in a godless universe? Don’t those belong here, too.

It is easy to find fault with many of the patently silly things that people believe in the name of religion. Still, by believing in the silliness, they accrue certain benefits in terms of social and psychological comfort. Where do atheists find spiritual succor? Where are the essays on that subject?

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Reading Progress

June 13, 2018 – Started Reading
August 6, 2018 – Shelved
August 6, 2018 – Finished Reading

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