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Exactly what does "essential" mean?
on May 27, 2008
It's difficult to figure out what Christopher Hitchens means when he subtitles this collection 'Essential' Readings for the Nonbeliever. If by 'essential' he means the most rigorous but still accessible defenses of atheism available, the book is mistitled. There's actually very little here that's intellectually meaty, although much of it is tasty finger food. Some of the pieces are more rhetorical broadsides than anything else (for example, Emma Goldman's 'Philosophy of Atheism,' Mencken's 'Memorial Service,' Dawkins' 'Gerin Oil' and 'Atheists for Jesus,' and Penn Jillette's 'There Is No God'). Moreover, even when Hitchens does include selections from especially rigorous thinkers, they tend to focus on religion rather than theism (the selections from Hobbes and Sagan especially illustrate this, as does the flip and interminable one from Bertrand Russell). But to give Hitchens his due, other selections are strong (Carl van Doren's 'Why I Am an Unbeliever,' Dawkins' 'Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,' Dennett's 'A Working Definition of Religion,' and Steven Weinberg's 'What About God?').
If, however, by 'essential' Hitchens means some of the best known polemics against God-belief, then the title is a bit more accurate (although one wonders why influential polemical defenders of atheism such as Baron d'Holbach, Robert Ingersoll, Mikhail Bukanin, Vladimir Lenin, or Mao Tse Tung didn't make the cut). Most of the essays don't argue so much as insist, usually in stark binary terms, that atheism is right and theism is perniciously wrong. Many of them, as I've already mentioned, tend to conflate religion with God-belief, going after the former and neglecting the latter. And almost all of them, while guaranteed to tickle the atheist and infuriate an insecure theist, fail to provide good arguments for their positions. But then this isn't surprising, given that the editor of the collection extraordinarily compares Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas to Osama bin Laden in his entertaining but injudicious introduction (p. xxiv). When it comes to religious belief, Hitchens is an angry bulldog, and bulldogs rarely possess subtlety.
Readers who wish to move beyond essential polemics to essential arguments might consider The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, The Impossibility of God, and The Improbability of God, all edited by Michael Martin. S. T. Joshi is the editor of Atheism, a collection of essays (many of which Hitchens seems to have lifted wholecloth for The Portable Essays) also worth examining. Louise Antony's Philosophers Without God is a well-written and insightful collection. George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God is a rigorous defense of atheism. Like Joshi's anthology, though, Smith's book focuses exclusively on philosophical arguments for atheism and neglects more recently crafted scientific ones. Finally, Michel Onfray's recent Atheist Manifesto offers a good introduction to atheism Continental-style.