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11 of 111 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but Ultimately Unconvincing Anthology, November 24, 2007
This review is from: The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Paperback)
Christopher Hitchens's book GOD IS NOT GREAT is as good an atheist manifesto as you're likely to find. Mr. Hitchens's new anthology, THE PORTABLE ATHEIST, is surely as good an atheist anthology as you're likely to find.

What a list of contributors! Darwin, Marx, Einstein, Spinoza, Orwell, Lovecraft, Larkin, Dawkins, Sagan, and many more. And what an entertaining introduction and running commentaries Mr. Hitchens has written for the book!

But like all arguments for atheism, the innumerable arguments advanced in this book are ultimately unconvincing.

I shall list only the most obvious objections to the same tired old points that are rehashed (often quite eloquently) again and again in this book.

1) Just because many (or even all) religious symbols and dogma are man-made does not even that they don't reflect, albeit imperfectly, "heavenly" concepts.

2) If religion is simply superstition, then why do so many human beings seem "wired" to have religious faith? If evolution can explain everything, then why has the so-called "God gene" (supposing it exists, and I think it does) proven so durable and well-night irresistible?

3) Not all people of faith are fundamentalists. Some of us find fundamentalism and religious faith incompatible, and fundamentalism blasphemous. And countless millions of us have no problem with evolution.

4) Can people still behave ethically without religious faith? Yes--as far as secular ethical standards force you to go.

But as a priest I knew once said, the Golden Rule isn't simply about "doing unto others"--it's about "going that extra mile."

Religious faith (especially Christianity) constantly pushes the believer forward--to strengthen and expand his faith, to forgive the people he hates the most, to search and fathom out his heart, to reform, to expand his faith on a personal, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual basis.

5) Can anyone who looks at a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition doubt that there is a God, and that He's not a supreme designer--even if he worked through evolution?
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 24, 2007 9:49:53 PM PST
Rando 1 says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Nov 24, 2007 10:48:14 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 24, 2007 10:56:47 PM PST
If you have not read any other "atheist manifestos," as you claim in your review of GOD IS NOT GREAT, I would suggest that you read David Mills' book ATHEIST UNIVERSE. Mills has given the best presentation of the atheist viewpoint that I have read so far and his book may help to answer some of the questions that you have posited in your review. His style of writing is very different from Hitchens and is much more accessible in my opinion. I have attempted to answer some of your questons below.

1) Yes, one could argue that man-made religious symbols give an imperfect reflection of "heavenly" concepts. This is a perfectly acceptable argument, however, I and many other atheists are less concerned with the fact that the symbols are man-made and are more concerned with the fact that, in addition to man-made reglious symbols, we have no texts in existence that were actually written by the hand of Jesus. Everything about him comes "through" other people. This is especially problematic when one considers the claim that Christianity is "The Way" that everyone should follow, i.e. the one "correct" religion amidst a sea of false relgions. No would accept "because Jesus said so and Bob wrote it down" as proof of the validity of anything in a courtroom. It doesn't work for me here either.

2) Religion is not merely a superstition. It is, for many people, a deeply held belief system that was ingrained in them as children when their minds were less developed, or it is a belief system that they came to accept because they were won over by others, or because they experienced tragic and painful circumstances in their lives that led them to seek out religion as a source of comfort, albeit false comfort. People are no more "wired" to have religious faith than I am wired to dye my hair purple on Saturdays. People will believe what others in their community believe, and they will believe whatever makes them feel as though they are not alone and are not completely in control of their own lives. Some people are just more fervent in their beliefs than others.

3) Yes, absolutely. Not all believers of religion are fundamentalists. I would venture to say that most believers of religion are not fundamentalists.

4) Yes, people can without a doubt be ethical without religion. I do not need God to tell me that I should help others, refrain from stealing, refrain from murdering people, etc. These things are self-evident. It could even be argued that the atheist is more ethical and more charitable than the Christian. Why? Because the atheist would do things such as help starving children in Africa because the children are obviously in peril and need to be helped. The Christian would help the starving children, yes because they need help, but more importantly because charity is a virtue and it has been commanded by God that Christians be chariable, so in exercising an act of charity, the Christian is first pleasing God and second addressing the matter at hand. The atheist does things because they need to be done and because it is self-evidant that they need to be done. The Christian does things to please God.

And yes, religious faith does appear to push people forward, but it is a propulsion within limits. Religious faith teaches people to expand their minds just as long as they don't expand them to the point that they begin to question the religion itself. It is like looking at a road with blinders on, or reading a book with pages missing. Religion also teaches people to accept things without questioning them, accept second-hand descriptions of things, to believe that they are not in control of their own lives, to believe that they have to continually praise and worship a divine being who controls, or at least "supervises" everything that they do, and teaches people that they will be judged after they die based on some criteria decided by God that they are not allowed to know about, thus death is something to be feared. Hmmm....

5) And yes, I can absolutely look at the cover of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and doubt that there is a God :-)

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 26, 2007 5:55:11 PM PST
Dear Miss Winney,

You argue your points well--but your "believers only act the way they do because they're scared of offending God and want to earn brownie points from him" is another red herring, I'm afraid.

Being a believer and achieving a true sense of communion with and trust in God is NOT based upon fear or self-interest--other than the sense of joy and inner security that it brings you.

It is about being a witness (by example). It's about COLLABORATING with God and being a free partner and free agent in helping to do His will.

It's not a strict schoolmaster/cowed pupil sort of relationship at all.

But I do think, Miss Winney, that you made your points very well and appreciate that you didn't resort to jargon or name-calling (as, unfortunately, even the very knowledgeable and articulate Mr. Hitchens sometimes does).

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 28, 2007 1:48:22 AM PST
Dear Mr. Paul,

Thank you for your comments on my comments on your review. It was fun sparring with you for a little while :-) Ultimately, however, we have reached an impasse, as all Christians and Atheists eventually do whenever they try to debate (it is fun, though). I cannot hope to disprove your assertion that you have a partnership with God. I cannot say that this is not so because I am not you. Similarly, you cannot prove 100% that your partnership with God is real outside of your own mind. You cannot extract it and show it to me. Since I cannot prove you wrong and you cannot prove yourself completely right (and thus prove me wrong), it boils down to your opinion versus my opinion. Hence the reason, I suppose, why this debate continues and will always continue. And no, I do not like name-calling. It is degrading to both parties and accomplishes nothing.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2007 3:33:03 PM PST
jessica
good job, but you probably wasted your time they aren't able to listen - at best they might politely pause, waiting (not listening) for you to finish so they can repeat what they know. thanks
walt
ps
the "Dear Miss Winney" post below is my evidence, the other "theys" probably got to him before he got to first grade.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 15, 2007 2:24:44 PM PST
Dear Action Plumbing,

On the contrary, I listened to and carefully weighed Miss Winney's arguments before responding to them.

Discussing faith with nonbelievers has always strengthened my own faith. Real faith isn't afraid to consider contrary assertions or viewpoints.

Best, James Jeffrey Paul

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2008 5:52:24 PM PST
S. SCALLY says:
Thanks to all... I really enjoy and appreciate a calm but engaging discussion on this topic. And I by no means intend or wish to start up some adversarial aspect of the conversation but... how can anyone believe in something without scientific/evidentiary support??? Why not just continue believing in the easter bunny or santa? I learned about those imaginary characters when I was a child and it would be GREAT if they were real but...they are not... how does it help to keep believing in such a thing? It doesn't seem to move the ball of progress forward ... rather, if anything... it is a hold back... anyway..... if someone could explain why this is helpful, I would be most grateful...

Posted on Jan 10, 2008 1:18:24 AM PST
Crowley Fan says:
Hi James,

I'm glad you liked the book, I'm finding it engaging myself. I have some objections to your objections:

1) Hitchens' "religion looks man-made" argument isn't intended as a logical strike, since, yes, humans could have been channelling another force; it's more collateral: if a religion WERE entirely made up by people, would it look different than any other religion? So this is a cumulative-evidence strike: one looks at how often religion behaves like what atheists accuse it of being (a system of control, a talisman against death, a smug in-group etc.) and the more it resembles these, the more these all-too-human interests seem to have been SUFFICIENT causes of religion.

2) If we are wired to be religious, then it IS simple superstition--whereas, since religion is demonstrably largely cultural, it is a very COMPLEX superstition, since no one has a good handle on how it comes about. Basically, the existence of ANY society where most people don't believe in God would disprove a God gene (e.g. Sweden, Japan). Remember, all human behavior is "genetic," since genes shape the RANGE of possible things we could feel and do. Our physical nature is clearly compatible with both religious belief and religious unbelief, since both are known to occur. This doesn't mean people haven't tended to be religious, or even that we may find this tendency to be unbeatably innate on a world-cultural level; notice, though, that even if we DON'T that proves nothing re. religious propositions. Since it isn't a truth argument, why is it being brought up?

3) Then you should ignore specific attacks on fundamentalism and creationism brought up in the book, I guess? There's countless millions who ARE creationists and fundamentalists, so that's why those particular "tired old points" are still being brought up.

4) The argument that atheists can meet minimal ethical standards but that, on average, believers are ethically SUPERIOR to them will be a very tough one to gather decent evidence for, I expect. How would you even start? "I've just found it to be so" fails as an argument for any non-commonsensical objection, you need something objective. Objective measures like how much one gives to charity DON'T support your point.

5) Women and men weren't made for each other, they accreted around each other. Even better: no factory-made rough edges. A perfect fit.

Posted on Jan 10, 2008 1:53:27 PM PST
I highly doubt that James J. Paul read this entire anthology. I think he was just looking for an opportunity to post some of his favorite objections to atheism, all of which have already been answered thoroughly completely by the authors in this fine anthology, either in the excerpts that Hitchens has included, or in the broader works from which those excerpts were taken. Let's not encourage Mr. Paul by jumping aboard the hobby-horse with him. Rather, let us encourage him to read more thoroughly the authors in this book, so that he might have his comforting bubbles burst one by one as he learns. Not likely to happen, I know. But let us encourage him to do something useful with his mind at last.

Posted on Jan 25, 2008 11:13:44 AM PST
2. People are born without experiences. They are then invited into groups in which they form a group identity. A "religion" is just one kind of many similar groups. In my nation (Sweden) with as little as 15-46% believers left, people usually subscribe to a political ideology instead.

3. Many call themselves "religious" because they are part of a group identity that calls itself "religion". "Religion" can however mean just about anything so the only core in it is it's scripture. Merely supporting the word "religion" covers for fundamentalists and extremists. It's an overused an exploited word.

4. Ethics is something based on experience and feelings. The more experience you have the more understanding you will get and the more understanding the more ethic you will become. That's why an experienced and well read freethinker is usually more kind and gentle than a person who lived inside a church all his life never learning about other people. Yet again, in my nation (Sweden) helping people and donating to charity is very important. The reason Swedes actually want as high taxes as we have is because it supports a strong wellfare system to help those who need it the most.
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