What is most interesting about contemporary atheists is not what they have in common but rather their differences.
When the priest asks him why, with his days numbered, he still has not turned to God, Meursault, the death row inmate in Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger,” exclaims, “I just didn’t have the time to interest myself in what didn’t interest me.” By contrast, a new book introduces us to an array of individuals who, while sharing Meursault’s religious nonbelief, most certainly do not share in his insouciance. In The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism, H.P. Lovecraft biographer and “weird fiction” expert S.T. Joshi introduces his text as a “nucleus” for the latest historical phase of religious nonbelief.Skip to next paragraph
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Joshi’s book is structured in 14 chapters, each focusing on an individual whom he credits with advancing contemporary atheism (a term to which one must affix countless definitional footnotes; for Joshi’s purposes, and ours here, it is used loosely to include “agnostics,” “freethinkers,” “brights,” “de factos,” and others). He begins, appropriately, with the British scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, who could fairly be described as Charles Darwin’s self-appointed publicist in the later half of the 19th century, and culminates with another Briton, today’s well known “anti-theist” journalist and essayist, Christopher Hitchens.
But to describe “The Unbelievers” as a comprehensive history is too generous. The text lacks a unifying historical narrative, and though it presents a select cast of characters, it certainly leaves out some crucial functionaries (glaring examples include but are not limited to Sigmund Freud and John Dewey), while overinflating the impact of others (is Leslie Stephen, largely unknown today, really fitting company for the likes of Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken?). Joshi’s liberal excerpting of the writers and thinkers that he does include provides for great exposure to the original source material, but this philological exercise begs for a historical exegesis that never comes. What role, exactly, did the trenchant religious satires of Gore Vidal, or the posthumously published letters of H.P. Lovecraft, play in imbuing atheist arguments with the increased intellectual purchase that they enjoy today? Joshi doesn’t really say and the reader is left with a peppering of epistolary pearls still waiting to be strung into a necklace.