What is most interesting about contemporary atheists is not what they have in common but rather their differences.
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However, Joshi’s abstention from historical trend-spotting may have saved him from some discursive pitfalls. To be sure, prominent atheists of the past century and a half have been inspired and gone public with their criticism – that is to say, they’ve come out of the closet – for a variety of reasons, oftentimes independently of their like-minded contemporaries. It would be overly simplistic to ascribe to them a homogenous, unifying intent. Most fascinating in the history of atheistic thought is not what these individuals have in common (an outspoken disbelief). It is their differences. Nietzsche’s merciless excoriation of Christianity during his lifetime must be considered in a separate light from the sharp but humorous satire of Mark Twain, whose refusal to publish such works as “Reflections on Religion” and “The Mysterious Stranger” during his own lifetime suggests that his motives and reasoning were, in some ways, not comparable to those of his German contemporary. While Twain’s writing focuses on the religious hypocrisy that fails to live up to the selfless, charitable values it espouses, Nietzsche would have preferred it if those same “weak” values had never taken hold in the first place. One of the strengths of Joshi’s book is that, in aggregate, some of these distinctions are fleshed out.Skip to next paragraph
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Equally interesting is the variety of biographical paths whereby these different individuals reached their atheistic worldviews. While Twain is reported to have endured quite a bit of religious inculcation through his childhood, John Stuart Mill, by contrast, was raised by a father who shielded him from any kind of indoctrination whatsoever. In his autobiography, cited by Joshi, Mill writes that: “I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it.” (“The Unbelievers” also includes a reversal of the Mill scenario, in the story of Bill O’Hair, the pitiable son of bombastic 20th-century atheist icon Madalyn Murray O’Hair who, after being raised with no creed – religious, atheist, or otherwise – eventually turned to evangelical fundamentalism.)
So if there is any definable, encapsulated history of modern atheism, what is it? It is certainly more than an in vacuo mediation on the select few who have publicly challenged a domineering worldview of their time. It must include the history of modern religion itself, which has so consistently provoked a reply to its absolutist claims. But public atheism has always been defined by more than just its sacred target. What matters most is its methodology – a willingness to challenge the status quo. Perhaps its story is really the history of modernity itself.
The evolution of modern atheism cannot possibly be uncoupled from postindustrial advancements in science, social justice, equality, or education. In revisiting the works of “The Unbelievers,” it seems clear that these worldviews represent not just the refutation of religion, but the primacy of critical thought and skepticism as valuable intellectual tools in and of themselves; and with countless applications – from journalism to academia to science and technology.
For centuries it was considered profane to question the status quo – religious, political, or otherwise. Now, when Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath curses “the laudable ideologies,” his only profanity is his diction. The history of modern atheism is far more complex than it may first seem, and as a first, cursory primer for the unversed, Joshi’s book will do. But a vade mecum it is not.