The Unbelievers

What is most interesting about contemporary atheists is not what they have in common but rather their differences.

The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism Prometheus Books 304 pp.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Stuart Whatley is deputy blog editor in The Huffington Post’s Washington, D.C. bureau.

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