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The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever    by Christopher Hitchens Amazon.com order for
Portable Atheist
by Christopher Hitchens
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Da Capo Press, 2008 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

Christopher Hitchens, who has made quite a name for himself with his National Book Award nominated God is Not Great, returns with an edited collection of 'essential readings for the nonbeliever.' Though The Portable Atheist (a thick and oversized paperback) is not necessarily that portable, it is nevertheless a unique collection of atheist writings taken from the history of the written word. Hitchens opens with a lengthy introduction from Hitchens, waxing rhapsodic about the growth of atheism, and articulating his view of the futility of religion and his belief that it has caused more harm or good.

The first piece, De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things), by first century BCE Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, covers a theory of atoms and how everything is composed of these minute building blocks. Though well accepted in modern times, such ideas were mocked for much of history. In the brief passage, Lucretius speaks of devastating storms and catastrophic events as not being attributable to the gods but rather quite natural; he even hints that there is no afterlife. And Mark Twain, a staunch evolutionist and satirist of religious faith has this to say: 'Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.'

Emma Goldman, a Russian-born anarchist who became a champion of civil liberties and labor rights in the United States and was deported to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, was a strong voice in the early atheist movement: 'Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.' H. L. Mencken who worked against religious fundamentalists trying to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and was famed for his accounts of the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925, asks: 'Where is the graveyard of dead gods?' He refers to gods throughout history who have been completely forgotten or are barely recollected and his final almost solemn comment is: 'All are dead.'

Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame writes an insightful piece about his atheist beliefs and how it is important to use the time we have now and not to waste it thinking about the afterlife: 'Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.' Other renowned proponents of atheism featured here include Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett; authors like H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and John Updike; poets such as Percy Blysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin; and scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan.

The Portable Atheist is a fascinating and captivating collection of atheist writings that one can simply pick up at any point, wherever one may be, and enjoy a reading. The final piece is from the bestselling author of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped Islam and offers up this sobering outlook: 'The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.'

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