Book reviews: 3 books about atheism

March 15, 2011

Despite the number of titles published since the “new atheists” took up their battle cry against religion with Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith” in 2004, there is still no core, authoritative history — no atheist’s bible, if you will. The authors of three new books all cover the more recent history of atheism and agnosticism, although none attempts a definitive look at the subject. Two of them adopt a mostly scholarly stance, while the third makes it a personal quest, informed by some rare humility.

1In The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism (Prometheus, $19), S.T. Joshi profiles 14 notable agnostics and atheists from the 19th and 20th centuries. He is up front about the fact that he’s not trying to be encyclopedic and has chosen his subjects based on whether he “shares an intellectual sympathy with them.” They are, by and large, a fascinating bunch, including Thomas Huxley, who first coined the term “agnosticism” in 1876; writer and curmudgeon Mark Twain; “America’s greatest lawyer,” Clarence Darrow; journalist H.L. ­Mencken ; and horror writer and “patron saint of atheism” H.P. Lovecraft. The lone woman, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who took the fight to eliminate mandatory prayer in schools to the Supreme Court in 1963, “has always been a bit of an embarrassment to the atheist community,” Joshi writes. “The Unbelievers” concludes with a look at the “new atheists”: Sam Harris (Joshi is not a fan), Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Joshi has no patience for the religious. “Such individuals,” he writes, “are free to think secretly that I am consigned to hell, just as I am free to feel silent contempt for their own irrationality and desperation.” And while he claims that the battle is over and atheism has won, in the end “we may have to be satisfied with the peculiar dichotomy of an atheistic intellectual class, a wider class of the weakly religious, and an underclass of fundamentalists.” Since 93 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, that’s a pretty large underclass. In general, this book will be best received by those who share Joshi’s — excuse the term — faith in that future.

2If you’re filled with rage at God, does that mean you believe in Him? That’s the question at the heart of Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism (Oxford Univ., $29.95), by Bernard Schweizer, an English professor at Long Island University. After all, most of us don’t waste energy railing at the failures and injustice of Zeus or Odin. Schweizer argues that certain agnostics and atheists belong in a separate class, which he dubs “misotheists.” (I prefer Albert Camus’ term: “metaphysical rebel.”) Schweizer’s premise is that misotheists — such as Twain, Elie Wiesel , Rebecca West and Philip Pullman — tend to work out their philosophical ideas through literature. Schweizer divides them into two categories: “agonistic misotheists,” such as Wiesel and Zora Neale Hurston, who might want to believe in God but find it hard in the face of such earthly evil; and “absolute misotheists,” such as Pullman, who find God “guilty of gross negligence.” “Hating God” relies on close readings of selected texts, but Schweizer’s insistence that his work is groundbreaking gets tiring. Still, I’d like to be in the room when Schwiezer informs Pullman that he actually believes in God.

3Michael Krasny, an English professor at San Francisco State University and the host of the “ Forum ” public radio talk show, decries the polarized state of affairs between religious fundamentalists and militant atheists in Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (New World, $22.95). Krasny, who was raised by Jewish parents, quotes novelist Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” Having lost his childhood faith in college, Krasny spent years forging his own personal code, including wisdom from everyone from Hemingway to Camus. “I wanted my own set of commandments, my own ethical code, my own personal morality, my own certainty, if I could find it, without the necessity of a divinely prescribed moral platform.” Along the way, he makes a case for agnosticism as more than just “cowardly atheism” and for a return to tolerance. “One principle to which I have held fast is not to belittle or be contemptuous of the faith of others.” He adds two provisos: as long as people do no harm in the name of their faith, and as long as they don’t try to force their beliefs, or nonbeliefs, on him. His quest is a thoughtful journey well worth taking.

Zipp frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.

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