Book Review: The Portable Atheist

I have read a couple of books by Christopher Hitchens – God is Not Great & Mortality. I am currently re-reading God is Not Great, and you can expect a book review in the next couple of weeks. By ‘reading’ I actually mean ‘listening’ as I have read it before I thought it would be interesting to have it read to me by Christopher Hitchens himself.

What I find most enjoyable about Mr Hitchens is his ability to explain so clearly why something is so abhorrent. You see this in his debates which are all online these days, but you also see this behind his books. This is why I wanted to listen to his words rather than read his words with God is Not Great.

Anyway, enough about ‘God is Not Great’.

The Portable Atheist is a collection of essays from a few centuries ago all the way to our current time, written by some of the most prominent agnostics and atheists in their time. From Charles Darwin to Sam Harris, George Elliot to Salman Rushdie, we get to read segments, thoughts, arguments and essays by these huge historical figures who have well and truly influenced the people of their time and beyond.

I have found a lot of new people, mainly more historical than current, who I knew very little about, and because of this book, I have had my eyes opened to a world of writers and thinkers who would have remained lost to me without someone like Mr Hitchens collating and sharing some of their work.

I find the term ‘portable’ a bit ironic, but I don’t know if this was intentional. I understand that having these writers brought to us in selected form has made them digestible by people like me. So, I guess you could agree that they have been ported to a new readership, but the book itself is fairly large and un-portable, so who knows.

I have mentioned before that it is really important to engage with those who have gone before so that we can understand their thoughts, decisions and life choices. We can use these things to help us bounce our thoughts and ideas against. Does our reasoning actually stand up to scrutiny?

Maybe you don’t have anyone in your near group of friends or loved ones who is able to have a real and frank conversation with you about what you think and believe. Fairly often that is the position I find myself in, so I need to do everything that I can to find a benchmark out there in the real, honest and frank world.

I also get frustrated when people only like to listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos.

Why? Well, it means that these people will never stumble across those who only wrote and engaged with these topics before the internet and social media took such a strong foothold within our lives as it did a decade or so ago.

If we aren’t willing to read through things written in a different time period, then we are going to really struggle to understand how beliefs and ideas have been formulated and how things have progressed. Some of the essays are really hard to get through and are a bit complicated, some of the older ones are a bit more dated, either in the way they are written or because of the audience they must have been written to. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important and that they don’t have a voice that needs to be expressed to the world afresh.

I think this is the main reason I am enjoying this book so much. I get to find, enjoy and learn from a group of writers that I would otherwise never have stumbled across. All thanks to Mr Hitchens and his desire to inform the world of sound reasoning within good literature. I mean, in this collection we get to hear from some of the authors who had no idea about evolution, or how a cell is constructed, or what it would be like to live in a time with antibiotics and the high standards of living we have today. These people didn’t have these things, but still, they engaged their intellect and asked questions that probed at the reality of the world they experienced.

It feels as if you are sitting in on a summer school for those wanting to engage with agnostics and atheists throughout recorded history.

To me, this book should be read slowly and over a long period of time. It should be enjoyable by everyone, we should enjoy learning, enjoy engaging and we might even find a few new heroes that we can begin to engage with elsewhere in their wider works.

For example, Leslie Stephen has some incredible things to share with us, if only we had the ability to even know who he was. Which is just what this book does, as Mr Hitchens brings Leslie Stephen to us.

‘We are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness, learning only by incessantly repeated blunders, obtaining a glimmering of truth by falling into every conceivable error, dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths; and yet when one of us ventures to declare that we don’t know the map of the universe as well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled, and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his faithlessness.’ An Agnostic’s Apology by LESLIE STEPHEN. Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (p. 110). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

I mean come on, Leslie Stephen was clearly a badass. I know I am going to enjoy reading more of his work, and this is precisely what this book allows people like you and me to discover. There is a wealth of knowledge, wit and insight out there that people have built upon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get back to the start, to the raw and honest reflections of individuals that I will honestly admit, I have never heard of before.

Trust someone who knew his literature as well as Mr Hitchens clearly did, and then allow them to lead you by the hand to these hidden treasures.

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

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I’ll see you back here at the same time next week 🙂


Farewell For Now When Belief Dies

It's time to stop, even though it breaks my heart. This episode serves as my reason why.   -Sam
  1. Farewell For Now
  2. When Belief Dies #100 – 'Psychedelics, Philosophy & God' with Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes
  3. When Belief Dies #99 – 'Open and Relational Theology' with Thomas Jay Oord
  4. When Belief Dies #98 – 'The Take Over' with Daniel Kelly & Roger Bretherton
  5. When Belief Dies #97 – 'The End?' with Daniel Kelly

4 Comments. Leave new

  • The title of this book alone probably makes it unlikely that believers and doubters – as opposed to those of us who have declared our non-belief – will pick it up. Advanced doubters, maybe!

    I got this from the library a couple of years ago and had to return it before I’d read much of it, but enough to see the treasure-trove within. Questioning and rejecting Christianity still is not an easy path for the most of us who are surrounded by Christian family and friends. But in ages past it was also often placing one’s life – or at least one’s livelihood – in jeopardy. We all like to think that if we’d lived in the 1700s or early 1800s we would have been ardent opponents of slavery. And many atheists today like to think we would have been outspoken, or at least privately free-thinking, in centuries past. But would we really? The fact that it took me decades of adult life to deconvert suggests I would have been even less inclined to question conventional wisdom in an earlier age. All of which makes me admire all the more the voices of dissent from times past.

    Anyway, I think this book would be ideal for somebody who has recently arrived at unbelief. Being in the company of the writers included here would have to be reassuring and encouraging.

  • whenbeliefdies
    February 25, 2021 4:13 pm

    Totally agree – love the comment 🙂

  • Thanks Sam. I should mention another benefit of reading a book like this, with its contributions from a variety of authors. The newly deconverted person is usually subject to the nagging “What if I’m wrong?” fears, which can range from mild concern to waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night (fortunately I only had the former). I’ve known people who came to non-theism based on a single piece of knowledge (lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus, maybe) and they have benefited immensely from learning all kinds of other arguments. Knowledge is power, and in the case of the deconverted among us, it can be the key to a happy post-Christian life.

    • whenbeliefdies
      February 25, 2021 9:27 pm

      That’s it – knowing people have gone before, and that their stories hold power.

      I still get the middle of the night panics… One day it’ll go.


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