A Secular Symposium: The Portable Atheist

Before I discovered Christopher Hitchens, I seriously doubted that non-fiction prose could be savoured and reread. How wrong I was. As a writer, Hitchens has the style of Byron, the depth of Faulkner and the wit of Wilde. Possibly the most well-read man on the planet, Hitchens has the ability to communicate complex arguments with a warmth and economy that can engage the dullest layman.

I would read Hitchens on anything, but Hitchens on religion is especially fine. In this breezeblock anthology of secularist thought, he has gathered broadsides against religion from the pre-faith age to the twenty-first century. The word symposium, in Ancient Greece, simply meant ‘drinking party.’ This is a rough, raucous party of a book, where Persian poets mingle with evolutionary biologists and Arab dissidents. And Hitchens is buying the drinks.

Faith’s defenders and apologists like to remind us that many great rationalist and Enlightenment thinkers, such as Darwin and Newton, subscribed to religious beliefs or another competing superstition. Since most of these historical figures lived in times where publicly admitting a lack of belief could get you ostracised, imprisoned or even killed, this is like defending modern-day human trafficking by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. But it’s fascinating to see how writers such as Hobbes and Spinoza, while publicly going along with the orthodoxy for breathing’s sake, weaved the traces of free thought into their philosophical works.

Of course, they were the lucky ones. Reading the early part of this anthology, you realise that you don’t know you’re born – that you’ve won time’s lottery. It’s a humbling realisation but also a liberating one. We live in an age where the churches no longer rule the Western world. We’re free to excuse religious crimes by explaining them as misinterpretations or perversions of the true faith. What the European dissidents of the medieval age knew back then, and the Arab dissidents of today know now, is that the violence, censorship and torture aren’t a misinterpretation of religion – the violence is the religion. The Portable Atheist gives us a catalogue of human rights abuses directly attributable to religious texts – if your stomach can take it.

From Hitchens’s introduction: ‘One is continually told, as an unbeliever, that it is old-fashioned to rail against the primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion because after all, in these enlightened times, the old superstitions have died away.’ The criticism rings true, but even in the most liberal creeds we get a frightening sense of what the clerics would do if they ever again got near power. Last year floods devastated several counties of England. To most of us this just seemed like freak weather conditions, but the Bishop of Carlisle knew the real reason:

‘This is a strong and definite judgement,’ announced the Bishop of Carlisle, ‘because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.’ From a list of possible transgressions the Bishop (who has sources of information denied to the rest of us) selected recent legal moves to allow more rights to homosexuals. These, he said, placed us ‘in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgement, which is intended to call us to repentance.’ Many of his senior colleagues, including one who has been spoken of as a future Archbishop of Canterbury, joined him in blaming the floods – on sexual preference.

Of course, in these modern, decadent times the Christian Church has been forced to hang up its rack and to ease off on its multitude of enemies; Jews, gays, women, witches, other kinds of Christians, etc. It’s lost the mob’s siren-song, and only survives today because it offers what secular philosophy doesn’t – some kind of physical existence after death. If that had never been a part of the religious belief system, Islam and Christianity would have had the cultural lifespan of phrenology or the Flat Earth Society. It’s all they’ve got.

Liberal thinkers have to stress the point that this life is the only one we know of, and therefore our only real chance of happiness. It’s far too precious (too holy, even) to be squandered on absurd and repressive belief systems. We could start by saying that even the greatest religious scholars found it hard to describe heaven, or what goes on there. According to Tertullian, heaven’s main selling point was that you could laugh at all the people burning down there in hell. According to Islam, you’ll get laid there – if you take enough people with you.

This isn’t good enough, and the writers in this volume explain why. Marx started out as a novelist, and like Hitchens, his prose is as high as any of the great literary writers when he says: ‘Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.’ From Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

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.

Religion falls down in its wicked disrespect for this life. It treats life as a waiting room for death – which is perhaps why many of its adherents have so little respect for others’ lives and their own. It is against the world, against life; even in its most watered-down and moderate form, it is nihilism with a beatific smirk of its face.

The Portable Atheist is recommended, but it suffers from its omissions. I would have liked to see more from fiction writers, particularly the Scottish writer Iain Banks, who could have contributed a great passage from The Crow Road. Phillip Pullman should have been asked, too, as well as the fantasy author Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett’s Small Gods is set on a faraway disc planet that rides through space on the back of a giant turtle. On the Discworld, gods do exist – but they have to be believed in to exist. Belief creates gods, not the other way round. Pratchett’s theology is like galactic snakes-and-ladders, with thousands of wind and thunder and fire gods competing against each other.

In Small Gods, the god Om has established domination over much of the planet. In a twist of genius, his followers believe that the world is round and ruthlessly persecute philosophers who tell the truth; that it is flat.

The book’s finest scene comes when the gods of the Disc have a change of heart. In the midst of a bloody war, they descend onto earth and give the only two commandments that mankind has ever needed:



The Portable Atheist, selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens, Da Capo Press 2007

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