A Chronicle of the Faithless
Marco Vega, Director of the British Institute of Posthuman Studies, reviews S T Joshi’s The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism, an historical account of 14 outspoken infidels and their courageous battle against ignorance.
Imagine you are having a friendly conversation with a religious acquaintance in which you are trying to explain why one of her favourite passages of scripture is inconsistent and doesn’t make much sense.
Think of that frustrating feeling when after using the soundest reasoning at your disposal, she still asserts that her passage is factual “because her scripture says so”. But now compare that frustration to how it must have been for thinkers who lived two centuries ago; people who were surrounded by hordes of irrational opponents, but did not have the equivalent of Dawkins’ The God Delusion to hand. Still they tried to conjure up persuasive arguments to prove their religious counterparts wrong.
This is exactly what The Unbelievers is about; it is the story of how and why a handful of outspoken thinkers created powerful anti-theist arguments that would eventually lead to a powerful movement of contemporary unbelievers.
Sunand Tryambak Joshi is known as a novelist, literary critic and bibliographer. He has been praised by critics such as Harold Bloom and Joyce Carol Oates for his extensive bibliographies of H P Lovecraft and H L Mencken. But more admirable is his work on disseminating these (and other) authors’ lesser-known poetry, essays, letters and short stories.
More recently, however, Joshi has focused on politics, atheism and religion, publishing a handful of anti-theist texts, including Atheism: A reader (2000) and God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why they are Wrong (2003).
In Joshi’s The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism, he gives a detailed historical account of 14 thinkers from the past two centuries who – through debates, court cases, poetry and fiction – heavily contributed to building enlightened societies that would allow people to speak their mind without fear of censorship or persecution. It is an important reminder for today’s atheists that their freedom to “come out of the closet” owes much to the painstaking battles that brilliant thinkers had to win against the believers of their times.
Joshi starts his journey with Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his zealous support of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Unbelievers covers Huxley’s most important debates in which he uses the concept of “natural selection” as a powerful weapon to undermine rigid religious doctrines. Thus Huxley, a declared agnostic, will repeatedly argue that the existence of human beings can be explained without recourse to supernatural entities.
Another example is Joshi’s account of Leslie Stephen, generally only remembered as Virginia Woolf’s father. Here Joshi points out how Stephen, unlike Huxley, is interested in tackling religion from a different angle. Whilst Huxley is more interested in challenging the faithful by resorting to advances in science, Stephen attempts to exhibit how our notions of morality can (and should) be independent of religious values.
The Unbelievers also brings into context many issues that have recurrently emerged in recent history. It recalls the self-proclaimed “most hated woman in America”, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who conducted successful campaigns in the 1960s to officially remove obligatory prayers from American public schools.
It also recollects the infamous 1920s Scopes trial, in which John Scopes was taken to court for the “crime” of teaching evolution, which was at the time against Tennessee law. If one compares these cases to today’s America, in which scientists still have to fight to ensure evolution is kept in classrooms, it becomes clear that American secularism, as was envisioned by its founding-fathers, must still be defended against the religious right’s same old assaults.
Overall, Joshi’s new book is an insightful and engaging read. Most chapters contain a contextual introduction, a short biography and an account of events and arguments of the individual at hand. Towards the end, however, when discussing Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, Joshi’s presentation and tone change quite dramatically. He uses these chapters to propose a number of personal praises and criticisms of their works – some justified – but others not so much.
He succeeds, for example, in pointing out Harris’ and Dawkins’ naivety for not recognising the political, historic and economic issues surrounding many of the world’s problems. This is evident when discussing 9/11 and the Israel-Palestine conflict, for Joshi rightly critiques Harris and Dawkins for blaming religion as the sole culprit in these matters.
At other times, however, he seemingly goes out of his way to show his disapproval by conjuring obscure and pointless assertions. This is particularly apparent when he condemns Dawkins’ invention of the term “meme” and its (supposed) failure as an explanatory tool. His justification is that memes don’t act the same way genes do, and thus Dawkins should drop his “misleading” and “pseudo-scientific” explanation of how cultural transmission occurs.
If you plan on picking up The Unbelievers, make sure you are interested in the details surrounding each of these thinkers’ many disputes, because at times Joshi patiently discusses long sequences of exchanges between these dissidents and their peers. If this does appeal to you, and you are looking to attain a nuanced understanding of the movement’s development, then The Unbelievers is a well-researched historical account of how each of these minds fought the atheist battle in their own times.
Editor’s Note: Vega’s review was first published in the Freethinker in 2011. Joshi’s has since published The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief. This is the first anthology ever published to feature the writings of leading 18th-century thinkers on the subjects of atheism, religion, freethought, and secularism. Joshi has compiled notable essays by writers from France, England, and early America.