Reviews

A Trojan Horse?

A Trojan Horse?

Peter Sutherland reviews Atheists: The Origin of the Species, a new history of atheism by the director of the religion and society think tank, Theos.

When I bought this book I was (naïvely) expecting a history written from our perspective. However it turned out to be from the perspective of  an “intelligent” Christian.

Nick Spencer has written this lively, stimulating history of atheism from Roger Ascham in 1551 through Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza in the 17th century up until the present day. He emphasises the martyrdom or near martyrdom suffered by our pioneers who struggled to make their ideas heard in an overwhelmingly Christian and intolerant society.

There are 4 chapters:

“Possibilities” explores the impact of the original scientists.

“Pioneers”: the British, the French, the Germans and the Americans.

“Promises” follows the story from the French Revolution through the remainder of the 19th century up until what Spencer calls ”the high point of British atheism.” This was the time of the establishment of the Rationalist Press, the Ethical Unions, the National Secular Society and this very journal in its original print format.
“Problems” follows our story into the 20th century and the first 14 years of the 21st. Spencer writes of the “first death of British atheism” at the beginning of the 20th century, when Bertrand Russell was the leading atheist. Many freethinkers might rather regard this era as a high point, rather than a “death.”

He then gloats over the godless, atheist societies such as the Soviet Union and (in Spencer’s eyes) Nazi Germany which gave atheism a bad name in liberal circles. This is one of his pillars of his case against us.

After this largely negative argument we are granted a “new dawn” right at the end of the book.

However from Spencer’s viewpoint it is a false new dawn. The New Atheists are throughly denigrated. This is the second pillar of his case against us. Dawkins is accused of “verbal shiftiness” and “intellectual double standards”.

He responds angrily to the attacks Dawkins has made on various prominent Christians such as ex-Pope Benedict. Spencer is equally scathing about Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Much of this consists of ad hominem attacks.

I got the impression that Christian academics are worried (and jealous) of the impact which these three freethinking writers (Dawkins in particular) have made. Despite this impression Spencer claims that the new atheist movement is now dead, having died “with a whimper rather than a bang”! What wishful thinking! He prefers the scepticism of John Gray.

He pays little heed to the Humanist movement which has been so successful in offering secular weddings and funerals in recent years. He does not seem to want to give our side any credit for any social achievements in recent times. He prefers to stick to intellectual arguments.

Most of the detailed material in this book is very interesting, eg there was an earlier Freethinker magazine from 1718 till 1721.

However I am extremely dubious about the substance of his overall argument. Nick Spencer writes clearly and argues his case against atheism cogently, but I am left not knowing what his alternative is. I recommend this volume to readers of  the Freethinker who are prepared to tackle a counter argument to what most of us accept.

I would like to know what other freethinkers think of this book.

 • Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer, 2014, published by Bloomsbury, London; £16.99 hardback; 298 pp.

6 responses to “A Trojan Horse?”

  1. Did he manage to explain why he thinks Atheists are wrong by producing a verifiable, scientific datum validating his belief in the Christian god? Or did he hide his inability to do that under the usual heap of verbiage?

  2. Laura Roberts says:

    Apologists who drag out the Hitler canard lose me right away. Not only is it historically dishonest, but it demonstrates intellectual laziness and shabby scholarship.

  3. Rob Andrews says:

    Yeah.. The Christians I talk to all ‘glote on the godless atheists societies like Soviet Union and nazi germany’. As if morality was a reason to believe in something real or not. But I point out a few things to them.

    1) The autrocities of stalin and Hitler were done by atheists but not for atheism–usualy for some other absolute ideology. Witchburnings and heracy trials were done in the NAME of Christ.
    2) None of these people were secular humanist. but were believers in some other absolute ideology–certainly not freethinker.
    3) And many were brought up as Xtrians in there formative years.

    “Science flies you to the moon.Religion flies you into buildings.”–Victor Stenger.

  4. L.Long says:

    Rob beat me to it.
    Yes they may have been atheists (like most big name xtian preachers) but they were DOGMATISTS, and ALL dogma is BAD!!!!! And none are as bad as the abrahamic dogmas.

  5. sailor1031 says:

    Always amusing to see the horrors of the twentieth century laid at the door of atheists because – well you know, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong & Pol Pot – the true four horsemen……

    None of the christians making these absurd accusations mention World War 1 – the first great horror. So here’s some tidbits about WW1:

    estimated number dead – 16,000,000
    estimated number wounded – 20,000,000

    Most important leaders of combatant nations:
    King George V – England. Anglican & head of the Anglican church
    Tsar Nicholas II – Russia. Russian orthodox & head of the russian orthodox church
    Kaiser Wilhelm II – Germany. Evangelical christian church
    Kaiser Franz-Josef – Austria. Roman Catholic
    King Victor-Emanuel III – Italy. Roman Catholic
    Mehmet VI – Ottoman Empire. Muslim
    President Raymond Poincare – France. Roman catholic.

    The list goes on – there were many other countries caught up in this war – but I haven’t found an atheist on the list yet!

  6. Paul Harrington says:

    The next largest war was the Tai ping rebellion (20 million dead +), lead by someone who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus and was setting up the Great Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. That looks like a religious war.

    Also, I am not sure how atheist Nazis actually were, some of their allies ( for example the Romanian Iron Guard) were quite definitely religious.