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.
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.