The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism

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9781616142360: The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism
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Atheism, once a minority view, is now openly embraced by an increasing number of scientists, philosophers, politicians, and celebrities. How did this formerly closeted secular perspective gain its current prominence as a philosophically viable and challenging worldview? In this succinct history of modern atheism, a prolific author, editor, and scholar traces the development of atheist, agnostic, and secularist thought over the past century and a half.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, when intellectuals first openly voiced skepticism about long-standing Christian beliefs, Joshi considers the impact of several leading thinkers: Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin’s Bulldog"), Leslie Stephen, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Mark Twain. Each of these writers, in different ways, made searing criticisms of such religious conceptions as the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and the existence of God, at a time when such notions were largely taken for granted.

Next, the author examines prominent atheist thinkers of the early twentieth century: attorney Clarence Darrow, journalist H. L. Mencken, philosopher Bertrand Russell, and horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Around the same time as Darrow and Mencken were involved in the celebrated Scopes trial in America, which resulted in a triumph for the theory of evolution, Bertrand Russell in England was becoming well known as a forthright atheist. And Lovecraft was championing atheism in his novels and tales.

Turning to recent decades, the author considers the uproar caused by outspoken atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the controversial 1962 "school prayer" Supreme Court decision. Finally, he evaluates the work of best-selling authors Gore Vidal, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. In each case, he carefully dissects the views of the writers in question and points out both the strengths and fallacies or ambiguities in their arguments.

This excellent intellectual history will be a welcome addition to the libraries of readers of both secular and religious orientations seeking a greater understanding of contemporary atheism.

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About the Author:

S. T. Joshi (Seattle, WA) is a freelance writer, scholar, and editor whose previous books include Documents of American Prejudice; In Her Place: A Documentary History of Prejudice against Women; God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong; Atheism: A Reader; H. L. Mencken on Religion; The Agnostic Reader; and What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays by Mark Twain.

From Booklist:

Editor of the Library of America volume of pulp-sf master H. P. Lovecraft’s work, Joshi is ardently atheist. Less stylistically idiosyncratic than Lovecraft, he is as readable. If he doesn’t deliver the evolutionary account of modern atheism the subtitle promises, he introduces 14 hard-core religious skeptics sympathetically and literately. He praises all, but dissects the shortcomings of not only uncouth Madalyn Murray O’Hare, who got prayer out of America’s public schools (and wrote so badly that Joshi’s prose degenerates writing about her), but also august T. H. Huxley and Bertrand Russell. Others discussed are Leslie Stephen, J. S. Mill, Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, Lovecraft, Gore Vidal, and best-selling contemporary God-scoffers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. More temperate than most of his subjects (though his observations about Voltaire and Whittaker Chambers are, respectively, unconvincing and false), Joshi shares with them the canard that failing to find a physical God disproves his existence. Philosophically informed theists will hardly agree, but even they will enjoy and learn from his presentation. --Ray Olson

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