Book Review: The Unbelievers
By James Zimmerman
The Unbelievers, by S.T. Joshi ©2011, Prometheus Books, 272 pages.
S. T. Joshi’s latest book sketches the lives and teachings of the main players in the non-belief arena from the time of Darwin until today. In some ways, The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism could be read as a sequel to Kerry Walters’ book Revolutionary Deists – Prometheus Book’s release from earlier this year – that detailed the deism of several founding fathers.
Joshi introduces his book by offering it as “a nucleus” for certain aspects of the history of atheism. As his description indicates, his book doesn’t cover that majority of atheism’s history. Joshi admits that a full-scale history is still absent from the bookshelves. He notes that such a history would likely begin in the fifth century BCE, with Diagoras the Atheist. Instead, Joshi chooses to begin his book with Thomas Henry Huxley. Even though Huxley might not have considered himself an atheist (a claim for which the book offers no documentation), Joshi argues that Huxley’s intense efforts in bringing Darwin’s theories into the mainstream allowed, finally, for “the adoption of atheism as a working hypothesis far more intellectually viable than it had been in the generations that preceded him” (40).
The book continues, then, with a chronological overview of atheism’s major players during the last 120 years. Biographies are offered on thirteen more individuals including J. S. Mill, Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, and Gore Vidal. The final three chapters are devoted to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. In their cases, Joshi dispenses with the most of the details of their biographies and instead offers analyses of their popular books. The analyses make for fascinating reading, even if they are inconsistent at times. For example, Joshi claims Dawkins goes “a bit overboard” in The God Delusion by maintaining that the 9/11 terrorist attacks “would not have occurred without religion” (209). Later, however, he Says Sam Harris should “be praised” for his assertions that religion “must be a root cause and perhaps the sole cause” of the events of 9/11 (218).
Readers are also likely to be put off by the narrow scope. Joshi’s book should, perhaps, more correctly be subtitled The Evolution of Modern White, Western, Male Atheism. Nothing in this book took place outside of Europe or North America, and the only woman detailed is Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a person whom Joshi begins discussing by saying she “has always been a bit of an embarrassment to the atheist community” (167). The lack of diversity here represents several missed opportunities, especially considering the majority of the figures in this book are already well-known by most atheists.
Here’s hoping for a more comprehensive, inclusive sequel…