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).
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).
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...