If you read about atheism, you are probably familiar with the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, and his most famous contemporaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. In The Portable Atheist, Hitchens offers readers the opportunity to expand their horizons with an anthology containing 47 essays and excerpts on unbelief. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are all represented, but Hitchens’ selections range from Greek philosophy (Lucretius) to English poetry (Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin) to modern scientific treatises (Victor Stenger). This collection offers dozens of arguments against the existence of a deity, but it is also a book about the evolution of unbelief in Western culture. By arranging the readings in chronological order rather than by theme, Hitchens creates a history of non-theism which contextualizes the current state of affairs. While the language and style of some of the older readings may be challenging for the modern reader, their contents can also be startling in their continued relevance. Although there are some leavening humourous pieces (Michael Shermer), the book leans towards a scholarly tone.
The book weighs in at a hefty (and somewhat less than portable) 499 pages and yet undoubtedly could have included many more selections. Notably absent are Nietzsche, Voltaire and Bakunin to name only a few. Hitchens briefly introduces each reading in his customary style, but is sometimes sparse on biographical details, perhaps due to space constraints. The index is likewise somewhat cursory for such a lengthy text. As noted by Hitchens himself, the selections are heavy on white men, and Oxonians. Excellent writers from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, including Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are included, but the collection predominantly assumes a Christian background. However, the volume does reflect the wide variety of non-belief from atheism to agnosticism to humanism that has arisen from within these confines.