How and why atheism, which has a long and little-known history, has contributed substantially to many of the more humane and enjoyable aspects of the modern world.
Stephens (Journalism/New York Univ.; A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite, 1988, etc.)—has not composed yet another screed but, for the most part, a reasonable summary and analysis of the phenomenon of atheism. He does have a pro-atheism position, however, that becomes increasingly prominent—or more difficult to disguise—as the text progresses. The author begins in 1728 with Denis Diderot, a name that appears continually, and then retreats to ancient Greece and marches steadily forward the rest of the way. Even the chapters about the long-ago world, however, feature more recent allusions (B.F. Skinner pops up in the same chapter with Gilgamesh). Throughout, Stephens deals with the disbelievers, the believers and the in-betweeners, many of whom are no surprise—Socrates (not an atheist), Galileo, Shakespeare (who played it close to the doublet), Newton (who swung both ways), Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Shelley, Camus and Richard Dawkins. The author also drags from history’s shadows some lesser-known names: Jean Meslier, a 17th-century priest who changed his mind; Baron d’Holbach, whose book The System of Nature (1770) became “one of the most reviled—and read—books of the eighteenth century”; Charles Bradlaugh, who traveled around England preaching atheism and engaging in fiery debates; and Annie Besant, a vicar’s wife who became involved with Bradlaugh. Stephens rehearses the arguments about the violence often visited on others by true believers and deftly handles the counterarguments about the irreligious evil ones among us. Ultimately, he gives heavy credit to atheists for social advances (abortion, gay rights, women’s rights) that many religions opposed most desperately.
A text sure to give atheists some data and believers another annoyance.