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Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World

by Mitchell Stephens

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The historical achievements of religious belief have been large and well chronicled. But what about the accomplishments of those who have challenged religion? Traveling from classical Greece to twenty-first century America, Imagine There's No Heaven explores the role of disbelief in shaping Western civilization. At each juncture common themes emerge: by


The historical achievements of religious belief have been large and well chronicled. But what about the accomplishments of those who have challenged religion? Traveling from classical Greece to twenty-first century America, Imagine There's No Heaven explores the role of disbelief in shaping Western civilization. At each juncture common themes emerge: by questioning the role of gods in the heavens or the role of a God in creating man on earth, nonbelievers help move science forward. By challenging the divine right of monarchs and the strictures of holy books, nonbelievers, including Jean- Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, help expand human liberties, and influence the early founding of the United States. Revolutions in science, in politics, in philosophy, in art, and in psychology have been led, on multiple occasions, by those who are free of the constraints of religious life. Mitchell Stephens tells the often-courageous tales of history's most important atheists— like Denis Diderot and Salman Rushdie. Stephens makes a strong and original case for their importance not only to today's New Atheist movement but to the way many of us—believers and nonbelievers—now think and live.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Stephens (A History of News), a historian and professor of journalism at New York University, proposes that some major advancements in science, politics, and mathematics were enabled by disbelief in gods. Drawing on evidence which includes tablet writings dating as far back as 415 B.C.E., as well as documents suggesting that the denouncement of gods, doubt in the supernatural, and denial of an afterlife were not uncommon, Stephens points out that atheism —whether skepticism, cynicism, or anacreonism—is not a recent development. Many great minds of the modern era, such as Newton, Mill, and Darwin, among others, shared doubts and denials about god. Fueled by irreligious dis- and non-belief, rationalism, natural explanations, and common sense, these thinkers chipped away at the faiths of many, causing questioning and prompting changes and increased learning first in Athens, then Europe, and eventually worldwide. Unclear, though, is the connection of their disbelief in god to the uncovering of the laws of physics, the writing of On Liberty, and the theory of evolution. Though surely not providing any definite answers, Stephens provides an intriguing take on a topic that has sparked much discussion and will surely spark more to come. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“[The] story of atheism as an articulate movement. We learn an enormous amount about figures censored out of history, and about the persecution that freethinkers suffered until shockingly recently. His martyrs fill our hearts; his heroes inspire….moving.” —The New Yorker

“Stephens provides an intriguing take on a topic that has sparked much discussion and will surely spark more to come.” —Publishers Weekly

“Provocative, deeply researched and enlightening.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The only thing new about the New Atheists are the names. As Mitchell Stephens reveals in this gripping narrative history of atheism, many brave souls have come out of the atheist closet over the centuries to challenge the religious dogma of their day, and many paid the ultimate price for so doing. We all stand on the shoulders of these giants so artfully brought to life—along with their ideas—in this important contribution to the burgeoning literature on unbelief” —Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of The Believing Brain, and The Science of Good and Evil

“An intriguing book, presenting a magnificent cast of characters who helped shape modernity. It helps us all measure even those we disagree with most in terms of their creativity and moral worth rather than what they do, or do not, believe.” —Jonathan Israel, Professor of History, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University

“Imagine There’s No Heaven is a landmark study of the role played by atheism and other forms of religious doubt in the development of Western civilization. Mitchell Stephens strides through history as deftly as he steps across disciplines, uncovering a dramatic chronicle of unbelief as a goad to innovation that centuries of more devout scholarship tended to obscure. This book invites atheists to celebrate — and others to acknowledge — the outsized role that unbelievers have played in shaping the West.” —Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and editor, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief

“Mitchell Stephens' new book "Imagine There's No Heaven" is smart, evenhanded, and full of personality. He has a great eye for the important details, which is particularly evident in his evocative portraits of individuals, such as Sartre and Camus. Deserves to be on every skeptic's bookshelf and we can hope it reaches many among the faithful as well.” —Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History

Library Journal
Stephens (media studies, New York Univ.; A History of News) has been researching the history of atheism for over a decade, and there's no question such a study is needed. For the most part, what he produces is Whig history: the tale of the advance of enlightenment against the retrograde forces of superstition and repression. He analyzes the phenomenon of disbelief—why it appears, what its effect is on society—but for the most part the book is composed of vignettes of champions in the spread of enlightenment and skepticism. Some are familiar names (Newton, Spinoza, Diderot, Mill, Darwin, Shelley, Marx, Camus, and Sartre). Some are not, such as the 19th-century crusaders Ernestine Rose and Charles Bradlaugh, or the 20th century's Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of American Atheists. Over all, Stephens's tone hovers between history lite and history serious, but his observations on why disbelief has arisen and what its consequences have been—principally, higher standards of proof and greater tolerance—are sound and helpful. VERDICT This isn't the book that scholars have been waiting for on the subject, but Stephens makes a good case for his interpretations.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Imagine There's No Heaven

How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World

By Mitchell Stephens

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Mitchell Stephens
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-43765-5




Lost in an immense forest during the night I only have a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me: "My friend, blow out your candle so you can better find your way." This unknown man is a theologian.

— Denis Diderot

Who is history's first known atheist?

In 415 BCE a bronze tablet was placed on the Acropolis in Athens offering a sum of money to anyone who brought Diagoras of Melos back alive for trial and half as much money to anyone who killed him. The evidence is strong that Diagoras had been accused of impiety: scoffing at and exposing the mysteries of a local religious rite. It is less clear that this was the same Diagoras who had achieved renown as a poet and was said to have abandoned belief in the gods after someone stole and had a success with one of his poems.

Atheists appeared early in Greece. The word is of Greek origin. (Atheos meant, originally, "ungodly," though it came to mean "without gods" or "denier of gods.") But India offers at least one name that might compete with that of Diagoras for the title first- known atheist — depending on how we read hazy accounts and interpret hazy dates.

Ajita Kesakambali is one of the participants in a Buddhist dialogue, the Sçmaññphala Sutta in which a king interrogates leaders of major sects about the value of the religious life of renunciation. The Buddha, not surprisingly, goes last and wins over the king. Ajita's earlier response is, however, more surprising: he tells the king that there is, in fact, no value whatsoever in the religious life. "It is an empty lie, mere idle talk, when men say there is profit therein," he insists. Ajita sees no merit in alms, sacrifices or offerings. In his view "there is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds." He rejects, too, the notion that there are "beings springing into life without" mother or father. Ajita denies that some enlightened beings have somehow "understood ... both this world and the next." He denies the existence of a world that might be called "the next." "Fools and wise alike," Ajita concludes, "on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not."

That is a forceful dismissal of religion by the standards of just about any era, even Diderot's. This dialogue was written down long after the time of the Buddha, if there was a Buddha. It might have taken place, if it did take place, in the fifth or fourth century BCE — possibly before, probably after Diagoras. (Dates in India are hard to establish before Alexander's invasion in 327 BCE.) And we hear no other tales about Ajita — if he was a real, not mythical, character. However, it is clear that such ideas were in the air in India. For the country did have a long-lived sect of nonbelievers, the Carvaka, and there is evidence that they date back to about this time.

The texts in which the Carvaka's views are said to have been recorded have not survived. That is a common problem in the history of atheism. Important writings questioning religion were always vulnerable to elision or destruction during periods of intolerance. To learn what the Carvaka thought, it is necessary to rely — not for the last time in this book — upon generally hostile sources and, for fuller accounts of the philosophy of the Carvaka, upon much later sources. (Jennifer Michael Hecht's work acquainted me with writings on the Carvaka — and much else.)

Nevertheless, it is possible to establish that the Carvaka entirely rejected the supernatural. "Only the perceived exists," they insist, according to an explanation of their philosophy from the ninth century of the Common Era. High on the list of entities in which the Carvaka did not believe, because such beings could not be perceived, were gods.

This literal atheism was not that unusual or shocking in ancient India. Various forms of Buddhism or Jainism underplay or ignore gods. But the Carvaka also reject rebirth, enlightenment, nirvana and karma (that satisfying, you-get-what-you-deserve link between behavior and destiny). "Uncivilized ignorant fools," they proclaim, according to one much later account, "... imagine that spirit is something different from body and reaps the reward of actions in a future state; we might as well expect to find excellent fruit drip from trees growing in the air."

A good summary of the credo of this Indian sect survives from the ninth century:

• A person is happy or miserable through [the laws] of nature; there is no other cause.

• Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature.

• The soul is but the body characterized by the attributes signified in the expressions, "I am stout," "I am youthful," "I am grown up," "I am old," etc. It is not something other than that. ...

• There is no world other than this; there is no heaven and no hell.

The Carvaka are not the only answer to the argument that atheism is a phenomenon limited to the West, or that other, earlier societies did not have the requisite understanding of the natural to dismiss the supernatural or that their societies were insufficiently liberal or pluralistic to tolerate atheism. They are not the only answer to the argument that atheism is a product of modernity, the Enlightenment or the Scientific Revolution. But the Carvaka, whose views seem compatible with those of twenty-first-century atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, may be the best answer to these arguments.

And they also demonstrate that a view of the world based on disbelief in the supernatural can have staying power, as they appear to have been around in India in one form or another for a couple of millennia.

One of this chapter's purposes is to demonstrate that disbelief in gods has not been that uncommon. Another of its purposes is to explain why.

Atheism in one person or culture is not identical to atheism in another. Just as we have varieties of religions, we have varieties of disbelief (though they tend not to be so mutually intolerant). With the help of philosophy and science, atheism has strengthened and deepened in recent centuries. But atheism did not originate in recent centuries. The Carvaka were remarkable, but they were not alone. Where it is possible to look, outspoken nonbelievers frequently turn up.

Indeed, a kind of unbelief also appears even where it is not possible to look directly: in societies that left no written record, in preliterate societies. Here, in trying to understand preliterate disbelief, we are dependent on the anthropological record: on Westerners who encountered these cultures in the last few centuries.

An account survives, for example, of a native of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific, early in the nineteenth century, whose unbelief had gone pretty far. That account comes from a British teenager, William Mariner, who was stranded on the islands when the natives captured his ship, and whose adventures and observations were later recounted in a book. The preliterate native of those islands with that skeptical perspective on religion was their king, Finow. "Finow had often stated to Mr. Mariner," the book reports, "his doubts that there were such beings as the gods. He thought that men were fools to believe what the priests told them."

Finow lived more than 2,000 years after that Greek nonbeliever, Diagoras. But his story — available to us only because he was visited by some Europeans — is a clue that in the tens of thousands of years before recorded history there likely were plenty of others who doubted "there were such beings as the gods."

And Finow is far from the only preliterate nonbeliever in the anthropological literature. Among the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa in the 1920s, some men believed that lions harbor the spirits of powerful dead Bushmen. But, according to the anthropologist Viktor Lebzelter, other members of the same tribe chuckled at the idea. That's "just a tale," they said. Another anthropologist, A. B. Ellis, describes the various reactions in a crowd at an initiation ceremony for some new Ashanti priests in West Africa in the nineteenth century. "The old people, particularly the old women," he explains, demonstrated "the most implicit faith." But many of the younger people "appeared skeptical, and some openly laughed."

These were less carefully worked out and probably less sweeping forms of disbelief than that of the Carvaka: in a preliterate society, less energy may be devoted to coming up with coherent and consistent philosophies. But even individuals in preliterate societies can marshal a pervasive and compelling doubt.

Anti-religious sentiments are difficult to measure in a society. They are often halting, inchoate or confused. And such sentiments are frequently submerged, since their expression can prove embarrassing or even dangerous. Preliterate religions, like postliterate religions, can make life unpleasant for those who question their practices — and therefore their power. King Finow on the Tonga Islands was not unwise enough to express his doubts in public, but word that Finow was "disrespectful to the gods" got around. He died suddenly — probably poisoned by a priest.

No animals demonstrate evidence of religion. All human societies that have been studied by anthropologists do. Preliterate societies may have their Finows, their doubters, but there is no evidence that there has ever been a whole tribe of doubters or nonbelievers. (Despite the best efforts of the Soviets, the modern world, too, has yet to achieve such a society, though some arrondissements in Paris may come close.)

Why? If religion is defined as a shared belief in supernatural beings (or a supernatural Being), why do all human societies, beginning with preliterate societies, feature such beliefs, especially since hard and fast evidence of the existence of such beings has been conspicuous in its absence?

The answer is probably not primarily because religion provided comfort to our ancestors. When your existence is painful, it might be cheering to imagine the possibility of another, less painful existence. No doubt it is reassuring to think that you and those you hold dear don't really, finally, absolutely cease existing. It must be a comfort for those !Kung Bushmen who did believe to imagine some of their heroes carrying on as lions. It must be a comfort to think that they themselves might stick around that way, too. The role of religion in taking some of the sting out of death should not be underestimated.

But it shouldn't be overestimated either. Many preliterate societies are not just looking for some way to comfort the bereaved; they are concerned with making sure all those potentially cranky dead people — and they do add up — don't hang around and cause trouble. "The presence of the recently dead is far more likely to be dangerous than reassuring," explains the anthropologist Pascal Boyer.

Gods, too, can be troublemakers in preliterate societies. They are sometimes called upon, sometimes fended off. Indeed, it is not clear that the manipulative, demanding, jealous, deceptive and often amoral spirits and gods most preliterate societies have attempted to engage offer much comfort.

Nor, according to Boyer, do societies have religion primarily because of some deep human need to explain where we come from, why we die or why there is suffering in the world. For one thing, most religions among preliterate peoples do not much concern themselves with such sweeping, unwieldy questions. They may have something to say about why this particular person died at this particular time. But even on such smaller questions the answers can be unhelpfully baroque — some complex tale about the behavior of quirky, headstrong supernaturals. Contemporary religions may do better with consolation, metaphysics and ethics, but most of them, too, trace their ancestry, if you go back far enough, not to a philosophical mission but to the cult of a stubborn, praise-loving supernatural.

Religions can, no doubt, encourage and preserve some useful behaviors — burying the dead, avoiding potentially diseased pork, resting one day a week, refraining from killing your neighbor. But religions also support many behaviors that not only do not contribute to the survival of their members and their genes, but are potentially harmful — fasting, staying celibate or picking fights with infidels, for example. Usefulness is only a small part of the answer.

Instead, to understand religion it is worth considering a study of one of the species of nonbelievers with which we share the planet: pigeons. In 1948, the experimental psychologist B. F. Skinner put hungry pigeons in a cage into which food appeared every fifteen seconds. The behavior of the pigeons had absolutely no effect on whether or when the food arrived, but in most cases the birds convinced themselves that it did. Soon most of the pigeons began repeating dances — dances that, Skinner believed, had become associated in their minds with the coming of the food.

Skinner titled his article on the subject, "'Superstition' in the Pigeon" (though the pigeons presumably had no sense of the supernatural). The behavior of these birds in their attempts to spur the arrival of food — turning counterclockwise a few times, for example — seems awfully foolish; just as some may find it foolish for a basketball player to cross himself before taking a foul shot. But, the point is, pigeons disposed to finding connections between their behaviors and eating are, as a rule, more likely to survive than more reserved and less easily convinced (less "superstitious"?) birds.

Similarly, humans disposed to find a connection between a prayer to a god and success in war are more likely to spot a connection between watering holes and the presence of animals, between certain bushes and sweet berries or between surrounding and capturing. Evolutionarily successful animals with and without feathers, in other words, possess an excess of this itch to make connections, and the same mental muscle that works out natural connections also fashions supernatural connections. We are prepared to consider both planting a seed and making a sacrifice as causes in these incessant efforts to gain some control over effects. Whole societies might, like those pigeons, end up believing the most unreasonable sounding things, they may cling to these beliefs in the face of a surfeit of contradictory evidence, but somewhere back in the prehistory of a belief is usually a pragmatic impulse to operate effectively in the world.

Those who have been pondering this subject have suggested that other useful mental muscles are also involved in the production of belief. (I am depending here on the work of Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Daniel C. Dennett.) Our nervous systems are, they note, hypersensitive to the presence of hidden threats. Those humans who ran because they thought they saw a hostile face in that bush — even if nine out of ten times they were wrong — were more likely to survive and pass on their genes than their more sanguine or oblivious neighbors. And a byproduct of a hypersensitivity to faces in bushes is a tendency to see gods in clouds.

Add to that exaggerated alertness to threats an exaggerated alertness to the presence of other minds. It is important for our survival that we realize that behind that face is a conscious being just like us — with needs, irritations and purposes; capable of loving but also of plotting and deceiving. It is so important that we tend to overdo it and see conscious beings, just like us, in the stars, in the dead or determining our fate. Thus the moon demands its share of the food. Thus our ancestors protect us. Thus everything happens for a reason.

Our minds were also selected for their ability to focus on the extraordinary, the counterintuitive: the fact that the sky has suddenly darkened, the fact that the baby has suddenly stopped crying, the fact that our mate did not return before bedtime. And nothing is as extraordinary and counterintuitive as super-powerful, immortal beings. Such characters grab attention. Such characters stick in the mind. We have a weakness for the fabulous.

Religion, as those who study its causes like to point out, has high costs: gods must be propitiated, animals sacrificed, temple fees paid, religious wars fought. Yet, early hominids with a propensity toward belief in the supernatural probably had certain advantages — because such beliefs occasionally enforce valuable behaviors but, more important, because such beliefs are unintended consequences of ways of thinking that are eminently valuable. An analogy — an unsympathetic one — could be made to an interest in pornography as an unintended consequence of our impulse to procreate. According to this compelling recent research, belief is, to employ Boyer's term, a "side effect" of extremely useful, genetically programmed habits of mind.


Excerpted from Imagine There's No Heaven by Mitchell Stephens. Copyright © 2014 Mitchell Stephens. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mitchell Stephens is a historian and journalist who has been researching the history of atheism for a decade. A professor of Media Studies at New York University, he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times, and has appeared on NPR. Stephens is also a member of the working group on Secularism of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and is on faculty at the "Beyond Belief" program at the Center for Inquiry at the University of Buffalo. He lives in New York City.

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