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

Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

After noticing that religion proponents have frequently trumpeted the contributions of the faithful, secularist Mitchell Stephens decided to trace the beneficial ways that atheism has shaped our changing world from ancient times to the present. With impressive detail, he shows how disbelievers have not only questioned prevailing dogmas, but also widened the parameters of individual liberties and intellectual inquiry. A valuable counter-history for atheists and freethinkers.

Publishers Weekly
03/03/2014
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
02/01/2014
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
2013-12-22
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781137002600
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/25/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 354,188
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 11.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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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