The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism


Atheism, once a minority view, is now openly embraced by an increasing number of scientists, philosophers, politicians, and celebrities. How did this formerly closeted secular perspective gain its current prominence as a philosophically viable and challenging worldview? In this succinct history of modern atheism, a prolific author, editor, and scholar traces the development of atheist, agnostic, and secularist thought over the past century and a half.

Beginning in the nineteenth...

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Atheism, once a minority view, is now openly embraced by an increasing number of scientists, philosophers, politicians, and celebrities. How did this formerly closeted secular perspective gain its current prominence as a philosophically viable and challenging worldview? In this succinct history of modern atheism, a prolific author, editor, and scholar traces the development of atheist, agnostic, and secularist thought over the past century and a half.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, when intellectuals first openly voiced skepticism about long-standing Christian beliefs, Joshi considers the impact of several leading thinkers: Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin’s Bulldog"), Leslie Stephen, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Mark Twain. Each of these writers, in different ways, made searing criticisms of such religious conceptions as the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and the existence of God, at a time when such notions were largely taken for granted.

Next, the author examines prominent atheist thinkers of the early twentieth century: attorney Clarence Darrow, journalist H. L. Mencken, philosopher Bertrand Russell, and horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Around the same time as Darrow and Mencken were involved in the celebrated Scopes trial in America, which resulted in a triumph for the theory of evolution, Bertrand Russell in England was becoming well known as a forthright atheist. And Lovecraft was championing atheism in his novels and tales.

Turning to recent decades, the author considers the uproar caused by outspoken atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the controversial 1962 "school prayer" Supreme Court decision. Finally, he evaluates the work of best-selling authors Gore Vidal, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. In each case, he carefully dissects the views of the writers in question and points out both the strengths and fallacies or ambiguities in their arguments.

This excellent intellectual history will be a welcome addition to the libraries of readers of both secular and religious orientations seeking a greater understanding of contemporary atheism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Unbelievers makes compelling and informative reading. Joshi's decision to approach a history of atheism through a series of biographies is richly justified: in absorbing these fourteen portraits one will absorb a surprisingly comprehensive and nuanced narrative of how contemporary atheism has taken shape.”
-Free Inquiry

"In this important, incisive work S.T. Joshi paints sympathetic yet critical portraits of fourteen representative nontheists of the past century and a half, particularly those who have been outspoken in their opposition to conservative religious traditions and ideas.... This new and original book merits a wide audience."
Edd Doerr, president, Americans for Religious Liberty
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616142360
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 1,366,746
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

S. T. Joshi (Seattle, WA) is a freelance writer, scholar, and editor whose previous books include Documents of American Prejudice; In Her Place: A Documentary History of Prejudice against Women; God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong; Atheism: A Reader; H. L. Mencken on Religion; The Agnostic Reader; and What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays by Mark Twain.
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Table of Contents


1. Thomas Henry Huxley: Gladiator-General for Science....................19
2. Leslie Stephen: A Logician Dissects Theology....................41
3. John Stuart Mill: Theism and Its Discontents....................55
4. Friedrich Nietzsche: Prophet of the Superman....................77
5. Mark Twain: God's Fool....................91
6. Clarence Darrow: Religion in the Dock....................103
7. H. L. Mencken: Cracker-Barrel Philosopher....................119
8. H. P. Lovecraft: The Wonders of the Cosmos....................141
9. Bertrand Russell: The Sage of Cambridge....................155
10. Madalyn Murray O'Hair: Prayer out of the Schools....................167
11. Gore Vidal: Taking Aim at the Sky-God....................181
12. Richard Dawkins: Science vs. God....................195
13. Sam Harris: The Passionate Freethinker....................217
14. Christopher Hitchens: The Evils of Religion....................235
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First Chapter


The Evolution of MODERN ATHEISM

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 S. T. Joshi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-236-0

Chapter One

Thomas Henry Huxley: Gladiator-General for Science

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was, even more than his great friend Charles Darwin, the face of British science in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A far more forceful and dynamic public speaker than the shy and retiring Darwin, Huxley rapidly embraced the theory of evolution and used it as a springboard for the establishment of a purely secular worldview. In pure philosophy, he is noted for coining the term agnosticism and for defending it—both as a philosophical principle and in its ethical ramifications—in a series of vigorous papers he wrote in the final decade of his life.

The most important fact about Huxley may be his birth above a butcher's shop in the town of Ealing, now a suburb of London. That he was born into a manifestly lower-middle-class family, with limited means and opportunities for education and economic advancement, at a time when English society was still highly stratified by class, may account for much of the aggressiveness he demonstrated in defending his scientific and philosophical views against his opponents. This is not to say that Huxley's hostility toward his perceived intellectual enemies was exclusively or even largely based on class; rather, it suggests that his determination to prevail in his chosen profession was in no small part founded upon his quest to transcend his socioeconomic origins and to prove that someone of his class could indeed excel in areas that had previously been reserved for his social betters. Huxley, indeed, could be said to have been instrumental in the transition of English science from an aristocracy of class to an aristocracy of intellect.

As the sixth and youngest child of an impecunious schoolteacher, Huxley had only two years of formal education—at Ealing School, where his father taught mathematics. He later looked back upon his boyhood: "I see myself as a boy, whose education has been interrupted, and who, intellectually, was left, for some years, altogether to his own devices. At that time, I was a voracious and omnivorous reader; a dreamer and speculator of the first water, well endowed with that splendid courage in attacking any and every subject, which is the blessed compensation of youth and inexperience." Elsewhere Huxley also recalled the general tenor of religious teaching during his childhood, when biblical literalism was unquestioned and the very existence of religious skepticism was almost unheard of:

From dark allusions to "sceptics" and "infidels," I became aware of the existence of people who trusted in carnal reason; who audaciously doubted that the world was made in six natural days, or that the deluge was universal; perhaps even went so far as to question the literal accuracy of the story of Eve's temptation, or of Balaam's ass; and, from the horror of the tones in which they were mentioned, I should have been justified in drawing the conclusion that these rash men belonged to the criminal classes. ("Prologue" to SC 21)

Yet perhaps Huxley is guilty of underplaying the influence of religion upon his own temperament: although he does not ever seem to have been an orthodox believer, the influence of the Evangelical movement during his youth—a movement that strove to take religion out of the churches and to use it as a force for social betterment—may well have led Huxley, in later years, to do what he could to relieve the suffering of the poor through scientific inquiry and advance.

After taking some classes in anatomy at Sydenham College (1841–1842) and doing further study at Charing Cross Hospital (1842–1845), Huxley, seeking a way to make an income, decided to become an assistant surgeon on the HMS Rattlesnake; its four-year journey to Australia and the South Seas (1846–1850) was a kind of poor man's voyage of the Beagle, but it resulted both in Huxley's first scientific work—chiefly on corals and other invertebrates—as well as his acquaintance with Henrietta Anna Heathorn, whom he would marry in 1855 and with whom he would have eight children during a long and generally happy marriage.

Huxley's return to England in 1850 saw him plunged into the world of both science and philosophy. Not only was he—remarkably for someone without orthodox academic credentials—elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, but it was not long before he became acquainted with the leading thinkers of the age, including George Henry Lewes and Herbert Spencer. As he remarked in a letter, "Every thinking man I have met with is at heart in a state of doubt" about religion. These doubts were, ultimately, only augmented by his encounter with Charles Darwin—a relation that became the seminal event of his intellectual life.

Huxley appears to have come into epistolary contact with Darwin in 1851 or 1852, and their first meeting occurred in 1856. Darwin was, of course, by this time already at work on the book, first titled Natural Selection, that became The Origin of Species; indeed, he had devised his theory of evolution in rough form as early as 1837. Huxley was already an up-and-coming figure in British science, specializing in paleontology. But, like his friend Charles Lyell (whose landmark treatise The Principles of Geology [1830] was one of the first to present a cogent account of the million-year history of the earth, in contrast to the creation story in Genesis), he was still so much under the sway of contemporary religious and scientific thinking that he refused to acknowledge the possibility of any transmutation of one species into another, in spite of the weighty evidence that Darwin had amassed; the notion that each species, especially humankind, had been the product of "special creation" was still so uniformly held that it required years for even so dynamic and iconoclastic a thinker as Huxley to wrap his mind around the idea. But he finally did so in the mid-1850s, to the great pleasure and relief of Darwin. Darwin, indeed, was himself asking for Huxley's advice on small points of biology and paleontology while preparing the final draft of The Origin of Species.

It was, in fact, Huxley who first proclaimed—in a lecture entitled "The Distinctive Characters of Man," given at the Royal Institution—the relation of man to the apes, and he did so in 1858, a year before the publication of Darwin's treatise. Displaying the brain of a baboon, a gorilla, and a human being, Huxley declared: "Now I am quite sure that if we had these three creatures fossilized or preserved in spirits for comparison and were quite unprejudiced judges we should at once admit that there is very little greater interval as animals between the Gorilla and the Man than exists between the Gorilla and the [baboon] Cynocephalus." Even though Huxley went on to maintain the vast cultural gap between man and the apes, his lecture created a furor.

That furor was, of course, dwarfed by the emergence, in November 1859, of The Origin of Species. Darwin, indeed, had delayed the publication of his book for years precisely because of the intellectual turmoil he knew it would cause: temperamentally very unlike Huxley, he wished only to lead the quiet life of a gentleman scientist, and as the publication date of his book approached, he actually became ill and had to recuperate in a sanitarium. Huxley, for his part, wrote at least three separate reviews of the book, including a highly prominent one in the London Times (December 26, 1859). In these notices, he was not shy in pointing out the implications of the work upon religious orthodoxy; in one of them, he pungently noted, "Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules." Huxley had by this time already become so intimately associated with Darwin that many of the attacks on The Origin of Species took aim at the scientist who would become its most tireless defender.

The most celebrated contretemps—one that catapulted Huxley into a celebrity that today is accorded only to rock stars or sports figures—occurred at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in June 1860. The highly orthodox Samuel Wilberforce—an honorary vice-president of the association, a title he received as a consequence of his being the bishop of Oxford—attempted a feeble joke at Huxley's expense by publicly wondering whether the apes in his ancestry were on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side. When Huxley took the stage, he had a ready and devastating response, as he notes in a letter:

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

(The letter by Huxley is cited because there is no printed account of this part of the proceedings.) What this crushing response suggests, aside from Huxley's quick-wittedness, is that a good deal of his hostility to religion derived from what he believed were the unjust benefits and advantages that the Anglican clergy received as a result of the government's continued support of the Church of England. The mere fact that an Anglican bishop who clearly had no grasp of science was permitted to deliver a speech in front of a serious scientific conference offended Huxley's notions of scientific rigor and professionalism.

As a minor footnote, Wilberforce did gain a bit of revenge by being inexplicably chosen by John Murray, Darwin's own publisher and the editor of the Quarterly Review, a leading intellectual journal of the period, to write a review of The Origin of Species! Huxley was astounded that Murray could have perpetrated such a gaffe; the review was, as everyone could have predicted, both hostile and ignorant.

Yet it was precisely because Darwin, in The Origin of Species, was so cagey in regard to human evolution that Huxley felt the need to step in. By this time, as he stated in a lecture that also caused an uproar, "I entertained no doubt of the origin of man from the same stock as the apes." And so Huxley, in 1863, published Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature—eight years before Darwin addressed the same issue in The Descent of Man (1871). His biographer, Adrian Desmond, speaks with pardonable exaggeration when he writes, "Huxley was about to utter the greatest profanity since Copernicus moved the earth from the centre of the universe. He would move man from the centre of creation." The book, a revision of a series of lectures given to a working-class audience, was an immediate success; it was read throughout the English-speaking world and was translated into several European languages. Its frontispiece—depicting a series of five skeletons, from primitive apedom to modern man, each becoming progressively more upright in stature but also clearly related in basic framework—has become iconic. But Huxley's nemesis, Samuel Wilberforce, was still being a pest. At the Oxford Diocesan Conference on November 25, 1864, he egged on the mild-mannered but highly conservative Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli into the celebrated comment: "Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence those newfangled theories." But the time was rapidly passing when such ill-informed pronunciamentoes could check the growing skepticism of the age.

It was, indeed, around this time that Huxley began slowly turning his attention from pure science to the philosophical and religious implications of science. It was at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society on April 21, 1869, that he coined the term agnosticism. The meeting had been convened to discuss the very question of the existence of God, and Huxley claimed to be offended by "gnostics" on either side of the issue—both those religious fossils who continued to maintain biblical inerrancy and those who claimed to "know" that God did not exist. Huxley himself did not wish to be associated with the positivism of Auguste Comte, who had postulated a tripartite evolution of human thought, proceeding from the religious to the metaphysical to the positive (whereby thought, action, and morals would presumably be founded on science); Huxley dismissed Comte as a bad scientist and a covert religionist, referring to positivism as "Catholicism minus Christianity." And there is some evidence that Huxley did not proceed all the way to atheism—even though it is eminently clear that his reliance on science left very little room for God to function—because he feared being linked to an unruly group of radical atheists who for decades had sought to convert the masses from Christianity to freethought: Huxley, having worked so hard to climb out of the lower-class prison of his birth, did not wish to fall back into it even on an intellectual level.

His solution was agnosticism. For Huxley the term had both intellectual and moral implications. From an intellectual perspective, he was simply seeking to distinguish himself from those who, in his judgment, asserted certainly about matters on which certainty was impossible:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. ("Agnosticism," SC 237–38)

The precise wording of that last sentence is critical: Huxley is maintaining, not only that he himself does not know the answers to certain questions about the nature of the universe, but that everyone must of necessity be so ignorant—chiefly because the human information-gathering process is insufficient to settle the questions at issue. Huxley is, of course, aware that a wide array of matters might be subject to agnosticism, but he also asserts in numerous essays that scientific advance has allowed certain matters to be settled with relative security, so that the probability of their being "true" is fairly high. But the existence of God, however unlikely such an entity may be in light of scientific advances that were explaining more and more phenomena by natural means, was not one of these.

It is at this point that the moral element enters. In responding to Henry Wace's offensive assertion, "It is, and it ought to be, an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe in Jesus Christ" (see p. 31), Huxley responds in a manner that recalls his pungent rebuttal to Wilberforce:

That "it ought to be" unpleasant for any man to say anything which he sincerely, and after due deliberation, believes, is to my mind, a proposition of the most profoundly immoral character. I verily believe that the great good which has been effected in the world by Christianity has been largely counteracted by the pestilent doctrine on which all the Churches have insisted, that honest disbelief in their more or less astonishing creeds is a moral offence, indeed a sin of the deepest dye, deserving and involving the same future retribution as murder and robbery. If we could only see, in one view, the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from this source along the course of the history of Christian nations, our worst imaginations of Hell would pale beside the vision. ("Agnosticism," SC 240–41)

Elsewhere Huxley is careful to note that his agnosticism extends well beyond merely the question of the existence of God or other religious issues:

I do not care to speak of anything as "unknowable." What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty—the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities—is far more extensive than I could wish. ("Agnosticism and Christianity," SC 311–12)


Excerpted from THE UNBELIEVERS by S. T. JOSHI Copyright © 2011 by S. T. Joshi. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. 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.

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