Monday, June 2, 2014

Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism helped create the modern world

by Mitchell Stephens
Palgrave Macmillan    2014
336 pages     Nonfiction/Spiritual

It is all a mystery, and the longer I live the more I live in the Mystery. The book Imagine There's No Heaven by Mitchell Stephens contributes to the mystery. My husband and I read it aloud over several months and found it fascinating read.

First it must be said that it is not a polemic against religion, but the book is a history of the fascinating figures who contributed to the atheistic thinking of the last many centuries and certainly contributed to the current lack of religious enthusiasm in Western culture. He begins with the Greeks and ends with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and  Richard Dawkins, and explains how each generation of disbelievers helped move society and science forward. 

This is a history that most of us haven't read because it has been relatively under the radar. One reviewer says that it has "usually been downplayed or outright denied by conventional histories." Certainly I didn't read about any of these people in all the courses I took on religious history. Quite frankly, my only exposure to modern atheism was a woman at my small country church who would stand up at church with a petition against Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She'd wave the petition in her hand and announce "Madalyn Murray O'Hair is at it again!" My husband and I would chuckle, because we were all for free speech and freedom of (or from) religion. 

There are many fascinating characters in the book (and one has to imagine these were all "characters" as they bucked the system) including Voltaire, Diderot, Marx, and Camus, among many others. They all reflect the five types of disbelief that Stephens outlines.  The first is skepticism—"how could that possibly be?" The second is just the mandate to live joyously and concentrate on living in the now. The third type of disbelief comes from knowledge of a better answer. The fourth is that religion is often a tool of repression and thought control. And the fifth is that when the mind is open to all sorts of ideas, it is difficult to concentrate on one set religious beliefs. 

Life is frankly a lot easier when there is a set religious doctrine to believe in and to provide comfort and answers to questions. Although this is not my personal concern, I understand the concept of "just tell me what to believe." I was very intrigued about a movement in the Catholic church to ordain women. This is a dissident Catholic movement, and a woman in Kalamazoo was ordained over the weekend. The Bishop of West Michigan issued a warning that anyone who attended the ordination service risked ex-communication. Other than the obvious, the interesting thing to me was that the decision of the bishop was questioned by the press.They asked questions like "What difference does it make if Catholics went to the ordination?" These kinds of questions are indicative of the kind of intellectual indifference to religion that is permeating society.

Because Stephens is writing an historical look at Atheism, he leaves the readers with no conclusions—which I guess in itself is a free-thinking style of ending. He mentions that "we have just begun to tackle the question of how to find meaning without relying upon some external dispenser of meaning." Individuals who throw off their religious identities are free create their own lives. 

There is much more that I could write. My spiritual faith wasn't threatened in any way, although I do have to say that I have long been dealing with issues about organized religion. At any rate, my husband and I had a great experience reading the book. Sometimes we had to force ourselves up from the breakfast table to begin our day.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
John Lennon

The review in The Humanist:

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