Kerrie comments on my Robert M. Price post that she’s taking a look at her beliefs and has added Price to her reading list. It made me think about atheist writers and that there is quite a bit out there that isn’t nearly as confrontational as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.
First up, Daniel Dennett. He’s lumped in with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to make the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” but I think his style is radically different. Breaking the Spell is musing, philosophical look at religious belief that is very sympathetic toward the human impulses and needs that give rise to religion. True, its premise is that religion does come from purely human sources, and it could be an uncomfortable read for a believer in some ways, but I’d hardly classify it as “in your face.”
Carl Sagan is known in atheist circles for soft-pedaling his disbelief so much that some got the impression he was a believer. He eloquently uses both scientific and spiritual language to express wonder at the universe. Still, The Demon Haunted World is clearly about skepticism of religious belief as much as scientific thinking. What is a god but the invisible dragon in Carl’s garage?
Bart Ehrman is actually an agnostic. His books take apart the Bible and analyze it in its historical context. Misquoting Jesus discusses how the Bibles we know today came to us through the ages, and how error, philosophical editing, and outright interpolation may have altered it from its ancient origins. Jesus, Interrupted describes how the different gospel writers viewed Jesus’s identity and purpose differently, and thus tailored their narratives to support their perspectives.
I also need to put in a plug for the podcast Reasonable Doubts. While the guys aren’t what I would call gentle, they approach religious philosophy and history with both humor and great research, and have a great conversational style that I find really listen-able.
I’ve also got some freethinking authors in my reading list, who I haven’t gotten to yet. John Loftus and Dan Barker both used to be preachers, like Price. I know Barker doesn’t pull many punches, but he always comes across very personable when I hear him speak. I’ve also got Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism, by Dianna Narciso in my Amazon list, and Victor Stenger seems like an interesting and intelligent guy. Oh, and don’t forget Hemant Mehta – he is The Friendly Atheist after all! Bottom line: there’s a LOT of reading out there that doesn’t necessarily include the Big Names you usually hear.
Oh, and if you want some classic literary disbelief, it’s hard to go wrong with Twain and Vonnegut.
Robert Price may just be the coolest person on the planet. I first encountered him through his book, The Reason Driven Life. It’s a direct response to the wildly popular Christian book, The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. I really enjoyed it, especially how he directly addressed Christians, and somehow managed to be gentle and empathetic without pulling too many punches.
Years later, I heard Price on several freethinking podcasts, including as host of Point of Inquiry. He is a pleasure to listen to, and is obviously brilliant and incredibly well-read. Yet he’s not the slightest bit stuffy, and seems like a really fun person – someone you’d like to gab with over coffee. Also on Point of Inquiry, they ran a recording of a talk he did called “Is the Bible Mein Kampf?” Contrary to what you might expect from a famous nonbeliever, his argument was that the Bible is a highly valuable cultural document, and that freethinkers who assume the Bible is as evil as it’s made out to be by literalist believers are doing everyone a disservice. It was thought-provoking. I’ve also discovered that he is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and runs a show called The Bible Geek.
So, OK, he’s a freethinker, a really smart and educated guy, fun to listen to, and a great writer.
But today I found out something that catapulted him right onto my All Time Favorite People list. Not only is he all those things – he’s an H.P. Lovecraft scholar and himself a writer of weird fiction! To give you an idea of how much I love Lovecraft, I keep abreast of everything the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is doing, I own a copy of their silent film The Call of Cthulhu, and needless to say I own several compilations of Lovecraft fiction, as well as many literary homages. I also listen to Lovecraft-related podcasts on my iPhone. This morning I was on the treadmill, listening to The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. They were doing their wrap-up show on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and they said they were having Robert Price as a guest. I figured that’s not such an unusual name, surely this was some other Robert Price. But no, it was THE Robert M. Price I already knew! I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to the whole show yet, but I was equal parts pleased and amazed when I realized it was him.
It’s also interesting to me that S.T. Joshi, perhaps the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, is also a prominent nonbeliever. I wonder if there’s something about Lovecraft’s work that appeals to us nonbelievers in particular – the confrontation with an indifferent or even hostile universe, and the inability of the human mind to grasp the vastness of time and space are constant themes. Lovecraft himself wrote,
All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.
So maybe we sense a kindred spirit when we read him. Of course, he appeals to a huge audience, so it could also be coincidence. In any case, it’s fun to find out that one of my freethinking heroes shares my obsession with Cthulhu and company.