AS154: The Portable Atheist

Ok ok, a REAL one this time! This month’s reading is A Refutation of Deism by Percy Shelley. Lots of cool stuff to talk about in this reading. Shelley was a poet but honestly in my opinion, he could have been a philosopher! Also, did he predict evolution 50 years before Origin of Species? I don’t know, listen and find out why I think he sort of did!

11 thoughts on “AS154: The Portable Atheist”

  1. It’s funny. I bought the Portable Atheist some time ago, but only recently started reading it. Independent of your readings on the show. Hitchens is awesome! Leave it to his erudite literary excellence to curate such a marvelous selection of great—but obscure essays!
    The Shelley selection was soooo good. I read it about a week ago, and immediately wanted to share it with someone. So I googled it, and sent the link to my cousin. Its of course open domain since its so old. I said something similar to him about the essay that you saw. Its very modern and relevant (barring a few archaic terms :))…And, I totally agree! It DOES seem to prefigure Darwin!

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so! Yeah the guy was really really smart. I enjoyed that reading a lot.

  2. I would be interested in a parenting panel. Im a dad of a bright n beautiful girl of 12. She is thankfully a non-believer, though her mom (my ex) is a christian who drags her to church on Sundays (when shes not with me).
    I guess I’d like to talk about the so-called delicate balance of foisting your beliefs onto your kids, and letting them explore these issues “free-range” style. I think this is an unrealistic dichotomy.
    Ive always been a non-believer, but didnt know there were huge communities of atheists, skeptics, humanists, and rationalists out there!
    YAY, internet!!
    So I was one of those non-believers that believed the scriptures were entirely mythical, but thought they MUST be chockfull of inspiring narratives and parables. As I dived into the podcast world and youtube universe, and learned more about the bible, I realized that its actually mighty sparse on the gems.
    So this all coincided with my ex re-discovering her faith and attending church, and taking my daughter to church. She was only about 5 or 6. This increasingly bothered me, as I felt she was too young to critically weigh all this stuff. So I felt I had to counter all the inane superstitious nonsense.
    Well…I don’t wanna take any more of your time, sorry about the loong post.

  3. The parenting panel does sound interesting. I am a secular mom of 2 boys, and my primary concern is inoculating them against religious fundamentalism (which is alive and well here in Texas) without brainwashing them myself, and protecting them from persecution about their lack of religiosity. Or at least teaching them how to deal with it. Luckily we are in a large metro area, which helps. It’s difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

  4. Hey Thomas,

    You were asking about Shelly’s commentary on natural selection. I don’t know anything about him personally, but I can’t imagine an atheist poet in his day and age not being familiar with “On the Nature of things,” by Lucretius, who wrote circa late Roman Republic. Interestingly enough, I suspect Darwin didn’t have access to this train of thought, but came up with it idependantly based on his own research and inspiration from Malthus. Malthus wrote about how humans are doomed to outgrow the capacity of the land to support them. Darwin took that idea, and it occurred to him that competition between species over resources of food and mating might lead to differentiation and specialization within species.

    This is a passage from On the Nature of Things.

    For we see there must
    Concur in life conditions manifold,
    If life is ever by begetting life
    To forge the generations one by one:
    First, foods must be; and, next, a path whereby
    The seeds of impregnation in the frame
    May ooze, released from the members all;
    Last, the possession of those instruments
    Whereby the male with female can unite,
    The one with other in mutual ravishments.

    And in the ages after monsters died,
    Perforce there perished many a stock, unable
    By propagation to forge a progeny.
    For whatsoever creatures thou beholdest
    Breathing the breath of life, the same have been
    Even from their earliest age preserved alive
    By cunning, or by valour, or at least
    By speed of foot or wing. And many a stock
    Remaineth yet, because of use to man,
    And so committed to man’s guardianship.
    Valour hath saved alive fierce lion-breeds
    And many another terrorizing race,
    Cunning the foxes, flight the antlered stags.
    Light-sleeping dogs with faithful heart in breast,
    However, and every kind begot from seed
    Of beasts of draft, as, too, the woolly flocks
    And horned cattle, all, my Memmius,
    Have been committed to guardianship of men.
    For anxiously they fled the savage beasts,
    And peace they sought and their abundant foods,
    Obtained with never labours of their own,
    Which we secure to them as fit rewards
    For their good service.

  5. Thomas

    I caught your appearance a couple of weeks ago on Cognitive Dissonance, where I was introduced to your bible reading project. I’ve been hooked since. I’m up to the 10 commandments.

    I was as impressed as you were with Shelley’s insights and his artful arguments (God should have been so eloquent when he wrote the Bible). And, while he was clearly versed in the scientific thought of the day, he did not come up with the idea of evolution. Evolution simply refers to descent with modification, and the fact that species have changed over time was clearly evident from many years of accumulated information that was developed long before Darwin wrote the Origin. Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus, was a leading evolutionary thinker who published formal theories of evolution in the late 1700’s. Darwin was well equipped with evolutionary theory when he embarked on the Beagle in 1831. His brilliant contribution to knowledge was not that species change of time, but how (i.e., natural selection). Although evolution and natural selection are often lumped into the same idea, they are different concepts with different histories of development. While Darwin rightly deserves to be celebrated for changing how we think about the world, given the scientific thinking at the time the concept of natural selection may have been inevitable, as evidenced by fact that Alfred Russell Wallace came up with nearly the same idea independently. Darwin procrastinated so long in publishing the Origin that Wallace would have scooped him had he not been such a gentleman. He wrote to Darwin for feedback about his ideas and when Darwin replied that he had developed the same theory many years earlier, Wallace graciously deferred and allowed Darwin to publish first. The religious vilify only Darwin, I suppose because they’re ignorant of Wallace. On the other hand, the fact that two brilliant men developed the same solution for how evolution happens by observing how nature works might weaken the idea that life is fully explained in a magical book.

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