IMAGINE THERE’S NO HEAVEN
How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World
By Mitchell Stephens
Published 2014 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 320 pp including notes plus index
Review by Tim Campbell
Taken from John Lennon’s famous song, IMAGINE THERE’S NO HEAVEN is unashamedly a feel-good book for atheists, agnostics, and anyone who has listened to a religious sermon and asked to themselves: “How can that be?”.
Of course, most of us are fully aware that believers have always been a majority in most cultures and most of history’s great movers and shakers have been believers, at least publicly. And we acknowledge their contributions gratefully. But religionists do not seem willing to return the courtesy. That doubters and infidels and questioners have also contributed to the creation of our modern society is a fact that religionists would rather ignore. This book attempts to begin to balance that ledger!
Author Mitchell Stephens takes back to the Greeks and forward through the Dark Ages and more, to Today in a nicely organized and very well-written manner. This is a book for the doubters, but believers would benefit also from seeing a bit of the “other side”. Of course, if the believer is afraid that reading an atheist book will cause him or her to be plunged into the depths of hell, then better to bury their heads into sand or perhaps wet concrete. Safer that way!
Stephens offers the premise that without doubt, without disbelief, without questioning, modern science, modern medicine, modern life would have been impossible to create. After all, he argues, if every question can be answered with a “God did it” or some variation on that theme, then there is no reason to put a drop of water or blood under a microscope or glance upward at those mysterious wandering bright lights (called planets by the Greeks!). In fact, there really is no reason to even bother inventing such tools as the microscope or telescope, at least not for exploration of the natural world.
While extolling the virtues of doubt, Stephens does not ignore the failed experiments in atheistic politics. The French Revolution’s devolvement into a guillotine orgy, Stalin’s usurping of Marx’s Worker’s Paradise, and others come in for their share of criticism. But, as Stephens points out, these murderous regimes did not murder in the name of atheism. Nor did they murder in order to preserve atheism. These regimes murdered mostly for the expedience of ridding the regime’s leaders of opponents (imagined as well as real).
Regardless, we have to acknowledge that these regimes were both godless AND psychopathically deadly! However, as Stephens also points out, religion-dominated regimes also murdered in quantity. It is the secularization of the Western World that has led to reduction of religion-based persecutions and the rapid advance of science.
Most of humanity’s advances in social equality and rights have come in secular nations and directly because those nations are secular in nature. Even though the majority of Americans are religious, at least nominally, the separation of religion from the state has actually enabled the diversity of religions that flourish here. Without a state religion and the usually resulting marriage of church leaders and state leaders, we can see the progress in human rights. Women voting, Blacks freed from slavery, workers’ rights, safety net programs, and freedoms of speech and worship have come from liberal secular ideals!
In my own humble secular atheist opinion, this is an important book that should be on every doubter’s bookshelf. It should also be read by those doubters!
“Imagine there’s no Heaven,
Above us only sky”
To me, THAT is true freedom!