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Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World [Hardcover]

Mitchell Stephens
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Mar 2014
The historical achievements of religious belief have been large and well chronicled. But what about the accomplishments of those who have challenged religion? Traveling from classical Greece to twenty-first century America, Imagine There’s No Heaven explores the role of disbelief in shaping Western civilization. At each juncture common themes emerge: by questioning the role of gods in the heavens or the role of a God in creating man on earth, nonbelievers help move science forward. By challenging the divine right of monarchs and the strictures of holy books, nonbelievers, including Jean- Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, help expand human liberties, and influence the early founding of the United States. Revolutions in science, in politics, in philosophy, in art, and in psychology have been led, on multiple occasions, by those who are free of the constraints of religious life. Mitchell Stephens tells the often-courageous tales of history’s most important atheists - like Denis Diderot and Salman Rushdie. Stephens makes a strong and original case for their importance not only to today’s New Atheist movement but to the way many of us - believers and nonbelievers - now think and live.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (25 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1137002603
  • ISBN-13: 978-1137002600
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 16.4 x 2.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 497,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"[The] story of atheism as an articulate movement. We learn an enormous amount about figures censored out of history, and about the persecution that freethinkers suffered until shockingly recently. His martyrs fill our hearts; his heroes inspire....moving." --"The New Yorker" "Stephens provides an intriguing take on a topic that has sparked much discussion and will surely spark more to come." --"Publishers Weekly" "Provocative, deeply researched and enlightening." --"Kirkus Reviews" "The only thing new about the New Atheists are the names. As Mitchell Stephens reveals in this gripping narrative history of atheism, many brave souls have come out of the atheist closet over the centuries to challenge the religious dogma of their day, and many paid the ultimate price for so doing. We all stand on the shoulders of these giants so artfully brought to life--along with their ideas--in this important contribution to the burgeoning literature on unbelief." --Michael Shermer, Publisher of "Skeptic" magazine, monthly columnist for "Scientific American," and author of "The Believing Brain," and "The Science of Good and Evil" "An intriguing book, presenting a magnificent cast of characters who helped shape modernity. It helps us all measure even those we disagree with most in terms of their creativity and moral worth rather than what they do, or do not, believe." --Jonathan Israel, Professor of History, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University ""Imagine There's No Heaven" is a landmark study of the role played by atheism and other forms of religious doubt in the development of Western civilization. Mitchell Stephens strides through history as deftly as he steps across disciplines, uncovering a dramatic chronicle of unbelief as a goad to innovation that centuries of more devout scholarship tended to obscure. This book invites atheists to celebrate -- and others to acknowledge -- the outsized role th

Book Description

A provocative and sweeping narrative history arguing that atheism has been responsible for some of civilization's greatest achievements

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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview 4 Jun 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a fascinating account of how challenges to religious belief and orthodoxy developed through history. The author avoids atheist-theist arguments for a wonderful account of the growth of doubt and rationality. His final chapter has the interesting idea of religion becoming just another option in modern life and how it recedes through its loss of domination. Highly recommended.
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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Mitchell Stephens's excellent tome more than ably deserves a place on the bookshelf of anybody interested in atheism.

Firstly, what this book is not. Above all it's not another contribution to the so-called "new atheism" (a term I dislike) literature. It's not in the mould of anything by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or the late, great and sorely missed Christopher Hitchens. The book doesn't argue for atheism as such; a few of the standard arguments for the existence of a god are lightly touched upon in places but only insofar as this is relevant to the main purpose of the book, which is to give a historical overview of atheism (or at the very least, religious scepticism) and its major figures from ancient Greece to the early twentieth century. Obviously that's a massive amount of ground to cover so any single volume which aims to be of manageable size must inevitably be something of a whistle-stop tour, but Stephens knows his stuff and writes extremely well, with beautiful clarity and, often, humour.

The amount of research which must have gone into the making of this volume, the number of disparate sources, simply boggles the mind. Practically every single page is liberally larded with references to endnotes at the back of the book. There are 1,025 of these in all (yes, I counted) and this leads to my only slight criticism of the book, in that a bibliography would have been nice in order for the reader to be able to identify these numerous sources instead of them being hidden away in a welter of finely-printed endnotes. That's only a slight grumble, however, and doesn't significantly detract from a very fine work indeed. Stephens is excellent on the history of religious disbelief and has done what I might have thought was almost impossible in turning up new names.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A vibrant history and thoughtful argument 12 Mar 2014
By David K. Chivers - Published on
In “Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create The Modern World” author Mitchell Stephens delivers a readable, vibrant history of disbelief and atheistic thought, and argues persuasively that intellectual challenges to religious belief were a major catalyst to increasing knowledge in the modern world.
Stephens’ book is first and foremost a history of disbelief, from the Greeks and Romans, though the low points of the Dark Ages where it was institutionally repressed, then into the Renaissance where it fought to maintain a foothold and finally into the Enlightenment where atheism (and its more prevalent, slightly religious cousin, deism) finally became a valid viewpoint, at least among intellectual circles. He then follows disbelief through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and into our own, before suggesting where atheism might be heading based on his historical analysis up to now.
The history of disbelief is much more prevalent and rich than traditional history has portrayed, as atheism’s role has usually been downplayed or outright denied by conventional histories. Stephens brings out the role of many often overlooked personages, such as Denis Diderot, Jean Meslier and Charles Bradlaugh – the first open atheist elected to Parliament (in 1880) but who was denied his seat until he was re-elected several times.
While primarily a history, as the subtitle of his book suggests Stephens’ also argues that disbelief and the progress of knowledge have gone hand in hand throughout history. Whenever knowledge was taking great leaps forward, religious doubters were right there, stoking the intellectual fires. Stephens argument is not that it was only doubters that pushed knowledge, but rather that the questions raised by doubt were what drove people to seek answers, and those answers often drove further doubt.
No matter who is reading this book, whether atheist or devout, the thoughtful analysis of the various kinds of disbelief and the history of atheistic thought is well laid out, well researched, and told exceedingly well. He is a graceful writer, and other than one or two chapters that get a little heavy on the philosophy, the book is a smooth but enlightening journey.
As to his argument that disbelief is what made the modern world possible, I found it convincing as well, although I expect those of a more religious bent might not find it as compelling. Nevertheless it is well told and well supported, and at least puts forward an argument that must be addressed by any who wish to step beyond their own rigid belief system.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Greeks to Dawkins, this is a book by, for, and about atheists! 19 Jun 2014
By Timothy R. Campbell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The one-star review is warped 30 Jun 2014
By lorax21 - Published on
The text is admirably clear, and a terrible injustice is done to it by the reviewer who calls himself The History Detective. For example, The History Detective accuses this book of "using Newton as an example of almost a closet atheist". In truth, however, the book's author asserts: "the men who made the Scientific Revolution appear to have sensed God... Isaac Newton, the greatest of these natural philosophers, shared the awe... he was a believer".

The book's author adds: "Yet Newton and these other 17th century scientists generally managed to keep their awe from interfering with their investigations. The first edition of Newton's Principia did not contain any discussion of... theology whatsoever. It was only after his book was criticized by Leibniz and others for impiety... that Newton added a section discussing God's role." Obviously, leaving theology out of a science text is not the same as (almost) atheism. Shame on "The History Detective" for this and other errors of fact.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprise 14 April 2014
By Garry - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This history of atheism didn't just cover the major players who ran into trouble with a disgruntled church. It also reported many instances where the average unheard of person just wasn't buying what the church is trying to sell. Many still feel that the power of the church to hold its members is declining as science answers those questions and in essence kills off a little more of the deity controlled universe. Garry L. Loucks
14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A much needed contribution to the literature on the new atheism. 1 Mar 2014
By T. Timusk - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
An easy to read history of the brave individuals who put reason ahead of blind faith. The Kindle edition suffers from a bug in displaying non-English names. The Buddhist sect Caravka is displayed as Incorrectly where a is displayed as and in Arab names i is displayed as . This should be fixed.
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