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November 10, 2006

The Prologue to This Book

I am posting here for comments, suggestions, criticism, etc., a draft of the Prologue to the book on the history of disbelief I am working on.

You should be able to read it by clicking: Download file

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at November 10, 2006 2:56 PM


Very nicely told; you have woven a dramatic story and my only complaint is I have to wait to see how this trailer begins and ends.

Posted by: Jay Saul at November 12, 2006 5:43 PM

So I can see why you're so enamoured of Charles Bradlaugh... and I have gained a sense of Percy Shelley that I never got as an undergrad dutifully reading my Romantic Poets. What I like most about this prologue is the chronological layering, a refusal to posit an 'origin' and a reluctance to force-feed a linear history of disbelief. No beginning, middle, end! refreshing.

What feels missing is some greater reference to the work of Marx and Engels. You focus rather a lot here on 1848 and the importance of the English working class but make no reference at all to the publication of Engels's _The Condition of the Working Class in England_ which had appeared in 1844 and in english translation in 1847. I'm also wondering why you don't bring the revolutionary flux dominating England and Europe in that decade between '48-'58 back into play on page 6 when you first mention Darwin.... they go together, Marx/Engels, Darwin, and revolution, no?

As you're winding up into your climactic raison d'etre at the bottom of page 7 ("For the idea that we live without gods--that we... are responsible for our lives..."), the absence of 'existentialism' in your list seems striking... I don't personally think that a sentence a bit later ("The philosophy, art,... of the twentieth century...") covers it.

I think you achieved what you were striving for (i.e., telling good tales w/out sounding pedantic and too-scholarly) yet it also seems, to me at least, like you're trying a little too hard to under-play the intellectual stakes here. (e.g.: the sentence just quoted as your prologue's culminating point: "The idea that we live without gods...is a powerful one." You've already told us of expulsions, hangings and more. Doesn't that seem just a bit too underwhelming a statement? you're getting ready to tell us about one of the grand struggles of human existence, after all ?

It's a good start, Mitch. Looking forward to the rest.

Posted by: JM at November 14, 2006 12:50 AM

Fabulous prologue. I'm very much looking forward to the book. I totally agree with both posters above, including JM's comment about your climatic, or perhaps anti-climactic, last sentences. You may not need to show that "the idea that we live without gods" is powerful so much as to explain why it is so powerful, and why people would, literally risk death (or threaten death), because of this idea. What you have so dramatically exposed is the presumed power of an idea--one lacking, at least literally, material interests. I suspect that it's not surprising that the division between the camps of belief and disbelief is the "spiritual drama of our time." (Apparently the only other question that provokes "spiritual drama" is the status of the Virgin Mary.) Likewise, your concluding statement about the crucial role of atheism "in our understanding of the natural world and of our condition" doesn't seem to capture the crisis that your heroes provoke/confront.

Posted by: george at November 14, 2006 12:25 PM

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