Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World?
by mitchell stephens?
palgrave macmillan, ?336 pages, $30

In June 1512, John Bukherst, from the village of Staplehurst in Kent, England, was convicted of heresy before the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Bukherst was as much an apostate as a heretic. He rejected all the accoutrements of late-medieval Christianity as well as the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The record of Bukherst’s trial and his penance of parading around the village on Trinity Sunday are recorded in a manuscript preserved in the library of Lambeth Palace in London.

As Mitchell Stephens notes in Imagine There’s No Heaven, religious skepticism has existed in all times and places. He doesn’t mention the Staplehurst trials—primary sources are not really his thing—but he does pick up the nonbeliever ­noted by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in Montaillou, the celebrated exposition of medieval ­inquisitorial records.

Imagine There’s No Heaven is at its modest best when telling the stories of unbelievers in earlier eras. Charles Bradlaugh, Jean Meslier, and Ernestine Rose, among others, deserve attention for their refusal to conform to the norms of their time. Stephens is good at capsule biographies. The most enjoyable chapter of the book covers the fraught relationship between the existential atheists Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre.

But Stephens wants to do more than acknowledge his predecessors in unbelief. He asserts that the decline of religion has been associated with ­science, the protection of human rights, and progress. Unfortunately for him, on this matter, he is on the side of the angels. He demonstrates at most that the influence of atheism on the development of Western civilization has been extremely modest. Even the principle of religious tolerance was won by Christians in seventeenth-­century England long before anti-Catholic ­Jacobins of the French Revolution perverted the ideals of liberty.

Sure, some very important thinkers, including John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, happened to be nonbelievers. For those who made atheism a significant part of their thought, the record is grimmer. As Stephens notes, Karl Marx places the rejection of God at the center of his system—but the treatment of the crimes of communism in Imagine There’s No Heaven is grossly inadequate. And Stephens lavishes attention on Sigmund Freud without acknowledging that psychoanalysis is scientifically and therapeutically worthless.

To be fair, Stephens knows all this. It’s rare to find an author less convinced by his own thesis. Unbelief in today’s world is a function of our wealth and the distractions of modern life. There is nothing very ideological or even skeptical about it.

As for Imagine There’s No Heaven, it works best as an account of the delusions that afflict left-liberal New Yorkers like its author. That explains the uncritical coverage of Freud, the guilty affection for Marx, and the fascination with left-bank French philosophers. Libertarian atheists like Ayn Rand, however influential they may be, are not worthy of even a mention. Meanwhile, Madalyn ­Murray O’Hair gets a whole chapter.

In short, anyone interested in the relationship between unbelief and modernity should keep reading Jonathan Israel and Charles Taylor. Mitchell Stephens has produced an enjoyable guide but has little to contribute to the debate.

—James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning
by simcha fisher
our sunday visitor, 128 pages, $9.95

As the debates surrounding contraception have pressed further into the public view, so has a curiosity about natural family planning. Roman roulette played according to the calendar-based “rhythm method” used to be the only game in town, but medical ­advances have brought new, more-reliable methods for those seeking to plan pregnancy without the usual barriers, pills, and rings. With new methods has come new interest, not just from the rare Catholic couple attentive to the Church’s teaching but from organically minded couples looking to further “green” their lifestyle, and from Protestant Christians reconsidering their faith or family size.

Safer than chemical means, ­natural family planning is rumored to shower married life with blessings. It is approved by the Catholic Church. It is not hard to understand why interest in NFP has grown, but questions still persist—about its practice, its benefits, and why, in fact, a Church that rejects contraception allows it at all.

Into the breach steps Simcha ­Fisher: Catholic blogger, humorist, and mother of nine. Her first book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, is a collection of old and new personal essays on the topics of marriage, sex, and love, divided into three sections: “NFP and Your Spiritual Life,” “NFP and the Rest of the World,” and “NFP in the Trenches.” Each delivers an honest, encouraging, and witty viewpoint on the joys and obstacles that arise when living out natural family planning in private and public life.

Despite its title, The Sinner’s Guide is not a primer on NFP’s many different varieties, nor is it a technical how-to guide. Rather, the slim volume dispenses practical wisdom with a generous helping of humor. An “examination of conscience for those using NFP” asks: “Have I ever gone to a seminar about NFP and actually strangled the first teaching couple to use the phrase ‘honeymoon effect’? How many times? Were they super smug and annoying?”

What especially recommends The Sinner’s Guide to a broader ­audience is Fisher’s ability to use NFP as a starting point to engage with the larger and more universal questions facing anyone attempting to live out a Christian life day to day. What is prudence? How does one persevere in adversity? What does charity actually look like in relationships, and in daily life? As Fisher asks, “Does God just hate women, or what?” The question “Is it the right time to conceive” gives way to a plainspoken yet illuminating discourse on the phrase “God’s will.” A chapter entitled “Groping Toward Chastity” helps define the oft-misunderstood word in terms relevant to any reader—single or married. And although the book is aimed at women, both genders would find it enlightening.

In the end, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is as much spiritual reading as it is handbook. “The benefits of remaining faithful to Church teaching are real,” Fisher writes in the introduction. “They are attainable. It’s just that you have to work hard to get them.” She paints an engaging picture of how to do so, and why.

Christine Emba is the Hilton Kramer fellow in criticism at The New Criterion.

Arts & Entertainments
by christopher beha
ecco, 288 pages, $14.99

In Christopher Beha’s excellent debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder?, writer Charlie Blakeman nearly laughs when Sophie, his ex-girlfriend and a Catholic convert, says she plans to save the soul of her dying father-in-law, an atheist: “I don’t think I knew a single person who would have spoken in that way about saving someone’s soul,” ­Charlie observes. “The religious people I knew talked about their faith apologetically. It was an embarrassment to their own reason and intelligence, but somehow a necessary one.”

The idea of religious faith as necessary appears in Beha’s satire Arts & Entertainments, too, but here what interests the author is the absence of faith and the direct and indirect cultural implications of that absence.

Eddie Hartley is thirty-three and teaches drama at his alma mater, St. Albert’s, a prestigious Catholic secondary school in Manhattan. Eddie pursued an acting career in his twenties but has since stopped “aspiring” to create art and, in the process, has become “less interesting” to himself. His wife, Susan, desperately wants children but can’t get pregnant. The couple seek help at Hope Springs Fertility Center, where they discover that Eddie’s semen is “substandard.” The physician recommends IVF, but the $10,000 price tag is too much. A former St. Albert’s classmate introduces Eddie to a screenwriter and website operator who asks Eddie whether he owns any pornographic home videos of his old girlfriend Martha Martin, who since her breakup with Eddie has skyrocketed to fame as the star of the cheesy NBC medical drama Dr. Drake.

Eddie doesn’t remember filming a sex video. On an old disc of line readings for a performance he once auditioned for, however, he discovers that one session became intimate while the camera rolled. Eddie edits himself out of the video and reluctantly makes the decision to sell it for $100,000. He tells Susan that the money is from South Korean royalties for a film he acted in years ago. They turn to IVF, and in short order Susan becomes pregnant with triplets. Soon after, tabloids name Eddie as the source of the video and Susan dumps him in full view of the paparazzi, earning her an invitation to This Morning Live and leading ultimately to her own reality show, Desperately Expecting Susan. Eddie, too, gets a “part” on the show, and Beha skillfully and humorously teases out the absurd implications of staging and scripting a person’s life, filming it, and then pretending it’s reality.

The novel includes a deliciously Faustian character, Brian Moody, who is the genius producer of Desperately Expecting Susan and countless other hit reality shows. He is a former seminarian who spent one summer at a retreat house run by the Order of St. Clement. He finds his true vocation when a documentary film crew arrives at the retreat house to film the order’s activities for fundraising purposes:

These priests, they wanted the video to lead the audience to God. But I realized they had it all wrong. They needed the audience because there is no God. The more I considered it, the more I saw in the audience everything I’d been taught to see in him. Never visible, but always present. Many and one at the same time. We exist for the audience—on a basic level, it created us.

There is little need for another novel satirizing the narcissism and superficiality of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but what distinguishes Beha’s book is the insight that modern people, now deprived of being the apple of God’s eye, must create elaborate and dramatic false idols to satisfy the human need to know that someone, anyone, is taking stock of their lives, however contrived and superficial they may be.

Robert Fay writes from ­California. 

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
by danielle allen
liveright, 320 pages, $27.95

In Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen provides an informative, line-by-line, sometimes word-by-word, philosophical interpretation of the founders’ document. Allen offers the case that the Declaration of Independence is a syllogism for political equality, rather than a manifesto of unlinked assertions. “Premise 1,” she writes: “All people have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Premise 2: Properly constituted government is necessary to their securing their rights. Premise 3: [All people have a right to whatever is necessary to secure what they have a right to.] Conclusion: All people have a right to a properly constituted government.”

Allen argues that the famous first premise “all men are created equal” does not refer simply to white male property owners. She notes that the original draft written by Jefferson contains a paragraph about the violation of the natural rights of slaves. Allen writes, “Jefferson talks about markets where ‘MEN,’ which he capitalizes, are bought and sold. In other words, he is calling the slaves ‘men.’ And when he does this, he can’t mean males only, because those markets were for men, women, and children. So when, in the second sentence, he writes that all men are created equal, he must mean all people—whatever their color, sex, age, or status.” Southern confederates during the Civil War era rejected the Declaration precisely on account of its inclusivity of all ­human beings.

Human equality clearly ­cannot rest on qualities such as wealth, virtue, and intelligence, which are ­unequally distributed among us. So, what is it that makes all of us equal?

The Declaration grounds our status as beings with rights to life, liberty, and happiness in an endowment furnished for us by the Creator. Noting that many atheists are committed to human equality, Allen does not want to ground equal human status in an endowment from God. So she provides a number of other possible rationales, such as that we all equally seek to live, to be free, and to be happy. Although almost all human beings do want these things, some seek to kill themselves or to sell themselves into slavery. Elsewhere, Allen justifies human equality in terms of the drive to political speech and the natural powers of the human mind, but these rationales exclude the very young as well as the mentally handicapped.

Allen suggests yet another ground for human equality in that “each of us is the best judge of her own happiness.” Yet if Aristotle is right about happiness as an objective state, the child, the addict, the insane, and the vicious misjudge what makes for happiness. Psychologists such as Daniel Gilbert and Sonja Lyubomirsky point out that even normal people characteristically misjudge what will make them subjectively happy. Despite an ambitious survey of possible justifications, the ground of human equality remains ultimately unexplained in Our Declaration.

­—Christopher Kaczor is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and is the author of A Defense of Dignity.