Spreading the Word on the Power of Atheism


S.T. Joshi, a Seattle writer, has written or edited more than 200 books, and part of his work focuses on atheism and agnosticism. CreditMatthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

SEATTLE — The atheist writer S. T. Joshi, 55, born in India, raised in Indiana and now living in Seattle, has written or edited more than 200 books, including a novel of detective fiction, a bibliography of writings about Gore Vidal and numerous works about H. L. Mencken.

He edits four periodicals, including Lovecraft Annual, the major review of scholarship about the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft; The American Rationalist, a journal for unbelievers; and The Weird Fiction Review, which is what it sounds like. He once spent years scanning into his computer — and typing what could not be scanned — every word ever written by Ambrose Bierce, about six million total.

And this month Mr. Joshi got a call from a friend who works for Barnes & Noble, asking if he could edit a new edition of “The King in Yellow,” the 1895 collection of supernatural stories by Robert W. Chambers. It seems that the book was a major inspiration for “True Detective,” the popular HBO series. “I am one of maybe three people in the world who knows anything about Robert W. Chambers,” Mr. Joshi said, by way of explanation. His new edition will be out in April.

One of the strange, wonderful facts about many atheists is their eccentricity and intellectual omnivorousness. Christopher Hitchens, author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007), was a literary critic, a journalist in several war zones and a biographer of George Orwell. Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith” (2004), also writes about free will and about lying; his next book promises to expand on his case for psychedelic drugs. Several professional magicians, like James Randi and the illusionists Penn and Teller, work to promote atheism on the side.

Perhaps because many academic philosophers take atheism to be a given, the only common-sense position, it is left to these quirky, freelance amateurs, with their large cabinets of obsessions, to make the public case against God. And none of them seems to be as quirky, or as obsessive, as Mr. Joshi. On Thursday, he held forth at his kitchen table about the ingredients that went into his own intellectual stew. It began, he said, with his father, an economist.


“My father insisted that I and my sisters not be indoctrinated into any religion at any age,” Mr. Joshi said, as his three cats padded quietly about. “We were allowed to investigate the matter for ourselves if we felt like it. My mother to this day is a devout Hindu — believes in reincarnation, the whole bit — but has never forced that down anybody’s throat. You might say I was a passive atheist through my teenage years.”

As a teenager, Mr. Joshi discovered Lovecraft, the American author who died young and largely unknown in 1937, but who was beginning to win a posthumous fame. “Initially I discovered him as a great writer of horror stores,” Mr. Joshi said. “But it turns out Lovecraft wrote thousands of letters, to friends and whoever, in which he expressed a forthright and vigorous atheism.”

Mr. Joshi began to read those letters, widely available for the first time. “He never published much on the subject, and he had no reputation in his day anyway, had no influence,” Mr. Joshi said. “But these letters started getting published in the 1960s, and I read them even in high school.”


Mr. Joshi attended Brown University for its collection of Lovecraft papers, and he majored in classics — the better to understand Lovecraft, who adored Latin. Reading classics exposed Mr. Joshi to thinkers like Epicurus, whose teachings about the finality of death continue to inspire contemporary atheists. After graduation, Mr. Joshi worked at Chelsea House, a small publisher then in New York, but in 1995, with some financial help from his mother, he set out as a freelance writer. He moved to Seattle to be with his wife at the time, and he now lives with his fiancée, whom he met online, on Match.com. They plan to marry in July.

Mr. Joshi does not teach, and he rarely lectures. For money, he writes. He keeps to a rigorous schedule, working every day from about 9 to 5, scheduling periodic breaks for refreshment. “I am sort of a tea addict,” he said. “I structure my day by cups of tea. If you don’t enforce that kind of discipline as a freelancer, you won’t get anything done.”

In 2000, after years writing about and editing Lovecraft and other “weird fiction,” Mr. Joshi published “Atheism: A Reader.” It was his first book with Prometheus, the major free-thought publisher, and it began a fruitful relationship that has led to many more books, including what is probably the best resource on agnosticism, the belief that one cannot know if there is a God or not.

It was his editors at Prometheus who suggested “The Agnostic Reader” (2007). At first, Mr. Joshi was skeptical — even as he said yes to the contract. “I was not certain what material was out there,” he said. “I may have had a prejudice against agnosticism as a body of thought: sort of a fence-sitting theory, where you can’t make up your mind one way or another.”

But when he read up on agnosticism, he liked what he found: “You go back to T. H. Huxley, who coined the term, what he said — and I came to believe he is right — is that agnosticism asserts not only that he himself didn’t know if there was a God or not, but that nobody could know. Fundamentally, I think he’s right about that.”

Mr. Joshi said that he did not see any natural crossover between his fiction interests and his writings. But a quick perusal of “The Agnostic Reader” makes the case for some durable linkage. Among the authors Mr. Joshi pulled together were Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction author; Leslie Stephen, George Eliot’s biographer (and Virginia Woolf’s father); and a Joshi favorite, Mencken.

The Mencken excerpt that Joshi chose quotes a letter from a young Jewish man toying with unbelief, who wishes to know what he should do. “I advise him to give his new skepticism six months’ trial,” Mencken writes. “If, at the end of that time, he finds that its effects upon him are still indistinguishable from those of a bad case of cholera morbus, I advise him to go to the nearest Orthodox rabbi, tell his troubles, pay his fine (if fines are levied in such cases), and reconcile himself to the faith of his fathers.”

Which, of course, is precisely what Mr. Joshi, as the young son of an atheist economist, did for himself.

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