Cut God Some Slack

A little more than a year ago I blogged about how every third book had the word “bullshit” in its title. Happily, that trend faded. I could only find two books on Amazon released in the last year with “bullshit” in the title.

Now, it seems that going after God is the hip thing to do. Daniel Dennett started the stampede with Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins followed with the best-seller The God Delusion. Then came God the Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stanger and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

Next up? Irreligion by John Allen Paulos (author of Innumeracy). I love the fact that the book’s release date is December 26, 2007. What could be more fitting.

Here is what puzzles me: who buys these books?

I’m not religious. I don’t think much about God, except when I am in a pinch and need some special favors. I have no particular reason to think he’ll deliver, but I sometimes take a shot anyway. Other than that, I’m just not that interested in God. I’m definitely not interested enough to go out and buy books explaining to me why I shouldn’t believe in God, even when they are written by people like Dennett and Dawkins, whom I greatly admire. If I were religious, I think it would be even more likely that I would go out of my way to avoid books telling me that my faith was misplaced.

So who is making these anti-God books best-sellers? Do the people who despise the notion of God have an insatiable demand for books that remind them of why? Are there that many people out there who haven’t made up their mind on the subject and are open to persuasion?

Let me put the argument another way: I understand why books attacking liberals sell. It is because many conservatives hate liberals. Books attacking conservatives sell for the same reason. But no one writes books saying that bird watching is a waste of time, because people who aren’t bird watchers probably agree, but don’t want to spend $20 in order to read about it. Since very few people (at least in my crowd) actively dislike God, I’m surprised that anti-God books are not received with the same yawn that anti-bird watcher books would be.


Religion is a big deal to people. Many are frustrated with God and they want someone to back them up on it. Very few people are mad at birds for their life troubles. However, life troubles are easily attributable to God, Muhammed, Budha, etc. People want to feel like they are justified in their feelings. What better than a book with poignantly scripted anecdotes to back up one's self-sorrowful, "why me," mentality?


I think you'll find that the stance of simply not caring much about God or religion ('apatheism' in the jokey parlance) is much less common than you imagine. It seems to be growing as people get wealthier, but a depressingly predominate chunk of humanity believes that God is indeed worth caring about, one way or another.


You're asking why fervent atheists exist.

Well, atheism is a belief-based system and so tends to breed fervent fanaticism, in some.

Of course there are also plenty of atheists who don't care enough to buy a book on the topic, just like there are plenty of religious people who never buy books on religion.


For those who don't particularly care about god, it could be the book reading public's curiousity about religious belief.

I live in Atlanta, and use public transportation at least twice a day. Every time I'm on the bus or train, I'm either invited into a conversation about religion, or overhear one. I don't know why people like to sit next to me and explain that god or Jesus is great. I'm atheist, and not particularly interested, but I usually just nod my head and continue reading while my seatmate talks.

If one of the recent "god books" could explain these people, I would be very interested in reading it.


Funny thing about anti-religion rants is that the ranters don't often seem to feel that a system of non-belief is a system of belief.
I know a few internet message board denizens that are more preachy that any evangelical I've ever met.
It also seems that most "atheists" I speak to or interact with on-line are really just anti-Judeo Christian.

Personally I prefer to read books about people who justify their religions than people who try to justify non-religion.

"So, What's the Difference" by Fritz Ridenour is a great read.


Breaking the Spell isn't "anti-god". It's a book about how science and social science have steered clear of the study of religion, and about how they shouldn't. I don't think you have to care about a personal religion or god to care about why religion appeals to so many people, and what are its effects, both beneficial and harmful.


The problem is that God isn't something that non-believers can ignore, like bird watching -- it's very political.

Imagine if they sang "Atheism Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, or if coins said "In God We Don't Trust Because He Doesn't Exist."

Would you ask Christians, "Why do you buy books that bash atheism? Why don't you just ignore it, like bird watching?"


It probably has something to do with the fact that bird watchers are generally passive people. Christians, however, have been killing in the name of God for a couple thousand years.


I love you guys, and most of the time this blog has great stuff... but the bird-watching analogy is just beyond ridiculous. If bird-watchers insisted that their bird-watching beliefs be encoded into the fabric (both political and social) of our society, and reached into areas like criminal justice and reproductive rights... if they fervently believed that the Constitution elevated bird-watching above other hobbies... and if they existed in enormous numbers and exerted such influence that every politician who ran for office had to pretend to be a bird-watcher, even if he or she really wasn't... then there would be a WHOLE LOT of interest among non-bird-watchers in what makes bird-watchers tick, and why they feel the way they do (and how they are wrong!).

The vast popularity and importance of religion in our society makes it an important sociological topic. It's natural that there will be all kinds of takes on the issue being published, including plenty of pro-religion books (c.f. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend or E.J. Dionne's writings). The anti-God books are only well-known because what they are saying is a sentiment that has until recently been extremely rare to hear in public.

Also, I haven't read any of these books, but my suspicion is that they are not just making the argument that "belief is God is a waste of time", but rather that it is a waste of time that has lots of negative externalities for American society as a whole. Books like that exist for lots of other activities, too, from competitive sports to eating meat to playing video games. But not, to my knowledge, for bird-watching.



I bought and read God is Not Great. I read Hithcens regularly in Vanity Fair and Slate because his writing it enjoyable. I usually find the stuff he chooses to write interesting; so it was more his name that sold me the book than the fact it was about religion.

Religion can be an interesting topic and my opinion has changed on it over the years. There are new things to learn in the field.

I'm sure there are people out there who proably wonder why anyone buys books about economics and business.


@ #3, Atheism is not "a belief-based system." It is an absence-of-belief based system. The most basic premise of atheism is that there is no reason for belief in God without evidence. You haven't seen it yet, but expect to see the argument that, because atheists can't prove that God doesn't exist, they have faith all the same. Please think that through before you fall for it.

As to Levitt's question: I am sure he has noticed that religion and the idea of God itself have ever-wider influence over matters of education; of civil rights; of whether and when to go to war--not only here in the US, but worldwide.

Anyone with an interest in any of these topics owes it to himself to study the ideas presented in these texts.


brecasx: communists have killed even more in the name of atheism, so there's not much point bashing religion in this regard.


I think it's because a lot of atheists feel marginalized and frustrated, and it feels good to read a book that says, "No, you're not crazy, I feel the same way."

Religion is pervasive, and powerful - virtually every politician in America needs to talk about how important God is in their life if they want to hold any political clout. Billions of dollars are trafficked in it. The most fanatical build bombs and kill themselves over it. Some use religion as a cudgel to distort science or as a mandate to decide who can and can not get married.

An atheist has looked at religion and concluded that it makes no sense - and consequently has a very difficult time making sense of a world in which religion plays a dominant role. An atheist looks at a television and sees a bioethics debate in which a man quoting a two-thousand year old book is given more credence than an accomplished biologist. It can be maddening.

Anyone who holds a minority view strongly at odds with the majority of society is going to have similar feelings, creating the market for books to assuage those fears. Which is why I have books from both Dawkins and Dennett on my bookshelf right now.



It's not that atheism is a belief system or non-belief system, it's that it's a particular outlook on life that shapes the way a person thinks, in the same way that a religion does.

I think these books are aimed at people who are unsure, but also aimed in the same way the liberal/conservative-bashing books are. In general, religious beliefs (or lack therof) are closely aligned with political beliefs and other personal positions about the world. Most people feel that they are right, or at least feel that others who disagree don't have it right, and these books feed that part of the ego.

I also think that in the Western public forum, anti-Christians are always looking for more evidence and compelling arguments to stop the Christian Army from taking over everything on the basis of faith. Books like these give them that ammo.


brecasx: Whether you're referring to Stalin, Hitler, or someone else, please direct readers to your evidence that a) more were killed under the direction of avowed atheists than under religious leaders and b) that the killing was done "in the name of atheism."


my prior comment was aimed at theProject, not brecasx.

Dave Child

As one of the people who does read these books, I might be able to answer that.

To avoid any misunderstandings, for the purposes of this reply, please understand that "atheist" means specifically "nontheist" - someone who does not believe in a god. Nothing more. (Most atheists are of this type, though there are others).

I was brought up pretty much without religion. We celebrated Christmas as a family, and were nominally Christian (we ticked the box), but there was never anything substantial behind that.

School was different though - I went to private schools, which usually in the UK means Christian schools that demand church attendance etc. And still never really believed any of it, despite plenty of "religious education" lessons.

But I'd never really thought much about religion and the "facts" thrown at me at that time. Questions asked at the time were always answered with vague replies about faith, and little else.

The thing about being atheist is that there is no "one true book". There's no belief system, or faith, or churches, because there's no religion. So a lot of atheists are a bit lost and just sort of ignore religion. Many pay a religion lip service from time to time, while not believing.

Richard Dawkins book isn't an anti-religious rant. It's a very clear explanation of the problems with belief in any supernatural entities. It's a clear explanation of why religious belief is no different to belief in fairies or santa (though it seems to have a lot more respect).

It's easy to see and understand why religious folks see books like The God Delusion as attacks on religion or god, but they're not. They're books that help people to understand their lack of belief better and have more confidence in it as a result.

I'd always not believed the god stories but Dawkins book (among others) helped me clarify that position (which hasn't changed) into one I can more clearly express and understand.



@theProject: I recommend you actually read the listed books as this point is addressed in several of them. Communists were not killing in atheists name (especially since this has no meaning). Christians (and Muslims) often kill because they think it is God's (or Allah's) will. In the case of communists, war has a completely different, societal purpose (albeit equally absurd). Read the God Delusion, come back, and discuss.


I think the problem here is that you miss the point of most of these books: they aren't so much anti-deity-of-your-choice screeds as they are about the people who believe in such things and the ramifications of their beliefs. I mean, I certainly fall into the category of being "not that interested in God," but I am concerned about at least some of the people who do and how they affect society as a whole.


The idea of "God" is generally so poorly defined that it is hard generate an opinion. However, the (mostly) conservatives who profess to hear God's word have done plenty to generate an anti-God backlash. Did anyone even say anything nice at Jerry Falwell's funeral?