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.


jgordon510

I've read the Dawkins book, so I guess I'm qualified to answer why one might read a book on atheism. I read all of Dawkins books, so there it is.

But also, I'll say that The God Delusion isn't merely a book about how "bird watching is a waste of time." He tackles some interesting issues - in particular, the roots for religion and indoctrination in evolutionary psychology.

I suspect that most of these books have more to them than, Atheists rule, theists drool!

GBUK

As to know who is reading books of this kind, I have my own personal opinion: people that who like to be better able to explain why god doesn't exist, why people shouldn't believe in god and why you shouldn't be ashamed but proud of being an atheist. I wish atheists were doing a bit more proselytizing...

Theo

I can't explain exactly why these books are so popular, but I have some strong ideas. In disclosure, I am a very religious and spiritual person, although I'm not a member of any mordern traditional religions.

The war between Faith and Science seems to be growing more and more escalated with each day. Many schools, even public schools, teach creationism and intelligent design right along-side darwinism and the theory of evolution. In this war there are many fanatics on both sides and both sides are continually looking for new arguments and discussions that will allow them to win-out over the un-enlightened opponent.

If you go to borders, you will find the books above, along with dozens of their like. But you will also find dozens, if not hundreds, of books about why God *does* exist. These are not as flashy, but in the eyes of many religious fundamentalists they don't need to be. To many Christians, the only proof they need that God exists is 1) we are here and 2) the bible explains it all, so there is less need for new books to promote rational arguments for the existence of God. The arguments that they need are solely based on personal experience, divine revelation, and the challenges that face their oppenents who are foolishly trying to prove a negative.

From the other side, the scientists, athiests, and those who have been burned or damaged by religion (sadly a quickly growing number), are as disparate and fanatic in their attacks on religion. Many of these people believe, in full righteousness, that allowing people to have faith in an unproven religious quantity is harmful to mankind. In this, they are as dogmatic and belief-bound as their religious opponents. Were they not, I am hard pressed to beleive that their arguments would be as rigorous or fanatical as they often are.

Somewhere in the middle are the more easy-minded among us. There are those agnostics and atheists who find that their life works without religion or spirituality, but know that everyone has their own way of living and accept that others can have their beliefs as long as they don't force them upon anyone else. There are those like me, who follow non-traditional religious and spiritual paths, because we find that they give our lives meaning and value, that our understanding of self and the world around us is deepened by it. There are Christians and people of all faiths, who are moderate, knowing in their hearts that their beliefs are right, but like their counterparts, recognize that it is up to each person to choose where their path lies, and they keep their surety to themselves.

Live and let live.

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rshayto

First off, we can't forget Sam Harris' 'End of Faith' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation' on the list of anti-religion books.

I would also like to reinforce the point made by an earlier commenter that several of these books look at religion in society. Breaking the Spell and End of Faith address the lack of scrutiny religion receives compared to every other aspect of life. The best example given by Harris is: 'If I start espousing a belief that the Holocaust did not happen, I will be called crazy and told I am wrong. However if I say I had a religious experience telling me God is coming to earth soon, no one will question it because religion is the one topic our society tries to not offend people in.' Their books question why is this the case? Why should religion be safe from science and questioning?

Secondly, on Dawkin's book he presents the logical arguments for why there is a low probability that any supernatural being exists. This has two fold purpose. First, it attempts to bring scientific inquiry into the question of God. Second and more importantly I believe, it is a clear proclamation that there are prominent atheists out there. Atheism is currently reviled in the US and most other countries. In polls on electability in the US, atheism ranks down with pedophiles. Basically, an open atheist is discriminated against because of their lack of belief. Dawkin's book will hopefully be a tipping point to bring atheism to the mainstream.

Finally, as this is getting long winded. These books also make the excellent point of the dangers of religious belief in context of modern weapons. The belief in an afterlife better than the current world gives plenty of incentives to suicide bombers and fanatics. However, there is no evidence that there is an afterlife or anything similar to an existence after our current lives.

I own these books for a variety of reasons. 1) They are excellently written. 2) They raise important questions and attempt to provide sound arguments about religion. 3) I want to encourage the publishing of these style of books to raise awareness of atheism in the world.

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stylock

Even as an admittedly not-so-religious person, you think about God on occasion...

So when a religious person looks at the title they're thinking "What blasphemy is this book presenting about _my_ religion!" (and wants to read it because most every religion has logic holes you can drive a truck through)

If I suggest for a moment that perhaps there is a God (not the white bearded guy who sits in a chair up in the clouds, a physical person, or any of the theories humankind has come up with) - the unknowable thing that could be behind everything - and part of everything...

If people then deny this, they may have an unsatisfied desire to "know" that they are right - and will buy a book that gives them even more "proof" that they are correct;-) (the same proof that each religion wants to - poke holes in everyone else's religion)

As I said, just suppose... I don't want to get in trouble for suggesting that any religion's dogma is anything but the purest truth - handwritten by God himself.

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dickgrogan

Does Steven Levitt live in a different USA that I live in? The one where I reside is controlled by a bunch of religious fanatics who are at war with a bunch of religious fanatics overseas. I guess I didn't think I lived in this country either, that is until I woke up and heard the 2004 election results.

Maybe Professor Levitt should take on a new project to ask why these kinds of books are not being written in countries like Sweden, Denmark or Norway but are being written in the US and the UK.

But, he's onto something already. Atheism shouldn't even exist as a word. As Sam Harris says, what do you call someone who doesn't believe in astrology or witchcraft? Logically there's as much need for the word atheist as there is for those persons.

evgen

One item that stuck in my head from a WSJ article about the new crop of "atheims" books is that when they looked at the distribution of sales it appeared that there were two markets for these books: 1) the passive and active atheists who were interested in supporting arguments for their choices (or lack thereof) and 2) religious evangilists who were interested in knowing what arguments their opponents were making or would be making to oppose them. The latter category surprised me, but probably makes sense; modern atheism has developed some sophisticated arguments in the past decade or so and the "you are just a godless communist" retort probably holds less weight that it once did.

Micheal

Dr. Levitt,
That's wonderful that few people in your crowd actively dislike God, but what about their attitudes towards certain believers in God? A recent study by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that 53% of university professors have unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians, and 33% of professors have negative feelings toward Mormons. (Cp. this to only 3% with unfavorable feelings toward Jews and 4% with unfavorable feelings toward Buddhists.) Granted, maybe these attitudes are as much politically motivated as religiously motivated. But I wager that many of the purchasers of the books by Dawkins, et al., are motivated by their feelings towards conservative Christians rather than towards God.

This study can be found online at www.jewishresearch.org.

codeboy

I believe the current popularity in God books is due to the religious right's increasing influence and power in today government. This causes the undecideds to try and figure out what they believe. So in a way this is simply an extension of the conservative vs. liberal book popularity.

rcoon

@#27: "If there is no God, then it doesn't matter which side you're on, right?"

This assumes the atheist is a nihilist; very few of us are. Most atheists do have values, and some feel that there is some import to "which side you're on."

wptrocks

a key thematic bent in some of these anti-religious tomes is to disprove the existence of g-d through the use of scientific evidence/rationale rather than pure philosophical reasoning. whether or not they succeed is of course at the discretion of the audience.

mjh

Mr. Levitt.

God wants a relationship with you. God doesn't want a one-sided relationship in which you just keep calling on him whenever you're in a pickle.

davinic

I have only read Hitchens, so I can comment on that. The book is not about god so much as it is about the dangers of religion.

Hitchens points out quite clearly that humanity can not progress as it should while religions are as prominent as they are, and then proceeds to point out the glaring flaws in each of the major religions, mostly from a literary standpoint, which is fairly unique.

While it's true that non-deists tend to be non-evangelical about their beliefs, there is a growing number of us that think a return to less fundamentalism, and ultimately less religion, would be a huge step for humanity.

Also, oddly enough, Hitchens shows me, stuck in the Bible Belt, that I am not alone. Ironic, huh?

zbicyclist

Why pick on birdwatchers? What did they ever do to you?

But seriously -- aren't there books on why tree-huggers/environmental "extremists" and other Sierra Club types are evil? Or why we shouldn't have such restrictive environmental laws or wetland protection, etc. Or isn't Dick Cheney's autobiography out yet?

These aren't narrowly in the realm of "why birdwatching is a waste of time", but seem close enough to count.

clsand99

wptrocks: what's with "g-d"? Can't spell it out?

Theo

clsand: -- I'm sure wptrocks will give you a more complete answer, but it's common among judaism to not spell out or say any of the names of their higher being. Thus they use g-d, and never spell or say the tetragrammaton (sp?) etc. etc.

angelofthenorth

The reactions to the books both sides of the atlantic are quite interesting as well. The UK has a history of Enlightenment philosophy coupled with a vague Deism. Ruth Gledhill, who has interviewed Dawkins, has described his attitude to the supernatural and faith-life as being very similar to that of some senior clergy. That they both come across differently in person and in print is also intriguing.

I know a number of Christians who think Dawkins is great, just as long as you don't rely on him for contemporary theology, or reliable church history. I know Atheists that dislike his scientific fundamentalism, and point out that the "scientific method" came out of the critical thinking that Bishop Berkeley and other Christian Enlightenment scholars espoused, based on how they read scripture.

Dawkins in the UK generated some interesting critical responses, in my experience. In the US, it seemed to provoke a far more visceral response on both sides.

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rcoon

clsand99: I certainly hope I didn't come off as snippy--it's a very common argument from Christians I have spoken with that abandoning belief in God necessarily entails the abandoning of all values.

discordian

Wanna bump up responses to your blogs... talk about religion!
Fnord!

Corn

Wow, there's a lot here. I'm not familiar with the particular authors, so I can't comment to them directly. I can say I'm interested in a few of the books, so that I can understand atheists better. Why would I want to do that? To make them not atheists.

That goes to another question asked in these comments. Why do I care? Why do I have a need to worry about what others believe? Why speak to someone on a bus about God?

There are multiple answers to this question. I do believe some do it because they what to feel normal. "I'm a Christian so you need to be too." Some do it because they think they're "supposed to." These are not good reasons at all.

The good reason, the only good reason, is the Good Samaritan reason. If I see a baby, abandoned and lying in the street, I have a duty to save that baby. I'd be considered a monster if I let that baby die. Now, if you're a Christian, you believe that belief in God is the only way to heaven. You believe in some form of Hell, be it the traditional fire and brimstone or something else. So when you see a non believer, you see someone that you believe is going to experience some kind of eternal torment. Wouldn't you be a monster if you didn't help them, or at least try to help?

On another point, atheism is in fact a belief in no God, and therefore is a religion like any other. I believed that even when I was an atheist.

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