Atheism books pick up the gauntlet

In my prior posting, I gave my initial reaction to the publication of several new books on atheism, especially A Letter to a Christian Nation (by Sam Harris) and The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins).

Interested in the reactions of others to these books, I read numerous online reviews. I was pleased to see that most have been quite positive. Still, even in many otherwise glowing reviews, a few common criticisms emerged. And while I certainly admit that there is room for criticisms (I even have a few myself), there are three related points that kept getting raised that I believe are largely irrelevant. Here’s why:

The book is preaching to the converted. That is, any theist that might benefit from a thoughtful reading of the book will either never pick it up or dismiss it out of hand shortly after beginning it.

To this criticism, I bluntly say: So what?

First of all, I largely agree with this criticism. It is almost certainly true for Dawkins’ book. Dawkins writes “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” I have a similar hope for his superb book, as the arguments in it are so compelling as to seem nearly impossible to refute. But still, I can hardly imagine Dawkins’ wish getting granted. Dawkins does not help this cause by his consistently disparaging tone towards believers and their religious beliefs (such as his comment about the debate between monotheism and polytheism: “Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many”).

However, this criticism implies that there is some hypothetical book that could have been written that would somehow surmount this difficulty and convince a large segment of theists to change their world view. I seriously doubt that. Arguments against a belief in God have been out there for hundreds of years with little effect overall. As I pointed out in my previous posting, religious belief systems are designed specifically to prevent their rejection by believers. Some people may manage to overcome this, but it won’t be easy.

If there is any hope for a shift here, it will be a generational one, heralded by a change in how our children are taught. Now that I think of it, perhaps that is why fundamentalists are so strongly against the teaching of evolution in our schools. And this is almost certainly the basis for what is depicted in the new film Jesus Camp. But I digress.

Making matters worse, this hardly seems like the right moment in history to expect any sort of major change to occur in the country’s attitude towards atheism. Here in the U.S., we live in a time when religion, especially fundamentalist religion, has greater influence on our political landscape that ever before.

As an analogy, I think back to the months before we invaded Iraq. I was among the very tiny minority that was speaking out against the idea of a “preemptive war,” attending rallies and writing letters to the editor protesting the impending war. However, I believe that there was nothing that I nor anyone else could have written at the time that would have had a significant effect. The aftermath of 9/11 was still too close, the Bush administration was too willing to present faulty intelligence as fact and to raise of the specter of nightmare nuclear scenarios, and the press was too busy searching for its missing spine.

Still, you have to start somewhere. Even if you know your voice will hardly be heard at first, you have to hope that if you speak the truth long enough, hard enough, and convincingly enough that eventually, the tenure of the times will change, and your voice will fall on more receptive ears. That has finally happened with the war in Iraq. Hopefully, it will someday lead to widespread support for atheism.

Finally, even if a book could be written that would satisfy the cited criticism, it doesn’t mean that Dawkins should have written it. That would be like saying that Michael Moore should make movies that get his point across but in a way that doesn’t annoy conservatives. Yes, it would be great if someone made such a movie. But there is room for and value in Michael Moore’s approach as well as others.

The book is a polemic. It is critical to the point of being nasty and insulting. This is not the way to win converts. You don’t change the mind of someone who disagrees with you by insulting them.

This is almost a corollary of the first criticism. So perhaps all I need say here is re-read what I just wrote. But let me go a bit further.

There is certainly substance to this criticism. Even a title such as “The God Delusion” starts off on a combative note. But, as Dawkins and Harris both point out, religion has gotten off too easy here for far too long. The level of “respect” expected when discussing religious beliefs, no matter how bizarre they may be, far exceeds what would be expected in any other area of discourse. Perhaps it is time to loosen this restraint.

If nothing else, the result of the approach of these books is to bring attention to themselves and the questions they raise. I doubt whether this would have happened with a more “polite” book.

The book isn’t really saying anything new or original.

Again, rather than debate whether this criticism is true or not, I once again reply: Even if it is true, so what?

It’s not as if every one in the country has been repeatedly exposed to these arguments. It’s not as if these ideas have been thoroughly debunked and proven to be false. Quite the contrary.

So, if someone can take worthwhile concepts, even if the someone is not the originator of the concepts, and present them in a new and thought-provoking way, in a way that can be more easily understood by a general audience, in a format that is more easily accessible than obscure journal articles, in a manner that garners national attention, starts a discussion as to the merits of these ideas, and perhaps ever so slowly changes the opinions of at least a few people, then I say: “Fantastic.”

To take another example, how many years after the Civil War was it necessary to argue that African Americans were not getting the civil rights they deserved? How many times was it important to say the same things over and over again? What would have happened to the civil rights movement if, back in the 1950’s, the country said, “We’ve heard all this before” and protesters replied, “Oh, okay, sorry about that” and went away? For one thing, I doubt we would have seen the successes that occurred in the 1960’s.

The modern defense of atheism is only in its earliest stages. If it takes repetition to make a dent in the public’s awareness, then so be it. If it will still take many years before the repetition has an effect, so be it. We are in this for the long haul. As the saying goes, all journeys begin with the first step.

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