On the Edge: Religion Wars

ALISTER MCGRATH, primary author of The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, insists he has no personal animosity against Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. "My concern really is with his ideas," he says. "You could say that he and I maintain a professional relationship of academics who disagree with each other." And disagree they do—within the pages of their passionate writing, while giving lectures and sermons, and when participating in heated debates.

Anti-religion books are nothing new. But in 2004, the unexpected happened. First came Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Soon after followed Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Harris’ second book, Letter to a Christian Nation; Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist; and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

These books weren’t just publishers’ rash responses to a surprise bestseller. Rather they’ve been hot commodities in the book marketplace. Take Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example. According to Andy Heidel, Houghton Mifflin’s assistant director of publicity, it’s been on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for more than a year and has 1.5 million copies in print worldwide. The God Delusion has spurred several direct responses, including Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? and Walter Thirring’s Cosmic Impressions: Traces of God in the Laws of Nature. Industry experts expect more anti-atheism books to come.

In nonfiction, a new, bestselling subcategory indicates a culture shift. But unlike many subcategories that take a strong stance, here publishers have seen anti-atheism readers pick up anti-religion books, and vice versa, if only so they can better argue their views. Scientists and theologians, both celebrated and obscure, have sold their books with success. It’s an age-old war being fought on pages and marketed on the front tables of major bookstores, and while some say the trend has peaked, others think the crusade has only just begun.

THE ROLE OF SEPT. 11

Many anti-religion authors point to Sept. 11 as the catalyst for their book. "I think there have been two separate reactions in our country to the fact that the hijackers of those planes were from a strong world religion, and that they attacked based on religious grounds," says Nica Lalli, author of the memoir Nothing: Something to Believe In. "People have become both more religious and less religious. That’s what I hear over and over again when these popular [anti-religion] authors speak. They all cite 9/11 as something that made them so fed up with the notion of religion as this peaceful, wonderful thing. And they really felt the need to point out the problems."

Alister McGrath agrees. "That was a defining moment," he says. "But I think there are other factors, particularly in the United States, where some secularists now are very concerned that religion plays a big role in American life and I think they felt this was the time to launch a counterattack."

In addition to the rising level of piety in U.S. culture, Jonathan Karp, publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve (publisher of God Is Not Great), says others believe religious fundamentalists are a danger to society. "These books are a form of protest," he says.

Stenger, while quick to note that the literature has always been available, says good promotion is also playing a large part. "Publishers, bookstores and the media are taking notice," he says. "What helped my book was getting it on the front table at Borders and Barnes & Noble." Stenger has written seven well-received books on physics, cosmology, philosophy, religion and pseudoscience. But God: The Failed Hypothesis, which was published early last year, was his first to make The New York Times bestseller list.

TARGETING READERS WITH OPPOSITE VIEWS

Both anti-religious and anti-atheism authors hope that opposite-minded consumers will buy—and read—their books. In The God Delusion’s preface, Dawkins writes, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism!"

In The Dawkins Delusion? the McGraths write, "This book, I suspect, will be read mainly by Christians who want to know what to say to their friends who have read The God Delusion and are wondering if believers really are as perverted, degenerate and unthinking as the book makes them out to be. But it is my hope that its readers may include atheists whose minds are not yet locked into a pattern of automatic Dawkinsian reflexes."

And then there’s Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, which is addressed to Christians but is also intended to serve as a tool for atheists. He writes, "While this book is intended for people of all faiths, it has been written in the form of a letter to a Christian. In it, I respond to many of the arguments that Christians put forward in defense of their religious beliefs. The primary purpose of the book is to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian right."

According to Alister McGrath, in the United Kingdom (which is where he lives), The Dawkins Delusion? is selling mainly through mainstream bookstores—not Christian ones. "That is suggesting this book has been widely read in mainstream culture," he says. "And if you go into the big chains here in England you’ll find Dawkins’ book and my book side by side with a big sign saying, ‘Join the Debate.’ It clearly has got people very, very interested." InterVarsity Press Editor Andrew T. Le Peau, who published the U.S. edition of the McGraths’ book, says The Dawkins’ Delusion? has sold about 30,000 copies in the United States, and he estimates a similar number has been sold in the United Kingdom.

Stenger isn’t as hopeful when it comes to crossover. "I don’t think that many people who believe in God are going to pick [my book] up, except those who may be a little bit on the margin," he says. Stenger’s intended audience also includes agnostics and young people who are still formulating their philosophies.

But then there are books like Lalli’s memoir, Nothing, that aren’t meant to convert. In fact, she dislikes the term "anti-religion" when categorizing her book. "I think my book is easier for people of all faiths to stomach," she says. "Unlike the other atheist books that are very popular and that many people seem to be reading or, at least, buying, I’m really not interested in telling anybody what to believe…I respect people’s right to believe whatever they feel is right for them. I certainly have a lot of Christian people tell me that they liked my book."

THE IMPORTANCE OF PLATFORM

Before writing their bestselling books, many of these authors had impressive platforms. Alister McGrath, a former atheist, is now a professor of historical theology at the University of Oxford. Dawkins, a University of Oxford graduate, is an ethologist and evolutionary biologist. Stenger is an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. Hitchens, named one of the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain’s Prospect, is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at The New School.

But it’s important to acknowledge Harris, who some credit with having started this trend. Harris has a philosophy degree from Stanford University, but it was the popularity of his first book, The End of Faith, which really provided him the pulpit to preach his anti-religious views. "If you look at the atheist camp, Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins are all well known," Alister McGrath says. "Sam Harris hadn’t written much at all before he wrote those two books. I think that shows that people can come in from nowhere and have a significant impact." And then there’s Lalli—a painter, PTA president and mother of two—who sent out 75 query letters before getting a yes from Prometheus Books to publish Nothing. According to Lynn Pasquale at Prometheus Books, there are currently 30,000 copies of Nothing in print.

So how important is a platform for first-time authors interested in the anti-religion/anti-atheism market? "Obviously name recognition is important like in everything else," Stenger says. "When Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins writes a book, it’s going to get a lot more attention."

But there are exceptions. "We’re looking for people who are closely tied to organizations, who can help promote the book, who are regularly on the speaking circuit, or who have a well-known blog or very active website," Le Peau says. "Obviously we’re looking for great content. That’s assumed. But every once in a while somebody comes up with a concept [so good] that it doesn’t really matter who that person is. It’s just such a great concept that people immediately get it. And they grab onto it."

A CYCLICAL DEBATE

"These things go through cycles—cycles of interest, cycles of disinterest," Le Peau says. "And certain things cycle back, though perhaps in slightly different ways. In the ’60s there was the famous Time magazine cover, ‘God is dead.’ And then shortly thereafter there was this big Evangelical revival. The pendulum swings back and forth, and certainly popular interest doesn’t stay long in any one place."

While some insiders say the trend has crested, others argue there are more books to come. "It’s a trend that’s going to stay," Lalli says. "I don’t know if it’s going to stay as strong. There will be backlash, and then there will be backlash to the backlash."

Just ask Alister McGrath. "For me the very interesting question is, ‘What book is Dawkins going to write next?’ " he says.

Regardless, most authors and editors say the debate is healthy. "Quite frankly, I think it’s good for the religious book market," Le Peau says. "Whatever you think of it, it’s an important part of society, history, culture, people’s individual lives. These books simply reflect both the pro and the con, so I think that’s good."

For many anti-religion book authors who believe religion to be detrimental to society, it’s an issue they can’t—in good conscience—drop. "The debate seems eternal to me," Karp says.

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