The More the Merrier
Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ new book god is not Great (which I will soon be reviewing) is the latest in a series of high profile atheistic publications we have seen in the last few years, joining Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), among others. I have heard many atheists criticise this trend, saying that they all say the same thing and that they are simply written for non-believers who agree with them anyway.
I disagree, for a number of reasons. First of all, these books are not just read by atheists (although it’s natural that they will be read by atheists), and the fact that they are bestsellers proves this. The God Delusion is still in the top thirty of the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction Best Seller list after nearly a year – if everyone who’d bought it and read it were already an atheist, there would have been no need for the book!
Aside from this, although I agree that there is an inevitable overlap in some of the ideas discussed in these books, there is also considerable variation. Breaking the Spell, for example, deals more with the origins of religion. Dennett points out that there are two central, distinct questions to address: the truth of the claims of religions, and whether or not religion itself is a good thing. He sums these two issues up as ‘belief’ and ‘belief in belief’. The God Delusion looks at both of these questions, but focuses heavily on the former. Hitchens also examines both issues, but devotes far more time to the latter. Even where there is duplication between books, and therefore nothing actually new to learn for the reader, I always find it beneficial to hear someone else’s view on a matter – particularly someone who is a great thinker, a great writer or both.
Even if these books are preaching to the choir, the choir will sing that much louder as a result. In America, atheists are positively oppressed, and it is important to encourage them to speak out and be recognised. These books help create an environment where it is safe to do so, although there is still a long way to go.
It is also the believers who benefit from hearing more than one voice singing the same song. The major atheist publications of the last few years have all received scathing reviews from people who are threatened by their message, who either haven’t read the book or sincerely hope that their readers haven’t, and who utterly refuse to engage the arguments made while they cry in outrage at the temerity these atheists show in actually criticising their beliefs. But I am confident that many of the believers who actually read these books for themselves will realise that there is a case to be made. They may not put The End of Faith down and proudly announce their new found atheism, deconversion rarely happens like that. It is a far more gradual process, caused by a number of incidents over time that pick out bricks in the protective wall of faith, until eventually it comes tumbling down. These books may just be one of those incidents that, accumulated with others, could lead to deconversion. If this is the case, we can’t have too many books on the market. Different people respond to different authors, who have different voices and different approaches. The more variety available, the better.
There is also a huge section of society to appeal to, those who are either liberal theists, or who are non-religious but take no interest in the debate. These are people who probably can be rationally persuaded if we can only gain access to them. Again, high profile atheist best sellers are one way of doing that.
I don’t think we are going to see mass deconversion any time soon. There will be no armies of newly awakened atheists marching out of the churches, synagogues and mosques. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be a case of finding the odd one here or there, but make no mistake, they are happening. It seems a frustratingly slow rate to us, but we must be persistent. I believe that one day, many years after my life is over and I have returned whence I came, a critical mass point will be reached. The numbers of non-believers will grow to a point where the evidence that people can be happy and moral without religion will be undeniable to those who still believe. As with evolution, the progress is slow but the drive and direction are undoubtedly present. The atheist publications we are seeing are playing a vital role in that progress. The more the merrier.