Oh, My Godness!



A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that God's been having a hard time for a while now in America's bookstores. In what seems to have been a concerted effort by certain writers to respond to the zealousness of the Religious Right — especially its effectiveness in the political arena — a slew of books have appeared declaring atheism as a more potent and realistic creed to live by than any expression of faith could possibly provide.

These works have not only been numerous, but popular as well: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell. The titles are so evocative they very nearly tell the whole story.

Not that books which speak positively about religion have been swamped out of existence. That would hardly be likely in a nation grounded in a serious respect for the deistic. Such books just don't manage to receive a high profile outside of religious circles and aren't the sort of works that capture much media attention.

Both of these points were reinforced and extended when I opened the Dec. 14 issue of London's Times Literary Supplement and came across a large essay called "God Debaters," which considered four British titles that also deal with atheism. The books were The New Atheists by Tina Beattie, God's Undertaker by John C. Lennox, The Beginning of All Things by Han Küng and From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography by John Polkinghorne.

The reviewer, John Habgood, himself the author of many books, as well as the former Archbishop of York, was an interesting and unexpected TLS choice. He notes, quite pointedly, that "the so-called new atheism turns out to be little more than a step backwards to the old-fashioned atheism, which used to make great play with the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between religion and science. Supporting this claim was, and to some extent still is, a simplistic appeal to the contrast between faith and reason, as if they had no need of each other. The main difference between the old and the new is a drastic change of tone. The new version has a sharper tongue, is gleefully aggressive rather then solemnly regretful, and makes much use of ridicule. It might be argued that the contempt shown towards religion and religious sensibilities is a necessary part of the impact the authors want to make, and no doubt it also helps to sell their books. The downside of this strategy is that people are not likely to be converted by being ridiculed, nor by point-scoring which does not touch their real concerns. Minds are changed only when those criticized are convinced that their concerns have been judged fairly — a less entertaining and much more demanding exercise.

"Intolerance is not restricted to new atheism. The same might be said of various forms of fundamentalist religion, and there is a sense in which the two extremes deserve each other."


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