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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rationalism, Christianity, and the Atheist Best-Sellers

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two classes of books about religion are selling well at my bookstore:  Atheist and Christian apologist.  The latter aren't that hard to keep in, especially C.S. Lewis, because his books have been selling well for quite a long time, and there's a substantial supply of used copies.  The former are much harder to get a copy of, because the only one that has sold well for very long is Bertrand Russel's Why I Am Not a Christian, and it's never sold in the quantities that Mere Christianity has.

Books by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins are recent, and not the sort people give up once they know how it comes out.  As a purveyor of used books, I rely on people who own the book being willing to sell it so that I can stock it, and people are hanging onto their Sam Harris. (For additional reading in atheism, look here.)

But why are these books so fascinating right now?

I suspect it has to do with the the increasing respectability of atheism.  Lewis and other apologists like G.K. Chesterton provide a rational approach to Christianity at a time when much of the public face of Christianity opposes science.  Fundamentalists are often Bible literalists, opposing teaching evolution in schools or trying to get creationism taught as a science.

Lewis had become an atheist as a teenager, and converted to Christianity.  He became an atheist at age 15, in 1913, a theist in 1929 at age 31, and a Christian in 1931.  This places him squarely in the middle of the argument between atheists and Christians, a man who went through that argument and became a rather orthodox Anglican.

But why is atheism such a hot topic?  Well, for one thing, it's a lot safer and more respectable to talk about it now.  In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, an 18-year-old university student, was hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy, having argued that the Bible was "stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions" and said that Jesus' miracles were magic tricks.  The death penalty was not subsequently used in the United Kingdom, but in 1908 and again in 1909, Hyde Park orator Harry Boulter, who had links with the rationalist movement, was imprisoned for blasphemy.  John William Gott, author of the pamphlet Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons, among others, was sentenced to nine months hard labor in 1921 despite illness, and expired shortly after he was released.  The last English blasphemy case was a private prosecution in 1977.

We in America tend to forget that even liberal democracies like the UK had established churches, and could prosecute public expressions of atheism.  In 2008, England passed a law eliminating the common law crime of blasphemy.  The God Delusion was published in 2006, two years before it was officially legal for an Englishman to profess atheism.

Among Americans, a 2008 poll found that more people (55%) would vote for a homosexual than would vote for an atheist (45%), so apparently there is a stronger prejudice against atheists than homosexuals.  In spite of this, since the Bill of Rights became the law of the land in 1791, we've had no law against expressions of atheism.  This makes us 217 years more progressive than the British on this issue, so mention that next time some pom tells you Americans are backward on issues of religion in politics.  Mind you, we'd rather elect a Muslim than an atheist.

So this is a time when atheism is still shocking, but not actively dangerous to profess.  Perhaps that's why atheism is at last willing to speak its name.  In fact some atheists have become rather strident, and openly contemptuous of those benighted people of faith they engage in public forums.

For the record, I'm agnostic, and find evangelical atheists who seem to want to convert me no more reasonable than evangelical Christians.  They present their belief as the only reasonable one, and want no one to believe differently.

The lager conflict that continues is the rationalism of the Enlightenment against the traditional belief systems that preceded it.  Atheists seek the final triumph of rationalism over what they see as superstition, while Christian apologists such as Lewis maintain that Christianity is compatible with rationalism.  So I surmise that those buying from my religion section are rationalists.  Books seeking to convince the reader that creationism should be taught in schools don't sell at my store.  I'm guessing that they sell in a different kind of bookstore, one that caters to a specifically evangelical Christian clientele.

It reminds me a bit of the time a fellow called the shop and asked if I carried any Christian authors.  I said sure, we've got C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Aquinas, Marin Luther, Augustine...

"No, no," he said, "Christian authors."

It is apparently possible to be a saint, or author of some of the best selling books about Christianity of all time, without being a Christian by some definition that excludes mainstream protestants and Catholics.  Strangely enough, I find it discouraging that the books the gentleman wanted don't sell in my store.  Americans seem to have sorted themselves so that they don't have to talk to people who don't share their views.

A book like The Shack, which sold millions nationally, languishes on my shelves, and that's bad news, because it means many of the other books in my store are not part of the world of the people reading that book.  Given the number of people who bought The Shack, I'd say the culture it belongs to must be quite widespread, and if the books of interest to so many in Seattle's University District aren't of interest to them, it's as if there is not one mainstream culture, but two in present-day America, and they don't talk to each other.  The rationalists have gathered in the cities, while the traditionalists have chosen to live in smaller towns.  The two groups read different books, even when both are reading about Christianity, because they live in different worlds.


  1. I am reading the Alphabet Verses the Goddess, which has the premiss that where ever literacy flowered, so did misogyny. The writer, a man, appears to be a sympathizer to women's rights. I'm not sure he is right, but I did enjoy his analysis of how the Goddess, equality, and imagery fared as Christian thought veered further and further away from the teachings of Jesus.

  2. Of course, the major distinction between literate and pre-literate societies is that in literate societies things got written down and remembered, so there was less scope for speculation about what people in those societies believed. This makes it hard to know how Goddess-oriented the pre-literate societies were, and whether the change happened before or after literacy. It seems to me that the real distinction is who holds the knowledge of the faith. Druids were opposed to writing things down, but their knowledge was passed down through the (male) priesthood -- at least, according to what's been written. The thing is, it's hard to know. It seems to me a lot of stuff about the druids was made up later by people who didn't know.