Why the recent spate of popular Ã¢â‚¬Å“anti-GodÃ¢â‚¬Â books? Books like Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Daniel Dennett), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), God: The Failed Hypothesis (Victor J. Stenger), God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens) and The End of Faith (Sam Harris) dominate the charts, with some help from conferences such as Beyond Belief and campaigns such as the YouTube Blasphemy Challenge.
I researched this genre recently, while Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I were writing The Spiritual Brain. At first sight, the genre is puzzling for several reasons. First, it does not follow a surge in atheism. Indeed, according to the 2007 Princeton Survey for Newsweek, only 3 percent of Americans self-identify as atheists. And despite EuropeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vaunted secularism, outright atheism is rare there too, all the rarer after communismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fall.
The timing is odd too. This publishing boomlet is not driven by grand new ideas. Eighteenth-century philosophes said it all long ago. Recent works trot out evolutionary psychologyÃ¢â‚¬â€that is, they argue that spiritual practices derive from unidentified genes that enabled our Pleistocene ancestors to survive, rather than from transcendent experiences. But as theologian David B. Hart noted in First Things (January 2007), these speculations do not arise from new discoveries in science. They merely Ã¢â‚¬Å“use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Fear of Islamist extremism surely drives many sales. But the reader is due for disappointment. The anti-God squad too often conflates post-World War II extremism with traditional religionÃ¢â‚¬â€an odd approach in a world where, far from an age-old curse, suicide bombing is a radical new phenomenon. The books against God offer no politically compelling policy for managing the conflict either. On the contrary, extremists can point to them as further evidence against godless Western civilization.
The most obvious feature of the anti-God books and their attendant campaigns is the note of panic over religious belief. That is a valuable clue. On Good Friday, 1966, Time Magazine asked Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is God dead?Ã¢â‚¬Â The clear implication was yes, with atheismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s eventual triumph a certainty. Fast forward to 2005, when Newsweek, reflecting on that historic Time story, noted, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Nobody would write such an article now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The panic is well justified. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not clear that God was even on vacation in the intervening forty years. Interest in spirituality has, if anything, increased worldwide. One reason, as political analyst Michael Novak recently pointed out (First Things, June/July 2007), is that secularism has not succeeded in replacing transcendent commitments; indeed, secularism is more vulnerable than most habits of thought to a destructive post-modernism in which no ethical standards can be confidently asserted.
The key driver of the genre, I suspect, is that many people are mad at God, as they understand him. And the God they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe in is certainly not great. Buying the books is their declaration of independence from a God unworthy of belief. If so, the anti-God books provide a valuable service in a time of spiritual renewal, somewhat like William JamesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Indian sage who kept saying No! No! to all popular conceptions of GodÃ¢â‚¬â€on behalf of a deeper Yes.
Ã‚Â (Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2007 edition of the University of St. Michael’s College alumni magazine.)
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