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Atheists in the bully pulpit

Many books decrying religion's negative influence on the world are bestsellers.

May 26, 2007|Rachel Zoll | Associated Press

The time for polite debate is over. Militant, atheist writers are making an all-out assault on religious faith and reaching the top of the bestseller list, a sign of widespread resentment over the influence of religion in the world among nonbelievers.

Christopher Hitchens' book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" has sold briskly since it was published last month, and his debates with clergy are drawing crowds at every stop.

Sam Harris was a little-known graduate student until he wrote the phenomenally successful "The End of Faith" and its follow-up, "Letter to a Christian Nation." Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" struck similar themes -- and sold.

"There is something like a change in the zeitgeist," Hitchens said, noting that sales of his latest book far outnumber those for his earlier work that had challenged faith. "There are a lot of people, in this country in particular, who are fed up with endless lectures by bogus clerics and endless bullying."

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Pasadena, said the books' success reflects a new vehemence in the atheist critique.

"I don't believe in conspiracy theories," Mouw said, "but it's almost like they all had a meeting and said, 'Let's counterattack.' "

The war metaphor is apt. The writers see themselves in a battle for reason in a world crippled by superstition. In their view, Muslim extremists, Jewish settlers and Christian right activists are from the same mold, using fairy tales posing as divine scripture to justify their lust for power. Bad behavior in the name of religion is behind some of the most dangerous global conflicts and the terrorist attacks in the U.S., London and Madrid, the atheists say.

As Hitchens puts it: "Religion kills."

The Rev. Douglas Wilson, senior fellow in theology at New Saint Andrews College, a Christian school in Moscow, Idaho, sees the books as a sign of secular panic. He says nonbelievers are finally realizing that, contrary to what they were taught in college, faith is not dead.

Signs of believers' political and cultural might abound. Religious challenges to teaching evolution are still having an impact, 80 years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey" trial. The dramatic growth in home schooling and private Christian schools is raising questions about the future of public education. Religious leaders have succeeded in putting some limits on stem-cell research.

And the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a national ban on a procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion" -- the first federal curbs on an abortion procedure in a generation -- came after decades of religious lobbying for conservative justices.

"It sort of dawned on the secular establishment that they might lose here," said Wilson, who is debating Hitchens on christianitytoday.com and has written the book "Letter From a Christian Citizen" in response to Harris. "All of this is happening precisely because there's a significant force that they have to deal with."

Indeed, believers far outnumber nonbelievers in the U.S. In a 2005 AP-Ipsos poll on religion, only 2% of U.S. respondents said they did not believe in God. Other surveys concluded that 14% of Americans consider themselves secular, a term that can include believers who say they have no religion.

Some say liberal outrage over the policies of President Bush is partly fueling sales, even though Hitchens famously supported the invasion of Iraq.

To those Americans, the nation's born-again president is the No. 1 representative of the religious right activists who helped put him in office. Critics see Bush's Christian faith behind some of his worst decisions and his stubborn defense of the war in Iraq.

"There is this general sense that evangelicals have really gained a lot of power in the United States and the Bush administration seems to represent that in some significant ways," said Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion at the University of Notre Dame. "A certain group of people sees it that way and that's really disturbing."

Mouw said conservative Christians are partly to blame for the backlash. The rhetoric of some evangelical leaders has been so strident, they have invited the rebuke, the seminary president said.

"We have done a terrible job of presenting our perspective as a plausible world view that has implications for public life and for education, presenting that in a way that is sensitive to the concerns of people who may disagree," he said. "Whatever may be wrong with Christopher Hitchens' attacks on religious leaders, we have certainly already matched it in our attacks."

Given the popularity of the anti-religion books so far, publishers are expected to roll out even more in the future. Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly, says religion has been one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing in the last 15 years, and the rise of books by atheists is "the flip-side of that."

"It was just the time," she said, "for the atheists to take the gloves off."

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