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Do Four Flakes Make An Avalanche?

I’m curious: have I just not noticed books like this before? Or is it really true that there’s a sudden avalanche of popular books extolling the virtues of atheism? ~Kevin Drum

Drum cites Dawkins, Harris, Stenger and Hitchens as evidence of the “avalanche.”  Do four books constitute an avalanche?  It seems to me that some similar four or five-year period during the 19th century, which Kuehnelt-Leddihn mocked in Moscow 1979 as the true age of atheism, or the height of the Cold War must have produced as much atheistic printed material as the last five years have.  Did the era of rising political communism somehow manage to produce fewer tracts on behalf of atheism in a similar span of time?  In fact, these four books seem to be remarkable for how few of them there are.  If ever there were a time during the last 17 years when religion and belief in God should be enduring great scrutiny and opposition, it would seem that the last six years would be it.  Yet most people in the West, whether secular or religious, have come to one or more of the following three conclusions: 1) violence in the name of any religion has nothing to do with Religion; 2) crimes committed by religious extremists tell us nothing about the truth of any religion (obviously closely related to #1); 3) their religion may be violent and dangerous, but that doesn’t apply to all religions, especially ours; 4) faith is perfectly reasonable, provided that it doesn’t become all-consuming; 5) faith should be all-consuming, but should stand in opposition to violence; 6) every religion would be fine, provided that it was balanced with a little “enlightenment”; 7) this simply proves that our religion is true and theirs isn’t.  Virtually nobody anywhere has come to the conclusion that says, “There, you see, this just affirms my conviction that God is made-up nonsense.”  No doubt the atheist will say, “This is just another example of the foolishness of crowds and the persistent delusions of the ignorant.”  This is what he would have to say, because it can hardly encourage an atheist that the last few years have not seemed to produce a new generation of fellow non-believers.    

It is also remarkable how generally unrepresentative of the contemporary discourse on faith and God they are.  Of course, being representative of the Zeitgeist is not any measure of truth, but it is worth noting that even the skeptics have become much more skeptical of pure skepticism when it comes to matters divine.  Atheists always exude this aura of the poor, few truth-seekers oppressed by the masses of the deluded, because they are not part of any “avalance,” but normally appear on the scene as isolated little flurries that come quickly to an end. 

Are books dedicated to running down religion and theism as irrational the same as books “extolling the virtues of atheism”?  A book that attacks the existence of God, or rather denies the rationality of belief in God, tells you nothing positive about atheism.  It doesn’t have to, and it isn’t trying to tell you anything about atheism.  The atheist thinks, just as the theist thinks, but with less reason, that he is telling you about the “way things really are.”  An atheist tract is, to the atheist’s mind, like a botanist telling you, “This is what a hydrangea is.”  It assumes that atheism is simply what you would have to end up with if God does not exist.  Atheism offers nothing, but promises that life is pointless.  Not surprising that all this miserable view can manage to produce is four books of any prominence in the span of several years.   

Are these books actually popular?  Yes, Hitchens’ book is currently #3 on Amazon, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising since it just came out last week and has received plenty of press, and Dawkins’ book is still at #25.  The other two are not in the top 100.  What do you want to bet that the same secularists and atheists who bought the books by Dawkins and Harris are also running out to buy Hitchens’ latest?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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