Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gravitating Toward Extremes

From Maud Newton, Phil Campbell's interview with American Jesus author Stephen Prothero on the impact of Mel Gibson on the one hand and Richard Dawkins on the other.

It seems to me that culture is firmly in control of religion at the moment, and that this is having a pretty polarizing effect. Ann Coulter is still spewing her usual incoherent accusations of “godlessness” against Democrats, but now we’ve got Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins encouraging people to actually “go” godless - attacking religion as an outdated, irrational set of superstitions. And Harris and Dawkins are also bestsellers. A simple backlash, or something more complicated?

The media gravitate toward extremes, so it shouldn’t be surprising that with Dawkins and Harris we are in a moment where “godlessness” is being spotlighted. Note, however, that one reason for the Democrats’ recent success is their newfound “godliness.” Candidates in both parties, in other words, are running away from the Dawkins and Harris crowd, and fully half of Americans continue to tell admit that they would not vote for an atheist for president. As far as I’m concerned the success of the recent spate of books on the side of doubt (which extend, by the way to Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt) attests first and foremost to Americans’ keen interest in religion. Dawkins and Harris are a yawn in Paris. Here they are a part (though only a part) of our ongoing conversation about religion.

OK, but these books are bestsellers, so I have to question your conclusion. While I’m not surprised to learn that politicians are scared of Harris and Dawkins, and while I’m pretty sure Oprah isn’t encouraging her followers to give atheism a shot, that to me only makes it more noteworthy, because it means that somewhere out there is a demographic, perhaps several, that gobbles up these fervently anti-religious books. You’re sure that there isn’t something that’s happening under the radar, like the runaway success of the Left Behind series that left a lot of people suddenly astonished?

People are attracted to extreme arguments, on the grounds that they are interesting and (at least as our media works) “newsworthy.” What portion of those who buy Coulter’s books actually agree with her? I’d say a fairly small portion. That said, there are atheists in the United States, to be sure, and they probably buy more books than your average fundamentalist. But to see some rising tide here of unbelief just isn’t right. It’s more plainly a backlash against the focus on “values” (and religion) following the 2004 election."

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