Atheism is certainly a phenomenon in the book market. I can’t remember when books about godlessness made so much news and sold so well, although of course I wasn’t around when The Great Agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll lectured to huge audiences in the late nineteenth century. Whatever. I’m happy to have the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett making strong intellectual arguments for atheism.
The popularity of these books is sometimes ascribed to a backlash against the forced intrusion of religion into American political life in the regime of George Bush. Whatever the reason, they are also creating the expected counter reaction, some of which reflects the same unease of the faithful at religion’s engagement with power politics.
Dr. Timothy Larsen, professor of theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, says any growth in interest in atheism is a reflection of the strength of religion — the former being a parasite that feeds off the latter.
That happened late in the 19th century America when an era of intense religious conviction gave rise to voices like famed agnostic Robert Ingersoll, he said.
For Christianity, he said, “It’s very important for people of faith to realize how unsettling and threatening their posture and rhetoric and practice can feel to others. So it’s an opportunity for the church to look at itself and say ‘we have done things … That make other people uncomfortable.’ It is an opportunity for dialogue.”
Larsen, author of the soon-to-be-published Crisis of Doubt, added that in some sense atheism is “a disappointment with God and with the church. Some of these are people we wounded that we should be handling pastorally rather than with aggressive knockdown debate.” (Zeenews)
This made me laugh. Atheism is the parasite and religion is the host? Or should I say Host? Well, each to his own. But the intuition that the posture and rhetoric and practice of religion has made non-believers feel threatened is dead on accurate. We’ve not forgotten history and don’t want it to be our destiny to repeat it.
What many theists don’t understand is that many of us don’t define our religious views in terms of religion (not true of all atheists, but a goodly proportion). If there were no religion we wouldn’t have to invent one. For me, God is just not part of the equation. He, She, It, They, Whatever — are not part of my mental furniture, so God is not a presence in my life, as I grant He or It or Whatever is for some other people. My life is full of many ordinary, wonderful and terrible things, but God is not one of them. He or She doesn’t exist for me, in the same way that Yum Kimil, a Maya personification of disaster and darkness, doesn’t exist for me. I know nothing about this Mayan deity, care nothing about him, don’t define myself in relation to him (I am not a Yum Kimil denier), and never even heard of this thing until I randomly found it on a list of mythological gods and goddesses on the internet.
I’m sure to plenty of Mayans he was a presence in their lives. He isn’t in mine and probably isn’t to any currently living person. Is it not possible that in the future the same will be said of the various gods of Jews, Christians and Muslims?