From the 2004 publication of The End of Faith by Sam Harris, through last year's book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, right down to today, we're seeing a host of books tackling both sides of the God question. Latest and perhaps most snarky (or so I hear) is the attack on religion by Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything. In the Books section of this week's New Yorker Anthony Gottleib has written an article, Atheists with Attitude, about these recent books -- but even more about the history of atheism and its most notable proponents.
Why all these books right now? Gottlieb writes:
The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion. Two populist preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, called it divine punishment (though both quickly withdrew their remarks), and not only the bereaved prayed for help. But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.One of the most interesting aspects of Gottlieb's article is what he says about historical disasters and their influence on thinkers of those times. One of its considerably less successful aspects, it seems to me, is the way he jumps back and forth between rejection of belief in God - atheism - and rejection of religious institutions. It's an expression of a genuinely thorny theological problem when someone cannot believe in God because he or she has difficulty accepting both belief in God, and the presence of random and undeserved suffering in the world. But making the same decision because human beings do - and have always done - terrible things in the name of their religions is not, I would suggest, the same thing at all.
Perhaps someone reading here might summarize the recent discussion about atheism that took place during the recent "Faith and Reason" course at the Centre for Lay Education at the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. I wonder, also, how readers feel about this whole question of atheism in recent popular books and articles. Does it concern you? Do you feel personally involved when someone attacks "belief"? In your life, have you felt that people made assumptions about you because of your faith? Have you ever tried to defend your faith to an avowed atheist - or have you (as I have!) ever called yourself an atheist?