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Who are these books aimed at? Siegel on “militant atheists”

Lee Siegel asserts that the recent “flurry of literary attacks on God may be closing the book on imagination”. He writes

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

Mark Hoofnagle at denialism blog effective takes Siegel’s argument apart. In response to Siegel’s quote, Hoofnagle writes:

The basic proposition seems flawed doesn’t it? After all, isn’t religion used, again and again, as a tool to avoid thinking about the difficult questions? … By definition, it exists to preclude original thought. Faith isn’t some wonderful key to the imagination, it’s the lock caging original thought!

While I don’t agree with everything Mark said (I think religion can be a great tool for the imagination, and it doesn’t have to be dogmatic), he pretty effectively rebuts Siegel’s points. But I feel there’s something to add about the audience for Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books. Siegel writes:

Who, exactly, are they aimed at? Who is the ideal reader of these attacks on belief in God? Not Muslim or Christian fundamentalists, obviously, because one of the engines driving religious fundamentalism today is, precisely, a hostility toward modern science. If anyone thinks that Dawkins’ book … is going to persuade today’s religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is “deluded.” It’s hard to imagine anyone abandoning his faith after reading Harris’ condescending polemic, or the science of Dawkins and Dennett, or Hitchens’ vitriol.

To which Hoofnagle replies:

I sincerely doubt that the goal of any of these writers is conversion of people like James Dobson or Ted Haggard, and no one realistically thinks that is the objective of the books. There are such things as people without their minds made up, people on the fence, and those that would like to solidify their arguments and understanding of atheist philosophy.

But I think it’s more than just “people on the fence”.  I suspect that there is a fertile market for things like this among the children of fundamentalists. As James McGrath writes, biblical literalism may be a fast track to atheism:

My strongest reason for opposing these misleading claims about Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that they are a fast track to atheism. Many preachers say one must choose: “Either the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, or it is a load of garbage and should be thrown out”. This sets up anyone who decides to study the Bible seriously and has been told this to either pretend the problems aren’t there, and thus compromise on honesty, or to do what they were told and throw out the Bible. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The church I attend is full of “recovering Baptists”. When a person decides that they have had enough of being lied to, they tend to give up on church. Some will find their way into more liberal churches, but there’s a large mass of people who give up on organised religion entirely. These people, and their counterparts who are conflicted but are still attending church, strike me as a fertile audience for “New Atheism”. Sometimes the difference between a disenchanted fundamentalist and a radicalised fundamentalist is very small. So maybe these books do reach precisely the people that Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. want to reach.


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