Fleas on the Horizon: In Defense of God
By PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
Added: Mon, 03 Mar 2008 00:00:00 UTC
In Defense of God
Atheist bestsellers have spurred on protectors of the faith
by Lori Smith -- Publishers Weekly, 3/3/2008
In the current cultural argument over God and faith, one thing is beyond doubt: as long as there are atheist bestsellers, there will be response books, and lots of them. The string of popular titles by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett has spawned a batch of response books across the faith spectrum.
While previous titles (Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion, InterVarsity, 2007) have responded to particular books, or, as in the case of Antony Flew (There Is a God, HarperOne, 2007), charted one person's spiritual journey, now authors are beginning to respond to the "new atheists" as a group or movement.
Philip Law, academic editor and U.K./E.U. publishing director for Westminster John Knox, sought out John Haught, professor of science and religion at Georgetown University, to write God and the New Atheism, published in December. "As far as I know," Law says, "there have not been any credible responses to all of these 'new atheists.'"
Part of this trend is a resurgence in titles defending the Christian faith—known in the category as apologetics—coming from both evangelical and other Christian publishers.
This year Ravi Zacharias, a well known apologist, offers The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (Zondervan, May), addressing atheist arguments in a succinct 144 pages. Readers looking for more depth can turn to Zacharias's Beyond Opinion (Thomas Nelson, Jan.), which brought together members of his international team of apologists for what PW's review called "a relatively concise treatment of major apologetic themes."
Chuck Colson's new book, The Faith (Zondervan, Mar.), while not a direct response to atheist books, in some way grew out of the larger discussion about what Christianity is and why it matters. "It directly and indirectly answers the atheists, but it's bigger than just an immediate response," says Dudley Delffs, v-p and publisher of trade books for Zondervan. "It makes a direct and winsome case for the Christian faith, and we think it has the potential to endure as a contemporary classic."
Pastor Timothy Keller, whose Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan draws 5,000 people every week, spent years crafting his first book, The Reason for God (Dutton, Feb.)—in many ways a traditional apologetics book, but one that embraces doubt as a means of arriving at faith. David C. Cook plans to re-release Greg Boyd's bestselling Letters from a Skeptic in June; the title has sold over 250,000 copies since its initial publication in 1993.
But the breadth and intensity of the debate has created opportunities for varying approaches. The atheists write with what Matt Baugher, v-p and publisher for spiritual growth and Christian thought at Thomas Nelson, calls "venom," stridently stating that religious belief is delusional and dangerous and the world would be better off without it. Becky Garrison (InProfile, this issue), senior contributing editor for the smart Christian humor magazine the Wittenburg Door, offers a snarky, satiric response in The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail (Thomas Nelson, Jan.). Baugher said orders from mainstream retailers for Garrison's book have been double what they expected.
Blogger and political columnist Vox Day comes at the issues from a nontheological perspective in The Irrational Atheist (BenBella, Feb.), relying on factual evidence to counter atheist claims that religion causes war, that religious people are more apt to commit crime and that the Bible and other sacred texts are unreliable and fictitious. Journalist David Aikman examines atheism as a threat to American freedom in The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness (Tyndale, Apr.).
Tina Beattie, v-p of the Catholic Theological Society of Great Britain, takes a broader approach in The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (Orbis, Apr.), looking at the centuries-old conflict between science and faith and approaching religion with an appreciation for the "the realm of symbol, imagination, and creativity." Inclusive publisher O Books offers God Without God: Western Spirituality Without the Wrathful King (June) by former Church of England priest Michael Hampson, arguing that "the God the atheist denies is not the God that people of true faith affirm," according to the book's description.
All of these books aim to move the discussion in a less vitriolic direction, and none more so than Zondervan's A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian (Feb.). The book charts conversations between evangelist Luis Palau and Chinese diplomat Zhao Qizheng and was a bestseller in China before Zondervan picked it up.
The Varieties of Atheism
But the atheist bestsellers are prompting responses from less conservative writers as well, criticizing their approach and reminding readers that atheists can be spiritual, too. André Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (Viking, Dec., 2007) argues that spirituality doesn't have to be tied to religion. PW's review said, "French philosopher Comte-Sponville makes a compelling argument for a profound dimension of experience that is god-free." Austin Dacey further explores this idea of "secular morality" in his The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (Prometheus, Mar.), asserting that ethics can be based on reason rather than faith and calling "secular liberals to... defend their own moral vision in society."
Chris Hedges, a war correspondent and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, believes that evolution alone can't make us good—we need to believe in something. In I Don't Believe in Atheists (Free Press, Mar.), Hedges equates the new atheists to the fundamentalist believers they critique and suggests that they're just as dangerous. Dominick Anfuso, v-p and editorial director, says, "Hedges attacks the atheists as being as dogmatic, if not more so, than what they're criticizing. Based on his experience as a war correspondent, he takes on their worldview, the idea that we are capable of spiritual improvement. Hedges says we're clearly not progressing morally as a species."
Nick Harding's How to Be a Good Atheist (Oldcastle Books, Apr.) explains the five types of atheism and the difference between an atheist and an agnostic, and is being pitched to readers tired of hearing that "anyone devoid of faith is evil, immoral, and responsible for societal ills."
Then there are tangentially related books whose marketing campaigns are tying them to the "new atheist" discussions. Former New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr's Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking, July) looks at the history of religious freedom in America and focuses on the need for better communication and cooperation. Viking describes the book as "a bracing rejoinder both to religious fanaticism and to books decrying religion." HarperOne is releasing a revised edition of When Religion Becomes Evil (Feb.) by Mideast politics expert Charles Kimball. PW said, "Kimball's clear and steady voice provides a helpful guide for those trying to understand why evil is perpetrated in the name of religion."
Sometimes publishers find themselves on both sides of the debate. Hachette published Hitchens's God Is Not Great through its Twelve imprint, which led FaithWords, another Hachette house, to want to respond. Publisher Rolf Zettersten looked to Catholic priest Thomas Williams for Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God (June), which provides brief two-and three-page answers to a series of questions. Says editor Holly Halverson, "We wanted more of a handbook that wouldn't scare people off."
And HarperOne, which publishes Bart Ehrman—whose bestselling Misquoting Jesus led to Nicholas Perrin's Lost in Transmission (Thomas Nelson, Jan.)—will release the first Jewish contribution to the debate in September with Rabbi David Wolpe's Why Faith Matters, a personal account of his own faith struggle along with a response to the new atheism. Publisher Mark Tauber says this is part of HarperOne's purpose: "We have always tried to publish books that fuel the conversation. It is essential that our publishing program continue to put out books by authors on all sides who offer intelligent and compelling approaches to the many divisive and defining issues of the time."
Publishers generally agree that apologetics publishing will persist, but the trend of huge sales in the category may be dying. Zondervan's Delffs believes "the market is always open to authentic, well-written apologetics titles." Baugher says, "Apologetics will always be around, but there will be more titles and higher sales as long as contrary titles continue to sell well." HarperOne's Tauber doesn't think there are "many more huge books left in the category." Says Anfuso at Free Press, "You have to examine these books much closer now, sales-wise, because there are so many. It's a topic that will continue, but it can't sustain these huge sales. It's not going to become perennial, like diet books." BenBella publisher Glenn Yeffeth believes that as the political climate changes, particularly if a more liberal presidential candidate is elected, the chorus will die down.
For now, expect more. In August, Jossey-Bass publishes social psychologist David Myers's Letter to a Secular Culture, described as "a well-reasoned case for the many benefits of faith." In September InterVarsity Press has Amy Orr-Ewing's Is Believing in God Irrational? And Bart Ehrman's March title from HarperOne—God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer—will no doubt add to the fervor.
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