10 February 2008

Spying Mr. Hitchens in the religion aisle

A recent trip to a local Borders Books in Manhattan came to a jarring end when I discovered Christopher Hitchens’ anthology, The Portable Atheist. It was in fact the title I had come to find. What jolted me was where I had come to find it: in the religion aisle. There at the end of the aisle were a couple of shelves marked by a protruding shingle reading “Atheism.” What was Hitchens doing here? Isn’t atheism a religion, as the saying goes, like not collecting stamps is a hobby?

Last year I saw Hitchens on panel discussion at BookExpo
America, a trade show for publishers in the giant Javits Center. The name of the session was “Atheism: A New Subcategory of Religion.” I took these for terms of art of the publishing industry, which divides the world up into various domains according to how those domains would be marketed to different target audiences. Presumably the idea was that people buy books about religion, and atheist books are about religion (specifically, how we’re better off without it). It seems that what began as booksellers’ shoptalk had become bookshop layout.

At the BookExpo, Hitchens appeared perfectly comfortable with the designation of his newfound genre. Standing up to the microphone, he began his talk, “If one cannot be erect, at least one can be upright.” And why shouldn’t God is Not Great do well by the religion market? I would venture that this literary intellectual is more comfortable there than in the Science section, where the entire New Atheist crew is stationed at the Barnes & Noble at
Lincoln Center.

The Secular Conscience is not an atheist book (whatever that means), and I hope it won't end up in that section, esteemed though the company would be. Still, I've been wondering what the new categories imply about the ordering of our thinking.

As an editor with the secularist magazine Free Inquiry, I reserve a special subcategory in my heart for the Borders chain. When in 2006 Free Inquiry became the only magazine of note in America to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Borders refused to carry the issue, resulting in headlines around the world for us. A common criticism then, as today, is that critics of religion offer nothing of their own; they only tear down. Atheism does nothing to expand knowledge or enlarge the human spirit. It is pure anti-ism. Atheism, in a word, is just negative.

The more I hear this charge, the less I get it. Of course atheism is merely negative, if you classify it as a subcategory of religion. But that is precisely not the point.

Undeniably, atheism is what logicians call a negation: it is not the case that there exists a perfect being which created and sustains the universe. But logical form alone is not enough to tell us whether a claim is merely critical in any pejorative sense. Con
sider: It is not the case that you have anything to fear. Atheist assertions take place within the context of a larger cultural conversation. Whether a contribution to a conversation is merely negative depends on what the conversation is about.

Suppose you and I are building a house, and I voice a concern about whether the foundation will be stable without some solid bedrock beneath. You know that with enough of the right kind of clay for the foundation to settle onto, we don’t need bedrock, and so you reject my concern. In doing so, you are not being merely critical. You are making a criticism, but with the broader purpose of furthering a project that is itself constructive: building a house. Furthermore, your contribution is not an attack but a defense, a rebuttal of my skepticism about a part of that project.

Most of the great pre-Socratic thinkers of ancient
Greece, such as Democritus, had no room for supernatural beings in their theories of reality. The atheism of the ancients was a part of a broad, constructive, naturalistic inquiry into the structure of the cosmos. Over the following centuries, as Greek philosophy was synthesized with Judeo-Christian theology, the naturalistic tradition was to be swallowed up by theology, of which it became a subcategory. Since the whole point of theology is to articulate and vindicate faith, this subcategory of naturalism was merely critical, and its only purpose was, as the American philosopher Quentin Smith puts it, “stimulating further development of the argumentative defense of theism.”

Today we can ask, what is the context of the current conversation about atheism? What is its broader purpose? In post-Enlightenment, post-Darwinian civilization, the dominant outlook is the naturalistic worldview, in which the universe is understood as a system of natural processes unperturbed by occult or spiritual forces. The world doesn’t get to cheat and bring things about by magic, but always by some causal mechanism. This is the outlook presupposed by all of the biology, psychology, and history with which we understand ourselves and our place in nature, as well as the physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering by which we have transformed ourselves and our places. The open-ended investigations of the empirical sciences—in which people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are engaged—are gradually filling in an ever-more coherent and complete naturalistic world-picture.

Against the backdrop of this naturalistic conversation, it is the supernatural theists who are the naysayers—evolution can’t account for living things, physics doesn’t explain where the universe came from, morality is impossible without transcendent enforcement, and all the rest. It is the believers who are the skeptics, doubters of the foundations of modernity, and the atheists who are shoring up the construction project.

So when atheists today are accused of being negative, they can respond: that depends on what you are talking about. One day, if Dawkins and Hitchens are running the store, you might well find the religion books in the philosophy or literature section, instead of the other way around.


K. Banana said...

I have a special place in my heart for Border's as well. I think it was when the one in Greeley cut the science section and dramatically expanded their religion section. Walk a few blocks. Go to B&N (and reshelve the creationist books to the religion sections surreptitiously!).

Great book, The Portable Atheist.

Speaking of books, Appiah just came out with one on the science of morality informing ethics.

The analogy to the building reminded me of the church collapse scene in the first Ten Commandments movie. Ironic.

Amanda said...

This happened in the bookstore where I used to work, as well. For as long as I worked there the books on atheism were in the philosophy section - but when I went back there in December 2007 to help out for Christmas, I found that they had been moved to the Comparative religions section. Interestingly, they left Lingquistics in the Philosophy section...but I think there were two reasons for moving the books on atheism from philosophy to Comparative religion... one reason is that they probably sell better from the religion section. (If you ever get the opportunity, sit in a bookstore where you can see the philosophy section, and see how many people stop by to browse it. NOT MANY. That section can go hours or even days without attention.)
The other reason for making the move might have been simple practicality - with the advent of new books on atheism that are on the best seller list and bought by more people (good for us!) the books were moved because there was no longer enough room to hold them in the (admittedly unfortunately) tiny philosophy section.

Just thought I'd add my "bookseller's" perspective...

Eric said...


Cris Waller said...

Ha. What is even worse is that all the books on creationism at Borders are in the science aisle...