JR'S Free Thought Pages
June 11, 2007
To the annoyance of many, the alarm of some, and the satisfaction of others, the half dozen books recently published that powerfully set out the case against religion and religious beliefs - books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Michel Onfray - have all sold in large numbers. At time of writing Christopher Hitchens' excellent and comprehensive dismantling of religious pretensions is at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Among the reasons for the large sales of these books is doubtless the desire by believers to see what the opposition is saying; but the main reason is the hunger that the undecided and the hitherto misinformed have for a clear statement, no punches pulled, of the indictment against religion.
The appearance of these books shows that the immunity of religion to forthright questioning and challenge is over, and with it its claim to automatic respect, privilege, sensitive handling and a place at the high table of politics and public life. Remember what happened to the dictators of eastern Europe in 1989: they turned out to be cardboard figures, who suddenly turned soggy and collapsed into nothing at the first dose of real opposition. A 1989 is in process of happening to religion. The hard truths spoken about it in these books and the public debate surrounding them are as genies freed from the bottle: they cannot be put back.
Half a dozen anti-religious books; what is amazing is how little, if anything, is said about the many thousands of pro-religious books published every year all round the world. The magazine Publishers Weekly reported earlier this year that the member publishing houses of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association between them produced 13,400 new titles in the two years 2005-6 alone. This is just one segment of the religious publishing industry in just one wing of one of the world religions; the mind boggles at the extent of forests being felled for purveyance of religious doctrine, opinion, exhortation and polemic in every shade, nuance and type.
A trawl along the shelves of any major bookstore is enough to reveal the vast output of every conceivable specimen of religious view, though admittedly much of it consists of saccharine would-be uplift merely. There they are in their dozens and score and hundreds, where is the outrage, the condemnation, the complaining about this? Non-religious people simply ignore such books; they may feel contempt for them, but most grant the right of others to publish almost any kind of book (almost: there are obvious exceptions, though very few), and merely exercise their (hard-won, by our ancestors) right to ignore them.
Yet a mere half dozen anti-religious tomes have stirred up all the hornets in their nests, have offended and outraged the devout, and between them have exposed religious claims and beliefs for what they are. To me this suggests a profound insecurity among the religious. It is obvious why. They are not used to being under pressure somewhat after the fashion of a Honecker, a Ceaucesceu, a Wizard of Oz - this latter, remember, unmasked behind his screen, a knock-kneed pigeon-chested frightened little chap in his underpants, furiously pulling the levers and knobs to keep himself hidden. In the chorus of outrage at the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and others, one hears the furious squeaking of just such levers.
Perhaps that squeaking is the opening chord of a music of hope for a world too long oppressed by the superstitions of its infancy, too long forced to live whole litanies of lies, too wounded and wearied by the violence and hatred that they have loaded upon it. If so, it would be a sweet music indeed.
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
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