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In April 2006, Newsweek religion columnist Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote an essay titled “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists.” In it, he pleaded for mercy from the God-denying folks who “seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive.” In response, the Freedom From Religion Foundation published a rejoinder accusing him of launching a baseless attack. The tone somewhat proved Gellman’s point, though. “And by the way, why do you beat your wife, Rabbi?” sniffed co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Spats, fights, and outright wars between the faithful and unbelievers have gone on for millennia, but the GellmannGaylor debate reflects an argument that’s been intensively playing out in book form for the past year. The most famous participant in this scrum is Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who in September published The God Delusion, an extended takedown of religion and its autodidact cousin, intelligent design. The book has become impressively persistent, staying on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for eight months. (It’s currently at number 16.) Book publishers smell money just as ably as any other part of the entertainment industry, and Dawkins’ success has resulted in stacks of books from the pro- and anti-religion camp. (Some are blatantly opportunistic: The Dawkins Delusion?, for instance, arrives in July.) The “angry atheist” debate won’t be resolved anytime soon while megachurches and talk-show hosts are both around to give authors open mics—we’re certainly not inclined to offer a solution. But here are a few snapshots of the fight.—Mark Athitakis
For the Love of God
Life After Death: The Burden of Proof
Harmony Books, 304 pp., $24
CHAPTER AND VERSE: New Age guru Chopra gently dismisses conventional ideas about heaven and hell as too cut-and-dried, describing the former as a place where “souls lounge around in a blessed state that sounds, frankly, like eternal assisted living.” Instead, Chopra explains that “the afterlife brings the opportunity for a creative leap,” mainly through a mysterious force he identifies as the Akashic Field, or Akasha. Defined loosely as “the field of consciousness,” the Akasha allows for a veritable choose-your-own adventure in afterliving where individuals imagine their own eternal reward. Proof of the Akasha’s existence, however, is not in great supply.
I’M FEELING LUCKY: Chopra marvels at the capabilities of the human mind, comparing it to a beloved search engine. “Not only can the mind Google itself for information with incredible swiftness, it performs multiple operations with backup plans if they fail.”
SAY WHAT? Chopra loosely co-opts some ideas from quantum physics in order to explain how individuals can project angels into reality but winds up with a mouthful that only Stephen Hawking could decode. “It takes an observer to turn the invisible energy state of an electron into a specific particle located in time and space,” says Chopra. “Before the observer effect takes place there is no electron; only the possibility of one.”
A MOUNTAIN OF EVIDENCE: “There will never be a definitive book on the afterlife,” admits Chopra. However, he hopes the “rising tide of evidence” will someday overtake the doubters. He then lists the key sources he consulted in writing his book, such as Wikipedia and books like Children’s Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child. —Aaron Leitko
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
Ballantine, 304 pp., $24.95
CHAPTER AND VERSE: The granddaughter of Christian missionaries but a child of atheist parents, Miles learned to spend Sundays “sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review.” Take This Bread recounts how, as a 46-year-old lesbian mother with leftist tendencies, she stumbles into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and converts. The driving spiritual force for Miles is the notion of caring for the flock, down to the last black sheep. Her means: groceries. She opens a food pantry at her church, which turns into a hugely popular success, prompting her to help open several more in the city.
NO PAT ROBERTSON, SHE: Miles offers a refreshingly candid account of her struggle to find and maintain faith without dipping into the self-flagellation of St. Augustine or the histrionics of televangelists. “I began to understand why so many people chose to be ‘born again,’ and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all,” she writes.
BREAD AND BUTTER: While working as a journalist in war zones in the ’70s and ’80s, Miles recounts how, “In El Salvador, a priest gave me cookies; in the Philippines, a peasant woman gave me fish.” Food is for sharing, and she invites people from the projects to come get bread, even when St. Gregory’s pantry is already overwhelmed.
COME TO MY WINDOW: It’s hard to say that Miles would have converted to Christianity had she stumbled into, say, a Baptist church in Alabama. But within her own “scandalous” church, being a lesbian and Christian isn’t a contradiction in terms. “I had no idea that I could be pals with anyone who described himself, unabashedly, as both ‘a big fag’ and ‘Jesus’ man,’ ” she writes. For all her candor, though, Miles doesn’t offer much insight into how her thinking transformed. —Kim Rinehimer
Speaking of Faith
Viking, 240 pp., $23.95
CHAPTER AND VERSE: Tippett, host of the public-radio religion program Speaking of Faith, grew up an unbeliever in a Southern Baptist home. In this “chronicle of a change of mind” she details how she came to embrace Christianity, starting with a visit to bleak, godless East Berlin and bolstered by stints at the Yale Divinity School and a remote Minnesota seminary. In 2000 she launches her radio show as a way to discuss religion without the hectoring evangelicals or the people with an ax to grind about nativity scenes in front of public buildings. The show gets more attention and esteem immediately after 9/11, as Tippett explains to listeners that Muslims aren’t doctrinally motivated to blow up Americans.
WORST. SEMESTER. ABROAD. EVER: Tippett’s trip to East Berlin, part of a program at Brown University, was soul-crushingly grim and angst-ridden. She writes in her diary: “I had decided I believe in God because the world makes too much sense. I still believe in him…but no longer that the world makes sense.”
WHAT THE OTHER GUY SAID: As memoirs go, Tippett is stingy with personal information. She prefers to spotlight the thinking of others: Elie Wiesel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Thomas Merton are some of her favorite reference points, and her preferred show guest is a person who walks both secular and sacred paths. Called out for special attention are John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist who later became a theologian and an Anglican priest, and David Hilfiker, a physician who’s worked with D.C.’s poor through Christ House on Columbia Road NW.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME: In the book’s final chapter Tippett briefly confesses to having her own faith tested—she’s gone through a divorce and a bout of depression. Again, she gets to have it both ways, taking comfort in the Book of Psalms while borrowing from Nietzsche’s playbook: “My divorce and my depression…make me a better interviewer and human being, more present to the world and its hardest realities.” —M.A.
The God Delusion
Houghton Mifflin, 416 pp., $27
CHAPTER AND VERSE: Eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins doesn’t like God. Or religious people, or young-earth types, or theologians (especially theologians), or even agnostics (who represent a “deeply inescapable kind of fence-sitting”). The status of atheists in America, he says in the preface, “is on par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago.” Dawkins tries to remedy this imbalance with angry diatribes about all of the above, neglecting to take the route homosexuality took to grudging mainstream acceptance: Injecting funny people into pop culture! Where is the atheistic Paul Lynde? The God-hating Village People? The heathen Jim J. Bullock?
RESEARCH BIOLOGY: Dawkins writes authoritatively on bacterial flagellar motors and masterfully debunks many old-saw defenses of religion. So it’s just plain weird how often he refers to Google searches to back up arguments, or that of all the outrageous quotes he could have credited to Pat Robertson, he picks one that’s untrue (that Robertson attributed Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans being the hometown of Ellen DeGeneres).
WHAT, THE DICTIONARY’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU EITHER? Dawkins recalls signing up with a group that attempts to rebrand atheists as “Brights” because “I was genuinely curious whether such a word could be memetically engineered into the language.” In his preface, he passes on a suggestion from some psychiatrists for a snappier term for religious delusion: “relusion.”
INSULT WE TRUST: The author of The Selfish Gene seems mystified that religious folks sometimes take exception to his work. “I find it genuinely puzzling that a mere difference of theological opinion can generate such venom,” he writes about some of his hate mail. —Andrew Beaujon
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Warner Twelve, 320 pp., $24.99
CHAPTER AND VERSE: From Page 1, Hitchens spares us neither italics nor accounts of how religion kills (from Aztec human sacrifices to the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie), how it’s bad for your health (mullahs in Nigeria who forbade polio vaccinations, the Catholic church outlawing condoms), and how it makes institutionalized child abuse possible. Then he gets nasty, preparing breezy, withering cases against major sacred texts, intelligent design, and Eastern religions. People seeking a third way in spiritualism “may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism,” he writes, but “are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.”
TORAH, TORAH, TORAH: Hitchens has taken some justified heat for including the urban legend that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet as an example of how religion perverts normal sexuality, and the chapters are short enough to suggest that God Is Not Great was written with the speed and cavalierness that characterize British journalism.
A CROWD BEHIND EVERY SILVER LINING: Hitchens’ vast experience with havoc wrought by religion, a product of his long career as a foreign correspondent, often leads to devastating put-downs, such as when a religious broadcaster asked him in a debate whether he’d feel safer in a strange city when approached by a large group of men leaving a prayer meeting. “I was able to answer it as if it were not hypothetical,” he writes. “ ‘Just to stay within the letter ‘B,’ I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad.’ ”
IMMACULATE RECEPTION: The man who joined the Greek Orthodox Church to please his in-laws is happy to talk religion with his friends (as long as they don’t call him a “seeker,” which drives him up the wall). He’ll go to any religious ceremony his buddies throw, too, “without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone.” —A.B.
Nothing: Something to Believe In
Prometheus Books, 272 pp., $17
CHAPTER AND VERSE: In her introduction, Lalli, a confirmed atheist and painter who hates Renaissance art (“too religious”), makes a plea for tolerance, which she calls “our best shot toward either family togetherness or national and global tranquility.” The national and global stuff isn’t really a factor, though: Nothing ultimately devolves into lengthy grousing about Lalli’s sister-in-law, who makes her feel constantly put-upon by doing things like showing up late for appointments, making her visit her “dinky” hometown, and being Christian. Lalli goads her by doing things such as mentioning tarot cards and, presumably, writing this book.
CONFRONTING THE ENEMY: After a brief stint in D.C., Lalli and her husband move to suburban New Hampshire. She’s invited to a gathering of women who plan to bake brownies and watch Sister Act. Defiant, she sucks down four Rolling Rocks while watching Drugstore Cowboy, then swings by, half-tipsy. “I was not asked to join in any more movie nights,” she writes.
SOMEONE’S IN THE KITCHEN WITH APATHY: “I had been thinking about finding a book about religion and had even gone to the bookstore to get one,” she writes. “But once there, I had no idea what to look for and I wasn’t even sure what to ask for, so I bought a cookbook instead.”
THE HAPPY MEDIUM: She’s willing to write a Haggada for a Seder but attempts to excise every mention of God except for the part about Moses (“where it could not be left out”). After 9/11 she concludes that “people are all I really have.” Not among those people: her sister-in-law, who yet again earns Lalli’s exasperation by sending her some Christian literature after the attacks. —M.A.