Monday, October 15, 2007

An Atheist Fascination with the Bible

Today in Salon, Steve Paulson interviewed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. The couple shared their thoughts on language and realism and finally outed themselves as atheist. Paulson followed-up their admission with a question similar to the one that Freakonomics author Steven Levitt asked a month ago. You can find the Bible Bending Watchdog's answer to why Bible-bashers are bestsellers here.

I find it puzzling how the recent atheist manifestos by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have all turned into bestsellers in a country that's overwhelmingly religious. According to various polls, half of all Americans believe the Bible is the literal truth. A recent Newsweek poll found that 91 percent believe in God. How do you explain the enormous popularity of these books?

PINKER: Part of it is that the people who buy books -- at least that kind of highbrow trade book -- are not a random sample of the population. The opinions sampled by these polls are probably soft. When people are asked a question, they don't just turn
a flashlight into their data bank of beliefs and read out what they see. When people say, "Yes, I believe in God and the Bible," they're kind of saying, "I'm a moral person. I have solidarity with the community of churchgoers that I was brought up in and that I currently belong to." I think that if you were to probe a lot of people's religious opinions, they would not be as religious as the numbers would suggest.

GOLDSTEIN: It would be fascinating, though, to see a poll of the people who are buying the new atheist books and see how they are answering these questions.

PINKER: Well, the question often arises whether these authors are preaching to the choir. Especially since these books make no concessions toward religious sensibilities. It's a full-throated intellectual assault on the concept of God. My sense is that the books are really not aimed at the 91 percent of the people you cited who believe in God, but rather at some minority of people who are wavering, who've been brought up in a religious way but now have some private doubts. They perhaps think that confessing to being an atheist is like confessing to being a child molester. So they're not willing to even think those thoughts. Then they come across a book that seems to vindicate all of their doubts. And that tortured minority of reflective, analytic people
from a religious background -- perhaps like Rebecca from her religious background -- are who the books are aimed at. Julia Sweeney's one-woman show, "Letting Go of God," would be representative of the kind of person whose mind could be changed by a book like that.

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