Read This Book at Your Own Risk

Read This Book at Your Own Risk July 12, 2013

Our biases tend to show in everything we write, and that’s probably okay. Whether journalist, reviewer, or academic, none of us/them could write truthfully if we tried too hard to “balance” points of view when our own view is very strong in one direction. It’s the purposely hidden biases we ought to worry about.

I’ve chosen as my first review on this site a book that I’m not especially urging you to read. Here’s why.

There Is No God: Atheists in America (Rowan & Littlefield, May 2013), is by David A. Williamson and George Yancey, associate professor and professor of sociology (respectively), at the University of North Texas. The book is based on studies conducted with self-identified atheists, ostensibly to determine why, when atheists are such a relatively small minority, they have such social and political influence.

That alone should have tipped me off, but I kept reading in order to determine how biased these authors actually were. I noticed that they teach in Texas, but my initial thought was that they’re among the limited number of non-believers in that state, perhaps freethinkers going against the tide.

But the tide is certainly not quite as described by Williamson and Yancey. Do atheists have an outsized political influence when compared to their numbers in this country? Consider how few atheists have reached national political office, and consider how likely it is that an atheist would be elected President. Studies have pretty much always said no, though Gallup polls lately have found that about half of Americans might now vote for one.

The book also discusses the polarization of the religious (especially Christian Right) and non-religious secular populations. True enough. Opposing world-views don’t make great bedfellows.

And then they wrote this: “The religious landscape in contemporary America is very, very complex, and finding atheists, who make up a very small percentage of the population, is difficult at best…”  What?!  Maybe atheists in their region are scarce, but that claim is disingenuous at best.

Williamson and Yancey discussed their theory that contact with other atheists via literature turns people into atheists. If it’s that easy to sway people away from irrational beliefs, then perhaps we need to get that “literature” into more hands.

To me, it felt odd to be examined, as an atheist, under a somewhat cloudy microscope by these academic authors. They did take pains to appear neutral in this 160-page volume. They listed questions that couldn’t be answered in their limited research, such as whether self-identified atheists differ in belief from those non-religious persons who do not claim the label. They also did an online survey on attitudes toward the Christian Right, as well as conducting in-person interviews, information detailed at the end of the book.

Perhaps my lack of deep familiarity with sociological writing makes this book seem less comprehensive than it might be, but it’s written as though by academics studying alien insects, trying to understand if not quite sympathize. Their efforts seemed focused on trying to pin down when and exactly how their interviewees turned atheist. They write that atheists are fine with there being no “mystery.”  They see more atheists coming out, and they particularly make note of their concern with those who would prefer to get rid of all religion.

Wrote the reviewer at Booklist: “The authors’ dispassionate and helpful analysis of extreme atheism also demonstrates that compassion and compromise come from the center.” Again I must say, “What?!” So-called “extreme atheists” never try to control other people’s bodies, never try to prevent anyone from going to church or believing whatever they like. A secular society is something about which there should never be compromise.

  • Yancey is a Patheos blogger and talks about the book here.
  • Friendly Atheist mentioned the book in this post.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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