"Atheists Agonistes," by Richard Shweder, NY Times November 27
is what I'd been working on when my wife's blasted civic-mindedness interrupted. The logic had already been demolished by PZ and his commenters; I'd like to take a different tack. Namely, just where th' fuck did these numbers come from?
Books dictated or co-written by God sell quite well among the 2.1 billion self-declared Christians and 1.3 billion self-declared Muslims of the world.
There are 2.1 billion self-declared Christians and 1.3 billion self-declared Muslims? To whom did they declare themselves?
A quibble? Perhaps, but if nothing else it's a sloppy way for an anthropologist to conduct himself, and "self-declared" carries an undeniable weight that the more accurate "claimed by the religion industry" does not.
And then it's one of those quibbles where belatedly asking the question leads us to a hidden lake of unknown depth we were supposed to cross dry-shod. Who is a Christian? If I'm supposed to acknowledge a system of thought strictly on the number of its adherents I think I can reasonably demand something like an accurate accounting first.
Damned if that water hasn't started turning murky. We can be reasonably certain that the Gallup numbers which get trotted out in support of America's Christianity, Sincere Monotheism, Regular Church Attendance and Habit of Tithing are inflated, the latter two, at least, by a factor of 2 or greater. So what about the rest? When Barna looks a little closer, as opposed to relying on "self-description", the argument begins to get a little odd:
• 9% of Americans meet the criteria to be called Evangelical; 14% of Americans do not follow any organized religion. 10% are atheist or agnostic. 10% follow some religion other than Christianity. (So who gets all the press?)
• 36% of Americans qualify as "Born Again" but not Evangelical. 50% of Southern adults do.
• Roughly 40% of adults never attend church.
• The fastest growing religion in the US is Wicca. The biggest trend in Christianity is the shift of aging Boomers toward born-again Christianity.
• 52% of Americans say they believe the Bible is inerrant truth.
• 58% describe themselves as "skeptical".
And this doesn't begin to approach the doctrinal differences which account for eight divisions of Christianity in the world or 2000 Protestant denominations in the USA alone.
If due respect requires atheists to help foot the bill for C.B. Demillesque Ten Commandment momuments aren't they at least permitted to wonder aloud if it'll be the Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish versions? Or if we need all three? Whose version of the Virgin Birth are they supposed to respect? Whose concept of heaven? Shouldn't we at least ask that all Baptists believe the same thing before we ask non-believers to pay homage?
Back in the last century they used to tell us about something called the esoteric/exoteric function of small groups, that is, that they have collections of narratives about themselves (generally positive) and about The Others (usually negative) which serve to increase group coherence. I haven't checked in a while, but I'm guessing it still works that way, and that this:
Instead of waging intellectual battles over the existence of god(s), those of us who live in secular society might profit by being slower to judge others and by trying very hard to understand how it is possible for John Locke and our many atheist friends to continue to gaze at each other in such a state of mutual misunderstanding.
amounts to a call for non-believers to accept the by-laws of those Christian sects which have to scream the loudest to keep their flock intact. Atheism, on the other hand, is not generally a team sport.
Frankly, if you hang around with "ordinary" Americans, as opposed to taking the occasional faculty dinner at the U. of Chicago, you'll discover that a big reason why over half of American Protestants aren't in the Born Again/Evangelical demo is they actively reject religious extremism. The rational, secular, pluralist cabal which so bedevils the religious right isn't atheist; it's mainstream America, outside Dixie.
Addendum: I didn't engage Shweder's argument, which, as I say, was handled quite nicely by PZ's bunch, but I would like to add that as much damage is done the literalist position by books from within the Christian tradition (e.g. Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version) as by anything Richard Dawkins has to say.