Less than a decade ago, an unknown graduate student named Sam Harris stormed the bestseller lists with The End of Faith (W.W. Norton, 2004), a tirade against religion. That was soon followed by The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam, 2006), Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (Penguin, 2006), and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2007). Together, they became known as “The New Atheists” and while some readers found them strident, aggressive, and relentlessly anti-religion, others welcomed their books as well-reasoned arguments whose time had come. Publishers, meanwhile, universally found them hot sellers and magnets for major media coverage and awards.
Today books by and about nonbelievers--atheists, humanists, “brights” and other “freethinkers”—have taken a new turn. Books on the topic have matured, growing beyond the angry disdain of the New Atheists to include more moderate voices. Last year brought titles that still call for the end of faith--like Atheism and the Case Against Christ by Matthew S. McCormick (Prometheus)--but there were also titles that sought to build bridges between nonbelievers and the religious, including How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau (Houghton Mifflin) and Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton (Pantheon), a PW 2012 Best Book.
Unbelievers and Unashamed
What’s changed? For one thing, in part due to the books of the New Atheists, nonbelief has become less stigmatized. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the number of “nones”--Americans who say they have no religion--is one in five, an all-time high. While only a small portion of those--six percent, or 13 million people--identify as atheists or agnostics, that’s up two percent in five years, according to the study. But many more “nones”--68 percent--say that while they do not identify with any religion, they believe in some form of universal spirit, and 20 percent said they pray. (PW covered books on the topic in “Losing Their Religion,” Jan. 18.)
Still, nonbelief, however it is defined, is moving into the mainstream. There is at least one nonbelieving member of Congress (Kyrsten Sinema, D- Ariz.); the Secular Coalition for America has a full-time Washington lobbyist; and there are atheist characters on network television (Big Bang Theory, Malibu Country). And in January, Prometheus Books, a stalwart of the category based in Amherst, N.Y., announced it had reached a groundbreaking distribution deal with Random House. On announcing the deal, Prometheus V-P of Marketing Jill Maxick told The Buffalo News, “The fact they sought us out is an endorsement for what we have to offer the reading marketplace.”
At the same time, there’s been some backlash against the stridency of the New Atheists, and not only from the religious authors who wrote books responding to the New Atheists’ core tenet that religion is “evil.” Many new titles on atheism and nonbelief take a more middle way. “There’s been a recognition that the New Atheists had an aggressiveness that was off-putting to a lot of people,” says Kathleen Mulhern, managing editor at Patheos Press, which last year published The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive by Hemant Mehta, its second title on atheism in two years. “But that aggressiveness seems to be moving into a more subtle confidence,” Mulhern says. “There just seems to be more of a comfort level with talking about atheism than there was earlier.”
One thing has not changed. Just as the New Atheists were all white, male, and, with the exception of Harris, middle-aged, the current crop of authors is mostly white and almost exclusively male. But some younger voices are getting into the mix--another reflection of Pew’s findings, which showed that Americans under 30 compose the lion’s share of those with no religious affiliation.
Seeking to Partner
The changes in books on the topic are on full display at Beacon Press with Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman, published last November. Stedman, who is 25, dubs the New Atheists destructive and calls on his fellow nonbelievers to work with the religious to improve society. Amy Caldwell, Beacon’s executive editor, says Faitheist is a response to the disparagement of religion. “Chris knows that if you want to work for the common good you need to work with folks who are religious and to respect their beliefs,” Caldwell says. “I think there are a lot of people who feel that way, and this new crop of books on atheism speaks to those folks.”
The book has done well for Beacon, Caldwell says, and is growing in strength as Stedman, a prolific blogger, writes guest posts for CNN.com and other outlets. Caldwell says Beacon, a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association, will seek more titles for “nones.” “I do think there’s a shift, and we’ll be publishing for it.” Disinformation Books is already publishing to that group with Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions by Daniele Bolelli (April).
Last year, Palgrave MacMillan published Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose, which echoed New Atheism in its condemnation of the Religious Right. In May, the house will publish God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by Galen Guengerich. Guengerich, pastor of New York City’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church, describes much of religion as myth, but writes there also is much within religion--rituals, traditions, community--worth preserving. Palgrave’s Karen Wolny, editorial director of trade books, says the book fills a void left by the New Atheists. “I think people are looking for a third solution” in the choice between religion and atheism, she says. “You no longer have to say it is all or nothing. Nonbelief can be soulful and mindful. I think that is what people are looking for--they are looking to connect.”
Veterans and Upstarts
Prometheus Books has published in the category since its founding in 1969. This spring, Prometheus’ list includes five atheism titles, among them God and the Atom by Victor J. Stenger (April), 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison (Mar.), and The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True by John W. Loftus (Mar.). Maxick credits the New Atheists with bringing what was a niche topic to a broader audience. However, since then, she says, “we haven’t seen the trend as impactful. The wave tapered off to a more traditional level of sales.” The lasting effect, she continues, is “beyond sell-through” to “the new perception of atheism as a more ‘valid’ category of books.”
While Prometheus Books is the grandfather of publishing atheism books, there are two upstarts, another indication of the category’s strength. The newest is Freethought House, founded in 2011 and debuting last August with Atheist Voices of Minnesota edited by the press’s publisher, Bill Lehto. He says the house plans to publish up to four atheism titles a year, the next being Deliverance at Hand! by James Zimmerman (2013), a memoir by the former Jehovah’s Witness. Da Capo Press has another out-of-religion memoir with Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism by Jerry DeWitt with Ethan Brown (June). Lehto says among the reasons he founded Freethought Press was to promote more moderate voices. “I think there is this view of atheists that they are all militants who want to destroy religion, and I wanted there to be a book out there that isn’t a diatribe against religion, but just personal stories.”
Another newcomer is Pitchstone Publishing, based in Charlottesville, Va., which started with a single title, Psycho Bible by Armando R. Favazza (2004). Publisher and Editor Kurt Volkan will release up to six books this year and has eight more under contract, seven of them on atheism. “We are growing in part because of the atheist and secular humanist market and the demand for those books,” Volkan says. Recent from them is Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things that Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina (2012), and forthcoming are What You Don’t Know About Religion and Should by Ryan Cragun (April) and The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women are Walking Out on Religion--and Others Should Too by Candace Gorham (Sept.). Volkan says Pitchstone is seeking out atheist and humanist titles focused on specific ethnic or gender groups--currently a rarity in the category.
Widening the Scope
Another sign of the category’s strength is its scope. There are recent and forthcoming atheism titles from large academic houses, including The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby (Yale University Press, Jan.), There is No God: Atheists in America by David A. Williamson and George Yancey (Rowman & Littlefield, April), and The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong by Peter Steinberger (Columbia University Press, June). From large general trade houses come books such as The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (W.W. Norton, Mar.) and The Happy Atheist by P.Z. Myers (Pantheon, Aug.); books from small, independent houses include Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist by David G. McAfee (Dangerous Little Books, 2012). Christian houses--which published a string of responses to the New Atheists--are represented with InterVarsity Press’s God and Morality: Four Views edited by R. Keith Loftin (2012); Baker Books is publishing God or Godless? One Atheist, One Christian, 20 Controversial Questions (April). Even the For Dummies line is getting into the act, with Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan (Mar.).
But popularity and range is no indication of staying power--remember all those titles about angels among us? That’s why Palgrave’s Wolny is cautious. “I think we are going to play it by ear,” she says when asked about future titles. “But it is a category I find very interesting. There are clearly grumblings going on out there, as you can see from other people publishing in the same area.” Pitchstone’s Volkan says he expects more titles that originate with bloggers and are first self-published, as was Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry?. “From what I see, our principal competition isn’t necessarily big publishers, it is the vehicles available for people to self-publish.” Freethought House’s Bill Lehto sees new horizons as nonbelief loses its stigma. “There will be a growing community of people who are openly secular,” he says. “So I think there is a growing market for what that means culturally and topically.”