The faith picture of America is changing as more people each year reject traditional religious affiliations, spiritual ties -- or both. And publishers have taken note. Some are courting the secular community, including one publishing house focused almost entirely on the unbeliever set. Meanwhile, Christian publishers are addressing the shift by bringing forward more apologetic books aimed to counter the rising tide of secularism directly.
According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, 27% of U.S. adults call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” up eight percentage points in five years. Meanwhile, the number of “nones” – people who say they’re neither spiritual nor religious – is up to 18 % from about 10% in 2012. A study by Barna Research Group in January finds that among today’s teens, 13% call themselves “atheist,” compared to 6% of adults.
This growing group is the prime audience for Pitchstone Publishing. Founder Kurt Volkan says, “While I knew the major houses would continue to publish bestsellers by well-known atheist authors, I also knew that left a lot of room for deserving titles by those writers, thinkers, and activists whose work might not pop up as clearly on the radar of the bigger publishers. By focusing almost exclusively on those types of secular titles, we've managed to carve out a specialized niche for ourselves.
Pitchstone published about a dozen books last year, essentially all for a secular audience and has another six coming out this spring/summer, Volkan says. They also “have more than a dozen additional projects under contract that are in various stages of development.” Upcoming titles include The Trouble with God: A Divine Comedy about Judgment and Misjudgment(May) by Chris Matheson, The Earthbound Parent: How (and Why) to Raise Your Little Angels Without Religion (May) by Richard A. Conn Jr., and Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith and for Freedom (June) by Karen L. Garst.
Pitchstone’s titles are not alone on the unbeliever’s bookshelf. With The Secular Saints: And Why Morals Are Not Just Subjective(Axios, March), author Hunter Lewis explores secular morality throughout history, including several non-religious thinkers such as Epicurus, David Hume, Jane Addams, and Edna Lewis. The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion by Bradley B. Onishi (Columbia, April), takes an academic look at secularism as it attempts to weave the philosophy of religion with the study of religion.
On the other side of the religious divide, Ryan Pazdur, associate publisher and executive editor of Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, spins the demographic shift differently.
Pazdur says, “Much has been made of the decline in religious affiliation and the rise of the ‘nones’ in recent years. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the decline in religious affiliation equates to a rise in secularism. What we are likely seeing is a shift toward a more individualized, personal expression of religious faith away from more institutional and historic affiliations.”
Pazdur sees an opportunity for authors to battle back against “a growing skepticism about the claims of the Bible as an authoritative and relevant book for life today.” In March, Zondervan is offering Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable to counter disbelief. Author, Sam Chan presents advice on rethinking how evangelicals can engage with modernity.
Some Christian authors tackle secularism more forcefully. Anthony DeStefano, author of Inside the Atheist Mind: Unmasking the Religion of Those Who Say There Is No God (Thomas Nelson, March), has written a warning to “militant atheists” who pick up his book, “don’t expect the sort of kind and gentle approach you’ve experienced when dealing with believers. There won’t be any coddling, respect for your views, friendly debate, dialogue, or turning the other cheek. Not in this book.”
DeStefano writes that, “Atheists believe in nothing, so they have no hope. This makes them nihilistic and negative, and therefore fundamentally unhappy. And like all negative and unhappy people, they want everyone else to be as unhappy as they are.”
Apologetics, intended to arm the faithful in the battle with unbelief, are strong sellers. Hannah Phillips, an assistant editor at FaithWords, says the hardcover edition of Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ, one of FaithWords bestselling titles in 2017, was released in paperback last month and continues to do well.
“This book addresses the rise of secularism and critiques various “isms”—atheism, pluralism, hedonism, relativism, etc. The authors argue that these ‘secular gods’ fail to satisfy the universal human longing to love and be loved, and that true meaning is only found in a personal relationship with Christ,” Phillips says.
Next January, HarperOne will bring out Amy-Jill Levine’s effort to market Christianity to unbelievers with Jesus for Atheists: Why He Still Matters in Our Secular World.
Christianity isn’t the only religion affected by shifting demographics, however. Author Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, from Yale University Press this month, “suggests that religious traditions may need to be reformed or reimagined for the world we live in today. He also shows how one such tradition, Buddhism, remains relevant in a secularizing society,” according to Jennifer Banks, executive editor at Yale University Press.
“The hardcover edition sold quite well for us, with multiple reprints in both the U.S. and the U.K. Additionally, the hardcover was included in a number of best books of 2017 lists, including those at Tricycle magazine and Library Journal.” The trade paperback was released on February 6.