Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Critical of the Critics

Imagine this – you’re a big-time newspaper editor, in need of a reviewer for a new Barbecue cookbook.  You choose Fred, a life-long Vegetarian who thinks people who eat meat are the scourge of the earth.  Do you think they’ll be able to do a credible job?  A fair assessment?

Are you nuts?

So explain to me why The Wall Street Journal picked Naomi Schaefer Riley to review Atheist Awakening, a new book by Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith? (Cimino teaches sociology at the University of Richmond and has authored several books about Religion; Smith is an independent researcher).  Sure, WSJ mentions at the end of the “review” that “Ms. Riley is the author of ‘Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back’.”  But they failed to mention that she has written more than just “a book” (five, including another favorable to religion), and lots of articles for the New York Post (same owner as WSJ now) that are pro-religion and anti-atheist, including this one.

Now before I go on to discuss why it’s probably unethical to have a pro-religion critic of an “examination of atheists” book, a couple of full disclosures: 

  • I do not regularly subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but for some reason just received a one-month trial subscription.  Trust me when I say that, politically, economically, and just about any other-cally, I am one of the LAST people to want the Journal.
  • I am, by self-labeling, a Type Two Atheist.  Type One is the Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris anti-religion crowd, atheists who make a point in slamming religion because it is religious.  Type Two folks like me just are not religious, have no need for it, and don’t make it part of our life, culture, etc.  That’s not to say that I can’t be critical of topics with religious applications, but in general it’s for reasons other than “it’s religious.”  For example, I decry calls to “return America to its religious roots” not because it’s religious, but because it is historically inaccurate (USA was not founded as a Christian nation, so you can’t return to what you never were).

Like the vegan critical of a pulled-pork recipe, Ms. Riley skewers the book.  I think.  It’s hard to tell, really, and that’s the other criticism I have about this review.  Riley’s writing style is such that it’s difficult to determine when she’s reviewing about what is actually in the book versus when she’s just hyperventilating critical of the atheist movement in general.  She writes almost as much about Richard Dawkins as she does Cimino and Smith, and mixes quotes from the book with other argumentative comments to give the impression that this is the opinion of the book authors. 

She offers (so it seems to me) her own views on what is and isn’t an atheist (how convenient) near the end of her review:
Such ideals (atheist ‘churches’ and rituals discussed in previous paragraph of review) may appeal to some of the young adults who have abandoned religion, but the vast majority of the unaffiliated are not atheists as such.  They are simply disaffected and indifferent, and many are uneducated about religious doctrine. They have no biblical literacy and embrace the shallow notion that good behavior is relative and that being ‘judgmental’ is the big problem in life.

In a word, Jesus (as a word of exasperation, not an answer nor a curse).  For most of the atheists I know (including myself), it was because of our education about religious doctrine and the Bible (self-directed, usually; certainly NOT from religious leaders or “scholars” save for folks like UNC Professor Bart D. Ehrman).  The more we learned, the more we pushed against religion.  In my opinion, those that rely more on faith than reason do so because they have lack a certain capacity to reason.  At least, about religion.

I did not link to her review because it’s behind a subscription wall.  But I will link to some other reviews here, here, and here, and provide the last few sentences of a review from Publishers Weekly:
This is a meticulous study that embeds atheist community in a larger context of subcultures, showing identity formation, the assertion of that identity, and the need to be included. The authors excel in demonstrating the inevitably social dimensions of human identity.

I admit that I have not read the book.  In reviewing Riley’s review, I am somewhat doubtful that she did, either (much of what she comments on I read in the free preview from  On Amazon, the book was described thusly: “This groundbreaking study will be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the growing atheist movement in America.”  Riley’s review certainly lacked understanding of either atheism or the book itself.  I suspect that was her true motivation.

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