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Web Letter

This column seems simply tossed off, and as with all of the recent work of these Big Names, admits no light whatsoever into it. First off, the recent flavor-of-the-month of atheism bestsellers is supposed by the psychic Ms. Pollitt to have been due, in some kind of part--undefined but presumably something like 34.76 percent--to a recently generated fear of Muslims. Okay, then. How about not? How about even if, what does matter, the books are the books, maybe they sold because of industry payola, maybe the third star of Jupiter was in enclave fourteen of Hammurabi--what does such nonsensical sociological musing have to do with reality? I read the books, I even bought some of them. And it damn sure wasn't because of Muslims depicted therein. Atheist books, such as the great Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray, are resolutely ecumenical in their condemnation of religion. Okay?

And as for the next imaginative construction by Ms. Pollitt, that of atheists intending for all religionists to put down their religion immediately--who thinks that? Are we that stupid? Who on earth is saying such a thing? Why are all the religion-defenders, and the weak-kneed don't-offend-a-soul humanists such as Ms. Pollitt, putting nonexistent stances and words in the mouth of Dawkins and his following hordes?

There is an Aspergian punditocracy that takes over when a genuine debate arises from below and flattens it with insipid professorial ramblings, irrelevant disquisitions and maddening obtuseness. The pundits on the right are demented, but our stalwart Names on the left are untouchable also. Whatever good work they have done on other issues--and Ms. Pollitt has done remarkably good work, even in this area where she turned, sideways, on her friends--they all, all, seem to succumb to the lure of issuing pronouncements from above. Why won't they debate?

Martin White

Salem, NY

Dec 6 2007 - 8:04pm

Web Letter

Although my agreement rate with Katha Pollitt's views is very high, I do have some doubts about what she writes here. Certainly, the new books on atheism are in part inspired by fear of Islam, but they are even more inspired, I think, by the headway the Christian right has been making in its crusade to enforce its values on the rest of us--in schools and school curricula, in litmus test questions for political candidates, (Tim Russert: "What's your favorite Bible verse?") and its increased visibility in all public forums, including tv shows.

Of course, Muslims aren't going to "wake up one morning" and realize the folly of their religion. But real education, providing an alternative understanding of the way the world really works--not by magical thinking and divine prohibitions but by the laws of science and the effects of economics etc.--might induce the devout to reconsider their beliefs. Although I was in college and not devout when I read it, a passage in Robert Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages stunned me with a one-paragraph discussion of the close resemblance between the practices of Christianity and other cults, including the cult of Mithras.

There are other forms of community, identity and support systems out there besides religion. And best of all, once you give up on the notion that a single Book, written centuries ago, is the only book worth reading, you'll find yourself with a mountain of riches: all the other books in the world.

Carol V. Hamilton

Pittsburgh, PA

Nov 21 2007 - 7:26am

Web Letter

For years I've wondered whether Katha Pollitt's atheism didn't rest on a particular contempt for Christianity and a delight in lambasting the Bible. If it is, fair enough, but a little disclosure might have been in order in "The Atheist's Dilemma." For one thing, you could probably fit all the atheists who think they can convince believers to give up the ship in one church pew (neither Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens are fool enough to think religion will ever go the way of the dinosaurs.)

For another, her complaint that the media don't make moderate Muslims a part of the conversation is silly beyond belief. There isn't and will never be anyone who does for Islam what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did for Tibetan Buddhism--that is, be open about leading a far less than ascetic life and granting in advance that this is what people will do. Islam doesn't lend itself to this. At best, one can hope to see proposals to lessen the number of lashes one gets for minor peccadillos or maybe raising the age one can auction off one's daughter. There's a reason why the imams get all the press, and it saddens me to see Pollitt missed it entirely.

Douglas Presler

Minneapolis, MN

Nov 16 2007 - 7:05pm