I’m going into writer hibernation and taking a blog break through October 31, while I finish my next book, “Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” This is a guest post from Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan is the editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. His most current title, Atheism For Dummies, was released in March of this year.
When Wiley & Sons asked me to write Atheism For Dummies, my first reaction was complete disbelief that there wasn’t one already.
There are 1,600 For Dummies books in print, from the pedestrian (Container Gardening For Dummies) to the intellectual (Logic For Dummies, no kidding). There is Religion For Dummies, as well as a title for each of the five majors (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism), several specific denominations (Mormonism, Catholicism) and even a few hyper-specialized religious titles—The Book of Revelation For Dummies and Lost Books of the Bible For Dummies, to name just two. But nothing for atheism until now.
There was apparently an urgent need for a book called Starting an eBay Business For Canadians For Dummies before a book exploring the worldview of a billion current humans.
But they got to it, and they gave it to me, and I still can’t believe my luck. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book, and I don’t see anything passing it up for a long time.
When I announced that I was writing it, several people had the same slightly weird reaction. “The book can be just one sentence long,” they said: “Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.” I heard the same line about a dozen times.
Of course that would be as incomplete as a book on the Grand Canyon that only said, “The Grand Canyon is a big hole in Arizona.” There’s a bit more to say.
Wiley wanted a relaxed, accessible introduction to atheism that didn’t require specialized knowledge. Ideally, a reader should be able to open to any heading and read without having read anything else in the book. In writer’s terminology, this is known as “a bitch.” They also wanted humor and even a little self-deprecation. That was easy. We can be a silly and self-important group at times, and poking fun at myself is a good way to get the reader relaxed and listening.
Even though the book is mostly for the uninitiated, I wanted to make it worthwhile for the rest of us as well. If you don’t mind sitting in the nosebleed seats, I do occasionally shoot a T-shirt your way, including some history that you may not have seen before.
The book starts with the basics—the varieties of religious doubt, terms and labels, Dawkins’ seven-point scale, how someone can be both an agnostic and an atheist, why most people think atheists don’t believe in God and why we actually don’t, and so on.
The middle of the book is a flying overview of the history of atheist thought. For this, I wanted to go as far off-road as possible. I include the major Europeans, but also went into China and India, where atheist philosophy has always been much more mainstream.
I also introduce some especially courageous figures who might be unfamiliar. There’s Ibn al-Rawandi, who stood up in the middle of the Islamic Empire in the 9th century and called Muhammad “a liar” and the Qur’an “the speech of an unwise being” that contains “contradictions, errors, and absurdities,” as well as Raimond de l’Aire, a French villager caught in the net of the 14th century Inquisition who said Christ was created not through divine intervention, but “just through fucking, like everybody else!” He reportedly slammed the heel of one hand into the other a few times for emphasis, a detail the Inquisitor’s scribe for some excellent reason included.
At the request of the polite Canadian publisher, I substituted “screwing” for “fucking” in the book. That’s a shame, but probably better for the Aunt Diane reader anyway. And in case you’re wondering, there’s no record of Raimond’s fate—though atheists were seen as much less threatening than heretics, and so were less often executed.
The pioneering feminists of the 19th and 20th centuries were overwhelmingly atheists and agnostics, as were many abolitionists and other social reformers. It’s a fact too often left out of their stories, so I devoted space to underlining those connections.
Satire never gets enough credit for sticking a finger in God’s eye, so I gave a full chapter to Twain, Carlin, The Onion, Monty Python, The Simpsons, South Park, Mr. Deity, Family Guy, Jesus and Mo, Tim Minchin, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Diderot and d’Holbach are great, but honestly, I think I’ve learned more from the satirists than from the whole Enlightenment.
The last hundred pages or so explore what it’s like to be an atheist today, to see the world naturally, and to live in the midst of a majority that does not. There’s a look at the ways atheists are undercounted, how it’s different to be an atheist in Norway, Quebec, and Peoria, the geographic and demographic trends currently underway, “atheist anger” (thanks Greta!), gender, race, community, parenting, morality, politics, sex, death…stuff like that.
Writing a book that would appeal to atheists and interested believers alike was a serious challenge. The trick was in keeping it descriptive, not persuasive, since atheists don’t need convincing and believers generally don’t want it.
More than anything else, I wanted to create an easygoing introduction that atheists could give to family and friends who just don’t get atheism but are open enough to want to learn something about it. Hearing that atheists are enjoying it as well is a huge bonus, since I was mostly writing for Aunt Diane. It’s about time she had a way to figure us out.
(Thanks to Greta for the invitation to submit this post. Her reward is on page 225.)