September 3rd, 2015


No, that's not a Harry Potter character ...

This is yet another book that came my way via the “Early Reviewer” program. I was hardly surprised that I got matched to this having a bunch of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc., in my library, but I was quite surprised when I got into it.

It is generally considered “bad form” to use the ARC (advance review copy) as a measure of the book as far as basic editing goes … but this was a bit of a doozy on that level – to the extent that I wrote to the contact on the promotional materials that came out with the ARC to ask if she could please reassure me that this was going to have a substantial editorial work-over done to it before the actual book hit the shelves. She noted that the not inconsequential delay in publication was due, in large part, to the publisher (Humanist Press) wanting to address those issues. So, I am not going to be detailing any of the typographical, editorial, or lay-out issues that were screaming off of the pages in the ARC (especially since she told me that the editorial team was seriously considering implementing one major lay-out change that I'd suggested – see, that decade of running my own publishing house is good for something).

However, this book has been an “outlier” on a lot of levels … when I first got it from LTER there was virtually NO trace of it online … not only was it not on Amazon, it wasn't even on the publisher's site (the latter has at least been rectified) … with the only thing I could dig up at the time being a Google Books entry. This blew my mind, as getting books out to the Amazon (etc.) pipeline is pretty much a “first task” these days … and with its nominal release date being under two months away, it's still not out there! Amazing.

Anyway, Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers Are Making the World Safer, Richer and Kinder by David Orenstein, Ph.D. & Linda Ford Blaikie, LC.S.W. Is also an odd duck for the atheist reader … one of my main “take aways” with this was the question “Who is this book for?”, as it is hardly in the realm of the above name-checked authors, nor is it a particularly “evangelical” voice for the movement. Frankly, the main subjects of this book reminded me nothing so much as what Michael Ironside's character in the original “V” series (back in the mid-80s – dating myself) called Marc Singer's character – “Gooder”, as in “do-gooder” – a telling jab by a black-ops specialist (whose one quote on the character's IMDB page is the rather awesome “Faith is for nuns and amateurs.”!) to a TV producer of bleeding-heart features (the two of them just happening to find themselves on the same side of an alien invasion). If Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are Ironside's character, the people profiled here are in the model of Singer's character … and if you find social crusaders as irritating as I do, this is going to be a bit of an aggravating read – especially as most of those profiled here aren't just activists on Atheist issues, but are also agitators for a whole melange of popular leftist causes, from LGBTQ (yeah, try that under Sharia Law), to vegan diets.

Unfortunately, this means that the over-all thrust of the book appears to be to show that there are as many “do-gooders” among the Atheist ranks as there are in the “imaginary friend” ranks. One can only hope that the day will come when there are more folks out there like Dale McGowan (whose Parenting Beyond Belief I reviewed a number of years ago) representing the Atheist cause. His Foundation Beyond Belief is exactly the sort of organization that can be held up against the faith-based institutions (albeit funded at a tiny fraction of these larger groups), and serve as a model for more rational action.

About 1/3rd of Godless Grace consists of profiles of “activists” around the world, from deeply Moslem Bangladesh to largely secular Holland, with stops on every continent except Antarctica. Another 20% or so of the book is based on the results of a series of interviews done with “Former Clergy and Nonbelieving Student Activists”, which walks though a number of topics and projects. Here again, the book has an unfortunate enthusiasm for ex-Clergy, as though these were particularly valuable acquisitions for the cause … I suspect toasting the “de-frocked” smacks (for most folks) of being something off on the LaVey side of the “religious” mix – a neighborhood that most “rational humanists” would likely not want to find themselves sorted into.

There certainly is a good deal of interesting material here … once one dis-engages from the “gooder” elements … but it's somewhat randomly distributed, and requires a bit of cherry-picking. Lucky for you, I was sticking little bookmarks in this while going through it. Here's one thing that I found worth considering (which had a big blatant editorial “fail” smack in the middle of it, which I have corrected, although perhaps not in the form present in the eventually published version):
      In terms of potential atheist characteristics related to personality, 2013 saw new published research by sociologist Christopher F. Silver of The University of Tennessee. His research suggests that there is a spectrum of six fundamental personality groupings of those who claim to be nonbelievers.
  • Intellectual/Agnostics – who enjoy discussing their atheism;

  • Activist Atheists – the category of people profiled in this book;

  • Seeker-Agnostics – those who do not believe and do not challenge the faithful;

  • Anti-Theists – do not believe and do seek out and challenge the faithful;

  • Non-Theists – have no belief and do not think about believers much; and

  • Ritual Atheists – who do not believe but still participate in religious ritual on occasion and may even belong to a house of worship.
Of course, to me that hardly seems like a “spectrum”, or the Anti-Theists would be at the top of the list. Tellingly, there's another list in here, in a fascinating section titled “Non-God Belief in History – Some of the Major Players and Ideas”, which presents what the authors consider some of the leading lights in Atheism today … and I'm flabbergasted that they include Sarah Silverman, but don't have the always amazing Pat Condell there. Again, the bias for “gooders” and/or mainstream leftist activism is showing itself here.

This is not to say that the book is without hard-line “Anti-Theist” verbiage altogether, it just doesn't seem to come from the actual authors. Here's a choice bit from Sociology professor Dr. Phil Zuckerman's Foreword:
… Religious people project onto and see in secular people what is actually occurring in themselves: a lack of moral rectitude, a dearth or moral surety, an absence of a solid moral foundation. The fact is, religious morality is an extremely shaky thing: it all boils down to nothing more than obedience to an invisible, magic deity. That's it. Whatever this invisible, magic deity says concerning right or wrong or good or bad, one obeys, or suffers the consequences.
      An extremely shaky thing, indeed. And thus, I suspect that religious people, feeling insecure about their own frail construction of morality, turn around and – in order to alleviate their own insecurity – accuse nonbelievers of having no morals or no moral foundation. …
Another piece I found of interest was on the other end of the book, in the Afterword by the President of American Atheists, David Silverman (which I've selectively trimmed a bit for use here):
      Business, like politics and entertainment, is reflexive, not active. Business (unlike businesspeople) has no bigotry – it seeks money. In 1977, nobody though atheism had any money, because nobody thought atheists existed. Now, after the explosive growth of the movement … and the incredible increase in exposure we've received over the past few years, all that has changed, and we are being recognized as the influential and sizeable movement we are. For anyone wondering about the efficacy of our movement, you need only look at the change in the number of people who solicit our {he's largely referring to conventions here} business over the past few years …
… Nationwide, poll after poll shows that not only is atheism rising, it is rising faster than all religions, in all 50 states. Moreover, atheism as it is correlated to youth in most polls, shows that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you're an atheist. … And this means that the growth of atheism is being helped by both the increase of information, and time itself. …
Oh, and speaking of polls, there's a chapter in here on demographics, with some tables that indicate how Atheism ranks around the world … some of this is just what you'd expect (not much of it in Pakistan, for example), but some of it does come across as counter-intuitive. Also, there's an appendix which has nine pages of tables featuring info on organizations around the world, from things as mainstream as the ACLU to obscurities like the Trinidad-Tobago Humanist Association (sure, you were just looking for their contact info).

Assuming that Godless Grace is going to be getting the editorial attention it so desperately needs between now and its release date, it's not a horrible book … but it's not one that, say, big fans of Dawkins & Co. will find particularly engaging. If your tastes go towards “social activism” in general, you might find the slant of the material to your liking … if you're not in that camp, you will likely find this (or at least its main parts of profiles and interviews) a bit irritating.

As noted up top, this is currently ONLY available as a pre-order from the publisher … and I'll be back in here once it gets “released into the wild” to update those links so you can pick it up on Amazon.

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