Top critical review
Ad hominem argumentation that is anything but intellectual
on January 13, 2016
I wanted to like and embrace this book because I agree with the premise that American is being destroyed by an anti-intellectual atmosphere and degenerative way of thinking. Our discourse does not involve intelligent discussion or open debate of issues on the basis of facts and reasoning, nor does it possess a genuine concern for society; rather, our interlocutors assert their views and opinions on the basis of hyperbole, emotion and viral soundbites, with the prodding of media.
Nonetheless, contrary to the author's thesis, I find this "anti-intellectualism" (if that's really a word) largely a product of a host of contributory factors, including the type of secularism that he preaches. While the author puts forth a call to "nonbelievers" to unite and fight the Religious Right (their self-ascribed, enemy), there is no clear consensus on the agenda, thinking or views of the nonbelievers, other than they lack an appreciation, belief or understanding of religion. For that reason, the book seems itself to degenerate to an ad hominem rant that characterizes Christianity as the choice belief of fanatical, low-IQ possessing, politically influential buffoons that are just as likely to believe in the Easter Bunny as Jesus Christ, and who close off all discourse while taking a shotgun, redneck approach to intellectual discussion (and who, by the way, hate gay marriage). As an African-American Christian with an IQ in the 99.9%tile and with multiple degrees from Princeton and Stanford, I take more than a little objection to this characterization.
Yet, my main problem with the book is not the author's atheist rants veiled as intellectual, secular discourse. Atheists have railed against Christianity for 2000 years and haven't made a dent on the religion. Indeed, secular atheism, in the form of Communism and Socialism, has done far more to destroy human civilization and humanity (in the realm of over 100 million deaths), through its experiments, such as the French Revolution, the USSR and the PRC. My problem, rather, is that Mr. Niose does not consider any of the myriad of potential factors that have destroyed American discourse and its social fabric, outside of the version of Christianity that he caricatures and critiques. As a result, at no point, for example, does he consider that powerfully placed special interests, or even the absence of genuine, Christian dogma, its practice and understanding, might be to blame. It would seem then that he becomes slave to his own ad hominem argument along with his hatred for religion and the Religious Right (while lamenting its stance against gay marriage).
The book then opens with Mr Niose offering anecdotal examples of political, Christian-affiliated ignoramuses, flouting conventional opinion, to take political stances. For example, he likes to use examples of preachers-turned politicians, like Pat Roberston, with their outlandish statements about science, abortion and gays, as indicative of Christianity's "evil" role in destroying discourse. Mr. Niose does not seem to consider that these are, in fact, merely anecdotes generated by opportunist politicians--not dogmatic beliefs handed down through the bi-millennial history of the Christian Church. Nor does he consider that these views are not commonly held by so-called Christians, which make up over 180 million of today's 300 million Americans (Gallop Poll, 2015). To Mr. Niose, all Christians are like these irrational and loud buffoons, while the fringe group of nonbelievers he's targeting are somehow superior in intellect, understanding and are unbiased.
Yet his facts don't match up. For one thing, unbelievers are not 1 in 5 Americans, as he asserts in the book and on its cover, but according to the same, 2015 Gallup poll on religiosity just quoted, comprise less than 10% of the population. Ad hominem steps in again as he tries to claim that these religious buffoons are somehow connected to a second group of illiterates, among Americans, who do not even know the name of the Vice President. Cleverly he passes off the assumption that these illiterates do not, in any way, inhabit his nonbeliever constituency.
Quite likely, Mr. Niose is trying to pass off his own (liberal, possibly LGBT) sympathies on a wider, fringe group of people that are either (perhaps justifiably) confused by or disillusioned with organized religion in America. He wants to rally this group in hatred of Christianity and of the Religious Right which he stigmatizes in his early chapters. To do this in the book, he starts by offering (in sections 3 and 4) a distorted history of religious belief and secularism in the US.
For example, it is not true that American history and American religious history started in America itself: certainly those histories did not begin in the 1950s or during the Cold War either. Yet, Mr. Niose asserts that the religious paradigm in the US as a "Christian Nation" began in that latter era. That contradicts the consensus opinion among both historians and religious scholars, which agrees that the US was initially populated by adherents to religious sects from Europe and that their charters as colonists served as a convenient way to rid Europe of them as problem groups, in an age when the Catholic and Protestant Churches were warring for turf. To that end, the US DOES, contrary to what Mr. Niose asserts, have a religious history and a religious foundation (alongside its economic character). True, that history is not one of an organized, unified Christian faith, with an associated and accepted dogma. Rather, it is a religious history driven by the actions of fragmented, schismatic sects that sought economic gain and liberalism, in the sense of the ability to change at will, without Church dogma.
I would argue that that schismatic liberalism of today's American Churches IS one of the primary reasons American Christianity is unable to to offer adherents and potential adherents assistance in reversing the decline of society. However, that inability rests, not in the fact that American Christians aim to hold Christian beliefs (which Mr. Niose, obviously hates) but, to the contrary, because those beliefs are perverted. Were the American Christian establishment to embrace the ancient Christian (i.e., Orthodox) faith, which is apolitical in its essence, unified and unchanged in its character in 2 millennia, America might witness the same resilience as the (Orthodox) Byzantine Empire, which extended Rome's life by 1500 years and the Russian Empire's by an additional 200. Notably, the latter was brought down to its current, decrepit state by secular Communism and Socialism. But I digress...
Mr. Niose pinpoints the 1950s as the beginning of a sort of fictional, religious identity that was fashioned by powerful people whom he fails to name in the text. These people instituted, for example, the "Under God" that we have in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" that we see on the currency. To Mr. Niose, these religious beliefs were foisted on an otherwise secular public that had no choice but to accept them and allow their children to be brainwashed by them. Yet, Mr. Niose seems ignorant of the popular sentiment at the time. Christian religiosity ALONE in the US was at 95% in 1950 (according to a 1950 Gallup Poll), which means that institution of these religious slogans were actions more likely consistent with popular belief, not dictatorial decrees. The fact that such indicators of religious belief were not present at the nation's founding (just like the flag of 50 stars was not being employed in the early 19th century) meant only that the nation was in the process of maturation and coming together (in terms of its common values). It does not have the dark, political rendering that Mr. Niose paints.
Thus, it seems incredible for Mr. Niose to build his argument on these two pillars: Fictional religious history was created in the 1950s by dictatorial powers, while buffoon-like Christian opportunists (i.e., the "Religious Right", as he calls it) usurped the political agenda in the 1980s. One reason these are incredible is that, if true, pillar two seems to follow as a direct consequence of pillar one, and should, without any time lag. Why, if the powers that existed in the 1950s successfully "Christianized" the nation by force, did the Religious Right wait until the 1980s to usurp the political agenda? Why did we not see this Religious Right in the 1970s, when to the contrary, we saw the hippy movement? Mr. Niose provides no answer to such questions.
The facts Mr Niose takes pains to ignore are that to whatever extent anti-intellectualism and social decline were caused by Christian opportunists, they were also caused by atheist, socialist, feminist and LGBT-etc., -etc., Muslim, Jewish/ADL and plain old wealthy opportunists as well. All of these groups and others used their wealth and influence at various times during the past 60 years to thrust their personal agenda on American people. In other words, all Americans are victim to special interests that have gained power by dominating the political and media stages. To a certain extent, that has (regrettably) become the "American Way".
That leads to another major failing in the book. Mr. Niose insists on blaming religious beliefs for America's social and intellectual decline, even though he acknowledges that other more obvious and significant factors, are at play. For example, he notes that gun violence, violent culture, racism, etc., have contributed to the decline in society, but he wants the reader, nonetheless, to ignore these explanatory factors in favor of the Religious Right problem. Despite my own beliefs and even my own detestation of the Religious Right, I might accept the primacy of perverted Christianity as the main, explanatory factor, if the author offered some statistical evidence to support that claim, but he doesn't. Rather, he leaves us there to accept that argument, while failing to explore, even for a few moments, those other possible causes. In fact, it would have been a more interesting read if he showed how those other causes were secondary, relative to perverted Christianity.
I have little to say about that latter portion of the book, which is aimed at rallying atheists behind a secular agenda, except to say that, as other reviewers here (obviously non-believers) have noted: it is unoriginal and somewhat common knowledge to atheists. Moreover, Mr. Niose probably finds it of particular necessity to rouse this fringe group to action precisely because the problem of anti-intellectualism and social decline in America is much bigger, more complex and more nuanced a problem than can be explained by religiosity versus atheism. Nonbelievers, as I said at the beginning, are not unified in what they believe, anymore than the schismatic Christians are and perhaps far less so--at least the former tend to accept the Bible as a common text, even if interpretations are wildly different across sects. Another reason the fringe camp is somewhat silent probably relates to their personal confusion about the whole issue. Nonbelief does not denote any sort of reasonable or tested structure for building or preserving society, as Mr. Niose asserts. Secularists can only turn to the failed Communist and Socialist experiments to see the fruits of secular, nonbelief in action. Any morality drawn instead to create a better, more humanist society is plagiarized from religion and mostly from Christianity, so the whole notion becomes circular.
Nonetheless, the problems for most atheists, I suspect, are not in relation to quandaries about how they can build better societies. They are likely more personal in nature. Most atheists and nonbelievers are likely upset, confused, dumbfounded, angered and disillusioned with the "weak" principles and inconsistent dogma of the schismatic, Protestant sectarians and the hypocritical, child-abuse-laden, Roman Catholic Church. They see the soundbites of Protestant opportunists and Pope Francis as throwing salt on wounds long ago inflicted on America by a localized, Western Christianity that claims to love but does anything but love. It seems hard then to find credence in Mr. Niose's attempts at unifying nonbelievers, or to accept them as anything more than lobbying readers by identifying some common point of discontent and some common object of hatred. Otherwise, there is no common belief among the nonbelievers.