Hitch and Me

A guest post by Nica Lalli.

I wrote a book about non-belief, and so my book falls into the category of atheist writing. In fact, in some book stores you can find my book in the atheist section (the ones that actually have an “atheist section” and don’t lump it onto philosophy).

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel at the Book Expo America (publishing world’s trade show which was held at The Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York this year) with other atheist writers to discuss the “rise of atheism as a religious subcategory in publishing”.

The other members of the panel were: Victor Stenger, quantum physicist, university professor and author of “God the Failed Hypothesis” and Christopher Hitchens, journalist, provocateur and most recently author of “God is Not Great, Why Religion Poisons Everything” which reached the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list June 3rd. Publishing heavyweight Sarah Crichton (whose book with Marianne Pearl “A Mighty Heart” has also graced the bestseller list and is now movie starring Angelina Joilie) was the moderator.

And then there was me.

I was nervous about being on the stage with the “real” writers, with the big thinkers, with the “boyz”…but I figured that I did have a different voice to add to the discussion, the woman’s voice, sure, but also the voice of someone who wrote a book about being an atheist, rather than a book about atheism.

I may not be able to quote Spinoza, or tell you what a quark is and why god can be disproved by physics or biology, or shamed by examining history, but I can tell you what it is like to want to live my life as I see fit, outside of religion and away from the tendrils of “belief” in the supernatural.

So that is what I did. I did it in my book, and I did it on the panel. At first the other two looked at me a bit sideways, the “lightweight” label emanated from their eyes. But then I think they realized that the voice of a PTA mom, a regular gal-on-the-street, can only help the “cause” – because most of us are not tenured at multiple universities and authors of seven books, most of us are not journalists with a flair for stirring the pot, characters who loom larger than life and say whatever it takes to get a BIG rise out of the audience. Most of us just out there, struggling at times to find our voices.

I loved meeting Hitchens and Stenger. And I am honored to be a part of this new trend of books that are storming the bestseller lists. I feel it is a great time to be an atheist.
Oh, sure – with Hitchens in the conversation it gets nasty. He makes no apologies and takes no care to avoid saying hurtful things. That is his role. He plays it well. I cannot do that. I cannot tell people the things he can. I am too afraid to piss people off and hurt their feelings, and I fear that, in turn, they will hurt mine.

My role is more about dialogue and bridge building. And what I found out last weekend was that the two voices, the provocateur and the bridge builder, (three, actually – with the science voice provided by Stenger) can not only co-exist, they can compliment one and other.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I hope someone puts that up on YouTube I'd love to see it. I just finished your book last night in fact and I'm picking up "god Is Not Great" tonight on my home from work tonight.

    Keep up the good work. My wife rarely reads any of my atheist/philosophy/science books but she is reading yours and finds Hitchens to be extremely obnoxious.

    So there is something to be said about the different styles of communicating a very similar message. You each get across to your respective audiences.

    Good luck

  2. I just read the Nation's article by Ronald Aronson called The New Atheists (Toward a Revival of Secular Humanism). It is a good read and goes right along with the topics discussed on the panel. He talks aboutthe big 4 – Dennet, Dawkins, Hicthens and Harris – and has alot of good things to say about where we go from here.

  3. It really irks me that the "big 4" are all men. Pffft. What are they, musketeers or something? I get so tired of these old boys clubs. I'm not saying that these authors are sexist (not knowing any of the "big 4" personally, I couldn't say). If a woman wrote a book like that, she would not be added to the club, she would be dismissed out of hand as a bitch, even probably by the people who agreed with what she had to say.

  4. writerdd,

    Do you remember the ad copy for Hitchens' book which proclaimed, "Here Comes the Fourth Musketeer"?

    I thought and continue to think that it's a stupid slogan. If Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens are the Musketeers, then I guess Cardinal Richelieu is the entire religious culture and establishment. (Hey, that makes a sick and twisted kind of sense!)

    If a woman wrote a book like that, she would not be added to the club, she would be dismissed out of hand as a bitch, even probably by the people who agreed with what she had to say.

    I doubt it. Or rather, I think that the people who like Dawkins would like the hypothetical, er, Musketrix, while the people who accuse Dawkins of "intolerance" would accuse her of "bitchiness." Same gut reaction, different words.

    Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, of course.

    Hey, in the end, the only way to know for sure is the empirical method!

  5. I agree with Blake (as if that's anything new) that a female 'fundy atheist' writer would be accepted by most of the community and called a 'bitch' only by the malcontents on the other side.

    For instance, if Lori Lipman Brown or Eugenie Scott wrote a book as 'harshly' (note the scare quotes, as I don't particularly think all of the 'Musketeers' have been that harsh) critical of the situation as Dawkins, Harris, et al, I'm certain that they'd welcome her fully. I know I would. Now, I'm not saying that I think Lipman Brown or Scott would write so critical a book, I'm merely using them as hypothetical choices.

    Honestly, I think this 'Old Boys Club' is only such a club because they are the only ones who've been so VOCAL so far. I haven't read Nica Lalli's book, but judging from her interview on Point of Inquiry and her post here, I don't think her tone is at all similar to the 'Musketeers'. Nor do I think she or any other female, that I KNOW of, is being kept out of the 'club'. Heck, neither Vic Stenger and E.O. Wilson are getting the same 'push' as Dennett, Hitchens, and the others, and they're 'old boys' themselves.

    I don't buy into the idea that women are too sensitive or nice to write books as strident as the 'Musketeers' have written. Look at Ann Coulter (well, don't look at her directly, it's as bad as looking into the sun in an eclipse). Many people consider her a woman, and she's WAY more vindictive and harsh than any of the Four.

    So, to me, the only way to change that 'Old Boys Club' feeling is for a woman to write a critique in the same vein. I'd be VERY interested to see how such a book is received.

    (Note: I just remembered Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book. Perhaps she could count as a 'Musketeer'? Eh, not as if the designation means anything at all aside from some cross promotional marketing…)

  6. Susan Blackmore would be another good candidate for leading-public-female-atheist-of-the-rottweiler-tendency. The other Susan, Susan Greenfield, would be an alternative from the Neville Chamberlain wing.

    But then again, perhaps you americans should stop stealing all _our_ best atheists :-)

  7. Dennett and Dawkins are effectively science writers who also talk about religion/atheism.

    Over here, Dawkins does get given airtime when he seems likely to say something that stirs up a debate, but I wonder how much notice he'd be paid if he hadn't already established himself as a leading writer on evolution?

    In the effective rentaquote section of media exposure, there may only be room for a couple of people per niche ("Let's get someone on to say something interesting in 30 seconds about that creationist theme park opening – what about the Dawkins bloke, he's always good value").

    Even if sometimes all Dawkins actually does is point out the bleeding obvious, it allows the presenter to avoid directly criticising someone talking nonsense, and give the idea of balance which wouldn't be necessary if journalists had the skills and/or permission to do their job fully. (If someone thinks Falwell was an ****hole, how much *safer* it is to just get Hitchens on to stick the knife in.)

    As pointed out elsewhere, there are only so many ways to write about atheism. Dawkins is already occupying the atheist-evolutionist niche pretty substantially. If someone else (male or female) came along to try and do basically the same thing, they'd quite possibly just be seen as me-too.

    Possibly in the brain/consciousness niche there's a bit more room, but Dennett's a hard act to follow.

    (From the one book of Greenfield I have (unlikely to be joind by any others), she doesn't seem to be quite in Dennett's league.)

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