Religion is Dying - a review
WRITTEN BY JOSHUA MASTERSON, AAI NEWS TEAM
James A. Haught's book, Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West, reads like a pleasant conversation about religion's imminent demise. For readers of Dennett or Dawkins, Haught's theses comprise familiar concepts: the paradox of "evil," improvements in science education, and declining church attendance. However, in comparison to writers like Dawkins or Dennet, Haught presents his argument much less abstractly and argumentatively. Rather than a philosophy or biology lecture, Haught's book feels more like a series of anecdotes shared by a favorite uncle during a slow holiday.
Now, sometimes this uncle can wax pedantic; originally published under the title Fading Fatih, the first half of this book has an academic, scholarly feel. Especially in his opening chapter, Haught presents statistics, and he quotes, sometimes at length, different authorities in successive paragraphs. However, he presents these "facts" less as appeals to authority and more as religious musings from a man who, to use his own words, has spent a "half-century in newspaper life."
Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are those in which Haught candidly recounts his personal history with religion, as well as the nature of America during his youth. In these brief reminisces scattered throughout the book, he paints a very realistic, Cheever-esque portrait of America during the 50s, 60s, and beyond. Haught's America is not an unnaturally optimistic Leave it to Beaver society, but one teeming with hypocrisies and injustices, one in which homosexuals, atheists, women, and other minorities suffer more than they do today. In Haught's view (spoiler alert), America is less oppressive today thanks to our improved living standard - due, in large part, to the decline of religion.
Like The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (a great resource, but not a great read), Religion is Dying is largely a collection of essays. Essays written for different markets in different venues
sometimes say the same thing, and a reader cannot dodge the inevitable repetition.
But Haught's interesting history makes it easy to swallow. In a way that Holden Caulfield—who famously is said to have wished that great writers were terrific friends whom he could call whenever he wanted—might appreciate, Haught's first-person anecdotes fascinate and seduce the reader. In chapter 10, Haught writes, "Years ago as a young newspaper reporter, I encountered theology when I covered the heresy trial of Episcopal Bishop James Pike…." - who could resist continuing such a promising lead? And, looking back over his career in chapter 8, Haught’s celebration is infectious: “I see a parade of victories for secular humanism. They have made America fairer, kinder, more humane, more honest, more decent. And it will be a blessing if humanists continue winning, onward to the future.” At times, I thirsted for more subjective musings like these.
On the other hand, after reading the scholarly-like first chapters, I occasionally found myself missing citations. Haught is a very good writer but not an historian—and I wanted to know where he was getting his information. Missing that knowledge, I sometimes felt a little less trusting. Editors might have insisted that Haught cite more rigorously.
Minor complaints aside, however, Religion is Dying presents a very user-friendly approach to religious history and the decline of religion. This is especially useful to readers new to the Secular Atheist movement, who do not easily digest Dawkins and Hitchens, or may dislike those authors' polemical approach. Haught provides a great introduction to some of their same arguments, but he's less scholarly and somewhat more palatable. This book would also serve well those readers familiar with pro-atheist arguments, but who'd like to refresh their memories and learn about an interesting man who spent his life in the newspaper business, often on the front lines of breaking religious news.