Not many authors are eager to publicize bad reviews, but that’s exactly what I want to do. It seems my new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, has caught the attention of some religious conservatives.
And at least one of them doesn’t like what he sees.
Check out this commentary from R. R. Reno, who describes himself as a Christian and edits a religious conservative magazine and web site. I say “describes himself” as a Christian because, despite Reno's proud Christian self-identity, his writing reflects none of the humble, peace-loving teachings of the Nazarene whom he deifies.
In the review, Reno manages to mischaracterize the book’s message and launch reckless attacks at secular activists in general and this author in particular, some nothing but ad hominem. Nonbeliever Nation (and/or its author), he tells his readers, is “pathetic” and “simple-minded” and “comically parochial,” although not surprisingly Reno never really explains why, except to say that seculars like myself want to claim the right to “define what counts as reasonable, mainstream, and true.”
The only problem, however, is that the book does not claim such a right. Nonbeliever Nation instead points out that the marginalization of the secular demographic – and the simultaneous undue exaltation of religion in the public sphere – has been harmful to public dialogue and public policy.
What is fascinating is that Reno, though dismissive in his tone, seems genuinely threatened by the unthreatening message of the book, reflexively inclined to attack any thesis that dares to promote acceptance of secularity. This fearful reaction to secularism is common among the hardliners on the Christian right, coming from both those within the Catholic church (to which Reno is a recent convert) and fundamentalist Protestantism. "Look out, here comes modernity!" they cry in chorus as they circle their wagons in defense of the oncoming secular threat.
Nonbeliever Nation expressly states that its intent is not to try to convert believers, but instead argues that those who are openly secular should be accepted as full citizens and welcomed at the table as part of the American tapestry. Reno, who studied religion at Yale and presumably qualifies as a representative of the modern Christian intelligentsia, sadly demonstrates that this pool of scholars has a shallow end. To the disservice of both his intellectual circle and his claimed theology, Reno dishonestly represents the book.
He alleges, for example, that Nonbeliever Nation claims that the “Religious Right is the root of all evil,” when in fact the book takes pains to say just the opposite. In the Introduction I write: “It would be an oversimplification to suggest that all of America’s woes since the late 1970s are due to the rise of the Religious Right . . .”
Unable to cite any particularly egregious language in Nonbeliever Nation, Reno takes the hilarious step of quoting benign language ("Secular activism is not about bashing religion . . .") and then warning his readers that I am deceiving them. "Sounds very friendly and peaceful and tolerant," Reno tells readers, "but like liberal tolerance more generally, it's very fake."
I guess I just can't win with this guy! No matter what I say, I'm just dangerous, dishonest, and subversive!
What is most apparent from Reno's review is that, despite his claimed affection for Jesus, he exhibits a rather mean-spirited, angry streak that Christian theology has not managed to subdue. Maybe he should try Buddhism? We can only be thankful that, unlike his Inquisitor forbearers, his power is limited to ranting on an obscure web site.