Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Interestingly, Berlinerblau leads off The Secular Bible with an insult to his audience. His first sentence on the first page of his introduction reads: "In all but exceptional cases, today's secularists are biblically illiterate." While it may be flattering to consider myself an exceptional case, I don't believe that I am an atypical secularist. Atheists in general are, I suspect, much more well-versed in the dominant religions of our cultures than theists would like to believe; our atheism is usually the result of understanding religion too well, not of misunderstanding it. A few pages later, he tosses off this claim:
Presently, one would be hard pressed to identify more than a few recognizable intellectuals in the English-speaking sector who speak knowledgeably about religion qua secularists. (p. 4, Introduction)
Let's see: Natalie Angier, Julian Baggini, Simon Blackburn, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Stephen Hawking, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Susan Jacoby, Clive James, Wendy Kaminer, Paul Kurtz, Heather MacDonald, Desmond Morris, Camille Paglia, John Allen Paulos, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Oliver Sacks, Peter Singer, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds...that's "more than a few," and I didn't even mention the Four Horsemen (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) to pad the list. (Wikipedia has much more exhaustive lists here, and Celebrity Atheists has several here.)
This passage seems innocuous enough until one looks deeper:
There is probably no text studied in the university with as much popular appeal as the Good Book. Exegetes, unlike specialists in the fiction of Thomas Mann or experts in Baroque music, study something that is actually of interest to the masses. (p. 72)
While that is true, I have two objections. First, popular appeal should not be a criterion for the selection of study areas in higher education. If it were, studies of Titanic would outnumber those of Citizen Kane. Second, the public's love for sacred texts does not indicate approval for critical study. For example, it is hard to think of a group less approving of textual analysis of the Bible than a group of Christians wedded to the particular interpretation of their chosen sect.
You may not be familiar with the words exegesis, hermeneutics, and polysemous before reading this book, but you will be after finishing it. Berlinerblau refers to the Hebrew Bible as "reality-deficient" (p. 91) and "inconsistent to a fault," (p. 92) and notes that:
Sacred Scripture is never simple, transparent, and unequivocal. Biblical scholars are those people who bring this inconvenient fact to our attention. In doing so, they infect the social body with doubt. (p. 127)
The following two claims struck me as being misplaced criticisms:
...to be perfectly frank, secularism is in a state of intellectual emergency. Its worldview has matured little and remains moored in the mid-twentieth century. Its leading lights are old or long dead. Lacking a cadre of public intellectuals, it is incapable of defending, or articulating, its own depassé ideals. (p. 131)
Secularism, while it has not made dramatic advances since the mid-twentieth century, is nonetheless far ahead of monotheism--which has been in decline since the fifth century fall of the Roman Empire.
Candidates for elected office in the United States are not known for "playing the secular card." This is because it makes little sense to pander to a tiny constituency whose core beliefs about the universe are completely at odds with those held by everyone else in the country. (p. 132)
As I mentioned a year ago, this 2007 Harris poll on religious views and beliefs showed that 14% of American adults identify as agnostics, and 4% as atheists. Berlinerblau could make a strong case for secularists being unorganized--and, perhaps, even unorganizable--but tiny? I don't think so. (And don't even get me started on whose "core beliefs about the universe are completely at odds" with reality...)
Berlinerblau's concluding words are equally bothersome:
...even among secularists how many can actually accept the apparent and unbearable truth that when we die we are really dead? Finished. Done.
This is what makes the recurring secular hope of achieving a total and decisive break with religion as realistic as trying to eradicate the air. Better to try and understand how religion works--if only to grasp the manner in which it forges even the most secular self, if only to resist and subvert it, just a bit. (p. 141)
True, the lure of wishful thinking will always remain; true, religion will likely always be a primary vector. I can't fault Berlinerblau for his emphasis on religious awareness, but his criticisms of freethinkers are often misdirected or flat-out wrong.