I didn’t spend much time in Park Slope this past weekend, because on Saturday I was invited to discuss the “rise of atheism as a religious subcategory in publishing” at the Book Expo America (the book world’s trade show).
This was pretty esteemed company: my panel included Victor Stenger, quantum physicist, professor and author of “God: The Failed Hypothesis”; and Christopher Hitchens, journalist, provocateur and most recently, the author of “God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything,” which just happens to be number one on the Times bestseller list. The moderator was publishing heavyweight Sarah Crichton, whose book with Marianne Pearl, “A Mighty Heart,” has also graced the bestseller list and was turned into a movie starring Angelina Jolie.
And then there was me: Nica Lalli, PTA mom, first-time author and memoirist. Compared to “Hitch” and “Stengy,” I’m a lightweight, not a real literary type, not a heavy-duty intellectual, not a person with multiple degrees in sciences who has any of the Big Answers.
Stenger was friendly and sort of grandfatherly — but I could tell he considered my book a bit inconsequential, since I do not mention any science in it at all. Hitchens was charming, his British accent and Old World ways made me forget momentarily that he had supported the Iraq War. I had met my fellow Brooklynite Crichton before, and felt she was a friend among these impressive dudes.
But lo and behold, I had an important voice to add to the discussion: the voice of humanity, community and neighborliness. Stenger offered reasons why a rational person should not Believe, while Hitchens reported on all the harm that religion has caused the world, but I added a valuable voice: the voice of what it is like to be a non-believer in America today.
Hitchens provided the vitriol, Stenger gave the science behind disproving the existence of God, and I was the softer, gentler side of atheism. I was the personal anecdote and the funny story voice.
Laughter is a great way to bring people together, and I got one of the biggest laughs of the evening. (For those of you who read Hitchens’s piece in Vanity Fair about why women are not as funny as men, all I can say is touché!)
I was commenting on the atheist books out there today, and said that some of them weren’t even very — pause and glance at Hitchens — nice. The savvy literati crowd burst into laughter — and Hitchens joined them. For a bunch of grumpy men raging against the machine, I brought them together.
I think there is a reason why a book like “God is Not Great” is the bestselling book in America. Atheists have been a silent and reviled minority for a long time; we have not had a voice. It is as if we had our mouths taped. Now that the tape has been ripped off, we are screaming.
I don’t want to be that yelling person — angry and venomous. I want to dialogue and add constructively to the conversation that must begin to happen in a new way in our country. I may not want to scream, but sitting next to the guy who does, and does it so well (and sells books like hotcakes), was a thrill.