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Austin Cline

Publishers Weekly: Biased Against Atheists?

By May 4, 2007

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Bigotry and bias against atheists is widespread, but some examples of anti-atheist bias is worse than others. Your neighbor's bias against atheists may only affect you, at most, but bias against atheists in prominent publications can significantly impact the ability of atheists to fight anti-atheist bigotry. Unfortunately, it appears that one source of such bias can be found in Publishers Weekly, a leading source of information about upcoming and recent books.

Brian Flemming has done a bunch of work looking into the matter:

While books endorsing religion receive evaluations that use terms like "marvelous" and "engaging," virtually all books from an atheist perspective get negative or, at best, dispassionate reviews from Publishers Weekly, using terms like "intolerant," "ineffective" and "simplistic."

...Publishers Weekly reviews matter. They most often appear as the first review listed on Amazon.com, for example, providing the very first opinion many people will read about a given book. A marketer would call that valuable "mindspace," and that marketer would be right. Does one of the most influential contributors to Amazon.com have a prejudice against atheists?

Brian was able to find negative or problematic Publishers Weekly reviews of God is not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and even I Sold My Soul on Ebay. I was able to find similarly negative language in an article about "anti-religion books"

...this fall brings a striking number of impassioned critiques of religion—any religion, but Christianity in particular—and calls for a return to reason rather than faith as a guiding principle. ...Several other books this season assert that religion is not only unnecessary but negative. ...Other voices call not for an end to faith but for a more measured and examined one, and for greater understanding and respect across faith lines.

Source: Publishers Weekly

On the other hand, I did find a "positive" review of Nica Lalli's Nothing: Something to Believe In:

Lalli's adds something fresh to the mix: rather than being an angry apologetic, it's an engaging personal account of non-belief. Raised in Chicago and New York to free-thinking parents who seem to have provided little supervision, Lalli had sporadic encounters with religion at her friends' churches and synagogues as a child. ...Although Lalli got along well with her Christian mother-in-law, her self-righteous sister- and brother-in-law were a different story, and much of the memoir's second half explores serious family tensions. ...Lalli doesn't come across as being quite as open-minded as she claims to be, she does see herself as an equal-opportunity agnostic, as skeptical about a tarot reading as she is about Christian platitudes.

Source: Publishers Weekly

Even though this is a positive review, there are still plenty of swipes against atheists: it's not "an angry apologetic," her freethinking parents seem to have "provided little supervision" when she was a child, and Lalli isn't "quite as open-minded as she claims." Which seems more plausible: that all the atheist books reviewed really are as bad as the reviews say, or that there is a bit of an anti-atheist bias at Publishers Weekly? The latter strikes me as a more plausible explanation for what we're seeing, and kudos to Brian Flemming for both noticing and brining it to everyone's attention.

Consider contacting Publishers Weekly to ask about this. If you do write to them, please copy your message here in comments so others can see what is being written.

May 4, 2007 at 3:35 pm
(1) Paul Buchman says:

I was able to find similarly negative language in an article about “anti-religion books”

I don’t see the quotes you used to support the above statement as negative. They seem pretty matter-of-fact to me.

May 4, 2007 at 11:15 pm
(2) John says:

I can’t tell if the phrase, “…Other voices call not for an end to faith but for a more measured and examined one…” is insulting, or just badly written.

May 5, 2007 at 1:58 pm
(3) Paul Buchman says:

If the voices not calling for end to faith are also calling for an examined one, I guess that implies that those calling for an end to faith are not examining enough.
It’s kind of subtle but I suppose you could call it negative toward those calling for an end to faith.

May 11, 2007 at 4:21 pm
(4) John Hanks says:

All media is biased because it panders to lower middle class values which involve blind patriotism and blind religiosity. It is an endless flood of thoughtless propaganda and opinion.

May 12, 2007 at 12:09 pm
(5) George says:

I’ve never thought of Publisher’s Weekly reviews to be anything more than credible fluff pieces. That they’ve written something “negative” is shocking, shocking!

November 30, 2007 at 7:24 pm
(6) John says:

I have also independently noticed that PW appears to be biased against atheist books. I wanted to see if anyone else noticed this (that’s how I found this site) I checked amazon and catalogued them.There are several examples. A good example is the God Delusion and it’s rebuttal book, The Dawkins Delusion (McGrath). I read both books. The Dawkins Delusion was extremely poorly argued and just downright silly. Yet it received a glowing review, while TGD received a negative one. Other examples are: God Is Not Great, TGD, The End of Faith, and more….all negative reviews (some downright insulting). Language of God, Finding Darwin’s God, Darwins Black Box, The Twilight of Atheism, The Case for a Creator, etc…positive reviews (some were glowing). The PW reviews are written by people, and people are biased. There is nothing that people hold more dear than their religious beliefs. It’s not surprising that in a country as fanatically religious as the USA, there will be positive reviews for pro-religious books, and negative reviews for anti-religious books. It’s human nature. I’m just sorry that such an influential body can’t see past its own biases.

December 8, 2007 at 2:36 am
(7) Absinthe says:

John and Paul Buchman,

My interpretation of the quote that you mentioned is that a call was being made for a more measured and examined faith.

December 8, 2007 at 5:19 pm
(8) Paul Buchman says:


I think your interpretation is correct.

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