April 17, 2008

Seven To One

I went to Barnes & Noble at lunch today. I was looking for a history book to complement my CD lecture series about the history of the Viking people and I think I found a decent book for that purpose. But, I also wandered by the "Science" section and was struck by the dichotomy of seeing "Science" books like Voyages to Mars: A History Of Planetary Exploration sold right next to "New Age" books like Discovering the Power of Crystal Healing.

So I looked at the of book racks -- those expensive pieces of retail shelf space -- to see the various categories of books available up and down that aisle of the store. Here's what I found:

  • Science: 3 racks. (Measured by shelf space, between a third to a half of these books had titles relating to evolutionary biology. Another third or so were about some field of study of outer space.)

  • New Age: 5 racks.

  • Spirituality: 1 rack. (On closer examination, it was not readily apparent what the difference was between "Spirituality" and "New Age" books might have been.)

  • Bibles: 3 racks (Included "Speciality Bibles" like large-print, illustrated, annotated, and non-English versions)

  • Religion: 1 rack. (Included two other subjects: "Judaica" and "World Religions," meaning anything but Christianity or Judaism.)

  • Christian Inspiration: 3 racks.

  • Christianity: 3 racks.

  • Religious Fiction: 3 racks. (Every title in this section that I scanned appeared to have a Christian theme.)
Barnes & Noble posted nearly $136 million in net profit last year. I assume it knows its customer base pretty well. And so the way it chooses to mark and stock its limited supply of intensely valuable shelves of retail space is indicative of what its customers want to buy. That, in turn, tells me something about the kind of information that people want to fill their minds with. And by a ratio of 7:1, people prefer religious subject matter to scientific subject matter.

It strikes me as decidedly non-coincidental that the same ratio of science books on the shelves compared to the number of religious books on the shelves at a popular bookstore is roughly parallel to the number of Americans who describe themselves as not subscribing to a religion as compared to those who describe themselves as members of a religion. No, this is not a coincidence at all.

Now, granted. A Hindu might have some interest in learning about Christianity, to broaden her cultural horizons, because of curiosity about the religion, or to simply learn more about the Christian-dominated culture in which she lives. A Christian might well want to learn more about science. A scientist may well also be Christian. Even an atheist like me might be interested in having a Bible as a reference book, for a wide variety of reasons (although on those occasions when I find a Biblical citation that I am curious about, the Internet gets me the information I want, chapter and verse, pretty quickly).

But for the most part, these books are marketed to people who already buy into their subject matter. If you are an evangelical Christian who wants to read a story about how Christ Jesus provided a wayward soul with the inspiration and strength to reform her life, my guess is that you are not particularly likely to buy a paperback copy of The Blind Watchmaker.

Now, let's look at the larger picture. If Barnes & Noble is a for-profit reflection of the marketplace of ideas, religion and science are about one-tenth of that what's in that marketplace. There is a much larger audience, again judging by shelf space, for things like science fiction, romances, mysteries, military fiction, self-improvement, biography, cooking, and history. Indeed, in my case, it was a desire to learn more about history and anthropology than the physical sciences that drew me into the bookstore in the first place.

But unlike these other subjects, religion and science books provide a strong hint into the mindset of their readers. People who want religious books are generally likely to have a religious mind-set, a religious way of looking at the world. Conversely, people who want science books are generally likely to have a scientific mind-set, a scientific way of looking at the world. And while there are exceptions, there isn't a lot of overlap between the two sorts of world views.

And I'm merely a part of this phenomenon, not some sort of ambassador. After all, it did not even occur to me to actually buy any of the religious-subject books; doing so would have seemed to me a great waste of my money and reading them would have seemed to me a great waste of my time. My suspicion is that a converse dynamic would be at play for the sort of person who would consider buying a book from the "Christian Inspiration" rack when contemplating the "Science" rack, in particular the substantial portion of it which contained information about evolution.

As I alluded to above, I'll be the first to say that science and religion are not opposites. But in the marketplace of ideas, as roughly reflected in Barnes & Noble's retail calculus, it is demonstrably clear that people prefer religion to science.

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