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SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A run of best-selling books belittling religious belief are a secular backlash that highlights the success of Christianity, Southern Baptist leaders and theologians said at a conference.
"If you shoot down an alley and you hear a yelp, you know you've hit something," said Mark Coppenger, a professor at the Kentucky-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Apparently Bible believers have hit something and so it is a measure of the success of the church that the opponents are so stirred up right now," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.
Combative British writer Christopher Hitchens' "god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" is the latest atheist best-seller to hit the stands.
It follows "The God Delusion" by Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris.
In their different ways, all set out to prove that science trumps faith and reason trumps religion.
Such books are bound to stir passions in the United States, where religion -- Christianity in particular -- has a much firmer hold than it does elsewhere in the developed world.
Opinion polls vary and are subject to dispute but generally show that around 40 percent of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, more than double the rate of most western European nations and almost 10 times the rate of some.
A survey last year by the Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of Americans view the Bible as the word of God, though only 35 percent believe the Bible is literally true.
Evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists -- who take the Bible very seriously and place much emphasis on the individual conversion experience -- have grown rapidly in the United States.
With 60 million evangelicals, that is one American in five.
"We have made some serious inroads into society and some people are increasingly antagonistic toward that," said Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page, who saw the recent intellectual attacks on faith as "aggressive atheism."
Many secular Americans resent the intrusion of religion into politics, with the so-called "Religious Right" delivering votes for the conservative Republican Party and the Democratic Party recently trying to woo the "Religious Left".
The mix of religion and politics has shown up in the public sphere in renewed battles over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools. Many evangelicals have pressed for the teaching of Biblical creation or "intelligent design," which holds that the complexity of life points to a creator.
A Gallup poll last year showed almost half of Americans believe that humans did not evolve but were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
Coppenger said that "after well over 100 years of pressing the Darwinian project, still half of Americans don't believe it, they are not buying it."
"There is a great indignation now and an astonishment so they (secularists) are redoubling their efforts because they are finding out that they're failing," he said.
Edward Pauley of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth told Reuters the onslaught of atheist books was a reaction to the "receptivity" of the American public to intelligent design theory.
But the success of the recent wave of atheist books has been seen by some as a reaction to the intensity of religion in America and its intrusion into public life.