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Atheists' hotline.

Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion

Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 406 pp. $27

First of all, how many books come bearing laurels from both Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and nihilistic Tricksters Penn and Teller? Then too, when's the last time a distinguished Oxford professor (in this case, of the "Public Understanding of Science") felt the need to supply a five-page appendix of names, addresses (snail and e-mail), phone numbers, and Web sites for beleaguered skeptics all around the world--to contact bastions of apostasy from the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia to the Humanist Society of New Zealand (that's for the North Island, unbelievers in Christchurch have their own conventicle)?

This quirky phenomenon is evidently part of the growing response to the intense politicization of religion (and the ensuing jihads) in our time. The days when Humeans and Homoousians mostly stayed out of one another's hair are gone, it seems, forever. (See the latest blast from the Landover Baptist Church on, or Dawkins's own triumphal appearance on The Colbert Report.) Dawkins, who first caught the world's attention with The Selfish Gene over thirty years ago, largely sets biological explication aside here and instead trots out a motley throng of commonsensical arguments against God to stiffen les incroyants and assure them that they are not alone. It makes for a good show.

Dawkins starts by protesting against the "abnormally thick wall of respect" that today's etiquette has thrown up around religious faith, and that requires everybody, from whatever position along R.D.'s seven-part spectrum from "strong theist' to "strong atheist," to bow politely and mute all criticism when the sacred is mentioned. That will never do: since religion makes claims about reality, Dawkins insists that it be held to some sort of scientific standards; and judging by them he concludes that all theology fails: "There is almost certainly no God."

Dawkins doesn't simply attack Thomas Aquinas' five proofs for the existence of God, along with the ontological and other a priori arguments. He goes after Stephen J. Gould's classic agnostic dictate that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" ("science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven"), which might have been an acceptable irenic stance for T. H. Huxley in Victorian England, but won't wash now ("alleged miracles provide the strongest reason many believers have for their faith; and miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science"). For Dawkins all attempts to posit a divine Creator lead to the question of who or what created "him," and so on, in an infinite regression. Evolution rules creation, and complexity comes at the end, not the beginning, of the evolutionary process. As for the supposed improbability of mere chance ever achieving incredibly intricate results like the human eye, Dawkins reminds readers that natural selection isn't random at all--once life emerges, the rest, so to speak, is easy, though it takes a while.

Believers love to cite star witnesses, and so does Dawkins. He enjoys quoting the Founding Fathers (e.g., Thomas Jefferson: "The Christian God is a being of terrific character--cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust") and Albert Einstein ("The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive"). But Dawkins is no snob, he also feels at home quoting John Lennon, Monte Python and Julia Sweeney (from her one-woman show, Letting God of God). Indeed, he aims to democratize atheism, to stress that it's a mass (underground) movement, not just a collection of eccentric intellectuals. All are welcome in Dawkins' big tent; one need only be revolted by the excesses of religion, such as the "decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors who lined [future suicide bombers] up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little head up and down while they learned every word of their holy book like demented parrots."

Dawkins (vividly) rehearses lots of familiar stuff, like The Worst Moments of The Old Testament (the Flood, the nuking of Sodom, the genocide in Canaan, and so on), the sins of fundamentalism, ongoing faith-based homophobia and related sexual abuses, the absurdities of cargo cults, Pascal's utterly unconvincing Wager, even the kidnaping of Edgardo Mortara at the behest of Pope Pius IX. On the positive side, he defends the validity of atheistic ethics, with help from philosopher Peter Singer and others--just in case you still thought you had to be godly to be good.

Dawkins is all for studying (and honoring, where appropriate) the great cultural achievements of religion. Everyone should know the Bible (he does); and Dawkins wouldn't be without a recording of Mache dich, mein Herze, rein from Bach's B-Minor Mass if he had to move to the proverbial desert island. Atheists aren't literal iconoclasts--they certainly would never have dynamited the 1700-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan.

On the whole, Dawkins makes all sorts of interesting points and scores any number of eye-catching hits, but he does seem rather blind to the social functions of religion. Falling back on his beloved notion of memes, he runs down some of these cultural genes (belief in immortality, hatred of heretics, exaltation of blind faith, etc.) making up the "memeplex" of religion. Now, whatever else he can say about religion, Dawkins has to admit that it has shown a spectacular ability to survive and reproduce itself despite all the odds (including the efforts of critics like him). But his list of memes is such a casual, scattershot affair, ignoring religion's mighty community-building, life-enhancing, paradigm-shaping, sense-infusing, joy-inducing, brain-transforming features--and concentrating instead on superficial, obvious targets like the Qur'an's visions of houris. If nothing else, Dawkins should read Emile Durkheim's Elementary Structures of Religious Life.

The religion that Dawkins demolishes, like the God he imagines as enthroned in its midst, deserves (and staggers under) practically all the blows he launches at it; but there's a whole other world that he scarcely lays a glove on. That world isn't necessarily immune to reason's assaults, but they'll have to be orchestrated more subtly and sensitively than they are here. Meanwhile, atheists, especially insecure or harried ones, will find in The God Delusion one hell of a hotline.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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