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Arguing for Atheism

A review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Bantam Books, 2006, ISBN 0618680004). This review was originally published in Science, January 26, 2007.

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me … that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?

Such stirring words, spoken with such moral conviction, must surely come from an outraged liberal exasperated with the conservative climate of America today, and one can be forgiven for thinking that in a review of The God Delusion these are the words of Richard Dawkins himself, who is well known for not suffering religious fools gladly. But no. They were entered into the Congressional Record on 16 September 1981, by none other than Senator Barry Goldwater, the fountainhead of the modern conservative movement, the man whose failed 1964 run for the presidency was said to have been fulfilled in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, and the candidate whose campaign slogan was “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.”

If Goldwater had been president for the past six years, I doubt that Dawkins would have penned such a powerful polemic against the infusion of religion into nearly every nook and cranny of public life. But here we are, and like Goldwater, Dawkins is sick and tired of being told that atheists are immoral, second-class, back-of-the-bus citizens. The God Delusion is his way of, like the Howard Beale character in the 1976 film Network, sticking his head out the window and shouting, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

But The God Delusion is so much more than a polemic. It is an exercise to “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.” Dawkins wants atheists to quit apologizing for their religious skepticism. “On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”

Dawkins also wants to raise consciousness about the power of Darwin’s dangerous idea of natural selection. He believes that most people — even many scientists — do not fully understand just how powerful an idea it is. He attributes that failure to the need to be steeped and immersed in natural selection before you can truly recognize its power. In this context, natural selection “shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.”

Out of obligation, of course, Dawkins reviews and offers rebuttals to all the standard arguments for God’s existence. He concentrates on dissecting the anthropic principle and dismantling intelligent design creationism. (As part of the latter efforts, he redirects the creationists’ argument from complexity to show that God must have been designed by a superintelligent designer.) He then builds a case for “why there almost certainly is no God.” The remainder of the book outlines possible evolutionary origins of morality and religious belief, a justification for being hard on religion, childhood religious indoctrination as child abuse, and an elegant commentary on the progressively changing moral zeitgeist. Dawkins closes with a tribute to the power and beauty of science, which no living writer does better.

When I received the bound galleys for The God Delusion, I cringed at the title, wishing it were more neutral (why not, say, The God Question?). As I read the book, I found myself wincing at Dawkins’s references to religious people as “faith-heads,” as being less intelligent, poor at reasoning, or even deluded, and to religious moderates as enablers of terrorism. I shudder because I have religious friends and colleagues who do not fit these descriptors, and I empathize at the pain such pejorative appellations cause them. In addition, I am not convinced by Dawkins’s argument that
without religion there would be “no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’…” In my opinion, many of these events — and others often attributed solely to religion by atheists — were less religiously motivated than politically driven, or at the very least involved religion in the service of political hegemony.

I also never imagined a book with this title would ever land on bestseller lists in the United States. But I was wrong. The data have spoken. The God Delusion is a runaway bestseller, a market testimony to the hunger many people — far more, I now think, than polls reveal — have for someone in a position of prestige and power to speak for them in such an eloquent voice. The God Delusion deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.

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