[Originally posted in February 2007 at SciFiDimensions.com; re-posted on September 25, 2007 at AmericanFreethought.com.]
It’s hard to believe, 82 years after the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, that there are still Americans who really do believe that the earth is 6,600 years old (give or take a century) and that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is just a bunch of atheistic balderdash. Especially over the last 25 years or so, the American “Culture Wars” have become something of a farce. Not a year goes by that some local school board kowtows to the Religious Right by insisting that Creationism, or Intelligent Design (so-called theories that are utterly devoid of any scientific validity), be taught side-by-side with evolution, as if these competing worldviews were actually viable alternatives. Scientists and concerned proponents of good education who bother to oppose these fundamentalist eruptions are engaged in a perpetual game of Whac-A-Mole: No sooner than, say, Dover, Pennsylvania has been set right, then mischief-makers pop up in Cobb County, Georgia, or elsewhere.
This particular debate is just a symptom of a greater phenomenon. America is, compared to its counterparts in the Western world, awash in religion. Christians (some, certainly not all) honestly believe that they are a persecuted minority, never mind there are more churches today than ever before. And never mind the fact that no self-described atheist could ever aspire to national office.
So, what to make of the recent spate of bestselling books that tackle the problematic aspects of religion? Three years ago, nobody had ever heard of Sam Harris (a philosopher in pursuit of a doctorate in neuroscience), but he has had not one, but two hugely successful books: The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. The former argues that religion, even in its moderate, tolerant manifestations, is ultimately a bad thing; the latter is a compact treatise that explodes the myth that “America is a Christian Nation” and that the Founding Fathers were Bible-thumping evangelicals. Another philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has fortified his secular bona fides in Breaking the Spell, a book with a double meaning—Dennett argues that we must discard the taboo against rational scrutiny of religious belief (and in so doing, we may once and for all break the spell of religion itself). Even comedian Julia Sweeney has joined the Dark Forces of Secularism. Sweeney was best known as the androgynous Pat from Saturday Night Live, but has since gained critical acclaim for her series of Spalding-Gray-esque stage monologues, including Letting Go of God, a funny and very human account of how she transformed herself from devout Catholic to outspoken atheist.
And then there’s Richard Dawkins. Dubbed “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Dawkins has published a number of books on evolution, including The Selfish Gene (1976), The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and The Ancestor’s Tale(2004).
His most recent book is less about evolution and more about the efficacy (or inefficacy) of religion. The God Delusion (2006) covers a dizzying variety of topics. Dawkins tackles various classical arguments for and against the existence of God. He delves into the evolutionary theories on the origins and purpose of religion and confronts the common claim that atheists are necessarily morally bankrupt. He then turns the tables and examines the possibility that religion itself might cause more harm than good (indeed, he backpedals from the title of his recent documentary The Root of All Evil, claiming that the title came not from him, but from the show’s producers).
Most of The God Delusion will be nothing new to anyone well-read in the ongoing religion/secularism debates. Much of the book reads like a primer on the topic and will come across as “preaching to the choir” (if I can use that phrase) to many skeptics. Dawkins repeatedly draws upon his previous work, and references the recent publications from Harris, Dennett and Sweeney.
Dawkins holds forth at some length on two areas even fellow rationalists will find controversial. He rails against “the poverty of agnosticism,” insisting that there is little gray area when it comes to questions of the supernatural. And he devotes an entire chapter on issues relating to the rearing of children in a religious environment, painting it as superstitious indoctrination and tantamount to child abuse.
A word on Dawkins’ tone. He has come under some criticism over the years—and not just from theists—for being arrogant and derisive (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, no friends of religion, lampooned Dawkins savagely in 2006 in two episodes of South Park). Dawkins’ writing occasionally drips with sarcasm, and his intention can be confirmed by listening to the audiobook version of The God Delusion, which is read by Dawkins and his wife, actress Lalla Ward. (A trivial aside: Lalla Ward is best known for her work in the late 70s and early 80s as Romana on the BBC series Doctor Who. She was married very briefly to costar Tom Baker after she left the show, and was later introduced to Richard Dawkins by their mutual friend Douglas Adams, occasional writer for Doctor Who and author of the classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
If Dawkins is sarcastic and biting, it is, I suspect, because he emphatically believes in what he is saying, and perhaps in part because it makes his writing far more interesting to read. At any rate, such criticism only distracts from judging whether Dawkins is right or wrong. In my estimation, he is right far more than he is wrong. He proves—one would think once and for all, but who are we kidding?—the ludicrousness of religious claims (if not the downright uselessness of religion itself), and the necessity, if open, progressive society is to thrive, of fostering rational, skeptical, uncensored thought.