Selling the Soul of Science for a Pot of Message: Evangelizing Atheism in The God Delusion

Bestseller lists for the past two years chart a swelling tide of interest in a long-standing backwater: atheism. Nothing so tame as old-fashioned agnostic doubt, the new wave floods readers with outspoken scientific atheism. Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004) was the earthquake that triggered a tsunami swollen by urgent tributaries from Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) and Marc D. Hauser’s Moral Minds (2006), swelled all the more by Harris’s reprise Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). That atheist tidal wave has yet to crest—Carl Sagan hectors us from the grave in The Varieties of Scientific Experience (2006), Lewis Wolpert castigates religion as one of his Six Impossible Things before Breakfast (2006), and Christopher Hitchens decries “how religion poisons everything” in God Is Not Great (2007). There is getting to be so much scientific atheism that Victor J. Stenger sounds redundant with God: The Failed Hypothesis (2006). For all the flotsam crowding their antitheological surfaces, these atheist spokesmen sound, bottom line, a lot alike: science is the sole reliable truth source, so if scientists cannot find him, God is not there.

The most vociferous if not obstreperous apologist for scientific atheism has to be British evolutionary psychologist Richard Dawkins in his most recent diatribe, The God Delusion. It is clear from the first page why it is the bestselling standard-bearer for current atheism—this intense defense, far from abstruse treatise, is a rip-snorting read. Dawkins knows his scientific bailiwick backward and forward, parading it so sure-footedly his confidence downplays some dramatic missteps outside his expertise into the minefield of theology. This is high-risk territory, made riskier for this interloper by his scanty religious awareness; yet Dawkins manages some deft moves in his argument for atheism. He is a vivid and, at his best, a witty writer—I cannot remember when I have chuckled so much with any book of philosophy, let alone one so insistently insulting: “This sounds terrific,” Dawkins says about my view of creation, “right up until you give it a moment’s thought.”

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