The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 416pp. $29.00. ISBN-10: 0618680004.
What a Friend We Have in Dawkins
DISCOURSE IN THIS COUNTRY IS sometimes held in such a death-grip by religion that a genial "up yours!" directed thereto is, perhaps, the only way to initiate a meaningful conversation on matters theological. Dawkins certainly supplies one in his recent book, The God Delusion. He is the Voice of Faith and Inspiration (as a fundamentalist radio station in my neighborhood used to style itself) though the faith, of course, is in the penetrating power of human reason in the absence of any cosmic Imaginary Friend, while what he inspires is chiefly a determination not to be intimidated by the religiosity that saturates our culture.
Dawkins is a wondrously efficient and beguiling writer--colloquial, unpretentious, and direct, notwithstanding his deep erudition and the exacting reasoning he continually deploys. The obvious comparison is to Bertrand Russell, a thinker with similar views and a similar gift for turning a devastating phrase. But Dawkins's virtues also include easy familiarity with popular culture, American as well as British. He cleverly uses it to gain the ear of an audience that, perhaps, would be a bit put off by a purely academic style.
It is greatly encouraging to note that this book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over six straight months, and that this is not just a one-shot deal. It's a good bet that ten or fifteen years ago, that wouldn't have been the case. Until relatively recently, most mainstream publishers would likely have treated any work heaping scorn on conventional belief as pure poison, commercially. Why has the climate changed so much? My own guess is that the surge of the Religious Right into the corridors of power has put many heretofore diffident unbelievers into a position where a fight-or-flight choice has to be made. Many--not only those who write in defense of godlessness, but also a wide spectrum of literate intellectuals--have chosen to fight, disdaining the notion that tactful silence best serves the right to unbelief. In any event, the infidels are now out in force to an extent not seen since the glory days of Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken. Today's primus inter pares amongst the paladins of rationalism is Dawkins, who, though British down to his toes, fights brilliantly on American soil.
The ideal readership for The God Delusion consists neither of grizzled old infidels like me nor of those still clinging to the frayed shrouds of faith who might be persuaded to turn them loose by a few more well-honed arguments. Instead, the book is best suited to a rather young reader--in the 15-to-30 demographic, say--who has recently discarded religion (or simply realized that it was never part of his or her makeup) and whose major need is for an arsenal of conceptual and rhetorical strategies to deal with peer hostility, cultural and political pressures, familial unhappiness, and so forth. Such young people require a crash...