THE GOD DELUSION. Richard Dawkins. x + 406 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. $27.
These are difficult times for rational people, particularly in the United States. Those of us who believe that scientific evidence should be the bedrock of policy formation, that logic should be the basis for argument and that uncertainty should beget tolerance are not honored in the political world. Rather, scientific evidence is ignored when it leads to politically unacceptable conclusions, logic is tossed aside when faith is involved, and tolerance for minority opinions is simply out of political fashion. Why should this be? For one thing, we seem to be becoming an increasingly religious country, and because religion supplants evidence and logic with faith--and faith can mean anything you want it to--politicians can get away with appealing to faith without having to justify themselves.
Less abstractly, the consequences of religious doctrines are implicitly or explicitly generating much of the news today. Whether it be jihad, opposition to stem-cell research, or teaching of intelligent design, religion is the genesis of more of our news than at any time I can remember. Because of the central role of religious belief in U.S. political life, this is a good time for a hard look at its nature. And a number of books have recently appeared that put religion to the test of rationality and show how appallingly it fails.
One quite extensive and erudite discussion comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is an Englishman and a facile writer about science. In a sense, you needn't read his latest book, you can just savor its title: The God Delusion. Depending on your position on religion, you may be impressed by how neatly that title announces his strongly held antireligious beliefs, or you may be disgusted that such a deeply rooted part of the world's traditions is dismissed so curtly. Either way, you will have a pretty full appreciation for the core of the arguments he makes. However, if you don't read the book, you will miss a very wide-ranging and quite readable discussion of religion from many points of view: historical, logical and cultural.