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What we were reading: The God Delusion

The world was rocked by terrorism, climate change became an emergency, celebrity culture moved from our TVs to our bookshelves, and a boy wizard held millions spellbound. Love them or hate them, these are the 50 books that defined the decade

2006: Christopher Hitchens on The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins(Black Swan)

There are numberless reasons for regarding The God Delusion as a modern classic and one of these reasons, I would propose, is its relative superfluity. Richard Dawkins has already introduced millions of people to the rigour and beauty of the scientific worldview and shown in exquisite detail the ways in which we, like all our fellow creatures, have evolved and were in no meaningful sense "created".

Before the arid term "scientist" was coined in the last century, men such as Newton and Darwin were reckoned as "natural philosophers": a term that suits Dawkins very well. Another scholar deserving of the same title of honour was the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and The God Delusion can be read as a response to Gould's conciliatory and wishful proposition that "science" and "faith" (or religion) occupy "non-overlapping magisteria".

Dawkins's energy, industry and wit, in disputing this idle view and in showing the hard, historic incompatibilities between the two, have led to his being caricatured as a dogmatist in his own right, even as a "fundamentalist". What empty piffle this is. A senior teacher in the vital field of biology finds his discipline under the crudest form of attack, and sees government money being squandered on the teaching of drivel in schools. What sort of tutor would he be if he did not rise to the defence of his own profession? Thus the appearance of a secondary work that ought not to have been needed at all, but is in fact required now more than ever.

The God Delusion is, like Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, quite respectful of the human origins of religion and of the ways in which it may have assisted people in spiritual and even material ways. We are pattern-seeking primates, and religion was our first attempt to make sense of nature and the cosmos. This does not give us permission, however, to go on pretending that religion is other than man-made. And the worst excuse ever invented for the exertion of power by one primate over another is the claim that certain primates have God on their side. It is not only justifiable to be impatient and contemptuous when such tyrannies are proposed; it's more like a duty.

The atheist does not say and cannot prove that there is no deity. He or she says that no persuasive evidence or argument has ever been adduced for the notion. Surely this should place the burden on the faithful, who do after all make very large claims for themselves and their religions. But not a bit of it: we are somehow supposed to regard the profession of "faith" as if it were a good thing in itself. This is too much to ask, and it was high time to say so.

I regret to say that I have just noticed a tiny mistake on page 177. It is not true to say that the Virgin Mary "ascended" into heaven. She was "assumed" into that place, by a ruling of the Roman Catholic church that dates back all the way to the mid-19th century. Dawkins really must be more careful, but he may have been busy, as in the chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable in which he described the 20 or so separate evolutions of the eye. Readers of The God Delusion ought to press on and buy all the other Dawkins volumes too.



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