Imagine it’s Paris in the spring of 1789 and you have just announced that you are an inveterate foe of tyrants and kings. Obviously, your message is not going to fall on deaf ears. But now that you’ve made it clear what you’re against, what are you for? Do you favor an aristocratic constitution in which power devolves to the provincial nobility? Would you prefer a British-style constitutional monarchy? Or do you believe in all power to the sans-culottes? How you answer will shape both your analysis of the situation and the political tactics you employ in changing it. It may also determine whether you wind up on the chopping block in the next half-decade or so.
This is the problem, more or less, confronting today’s reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time, religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor entertainment. Christmas and Easter were quite unthinkable without it, not to mention Hanukkah and Passover. But then certain enthusiasts took things too far by crashing airliners into office towers in the name of Allah, launching a global crusade to rid the world of evil and declaring the jury still out on Darwinian evolution. As a consequence, religion now looks nearly as bad as royalism did in the late eighteenth century. But while united in their resolve to throw the bum out–God, that is–the antireligious forces appear to have given little thought to what to replace Him with should He go. They may not face the guillotine as a consequence. But they could end up making even bigger fools of themselves than the theologians they criticize.
Richard Dawkins is a case in point. It is no surprise that, along with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon, he has emerged at the head of a growing intellectual movement aimed at relegating religion to the proverbial scrapheap of history (which by this point must be filled to overflowing). He’s bright, obviously, a lively writer–his 1978 book The Selfish Gene is regarded as a pop science classic–and as an evolutionary biologist, he’s particularly well equipped to defend Darwin against neofundamentalist hordes for whom he is the Antichrist. But Dawkins is something else as well: fiercely combative. Other scientists have tried to calm things down by making nice-nice noises concerning the supposedly complementary nature of the two pursuits. Einstein famously said that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” while the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once characterized the two fields as “non-overlapping magisteria” that address different questions and have no reason to get in each other’s way. But Dawkins, to his great credit, is having none of it. Although he does not quite come out and say so, he seems to have the good sense to realize that no two fields are ever truly separate but that, in a unified body of human knowledge, or episteme, all overlap. Conflict is inevitable when different fields employ different principles and say different things, which is why an evolutionary biologist can’t simply ignore it when some blow-dried TV evangelist declares that God created the world in six days, and why he’ll become positively unhinged should the same televangelist begin pressuring textbook publishers to adopt his views.
Consequently, he’s got to go on the warpath–not only against the fundamentalists but against the sloppy logic and wishful thinking on which they batten. This is Dawkins’s forte, and it is what makes The God Delusion such an entertaining read. Not one for politeness, he is the sort of fierce logic-chopper who chuckles nastily when coming across what he regards as some particularly choice bit of inanity. Discussing Arius of Alexandria, for example, infamous in certain fourth-century theological circles for maintaining that God and Jesus were not “consubstantial,” i.e., not composed of the same substance or essence, you can almost hear him snicker: “What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What ‘substance’? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’? ‘Very little’ seems the only reasonable reply.” Quoting a third-century theologian known as St. Gregory the Miracle Worker on the mystery of the Holy Trinity–“There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son”–he can’t help sneering that “whatever miracles may have earned St. Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity.” Noting that the Catholic Church divides angels into nine categories, or orders–seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and ordinary members of the angelic rank-and-file–he lets slip that “what impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along.”