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.