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The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin,

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406 pages, $35.95

A passage early in this engrossing work sets the tone: "Although Jesus probably existed, reputable scholars do not regard the Bible as a reliable guide to what actually happened in history. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams, 'The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.' "

Richard Dawkins is the British evolutionary biologist who wrote the delightful The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. This book is a closely argued essay and a polemic all at once, centred on his thesis that the idea of God is irrefutably wrong and dangerous. He is especially wrathful about the Bible; and powerful as his both his arguments and his polemic are, it is regrettable that he does not take the time to give an historical account of how the bloodthirsty, genocidal, racist, rape-approving Jehovah of the Old Testament gave us a religion of universal mercy and the love of humanity. But Dawkins's purpose lies in the opposite direction.

This is a scientist who has stepped out of his professional cool and become incandescently angry about religion. Rigorously scientific, he admits that it is not possible to disprove the existence of God, but, by God, he is going to come as close as possible, by exposing the fallacy of every God-arguer he can find, from Aristotle through Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the contemporary theologians he comes up against (fairly frequently, it seems) on BBC television.

Much of the territory explored in the first half of this provocative book is composed of well-written intellectual challenges to any believer in God, from any cultural background, to re-examine that belief (and the said believer's arguments in support of it) against Dawkins's rigorous countering of every such argument he's been able to dig up. He seems to have found just about all of them.

Most of the classical arguments are ascribed originally to St. Thomas Aquinas, and three of them are versions of the notion that there has to be One Prior Cause of everything, the first mover we call God. All of the arguments essentially involve rejecting the idea of infinite regress: that there was always something before something else, and never a Beginning.

Infinity is itself a mysterious notion, and Dawkins seems hostile to the very idea of mystery. But first, the most enduring of the classical arguments for God: the argument from design. If you see a watch you know there must have been a watchmaker. This is one that still exercises school boards and legislators, especially in the United States. It is compelling. How can it be that the intricate elegance of a dragonfly's wing just . . . happened?

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Dawkins declares himself satisfied that Charles Darwin blew that argument away a century and a half ago. The design idea still drives an immense amount of citizen pressure on U.S. boards of education. But Dawkins, assembling an array of statistics about the probability of virtually anything turning up in the billions of billions of galaxies in the universe, seems confident that he has dealt with the argument. However, many of his readers will not agree, and, I suspect, will be a bit offended by his disdain for the possibility of mystery in the said universe.

All the same, this is an elegant, engaging and persuasive writer, and his challenge is a seductive one. He is also an angry writer, and anger peaks when he recounts the past and present bloodshed, torture and destruction committed in the name of God. His chapter on the Bible is especially biting. He begins with the story of Lot's daughters -- not one that turns up often in sermons or on evangelical websites. When two male angels came to tell Lot (Abraham's uniquely righteous nephew) that he should get out of Sodom and Gomorrah before God sent down the fire and brimstone, the men of Sodom demanded that Lot turn the angels over to them to be buggered.

Lot refused. "Take my daughters instead," he said, conciliatorily. "They're virgins."

Dawkins turns to the same scenario in Judges 19, where we are asked to admire a hospitable old man who refuses a male guest to the Sodomites, but turns over his daughter and his guest's girlfriend (who dies from the all-night multiple rape). This leads Dawkins to God's anger at Moses when, in the massacre of the Midianites, Moses spared the women and children. Then the New Testament, and the passage in Luke 14 where Jesus tells the disciples that they may follow him only if they hate their mothers, fathers, wives, children and siblings. Not a passage much celebrated on evangelical websites, either, although some say that it's not really "hate" in the original. (It is. I checked both the Greek and the Vulgate.) Indeed, Hating the Others, as Dawkins underlines in his section on Christian fundamentalists in the United States today, seems still to be part of the tradition, the so-called "red states being consistently those with the highest rates of murder and other violent crime."

The God Delusion is a good, strong argumentative challenge to any thoughtful believer with the courage to read it with care and try to dispute it. It has a couple of flaws. I think Dawkins acknowledges the possibility that how it all began may remain forever a mystery. And yet he seems unable to accept that there may be power and beauty in the contemplation of that mystery. And historically, he ignores the speculation proposed by Lord Macaulay and others that the development of Christianity may have helped erode the ancient tribal power of chiefs and princes, by facilitating the promotion of bright young poor boys as candidates for the priesthood, thus contributing to the growth of democracy by setting up a power base that rivalled property, inheritance and blood.

Nor, by the way, does he acknowledge the contribution to the development of democracy in Britain by the Anglican bishops' opposition to Charles II's tyranny in the 17th century.

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It seems to me likely that when the early religious communities said, "Look: We don't kill our own," this soon became attractive to non-believers who did not want to be killed. And despite the bloodshed among rival religions over the centuries, the concept of who is "our own" seems to have grown -- latterly in parallel with the increasing secularity of most of the West -- to the point where optimists predict that one day "our own" will be, effectively, everybody.

But The God Delusion does not deal with this interesting idea. Perhaps Dawkins's hatred of religion has blinded him to the possibility of any good in it anywhere.

Dawkins says that Bertrand Russell, a declared atheist, was once asked what he would say if he arrived in heaven and God asked him why he hadn't believed. Russell, we are told, answered, "Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence."

Dawkins expresses great . . . well, "faith" is the only word . . . faith that a laboratory will some day duplicate that singular event of billennia ago when just the right quantum of energy encountered just the right combination of molecules -- and there was Life.

But given the millions spent on the attempt to do just that over the last half century -- and given Dawkins's general disdain for persons of faith -- I am tempted to say, "Not enough evidence, Dawkins. Not enough evidence."

Contributing reviewer Patrick Watson's most recent books are This Hour Has Seven Decades, a memoir, and Wittgenstein and the Goshawk: A Fable.

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