Today’s Guardian has a list of the 50 books that “defined” the past decade. It’s a mixed bag, and of course some of the “defining” books are pretty dreadful (e.g., The Da Vinci Code), but there are some good ones too (my favorites include Home, Atonement, and The Year of Magical Thinking). And one, The God Delusion, is the subject of a mini-essay by Christopher Hitchens.
Your Books of the Decade
What we were reading 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
What Hitchens says about TGD:
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.
Given the joint and salutary effect of all the “new atheist” books, it’s hard to choose just one that defined the decade, although “new atheism” itself is certainly a major movement of the noughties. I would have lumped TGD with The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell, and God is Not Great in a quartet of apostasy.
Hitchens’s blurb reminded me of two things. The first is all the criticism of Dawkins, much of it unfair, for being “dogmatic and militant”. He’s simply forthright. If Dawkins took after, say, Republicans using the same tone with which he goes after religion, nobody would call him a dogmatic, militant, anti-Republican. (Do you hear anybody criticizing the “militant fundamentalist Democrats” who mock Sarah Palin?) It is only critiques of religion that elicit such epithets. For reasons that still elude me, it’s perfectly fine to use frank, strong language when criticizing someone’s politics, but not someone’s religion. I have yet to understand the difference. After all, political opinions are often held with the same tenacity as religious ones. At any rate, it’s time to stop exempting religion from the same sort of criticism that we level at other beliefs and opinions.
Dawkins also took some flak in The Greatest Show on Earth for bashing creationism. (I remember a particularly grumpy review in The Financial Times.) That criticism was unfair. I’ve read TGSOE twice now, and the creation-bashing is limited, measured, and entirely appropriate. For god’s sake, how can you avoid bringing up creationism when proffering a book that gives evidence for something scientists and the educated public have accepted for decades? What other reason is there to produce such a book? As Richard said, “This book is necessary.” (Whether it — and my own effort — will be effective is another issue.)
The second point is that it’s time for the faitheists and the faithful to stop instructing us that “we can’t prove that there is no God.” (This is usually conveyed, in pompous tones, as “You can’t prove a negative.”) No atheist that I know — and certainly none of the published “new atheists” — claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God. Nor can anyone absolutely disprove the existence of fairies, leprechauns, or an invisible elephant in the trunk of your car. The next time a religious person says something like this, just respond, “Yes, and you also can’t prove that there isn’t a Zeus.”
h/t: John Brockman