From a brilliant mind, a silly book


Religion brings out the worst in Richard Dawkins. When he thinks about it, he becomes a preacher himself — and not a very good one.

Atheists usually live and let live. If the Archbishop of Canterbury can bring himself to say a friendly word about Islam, and Israelis can endure the embrace of evangelical Christians, then atheists figure they should tolerate believers. But Richard Dawkins has recently created a surprising intellectual commotion by insisting that atheism still requires vigorous advocacy.

Many people, even some non-believers, speak with regret about the emergence of what's now often called "godless Europe." But for Dawkins, godlessness can't come soon enough. He thinks atheists should attack all notions of divine power. He argues in The God Delusion that religion has done incalculable harm to the world and, well, it's dead wrong. His book has lately sold so handsomely that it seems certain to end up next week under many Christmas trees while the birth of Jesus is celebrated.

In expressing his passionate view of religion, Dawkins writes with a confidence that rings false. Should an intellectual dealing with such a mysterious subject be as sure of anything as Dawkins is of everything?

Should an atheist worship Charles Darwin with more passion than most of the pious worship God? Dawkins seems to fear religion as much as Christians fear the devil; more, in fact, since the devil's polls show his status sharply declining. (Certainly the traditional churches have been glad to hand the Evil One over to the movie industry.)

When dealing with science, Dawkins exhibits literary brilliance. The title he gave his most important book, The Selfish Gene, published 30 years ago, evoked his splendidly original approach to evolution. From discoveries by hundreds of other scientists, Dawkins sculpted a coherent theory that notably advanced Darwinism. G.K. Chesterton said he found it hard to believe in God but harder to believe that a swamp, if left alone long enough, will eventually build Chartres Cathedral; Dawkins couldn't convert Chesterton, but he made evolution more credible to a large audience.

Dawkins turned an essentially passive process into an eternal battle by rewriting natural history from the standpoint of a gene. While genes could not literally be selfish, they nevertheless act in a way that, in a human, would show a ruthless anxiety about survival. The Selfish Gene confirmed that this master of evolutionary biology had become perhaps the best science writer in the world.

G.K. Chesterton said he found it hard to believe in God but harder to believe that a swamp, if left alone long enough, will eventually build Chartres Cathedral;

But religion brings out the worst in Dawkins. It makes him awkward and sometimes silly. He considers religion stupid but doesn't realize that when he thinks about it he brings his IQ down a couple of dozen points. He becomes a preacher, and not a good one.

We might expect anyone approaching this subject to explain why regimes proclaiming themselves atheist, such as Stalin's or Mao's, have perpetrated the greatest atrocities of history. But Dawkins mostly ducks communism; Mao doesn't even appear in his index. Recently asked by a broadcaster about atheistic dictatorships, he began muttering about Hitler, offering the view that he was some sort of Christian or at least never disavowed Christianity. His handling of that issue suggests that this subject has turned Dawkins the truth-seeker into Dawkins the point-scorer.

He descends to low-level comedy when he gets to the Ten Commandments, which he considers obsolete because "almost all" of us have "moved on" since biblical times. We need a new set of rules, so he has thoughtfully composed a few replacements. One reads, "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business."

Dawkins obviously doesn't understand how limp that sounds, or how misleading. The part about "none of your business" rather undercuts Darwinism, since evolution has for some reason left most of us deeply curious about just that sort of thing. To make Dawkins happy we may have to turn the old evolutionary clock backward a few million years — and re-evolve as a less sex-obsessed species.

While he's his old cocky self when dishing out insults heavily influenced by George Bernard Shaw's work early in the last century ("The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction"), he loses his poise when he tries to suggest how atheists should live and think. His way with a commandment looks amateurish beside, say, the scene in Cecil B. DeMille's last film, The Ten Commandments, when God's finger writes the laws in fire on a rock while Moses (Charlton Heston) looks on in awe. All a metaphor, naturally, but a better metaphor than any I encountered in The God Delusion.




Robert Fulford, "From a brilliant mind, a silly book." National Post, (Canada) December 16, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.


Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950, when he left high school to work as a sports writer on The Globe and Mail. He has since been a news reporter, literary critic, art critic, movie critic, and editor — on a variety of magazines, ranging from Canadian Homes and Gardens to the Canadian Forum. He was the editor of Saturday Night magazine for 19 years, and since he left that job in 1987 he's been a freelance writer. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (1999). Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.

Copyright © 2006 Robert Fulford

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