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God’s Assassin

UPDATED 12/25: New York Review of Books’ take on The God Delusion (link at end of this post).

Forty years ago, Time magazine detonated a bombshell with [a cover story] on the decline of religion in America. Caused quite a stir back in the day. Reading it today, the article is remarkable for, among other things, the contrast with the world as we know it: back then not only were lay people comparatively unreligious (they quote a Harris poll showing that though 90+ percent of respondents professed belief in God, less than a third considered themselves very religious), but theologians and leaders of mainstream churches were actively moving away from the concept of a personal God in order to fall into step with congregants. Forty years later we know how long that lasted. And yet, just recently it seems, voices of radical dissent are bubbling up. Atheists like [Sam Harris], Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are suddenly everywhere, writing books, giving talks, appearing on television and YouTube. Following them is a phalanx of suddenly animated scientists and intellectuals decrying the dangerous effects of religious faith. The New York Times, in a [story] on a conference of scientific apostates recently held at the Salk Institute in California, quotes Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg as saying, “anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” Deicide is the new new thing.

Why now? Probably because of 9/11 and Iraq. For the past five years Americans have been witnessing the results of fundamentalist faith — ours and theirs — on our lives and they don’t like what they see. This is worse than a bunch of loony Bible-beaters trying to teach the kids of Kansas that Adam and Eve chased dinosaurs around the Garden of Eden — it’s life and death. Dangerous times call for radical remedies and, so, dissenting voices that might otherwise have remained unheard are given an opportunity to blunt the effects of radical faith. I see it as akin to the Democratic sweep of Congress — not really a signal that people are walking away from conservatism so much as angling for mental breathing room.

Into the breach steps Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. Until recently Dawkins was known as an evolutionary biologist whose major contribution was as a popularizer of Darwinian theory in books like [The Selfish Gene] and [The Blind Watchmaker]. He’s always been an ardent atheist, more than willing to lace into his religious adversaries with a lancet-like tongue, but since the runaway success of his book [The God Delusion], he’s turned into a freethinking entrepreneur. His very elaborate [website] doubles as a portal of sorts to all things atheist, including lists of local chapters of atheist organizations, backlists of lectures and videos, forums and event calendars — even an online store (“Coming soon!”). Dawkins is the de facto leader of the new atheist movement and he’s traveling far and wide to spread the good word on God’s bleak fate — even to Lynchburg Virginia — hometown of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University:

This video is the 70 minute Q&A session that Dawkins held at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg. The session consisted of many visiting students from Liberty trying to best Dawkins with not-very-subtle challenges to his statements about the illogic of religious belief. As might be expected, Liberty University doesn’t attract the most intellectually gifted youngsters in America, so Dawkins deflects their pathetic challenges without breaking a sweat — but a few interesting things happen that offer insights into Dawkins himself. At one point a young woman from Randolph-Macon asks if it is common for people experiencing “deconversion”, or loss of faith, to feel angry. Dawkins professes naive ignorance of what she means. He asks the crowd if they share her experience and there is a resounding chorus of agreement. He seems baffled at the idea of anger as the result of enlightenment. It’s a remarkable moment, not just because it betrays a profound ignorance of the psychological complexity of others but a stunning lack of self-awareness. The man is driven by anger.

I’ve often wondered why public atheists — people who make an issue of other people’s faith — are so exercised by what others believe. It’s a small minority — in any culture — that are really crazy with religion and pose a threat of intellectual or bodily harm and they can (and should) be dealt with through legal methods and public ridicule. But we all know that most people wear their faith like a suit of sturdy clothes. They take it out of the closet a few times a year for ritual purposes, march up the aisle in it, then, when the candles have been snuffed and the holy books put away, return it to the closet and go about their lives rationally, comforted in the knowledge that God is there if they need him. Why rob them of something benign and comforting — to what end? Why are atheists so angry at God? Do they ever ask themselves this question?

Maybe not. At one point in the Q&A a meaty fellow from Liberty gets up to answer one of Dawkins’ challenges to God’s existence based upon the laws of nature by basically saying, “God plays by different rules.” The inability or unwillingness of the young man to engage his critical faculties in argument is almost too much for Dawkins to bear and he dismisses the young man by saying, “well if you want to believe that it’s up to you.” Then, just a few minutes later a young woman stands up and timidly asks what may have been the most subtle and profound challenge of the evening to Dawkins’ tirade against faith. “What if you’re wrong?” she says very quietly.

“What if YOU’RE wrong?!” he barks back at her. The young woman stands quietly as he stares her down and is too gracious (or perhaps intimidated) to mention that his response is not an argument.

UPDATE 12/25: ‘Tis the season — Edge.org posts [photos] of Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris posing by their (*gasp*) Christmas trees.

More importantly, The New York Review of Books [reviews] The God Delusion and finds Dawkins… underwhelming.

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