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Published: Sunday, 9/21/2003

Biologist dissects religion, education, and more

BY PATRICK O'GARA
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

A DEVIL'S CHAPLAIN. By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin. 248 pages. $24.

Richard Dawkins is madder than a feminist at a wet T-shirt contest. One of the world's foremost evolutionary biologists - that means he regards evolution, like gravity or relativity, as an indisputable fact - has had about enough of the kind of illogicality that goes along with religious belief:

“Those of us who have renounced one or other of the three `great' monotheistic religions have, until now, moderated our language out of politeness. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are sincere in their beliefs and what they find holy,” he says.

But, after 9/11, “My last vestige of respect for `hands off religion' vanished in the smoke and choking dust ... followed by the `National Day of Prayer,' when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonation and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.”

He ends the essay, “Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and speak out. Things are different after September 11th. All is changed, changed utterly.” You go, man.

No one can doubt that it was, and is, the idea of a paradise after death that prompted the maniacs in the World Trade Center and Pentagon planes, the killer of the abortion doctor in Florida, and the suicide bombers in the Mideast to act the way they did, and do - “Only my religion has holy martyrs. Yours has insane, self-destructive lunatics.”

Of course, very few Muslims or Christians are fanatics, but if neither religion existed, there wouldn't be any at all, would there?

In his first collection of essays, Dawkins suggests that believing in something as unlikely as a Heaven, or a God who seems to care, is not simply mindless folly, but a kind of acid test: “Is it possible that some religions are favored not in spite of being ridiculous but precisely because they are ridiculous?”

This idea has a fancy name: costly authentication. It means that, like a male peacock with his preposterous, massive tail display, the more extreme religious believers carry a mental burden so mind-boggling it is its own justification.

By declaring, for example, that the world was literally ready made in one week a few thousand years ago, they emphasize that their faith is stronger and more powerful than, say, our faith, because theirs despises the very notion of evidence.

Curiously, this lack of caution generally only applies to their religion. When it comes to buying a car, for example, very few of them - we hope - would blindly take the sales person's word that the auto in question will never break down, has had only one careful old lady owner, and has never been driven above 65 miles an hour.

Unless, possibly, the sales person in question is also their pastor, their mullah, their rabbi, or the Pope. Otherwise, they demand evidence, and a legal guarantee, like the rest of us.

Dawkins is not only a scientist of international stature, but also a natural-born teacher and a gifted writer. His observations provide insight and wisdom in all cases, and humor in all but a few. Some things - like filling the unformed minds of children with absurd but terrifying stories of hellfire and damnation - just aren't funny, he says.

Dawkins, along with Daniel Dennett, the late Stephen J. Gould, and the late Carl Sagan, has done more to introduce the wondrous workings of Darwin's theory of natural selection over the last 25 years than anyone else. Apart from writing books, of which The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene are probably the best known, he appears often on TV and in newspapers and magazines.

Not only brilliant, he is also handsome and married to a beautiful actress. All this does his image no harm. Some folks have more than their share of genetic good fortune.

Among the topics covered in this series of essays are pseudo-science, the absurdities of postmodernism, quack medicine, genetics, jury trials, crystal balls, cloning, evolution, (naturally), the value of skepticism, and most positively, the sheer, mind-expanding wonder of the scientific process.

You will find little within these covers that is hard to understand. Some ideas may make you angry because you disagree. Others may anger you because you agree.

If you believe in God, A Devil's Chaplain probably won't change your mind. Very few people ever take such a radical step. Once a Muslim, always a Muslim. Or whatever. Still, just reading this book shows that you have an open mind.

You do, don't you?

(Patrick O'Gara is a retired Blade senior editor.)



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