Books: Planet of the Apes ; Richard Harries Finds the Devil in the Detail in a New Collection of Essays by Britain's Most Outspoken Atheist

By Harries, Richard | The Independent (London, England), March 8, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Books: Planet of the Apes ; Richard Harries Finds the Devil in the Detail in a New Collection of Essays by Britain's Most Outspoken Atheist


Harries, Richard, The Independent (London, England)


A Devil's Chaplain

Richard Dawkins

Weidenfeld and Nicolson

pounds 16.99, 264pp

pounds 14.99 (plus pounds 1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

THIS HIGHLY readable selection of essays exhibits Richard Dawkins' characteristic qualities of clarity and passion. Above all is his moral commitment to evidence-based science and his sense of wonder at the world which such scientific endeavour opens up. A series of brilliant analogies renders most of the science accessible to the non-specialist. All this more than justifies his fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature and his professorship in the Public Understanding of Science, which he likes to think of as "Advocate for Disinterested Truth".

In this role he demolishes New Age religion and the claims of alternative medicine as well as exposing the mixture of nonsense and fraud which constitutes some French post-modernist writing. Inevitably, too, organised religion is the object of some brilliant polemical writing. Richard Dawkins often seems to suggest that science generally, and evolution in particular, simply rule out the possibility of a religious view of the universe. This view was reinforced by his recent atheistic "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, for the message was quite simply: "Religious people, why don't you grow up?" In other words it was a moral attack on religion as a form of immaturity, not a scientific or philosophical expose.

This collection of essays, of which a good number relate to religion in one way or another, enables us to see more clearly the basis of his atheism. It ends with a letter to his daughter in which he urges her only to believe things on the basis of good evidence. He picks out three bad reasons for believing anything: tradition, authority and revelation. Religion depends on all three but there is no real evidence, he suggests, to substantiate these claims. Religious believers, however, would say that the evidence is simply the existence of the universe as such and ourselves within it. One way or another this needs accounting for.

Dawkins argues that only science can account for the world and he is particularly scornful of the recent accommodation of science and religion, each with their separate spheres of intellectual territory into "How questions" (science) and "Why questions" (religion). He asks, "What are `why questions', and why should we feel entitled to think they deserve an answer? There may be some deep questions about the cosmos that are forever beyond science. The mistake is to think that they are therefore not beyond religion too." Why questions are those that arise in the mind of every human being when they wonder if there is or is not some kind of rational purpose, not of our own making, behind the universe. When he asks, "Why should we feel entitled to think they deserve an answer?" we can say that surely we are entitled at least to ask the questions. Such questions cannot be answered by the scientist qua scientist, though that same scientist outside the laboratory may very well attempt an answer of some kind or another, and most of them do.

One of the weaknesses of Dawkins' approach to religion is that he tends to select the weakest examples and worst cases.

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