It's obvious from the start that we're in a different league now. Gone are the hoppings of Hitchens, the touching faith in C17 Prod propagandists of Harris. the uncritical belief in popular myths both authors share. Instead, we get measured prose, well-structured, coherent arguments, things you can get your teeth into. Funny so few reviewers could spot the difference.
But we're still in the world of anger. All of the four guys except Dennett are angry, and in a subsequent post ("The Anger of the Atheist") I shall go in some depth into the reasons for this, because it's far from obvious why it should be so. Actually when it comes to anger there are two issues bundled into one. Not just, why are atheists so angry, but why is anger so popular nowadays? For popular it undoubtedly is. If you can go by Amazon rankings and review numbers, Dennett's sales are much lower than the others, and while other factors are probably involved, I'm sure his relative lack of anger is an important one. I'll examine some reasons for the popularity of anger when I try to put this whole science/religion debate into its sociohistorical context.
However, for the moment we're stuck with Dawkins' anger. Unlike the other two Angry Guys, he's a little uncomfortable with it. He starts The God Delusion with a rather labored explanation of how he isn't really angry at all. What ignorant folk saw as anger was actually just... good humor! The opening to Chapter 2, most often cited as evidence, is "guaranteed to get a good-natured laugh", and he "invariably use(s) it as the warm-up act to break the ice with a new audience." (This, btw, is the passage in which he describes the God of the Old Testament as "petty", "unjust", "vindictive", "bloodthirsty", "racist", and "a bully", among many similar things--I'd give anything to see him "breaking the ice" at, say, a Southern Baptist convention.) So, far from the ogre he's been depicted as, he's just your friendly neighborhood atheist, always good for a quip and a smile.
And then, just 21 pages later, he blows it.
He says (all this is on p. 38) "The president of a historical society in New Jersey wrote a letter that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind, it is worth reading twice."
Here it is, in its entirety. "We respect your learning, Dr. Einstein, but there is one thing you do not seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the telescope, no more than human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, 'There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith'...I hope, Dr. Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor."
Okay. Have you read that twice? I've read it three or four times. Can you please tell me exactly how and where it "exposes the weakness of the religious mind", damningly or even mildly?
To the contrary, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable (and far from weak-minded) letter, not one I would write myself, perhaps, but unexceptionable as far as it goes. In addition, it touches on a couple of deep truths about the whole issue, truths we'll explore in depth at a later date. and also show a genuine warmth and solicitude for others. The politeness to Einstein is a bit oleaginous for my taste, but my taste tends to prefer the sour to the sweet, anyway, and that's the only fault I can find in it. The writer comes off as a thoroughly decent guy, one who knows that charity doesn't just mean tax-deductible donations.
But now listen to what Dawkins has to say about it (and only bold italics will do justice to his response):
"What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice."
Okay, readers. Go through the letter a third time. See if you can catch any of the drips of intellectual or moral cowardice. Expose the devastating revelations!
I mean, really, come on! Only someone blinded by his own anger (and totally lacking in (a) sensitivity and (b) fellow-feeling for other human beings) could write such wildly inaccurate, over-the-top trash. It shows, too, the kind of Taliban-ready intolerance that he, and especially Harris and Hitchens, are so quick to spot among the religious (and from which the moderate/liberal Christians who get so much flak from him are singularly free). Truly I say unto you, we have met the enemy and he is us.
I hadn't meant to spend so much time on this aspect of Dawkins' work, but I'm not sorry I did. Some very big questions here--questions that lie beneath those that people on all sides of the debate ask and answer--involve the extent of human reason, the extent to which it can be relied upon, and whether there is in fact far more to life than the exercise of reason. What may seem to be a trivial tizzy of Dawkins over some letter some unnamed president of some unnamed New Jersey historical society allegedly wrote in fact opens up vast vistas on the human condition.
Among other things, I shall inquire into the privileging of reason--the way in which reason is treated by atheists as the supreme form of human activity. It turns out that belief in reason has extremely flimsy rational foundations, a fact that believers in reason avoid at least as strenuously as the religious avoid things that might threaten their faith.
But next time I'll be dealing with the substance of some of Dawkins' arguments.