Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Dawkins Effect

If you were to sit down and try to dream up a book intended to annoy the largest number of people possible, it would look a lot like this. And I don’t just mean the shiny silver cover with the bright orange die-cut, either. Rather, a book not only based on material that, for many of us was one of the forbidden dinner table conversation topics when we were growing up, it occasionally touches on still more.

The book, of course, is Richard Dawkins’ sensational The God Delusion (Mariner Books), first published to a growing thundercloud of readership in 2006, it was recently released in paperback in time for a new edition to (ahem) lord it over a whole flock of imitators and also rans: some taking up Dawkins’ refrain, others trying to rake a little muck and -- astonishingly -- a few even used Dawkins’ name in the title of their own books. Honestly, put up your hand if you think a book called God is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins (Ignatius Press) can do anything but sell more of Dawkins book. And how about The Dawkins Delusion? (IVP Books and the question mark is part of the title.) Or the even stupider sounding The Ipod Tutor: The Argument Against Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As the name sort of implies: you don’t even have to read that one. You can just listen along.

Let’s face it, though: Dawkins has here cooked up a powerful stew, one that sometimes reads as though it is meant to annoy the other side. For example, this snippet from Dawkins’ preface to the paperback edition seems like gasoline intended for the fire:
… I suspect that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realize that non-belief is an option. This is certainly true for most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been properly taught Darwin’s astounding alternative.
You can almost hear the flames jump at that one; hear people preparing to write still more books with “Dawkins” in the title. And it also helps you understand why The God Delusion has invited such a huge readership. The Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University as well as the author of many hugely popular and thought-provoking books, Dawkins delivers the scholarship necessary for us to even begin to take him seriously. But what really compels -- and makes some people mad enough that they even use the professor’s name in the title of their own books -- is that Dawkins doesn’t bother dancing the careful dance. “Darwin’s Rottweiler” is what Discovery called him. We get that -- really we do. But it just scratches the surface.

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