Physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote Nature‘s review of The God Delusion. The review itself is mixed: strong praise for parts of the book, exasperated criticism for others. But the following two paragraphs are what caught my eye:
Dawkins the preacher is less seductive. And make no mistake: this book is, for the most part, a well-referenced sermon. I just have no idea who the intended parishioners might be. In his preface, Dawkins claims he hopes to reach religious people who might have misgivings, either about the teachings of their faith or about the negative impact of religion in the modern world. For these people, Dawkins wants to demonstrate that atheism is “something to stand tall and be proud of”.
I found this slightly puzzling. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but I am not particularly proud of it. Indeed, I am rarely, if ever, proud of not believing in things. More generally, I think the strategy of focusing on telling people what not to believe is less compelling than positively demonstrating how the wonders of nature can suggest a world without God that is nevertheless both complete and wonderful — an argument that Dawkins reserves for the final few pages of the book. And while there is a lot to complain about in the ubiquitous facile piety so prevalent today, complaining can nevertheless start to get tiresome. Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (Headline, 1996) likewise too often mirrored Sagan’s frustration at all those who over many years have continued to confront him with their superstitions, but it also conveyed his sense of awe and wonder about nature in a way that Dawkins elsewhere has so craftily displayed.
What a load of lazy nonsense.
A willingness to dissent from popular delusions is, indeed, something to be proud of. Disbelief in Santa Claus is not a source of pride, because no adult believes in Santa Claus. Atheism, by contrast, not only puts you in a small minority, but also brands you as morally suspect in the eyes of more than sixty percent of Americans (according to one recent poll). Having the courage to face this contempt in defense of a belief that is, after all, almost certainly correct, can rightly be a source of pride.
I have now taught mathematics in two highly religious parts of the country: Central Kansas and now Northwestern Virginia. It has happened on several occasions that students have told me, either after reading some of my essays online or hearing one of my occasional public presentations, that they were so happy to hear one of their professors express publicly what they had privately believed. Atheistic students have told me many stories about the religious bigotry they faced in their predominantly Christian high schools. It is easy for Krauss, a prominent physicist at a major university, to be ho-hum about atheism. But for students of the sort I see on a regular basis, a book like Dawkins’ can be a true breath of fresh air.
Krauss can’t imagine who the intended parishioners are? How about students skeptical of the dominant religious culture where they grew up, but who have never seen a clear presentation of any other view? How about people who don’t think religious beliefs should be exempted from rational scrutiny? How about thoughtful religious people unwilling to leave their brains at the church house door? Krauss can’t imagine that any such people would feel reading Dawkins’ book was time well spent?
And Dawkins actually spends very little time telling people what not to believe. Instead he shows, by strong argumentation, that God belief is not something that can be defended rationally. This is important work, since an awful lot of people think theism is the most rational thing in the world. As for showing that the wonders of nature can suggest a world without God, Dawkins devotes most of Chapter Four to precisely that project. I’m not sure why Krauss says it is only in the final few pages that he discusses this.
Krauss has done excellent work in his current home state of Ohio fighting the anti-evolutionists on the state school board. I would think that someone with that experience would not be so quick to dismiss the importance of a book like Dawkins’. I have listened to an awful lot of religious sermons, but I have yet to encounter one as calmly reasoned and patiently argued as what Dawkins’ presents here. For Krauss to dismiss all of this as a sermon, even to the point of warning readers to make no mistake about what Dawkins has written, is simply rude and arrogant. If Krauss wants to disagree with Dawkins’ arguments, I invite him to offer his counterpoints. Otherwise, he should learn a bit about the professional courtesy owed by one scientist to another.