A Mission to Convert

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins; drawing by David Levine

Scientists’ interest in religion seems to come in waves. One arrived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Another followed in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by surprising revelations from quantum mechanics, which suggested the insufficiency of conventional physical theories of the universe. And now scientists are once again writing about religion, apparently provoked this time by the controversy surrounding intelligent design.

During the last year, a number of popular books on religion by scientists or philosophers of science have appeared. Daniel Dennett kicked things off with his Breaking the Spell (2006), an investigation into the possibility of a science of religion. Reviewing evolutionary, psychological, and economic theories of the origin and spread of belief, Dennett covered much ground but reached few conclusions. In the last few months, three prominent scientists—all biologists—have published their own books on belief. Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has given us The God Delusion, an extended polemic against faith, which will be considered at length below.

Lewis Wolpert, an eminent developmental biologist at University College London, has just published Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a pleasant, though rambling, look at the biological basis of belief. While the book focuses on our ability to form causal beliefs about everyday matters (the wind moved the trees, for example), it spends considerable time on the origins of religious and moral beliefs. Wolpert defends the unusual idea that causal thinking is an adaptation required for tool-making. Religious beliefs can thus be seen as an odd extension of causal thinking about technology to more mysterious matters. Only a species that can reason causally could assert that “this storm was sent by God because we sinned.” While Wolpert’s attitude toward religion is tolerant, he’s an atheist who seems to find religion more puzzling than absorbing.

Joan Roughgarden, on the other hand, is sold on religion. An evolutionary biologist at Stanford University and a recent convert to Christianity, she attempts in Evolution and Christian Faith both to explain evolutionary biology to fellow believers—laying out what is known, what is speculative, and what is unknown—and to discuss what the Bible has to say on matters relevant to evolution. These are ambitious aims, particularly for so brief a book, and Roughgarden’s own views—that, as she writes, “what evolutionary biologists are finding through their research and thinking actually promotes a Christian view of nature”—are not supported by sufficiently detailed arguments.


Among these books, Dawkins’s The God Delusion stands out for two reasons. First, it’s by far the most ambitious. While Wolpert and Roughgarden preach to the choir—each has his or her own audience, rationalist and religious, respectively—Dawkins is on a mission to convert. He is an enemy of religion, wants to explain why, and hopes thereby to drive the beast to extinction. Second, Dawkins has succeeded in grabbing the public’s attention in a…

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