When Richard Dawkins, a zoologist at Oxford University, steps up to the altar he seems visibly pleased to see the pews in the church fully occupied. In the best Queen's English, he reads from his book: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
At first his words are greeted with laughter, and then with resounding applause from his audience of 600. Despite the venue, the spectacle that took place last Thursday in the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts was in fact the opposite of a religious service. Indeed, if the man delivering the sermon had his way, he would in fact be jettisoning religious faith altogether.
Richard Dawkins is a passionate believer in the theory of evolution, and he has written countless books in which he explains it to his millions of readers. Now, at the age of 65, Professor Dawkins is presenting his legacy to society in his latest book, titled "The God Delusion."
With the zeal of a scientist, Dawkins explains why "there almost certainly is no god" and calls upon the faithful to renounce their faith. "You can be an atheist," he tells his audience, "who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled."
The packed church in Cambridge (a frequent venue for authors reading from their works) isn't the only place where Dawkins' message is resonating with surprisingly large numbers of people. His broadsheet against religion strikes a nerve in an era characterized by conflict among the world's religions. The book has quickly shot up the bestseller lists in Great Britain, Canada and the United States. In the coming weeks, the author plans to embark on a book tour beginning on the American East Coast and ending in California.
A faith-based president
Professor Dawkins will have his work cut out for him as he traverses the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. According to a recent survey conducted by Newsweek, 92 percent of Americans believe in one god. And historian Arthur Schlesinger is convinced that the presidency of George W. Bush is the "first faith-based administration in American history."
With God's help, Bush led his country into a disastrous war against Iraq. And the anti-American sentiments blossoming throughout the world are to a large extent attributable to the fact that many people are simply fed up with the stubborn and holier-than-thou attitudes of America's self-styled "born-again Christians."
It's no coincidence that Dawkins, one of the sharpest critics of religion, hails from liberal Oxford. But Dawkins is certainly not alone among scientists who have recently taken to exposing the dangers and absurdities of religious. Nor is he the first to get involved in politics.
The day after Sept. 11, 2001, Sam Harris, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California at Los Angeles, sat down to write a book some might call heresy. Harris's theory was that the world's major religions are simply incompatible and that they inevitably cause conflict and "now prevent the emergence of a viable, global civilization."
Harris was convinced that conditions in his own country are dreadful for those who dare to criticize the faith of a fellow citizen. He wrote that the consequences of such action are devastating for the critic, and that the "danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy."
Take, for example, young Muslims flying airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of their religion or American Christians bombing abortion clinics. From his point of view, these people were no extremists who had merely misunderstood their religion. On the contrary, their actions were based on literal interpretations of their respective holy scriptures. According to Harris, these religious texts are little more than anthologies of violence, acts of vengeance and edicts that instruct the faithful to murder anyone who does not adhere to their respective faith.
The overconfidence of the über-religious
It took Sam Harris, who is now 39, years to find a publisher. And, says Harris, even when New York publishing house Norton agreed to publish his manuscript in 2004, some of the company's editors refused to meet with him. Nevertheless, Harris's first book, "The End of Faith," found a receptive audience in the United States, where 270,000 copies have been sold to date. Now available in paperback, the book continues to generate impressive sales figures today.
In his second book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," published in September 2006, Harris continues his assault on religion, even drawing parallels between organized religion and rape. "If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion," Harris explains, "I would not hesitate to get rid of religion."
But why does religion exist in virtually every human society? According to these influential atheists, man's affinity for the supernatural is a byproduct of evolution. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, 64, of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, speculates that evolution has programmed our brains in such a way that religious tales spread among human beings like successful biological species.
Dawkins believes that the brains of children are especially receptive to religious content. If this is the case, children who obey their parents have an advantage in terms of natural selection. This means that young children are inherently programmed not to question their parents' instructions. Dawkins writes:
"The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time and goats." The recipients of absurd advice, says Dawkins, later simply pass on the same advice to their own children. As a result of this avalanche of nonsense, those infected with religious bodies of thought became virtually unreceptive to rational argument and lose all sense of self-doubt. In philosopher Dennett's assessment, "the overconfidence of the deeply religious is the most dangerous thing in the world."
For atheists like Dennett and Dawkins, US President George W. Bush and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden are cut from the same cloth, both promoting faith and violence, and both against the side of reason and discourse.
The soulless forces of evolution
Philosopher Dennett and zoologist Dawkins derive their own worldview from the theory of evolution, which they have continued to expound upon in many books. Richard Dawkins became world-renowned in 1976 when he wrote his first book, "The Selfish Gene." In the book, Dawkins, challenging the theories of Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz (1903 to 1989), who did much of his research with geese, wrote that preservation of a biological species was not the only purpose of evolution. Instead, Dawkins speculated that the gene is the driving force of selection, and that it merely uses the body to multiply. This would mean that all animals -- including, of course, all human beings -- are nothing but survival machines for selfish genes.
Dawkins went on to publish many bestsellers, eventually becoming the most influential biologist of his time. He was increasingly intrigued by the way the theory of evolution affects religion. For thousands of years, the existence of complex design in the natural world was the reason people even believed in a designer, or divine creator. What else could explain the brilliance behind the eye of the eagle or the winter coat of the snow rabbit?
But then British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) discovered the law of natural selection, which holds that design in the living world is in fact caused by the soulless forces of evolution. Under Darwin's theory, simple amoebas could evolve into highly complex mammals over the course of millions of years. Richard Dawkins recognized that it was only the knowledge imparted by Darwin's discovery that enabled a human being to lead the life of an "intellectually fulfilled atheist."
Thanks to the insights of neurobiology, even the idea that the human soul and body are separate entities is now outdated. Thoughts arise from molecules, proteins and enzymes. "Yes, we have a soul," says philosopher Dennett, "but it's made up of lots of tiny robots."
Not content with depriving God of the basis of his existence, the two Darwinists also castigate what they call the "faith in faith" practiced by so many people. What they mean by this is the widely held belief that even if there is no god, religion is useful because it demonstrates moral values.
Altruism without God
It is precisely this argument that Dawkins takes to task in his new book. The fact that so much blood has been spilled in the name of religion is only one of the reasons he considers it an unfounded argument. According to Dawkins, the laws of Darwinism explain why the behavior of most people is essentially moral. In fact, altruism is not even limited to the human species.
Certain types of ants, termites, bees and wasps, for example, sacrifice themselves for the sake of other members of their species. The reason for this, according to Darwinian theory, is that the workers and those who benefit from their efforts are closely related. In the human species, this behavior is reflected in those who, instead of raising their own child, tend to a dozen nieces and nephews, thereby helping to ensure that as many hereditary factors as possible survive into the next generation.
There are many examples of "reciprocal altruism" -- the notion of helping someone and receiving his help in return -- in the living world. Vampire bats, for example, share blood with other hungry bats by regurgitating it. But in doing so, they give preference to other bats that have shared blood with them in the past. The result is that the bats that distribute blood fairly receive enough nourishment and are thus best able to reproduce.
Dawkins believes that a similar system must have existed among prehistoric humans. They lived in clans that were small enough to keep track of and they helped one another. Like the sex drive, evolution stamped altruism into the brain of man. Modern man has retained this capacity for altruism, which explains why people adopt the children of others and raise them as if they were their own.
An ostracized minority
Evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser of Harvard University has studied the moral behavior of religious and non-religious people in various cultures. He concludes that all human beings have acquired "a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years," and that they have done so as a result of evolution, entirely without divine assistance.
The Darwinists' conclusions are the latest ammunition in the culture wars between rationalism and religion that are now raging more ferociously than ever before in the United States. The attacks of Sept. 11 have only shifted the balance in favor of Christian fundamentalists.
According to a Gallup poll taken last October, 53 percent of all US citizens see themselves as so-called creationists. They believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago, whereas scientists estimate its age at 4.6 billion years. Richard Dawkins uses a geographic analogy to illustrate just how inaccurate this creationist belief is. "It's as if," he says with a smirk, "you believed that New York City and San Francisco were 700 yards apart."
But people in the United States who stand up to such nonsense and even out themselves as non-believers are members of an ostracized minority. Author Sam Harris needs a bodyguard whenever he makes public appearances. Philosopher Dennett constantly receives letters from American Christians who write that they literally want to see him burn in hell.
Still, Dennett also receives mail from people who have fallen away from their faith, a fact they conceal from others for fear of reprisal. Dennett says the letters come from people from all walks of life, like the man who owns a dry cleaning business in the Midwest who wrote to him. He considers himself an atheist, and yet he pretends to be religious because he fears doing otherwise could hurt his business.
According to the Newsweek survey, only 37 percent of US citizens could imagine voting for an atheist candidate as president. Sociologist Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis says atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public." As a result, it is difficult to find people who are willing to openly admit that they are atheists in the United States. Of a population of 300 million, all of 2,500 souls are members of an organization called American Atheists.
But Richard Dawkins hopes to boost that number by a significant margin. And he may not be as unsuccessful with the public as some would believe. His speech in Cambridge was met with wild applause, and when it was over a young man came up to him and said: "Thank you for coming to talk to us. Can I get a hug?" But the British professor recoiled in indignation at his young fan's overtures. His missionary zeal, after all, has its limits.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan