A devastating critic of Christianity
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Date: April 2003

A Devil's Chaplain

Photo: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
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'Dawkins is an articulate, intelligent, passionate and devastating critic of Christianity.'

A Devil's Chaplain
Richard Dawkins
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Hardcover, 320pp

Dawkins, it is safe to say, divides opinion.

Some exalt him as a messianic champion of truth and science against the dark forces of superstition. Others hate him as an enemy of all faith and spirituality every bit as fanatical as his most entrenched opponents.

"The man's very voice makes me feel queasy," said a friend of mine recently, "and the things of his I have read have the (intended) effect of offending my very soul."

A Devil's Chaplain is not Dawkins at his best - though some of it is very good indeed. It does, though, perfectly demonstrate what all the fuss is about.

The book is a collection of occasional writings over 25 years - newspaper articles, obituaries, reviews and prefaces. As someone who tries to make a living from writing such things myself, the idea that he can publish them a second time and get paid all over again drives me insane with envy. Or would do if I wasn't so spiritual.

It also means that rather than getting stuck in to explaining the stuff he knows all about - evolutionary zoology - he flits between many subjects where he is less expert: education, homeopathy, postmodernism, ethics, fiction and, of course, religion.

There is plenty here well worth reading. The essays on the ethics of cloning are illuminating: Dawkins argues that producing a clone is scientifically the same as producing an identical twin. His comments on the slippery-slope relationship between humans and other apes is fascinating and challenging.

The section on religion ("The Diseased Mind" - how sweet) is vital reading for Christians. Dawkins is an articulate, intelligent, passionate and devastating critic of Christianity. If you're going to entrust your life to a religion, this is the test it needs to pass.

But such a book is bound to be patchy. And it's like reading a book by Rowan Williams on gardening - fervent fans may lap it up, but newcomers are better off reading the man on the subject he really knows about.

One of the most interesting things about Dawkins is his utter devotion to the unfashionable idea of objective truth. Time was when everyone thought like this - truth is not a matter of opinion but of fact. Whether you're Christian or Muslim, monarchist or republican, Platonist or Ockhamist, you were right or you were wrong.

These days, people tend to think differently. Bombarded with so many different kinds of thinking, we say: "We all have out own ways of looking at it. Who's to say who's right or wrong? Chill out, man." "This is my truth," as a great Welsh philosopher once said, "tell me yours."

Dawkins will have none of that. The truth is out there. It can be measured, weighed and judged. Science allows us to know what¹s what with absolute certainty - the fact that we entrust our objective flesh and blood to whatever principle it is that planes work on proves that.

Any so-called truth that cannot be scientifically proved, Dawkins argues, is a total pile of pants. This applies to God, the soul and alternative medicine. For some reason, he does not apply the same principle to current secular beliefs such as human rights and the equality of the sexes.

But whether you're enraged or inspired - or more likely both - by Prof. Dawkins, he is rarely less than stimulating.

• Find out more about Richard Dawkins
• Read his interview with Third Way
• Read his response to 9/11

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