Few religious-minded individuals will likely read a book titled "The God Delusion." But perhaps they should. When he isn't screeching about the evils of religion in tones that resemble the giddy zeal of a tent revivalist, Richard Dawkins' quick prose reveals a reverence for the natural world that echoes Albert Einstein's description of himself as "a deeply religious nonbeliever."
Dawkins calls himself a "de facto" atheist, one who lacks the evidence to disprove God's existence but places the probability of a divine being at "less than zero."
He takes on philosophical arguments for God's existence, beginning with proofs by Thomas Aquinas - arguments he calls "fatuous" - then moving on to Pascal's famous wager that those who doubt God's existence might as well hedge their bets on the side of the Almighty. "Pascal was probably joking," Dawkins quips.
Many, perhaps rightly, have charged Dawkins with intolerance. He dismisses religion in general as "nonsense," describes the Old Testament God as a jealous psychopath and blames organized religion for wars, genocide and homophobia. In one of his hyperbolic fits, he likens religious education to child abuse.
In such moments, Dawkins oversteps, distorting evidence in a way that resembles the methods of the religious fundamentalists he criticizes. He attacks leaders of the religious right for claiming the founding fathers conceived of the United States as a Christian nation (the most radical wing of the movement, Christian Reconstructionism, seeks to "restore" biblical law, including the death sentence for adulterers).
Dawkins could simply challenge this claim, but he takes the argument further and paints Thomas Jefferson, a well-known Deist, as a likely atheist. Later on, he attacks clergy who invoke hellfire to draw converts, but resorts to a similarly cheap blow in claiming atheists face death with greater dignity than those who fear the wrath of a divine judge.
Dawkins' explanation of religiosity in its various forms - from the "cargo cults" among South Pacific islanders who attach divine significance to the content of cargo ships to evangelical Christians awaiting the Rapture - is far more interesting than his diatribes.
A staunch Darwinian, Dawkins compares belief in the supernatural to a vestigial organ that has outlived its evolutionary purpose. Religion, Dawkins argues, probably once gave tribes and ethnic groups competitive advantage in the struggle for survival by offering useful folklore about the natural world and providing a collective identity. For Dawkins, religion has outlasted its evolutionary function: We now have science to explain why fire burns and snake venom kills.
Dawkins' arguments make scattered sense, and "The God Delusion" (Houghton Mifflin, $27) will grab readers who can forgive his tone. But a bit more humility would become him. If Dawkins wants to convince religious people of his views, he ought to begin the conversation by at least taking their beliefs seriously.