Return to index of reviews

A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin Company, Sept. 2003
248 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker

Reading such intelligent thoughts, put so simply and clearly, and with profound originality, this book can't help but to elevate the reader to some inspired mental plane, unless the reader happens to possess that viral disease called Faith. Anyone who harbors that ugly mental disorder will find themselves vomiting objections to the very thing that just might cure them. Richard Dawkins serves as the doctor who has a cure; a treatment that the infected mind, by its very nature, will at first want to reject. However, if the brave believers can get past their infirmity's power of denial, they will have the inoculative tools to help rid themselves of unnecessary (and dangerous) beliefs.

A Devil's Chaplain, written by one of the most renowned evolutionary biologists, comes from his personal selections from past articles, lectures, book reviews, forewords, tributes and eulogies that he had published over 25 years. A few of you may notice that many of the chapters from Dawkins book had previously appeared on John Catalano's wonderful web site, The World of Richard Dawkins.

No doubt some of the Religious Right will believe that the title of this book describes Dawkins as a disciple of Satan, but actually the phrase comes from a letter by Darwin where he jokingly refers to a book by a Devil's Chaplain explaining the cruel works of nature (an idea that a religious mind who thinks their god has created perfect designs in 'His' image, might want to reconsider after reading this book).

The subjects in this book range from the latest views of evolutionary biology, Darwin, the methodology of science, memes (a lot on memes), ethics, religion (a lot on religion), and heros. Of his heros, Dawkins writes lovingly about the lives of Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame), W. D. Hamilton, John Diamond, Richard Leakey, and Stephen Jay Gould.

Those who have read Dawkins and Gould's books will, no doubt, have heard about the disagreements between these two great scientists. But how mild their disagreements compared with those who disagree on the bases of faith (as do religionists who cannot resolve their disagreements with facts, but instead resort to anger, and sometimes violence or war.) Dawkins expresses his loving admiration for Gould (and Gould had expressed his admiration for Dawkins before his recent death) and shows how scientists behave even in light of disagreements.

Freethinkers will love the raw courage of Dawkins stand against religion. He understands the dangers of belief and writes about, gives lectures, and openly rejects faith based institutions. This book lays it on the line. Dawkins says, "It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to faith, to stand up and say 'Enough!" He explains how religions start and thrive and how closely they resemble replicating viruses.

The last section has Dawkins revealing a loving letter to his ten year old daughter, Juliet. He had always avoided even the smallest suggestion of infant indoctrination and this letter serves as a sort of inoculation against dangerous beliefs; a warning that instructs against three bad reasons for believing: tradition, authority, and revelation. If anything, not only sons and daughters should read this, but the millions of adults who didn't stand a chance to decide for themselves might get something out of this unless, of course, their indoctrination has forever barred them from a remedy.

If you wonder why a renowned biologist would spend so much time on the subject of religion, an area seemingly out of his profession, consider that Dawkins invented (or discovered) memes and knows that they operate similarly to biological genes. Since religions live as the most pervasive and powerful memes on this planet, who better than Dawkins to explain its origins and how it spreads?

A few quotes from the book:

Selfish genes are Frankensteins and all life their monster, it is only we that can complete the fable by turning against our creators.

The historic process that caused you to exist is wasteful, cruel and low. But exult in your existence, because that very process has blundered unwittingly on its own negation.

Stand tall, Bipedal Ape. The shark may outswim you, the cheetah outrun you, the swift outfly you, the capuchin outclimb you, the elephant outpower you, the redwood outlast you. But you have the biggest gifts of all: the gift of understanding the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence; the gift of revulsion against its implications; the gift of foresight - something utterly foreign to the blundering short-term ways of natural selection - and the gift of internalizing the very cosmos.

Safety and happiness would mean being satisfied with easy answers and cheap comforts, living a warm comfortable lie. The daemonic alternative urged by my matured Devil's Chaplain is risky. You stand to lose comforting delusions: you can no longer suck at the pacifier of faith in immortality. To set against that risk, you stand to gain 'growth and happiness'; the joy of knowing that you have grown up, faced up to what existence means; to the fact that it is temporary and all the more precious for it.

Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.

People are loyal to other belief systems for one reason only: they were brought up that way, and they have never known anything better.

Admittedly, religious missionaries have successfully claimed converts in great numbers all over the underdeveloped world. But they succeed not because of the merits of their religion but because of the science-based technology for which its pardonably, but wrongly, given credit.

Modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye; or than meets the all too limited human mind, evolved as it was to cope with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds through medium distances in Africa. In the face of these profound and sublime mysteries, the low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs seems unworthy of adult attention.

The word 'apes' usually means chimpanzees, gorillas, orang utans, gibbons, and siamangs. We admit that we are like apes, but seldom realize that we are apes.

Science cannot tell you whether it is right to kill 'Mary' to save her conjoined twin 'Jodie' (or whether both twins should be allowed to die). But science can tell you that a placenta is a true clone of the baby it nourishes.

The real world, properly understood in the scientific way, is deeply beautiful and unfailingly interesting. It's worth putting in some honest effort to understand it properly, undistracted by false wonder and prostituted pseudoscience.

You might think that our sense organs would be shaped to give us a 'true' picture of the world as it 'really' is. It is safer to assume that they have been shaped to give us a useful picture of the world, to help us to survive.

Without evolution, biology is a collection of miscellaneous facts.... With evolution, a great light breaks through into the deepest recesses, into every corner, of the science of life. You understand not only what is, but why.

We are African apes, closer cousins to chimpanzees and gorillas than they are to orang utans and gibbons, let alone monkeys.

The great majority of human genetic variation is to be found within races, not between them. This means that if you were to wipe out all human races except one, they great majority of human genetic variance would be preserved. The variance between races is just a bit extra, stuck on the top of the greater quantity of variation within all races. It is for this reason that many geneticists advocate the complete abandonment of the concept of race.

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to 'organized religion.' My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs...

Is it possible that some religious doctrines are favoured not in spite of being ridiculous but precisely because they are ridiculous? Any wimp in religion could believe that bread symbolically represents the body of Christ, but it takes a real, red-blooded Catholic to believe something as daft as the transubstantiation.

Why, he may wonder, do I hold this set of convictions rather than that set? Is it because I surveyed all the world's faiths and chose the one whose claims seemed most convincing? Almost certainly not. If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had.

The selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary or capricious. They are exacting, well-honed rules, and they do not favour pointless self-serving behaviour. They favor all the virtues laid out in textbooks of standard methodology: testability, evidential support, precision, quantifiability, consistency, intersubjectivity, repeatability, universality, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu, and so on. Faith spreads despite a total lack of every single one of these virtues.

At the same time, modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say 'Enough!'

In a wold without religion, there would have been no Crusades; no Inquisition; no anti-Semitic pogroms (the people of the diaspora would long ago have intermarried and become indistinguishable from their host populations); no Northern Ireland Troubles (no label by which to distinguish the two 'communities,' and no sectarian schools to teach the children historic hatreds - they would simply be one community).

It is a spade we have here, let's call it a spade. The Emperor has no clothes. It is time to stop the mealy-mouthed euphemisms: 'Nationalists,' 'Loyalists,' 'Communities,' 'Ethnic Groups,' 'Cultures,' 'Civilizations.' Religions is the world you need. Religious is the word you are struggling hypocritically to avoid.

The human mind is a wanton storyteller and, even more, a profligate seeker after pattern. We see faces in clouds and tortillas, fortunes in tea leaves and planetary movements. It is quite difficult to prove a real pattern as distinct from a superficial illusion. The human mind has to learn to mistrust its native tendency to run away with itself and see pattern where there is only randomness. That is what statistics are for, and that is why no drug or therapeutic technique should be adopted until it has been proved by a statistically analysed experiment, in which the fallible pattern-seeking proclivities of the human mind have been systematically taken out of the picture. Personal stories are never good evidence for any general trend.

Like any flourishing science, the study of evolution has it internal controversies.... But no qualified scientist doubts that evolution is a fact, in the ordinarily accepted sense that which it is a fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. It is a fact that human beings are cousins to monkeys, kangaroos, jellyfish and bacteria. No reputable biologist doubts this. Nor do reputable theologians, from the Pope on. Unfortunately, many lay Americans do, including some frighteningly influential, powerful, and above all, well-financed ones.

When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling 'revelation.' It isn't only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their man reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong.... Could this be what has happened with religions?


Introduction to the American Edition
1 Science and Sensibility
1.1 A Devil's Chaplain
1.2 What is True?
1.3 Gaps in the Mind
1.4 Science, Genetics and Ethics: Memo for Tony Blair
1.5 Trial By Jury
1.6 Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls
1.7 Postmodernism Disrobed
1.8 The Joy of Living Dangerously; Sanderson of Oundle
2 Light Will Be Thrown
2.1 Light Will Be Thrown
2.2 Darwin Triumphant
2.3 The 'Information Challenge'
2.4 Genes Aren't Us
2.5 Son of Moore's Law
3 The Infected Mind
3.1 Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers
3.2 Viruses of the Mind
3.3 The Great Convergence
3.4 Dolly and the Cloth Heads
3.5 Time to Stand Up
4 They Told Me, Heraclitus
4.1 Lament for Douglas
4.2 Eulogy for Douglas Adams
4.3 Eulogy for W. D. Hamilton
4.4 Snake Oil
5 Even the Ranks of Tuscany
5.1 Rejoicing in Multifarious Nature
5.2 The Art of the Developable
5.3 Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia and Friends
5.4 Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress
5.5 Unfinished Correspondence with a Darwinian Heavyweight
6 There is All Africa and her Prodigies in Us
6.1 Ecology of Genes
6.2 Out of the Soul of Africa
6.3 I Speak of Africa and Golden Joys
6.4 Heroes and Ancestors
7 A Prayer for My Daughter
7.1 Good and Bad Reasons for Believing

To purchase this book online, click below:

A Devil's Chaplain

Other books by Richard Dawkins:

Unweaving the Rainbow (hardcover)

Climbing Mount Improbable (paperback, hardcover)

River Out of Eden (paperback )

The Blind Watchmaker (paperback)

Blind Watchmaker: An Evolution Simulation (software, Macintosh only)

The Selfish Gene (paperback, hardcover)

The Extended Phenotype (paperback)