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ON SCIENCE

Two who hopped off the faith train

The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 416 pp., $27

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
By Carl Sagan
Edited by Ann Druyan
Penguin, 304 pp., illustrated, $27.95

"The God of the Old Testament," claims Richard Dawkins in his latest book, "The God Delusion," "is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Yikes. But what about the New Testament? Don't things get warmer and fuzzier once Jesus arrives?

Barely, says Dawkins. He identifies the central doctrine of the New Testament as atonement for original sin and characterizes this tenet as "vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent."

"What kind of ethical philosophy is it," he wonders, "that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?"

In case you don't know, Dawkins is a widely respected evolutionary biologist. He holds a chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; his first book, "The Selfish Gene," originally published in 1976, is considered a landmark in science writing. In recent years Dawkins has poured lots of indignant energy into fending off proponents of intelligent design. But "The God Delusion" is much more than a polemic against creationists: It is a broadside against the whole of religion.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims aren't the only ones in his sights. "I am attacking God," Dawkins writes, "all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

In the past several months, it seems, eminent scientists of every stripe have published books about faith. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, recounts his conversion to evangelical Christianity in "The Language of God." E. O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist, proposes an alliance between religion and science to foster biological conservation in "The Creation." Another Harvard scientist, astronomer Owen Gingerich, argues in "God's Universe" that a supernatural "Creator" lives both within and beyond the cosmos.

And this month, 10 years after his death , Penguin Press will publish a new book by Carl Sagan, "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God." It contains nine lectures on natural theology given by Sagan 21 years ago at the University of Glasgow. Along the spectrum of religious belief, from theism to full-throated atheism, Sagan lands more toward the center than Dawkins. But he's not nearly as far from Dawkins as you might think.

"The alleged natural theological arguments for the existence of God," he says, " simply are not very compelling." Beneath his innate diplomacy, Sagan manages to transmit a conviction that, in a cosmos containing trillions of suns and almost certainly trillions of planets, any belief in a God deeply concerned with the second-by-second monitoring of our infinitesimally small human lives is perilously bound to outdated traditions.

But as could be expected from the man who reached 600 million viewers with his television series, "Cosmos," Sagan approaches the question of God with plenty of tact.

"I do not mean in any way," Sagan says at one point, "to object to or deride religious experiences." Later, he concedes to a questioner that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." His biggest objection seems to be to any notion that our understanding of the human enterprise is complete. "I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from," he says, "we will have failed."

Dawkins writes something similar: "To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation."

Both men are concerned with evidence; both argue that the burden of proof should fall on the person making a contention. But "The God Delusion" fails its reader in exactly the way "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" succeeds.

Except in his half-hearted, final chapter, Dawkins fails to reach for a reader's sense of amazement and wonder. Unlike "The Selfish Gene" and several of Dawkins's other books, "The God Delusion" is much more about deflating a hypothesis than crystallizing an enthralling viewpoint. It's not a paean to atheism; it's a diatribe against religion.

Ultimately, a reader can get worn out by 400-odd pages of indignation. I want to feel my sense of awe sparked, want to be captivated, want to be reminded of the breathtaking fortune of living in such an interesting universe. Early in "The God Delusion," Dawkins quotes Sagan's book " Pale Blue Dot" and concludes: "All Sagan's books touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries. My own books have the same aspiration."

Unfortunately, in "The God Delusion," he doesn't succeed. Dawkins is probably right that fundamentalist religion "actively debauches the scientific enterprise," but I'll take Sagan's more reverent skepticism any day.

The universe brims over with worlds. In the end, Sagan puts it best: "By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night." Whatever you believe, it's hard to argue with that.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector" and "About Grace."

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