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BOOK REVIEW

'Delusion ' asks worthwhile questions

Before the 2004 election, a friend who is a solid Republican and Protestant mustered what he knew was a wan case for re electing George W. Bush, considering the president's less-than-inspiring performance . He would vote for Bush, he said, because the president is a "God-fearing" man trying to do right.

My friend is not unique in his conviction that our leaders' religiosity matters. A 1999 Gallup Poll found that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist than for a woman, African-American, Mormon, or homosexual.

No wonder Richard Dawkins is grouchy. The British biologist, atheist, and author admits in "The God Delusion" that science can't prove there is no God. But it can prove that God almost certainly doesn't exist, he declares. He easily picks off the low-hanging fruit of fundamentalism and intelligent design; more ambitiously, he guns for the pro-God arguments made by Thomas Aquinas and religious scientists. He recites the history of atrocities committed in religion's name, pinning them on what he calls immoral Scriptures.

This ground has been plowed before. Still, believers should read "The God Delusion." Once the spasms of outrage over its caustic tone pass, sophisticated folks will find much of its critique rigorously argued. It probably won't persuade them, but if it pushes them to shed complacency and ask questions of their faith, good.

The belief-vs.-atheism jousting, while necessarily inconclusive, can be fascinating. The Christian evolutionist Francis Collins , head of the Human Genome Project, says human morality, which sometimes prompts self-sacrificing acts, can't be explained by evolution . Dawkins replies that at humanity's dawn, altruism conveyed evolutionary advantages -- reciprocation , reputation -- that permanently wired us with the drive to do good .

As for Aquinas's argument that something was the first cause of everything, and that something must be a supernatural intelligence, Dawkins counters, "Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as [ the universe ] would have to be even more improbable."

The book's shortcomings will reassure the faithful that even a smart atheist can get lazy . Dawkins can't bring himself to admit the role of faith in noble causes. He notes that some leaders in the civil and women's rights movements were religious, then airily says that others weren't. One might equally dismiss atheism on the grounds that some leaders weren't non-believers. Ah, says Dawkins, but atheists don't kill those with differing beliefs, while some religious extremists do.

Gee, didn't Mao and Stalin, leading avowedly atheist regimes, butcher millions? Dawkins doesn't mention Mao, and says Stalin's depravity wasn't committed in the name of atheism. That that distinction probably didn't matter to the Gulag's residents underscores his error: Judge the book of any belief system by the cover of its worst degenerates and none escapes damnation.

Elsewhere, Dawkins demonstrates why amateurs shouldn't practice theology when he flubs what he calls the "barking mad" idea of original sin. Noting that most religious believers understand the story of Adam and Eve to be fiction, he asks incredulously, "Jesus had himself tortured and executed in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non existent individual?"

Uh, no. Original-sin doctrine holds that Jesus died for a reality that Genesis depicts with fable, the existence through history of human evil. The doctrine begs legitimate questions, and Dawkins asks them. But 10 minutes on the Internet would have caught this mistake, a slovenly lapse for a writer purporting to clear up misconceptions.

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