It was 10 years ago today when Richard Dawkins‘ book The God Delusion was first published in the UK. The book went on to sell more than 3 million copies and, anecdotally, led countless people away from the religions of their youth. In fact, you could argue that The God Delusion has created more atheists than any other book in history… with the sole exception being the Bible.
I asked a number of atheist authors and organizational leaders for their thoughts on the book’s legacy, and this is what they said.
Back in 2006 the secular movement was in a different place, just finding its momentum. Myspace was the dominant social media back then, and atheists were just beginning to become more visible. The End of Faith by Sam Harris had generated some excitement, but nobody knew that there were more big atheist bestsellers to come. I remember getting an early copy of The God Delusion and being so impressed with how eloquently and methodically Richard had driven home the argument against theism and for atheism. I’d like to say that I knew that the book would be a smash hit, but in truth I can only say that I hoped it would be. As a secular activist (at the time I was on the [American Humanist Association] board and the [Secular Coalition for America] advisory panel) I was hoping that the book would circulate far and wide, because I knew that most who read it would seriously question the validity of traditional religious thinking.
Fortunately, those hopes were realized, as the book really took off and created a lot of buzz. As a result, there can be no question that secular organizations such as the AHA and the SCA benefited greatly. I can’t tell you how many times people I’ve met at conferences and other secular events have told me that they found the movement after reading The God Delusion. Also, on a personal note, I can say that my first book, Nonbeliever Nation, owes much to Richard and The God Delusion. It was because of the success of The God Delusion that major publishers were willing to look seriously at atheist titles, and I doubt that there would have been much interest if Richard and the other New Atheists had not proven that there was a mass market for atheist literature. And Richard’s enthusiastic endorsement of Nonbeliever Nation — which my publisher put right on the front cover — was huge.
Traveling with Richard Dawkins as he promotes his ideas on science and secularism, I have had a front-row seat to see the impact of Richard’s books. People standing in line to obtain Richard’s signature are uniformly excited to be near the man who inspired them with his eloquent pen. This is true for all of Richard’s books, but none more so than The God Delusion. Phrases such as “your book changed my life” and “your book put into words everything I was thinking” are gushingly offered by fans who want to convey their gratitude for helping them see the true nature of reality. Like no other book of its kind, The God Delusion caught the zeitgeist, acted as a lifeline to people who felt alone in their religious doubts, and galvanized a movement.
Richard could have had a celebrated and noncontroversial life as a famous evolutionary biologist. Instead, he took head-on the most ingrained myth mankind holds. The God Delusion is a paean to clear thinking and reason. It asks mankind to give up ancient fairytales in exchange for the truth about the wondrous universe we all inhabit. Then, to bring this cause to even more people, Richard established the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, which is also celebrating its ten-year anniversary. If that isn’t heroic, I don’t know what is.
David Silverman, President of American Atheists:
I remember when I finished The God Delusion I knew it would be the benchmark against which I would measure all other books on the topic. What I wasn’t expecting is the reach. The God Delusion was the first atheist book I ever saw someone reading in public (at an airport), something which has now happened several times, and is frequently mentioned to me as the first atheist book people read. The God Delusion changed things in a very big, very good way.
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association
Dawkins’ The God Delusion was a key work among a series including those by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and others that helped usher in the new era where atheism became a viable option for everyone. While other factors propelled this cultural shift, including George W. Bush’s religious right presidency and organizational advertising campaigns, but The God Delusion was critical in providing the clear argument for a better way of thinking without reliance on gods.
August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance:
Plenty of students have told me that they either became atheists or started feeling that their atheism mattered because of The God Delusion. For all the amazing things about The God Delusion, though, the thing that I admire the most is that it contained a list of secular organizations in the back. The book wasn’t just a rallying cry for many, it was also an on-ramp to a movement which is still going strong today and is still evolving.
Dr. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible:
While the formal beginning of New Atheism — a form of antitheism that, taking a scientific approach, requires that religion produce evidence for its truth claims — dates from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, the spread of the “movement” came largely from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Dawkins’s fame as a writer and scientist, combined with his accessible and lyrical prose, made millions of people re-examine their beliefs in the supernatural — with many of them then rejecting it. The evidence can be seen on Richard’s “Converts Corner” website, where hundreds of people have written to say that The God Delusion not only dispelled their faith, giving them a healthier and truer view of life, but opened their eyes to the wonders of evolution, something rejected by many religions. It is truly a book that changed the world for the better.
For those who were raised in or have been long involved with organized freethought (in my case through Humanistic Judaism), Dawkins’ The God Delusion was not a “secular revelation.” It was certainly a clear and sharp critique of religion, and it also did a decent job of articulating positive secular values and beliefs. For someone early in their exploration of non-theism, it provides a clear summary of why we don’t “believe.” At the same time, inflammatory claims such as that religious education is child abuse suggest a too-thin understanding of the interconnection of religious heritage, ethnicity and culture — one can be both a Humanist and positively celebrate one’s family culture, holidays etc. including with one’s children. Dawkins himself admits enjoying a Christmas tree!
More important (and this is hardly the first or the last time for this strategic disagreement), saying that even liberal religious people, who could be your allies on separating religion and government, science-based public policy or social justice issues, are “deluded” is needlessly insulting. We should be drawing our circle of allies not at “any god” vs. “no god, no way, no how,” but at “imposing my god on you and everyone” vs. “live and let live.” This would be the wiser direction to take from Dawkins’ excellent “spectrum of theistic probability” in The God Delusion — few people are at either absolute, and there is a lot of common ground to be found if we are willing to look. The God Delusion itself seems to reject anyone “less” than a “de-facto atheist.” Practical experience and progress would suggest we would do better to be more inclusive.
Herb Silverman, President of the Secular Coalition for America:
Our local Charleston group, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, has an annual winter solstice potluck, along with a used book auction. One of our founding members wanted to give a large donation to our organization, so we devised a fun plan with a fake bidding war on what we viewed as the most significant and treasured book for atheists and humanists — The God Delusion. Typically books at our auction go for no more than $20. The bidding started with incremental bids of a dollar or two, then soared to $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and ended with his planned winning bid of $20,000. I had told nobody, including my wife Sharon, who became increasingly alarmed by my extravagant bids. When I told Richard Dawkins, he wrote this wonderful note to the winner: “I hope you will not think me impertinent if I say you are my kind of guy. You now possess the most expensive copy of The God Delusion in the known universe. Thank you for all you have done for secular causes.”
Part of the contribution went to putting up a billboard, “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone.” Since this was the first such billboard in the South, Laurie Goodstein, religion correspondent for the New York Times, came down to interview us. Goodstein’s piece on April 26, 2009, “More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops,” was the second most viewed article that week in the Times. The takeaway message was that if it could happen in South Carolina, then it could happen anywhere.
Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers:
The God Delusion was all the things atheists always wanted to say. We spent about 5 years getting it all off our chest, 5 more years cleaning up the mess that it made, and now we’re focusing on the harder work of building our own communities.
Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief:
The God Delusion was an earthquake. The content was no surprise to me, but hearing it out loud from someone of Dawkins’s stature and influence was stunning and empowering. It’s easy to forget through the intervening noise and growth of the past decade just how much it meant at the time.
Four books appeared with a few months of each other a decade ago: Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, my Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. Although the authors knew, or knew of, each other, this near-simultaneous outburst was not planned, but we soon joined forces, informally, and somebody — not one of us — dubbed us the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Fame — or notoriety, take your pick — followed, and we were soon joined by a distinguished cadre of other authors who had decisive and well-evidenced cases to present about various problems and failures of religion. Many of these have been well received but The God Delusion has outsold them all, probably by an order of magnitude. Whatever twinges of envy that fact obliges me to experience (I’m only human), they are obliterated by my delight in the fact that his book has outsold all the “flea” books he mentions in his Foreword by even wider margins. Those frantically scribbled diatribes — none of which, so far as I know, has attracted favorable attention — are a well deserved measure of the size of Richard’s impact. And while “sophisticated theologians” and their friends wanted the world to believe that he failed to engage serious religion in his critique, those darn fleas tell a different story: he struck a nerve, and he struck it dead center.
Is he “angry”? Is he “shrill” and “arrogant”? Look closely, and you will see that these familiar charges are without foundation. What leads people to level them is the fact that they have been accustomed their entire lives to having their darling dogmas handled with kid gloves, never challenged, always “respected.” I put “respected” in scare-quotes because — a dirty little secret that I suspect everyone knows — hardly anybody truly respects the bizarre doctrines of any religion but their own. They just feel obliged to say (in public) that they do, a bit of lip service to ecumenicism. Do you really think that the archbishop respects the angel Gabriel who visited Muhammed in the cave, or the Angel Moroni with the golden plates, or that the imam respects the transubstantiation of the wafer and wine? As one very sophisticated Episcopalian priest once confided to me “When I found out what my Mormon relatives meant by “God” I rather wished that they didn’t believe in God!”
Thanks to the new world-wide transparency that has emerged from electronic media and especially the Internet, we are now all living in glass houses, and all the diplomatic posturing that concealed this mutual disrespect much of the time (except when fighting bloody wars of religion) is beginning to lose its efficacy, so perhaps it is time to retire the faitheists’ demand for lip service altogether and join Richard Dawkins in a candid exploration of the dreams from which the world is finally awakening.
Dawkins himself did not respond to interview requests, but he’ll soon be going on a U.S. tour to discuss his career and books. We wish him the best.