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Book Review of the Year

December 28, 1986|Lee Dembart

Lee Dembart appears as book reviewer every Tuesday in View, always reviewing nonfiction books, most often reviewing books about science. A few weeks ago, he wrote an enthusiastic review of Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker" (Norton) (View, Nov. 25), a book that argues that not only is Darwinian evolution supported by scads of evidence, but it would still be true even if there were no evidence; Darwin offers, says Dawkins (and Dembart agrees), the true explanation and indeed the only possible explanation of the living world.

Dembart loved Dawkins' book from the first word to the last and said so unmistakably in a review in which he also lauded Dawkins' atheism, stepping forward in a concluding paragraph as an atheist himself and dismissing religion and belief in God as fairy tales and nonsense.

Dembart's review brought a set of reader responses extraordinary both as to their total number and as to their individual length and thoughtfulness. No review published in 1986 brought a livelier response. Dembart's discussion of these responses follows and must serve the authors of the letters, with our apologies, in lieu of any other form of publication.

It may also be of interest that according to Dawkins' publisher, W.W. Norton, this serious, even difficult book has sold an extra 2,000 copies in California as a direct result of Dembart's controversial review.

--Book Editor

When I finished writing the review of "The Blind Watchmaker," I thought it would never run. I was sure that somebody at the paper would conclude that a staunchly atheistic manifesto would offend too many readers, and newspapers are not in the habit of offending their customers. So I decided not to invest too much of myself in that review and not to get angry if it got killed.

I doubt that many other newspapers would have published a review that called religion "flapdoodle," but this one did. To my surprise, and to The Times' credit, the piece appeared.

The mail began arriving the next day and continued for more than a week. All told, we received about 87 letters and phone calls about that review, all but a few sent directly to me. This is an extraordinary amount of mail. In two decades in the news game, my lifetime average is about one letter per article. I can't recall any article on which I received more than 10 letters. So 87 was quite a haul.

We had expected that religious believers would bombard us with angry letters. In fact, most of the letters were extremely complimentary, and all but a few of them--even those that disagreed--were very temperate. Nearly 52 letter writers praised the article, implicitly or (more often) explicitly endorsing the atheism and thanking me for bringing light to a subject that is always shrouded in darkness.

Scott Schubach, a Los Angeles physician, wrote, "Your book review . . . was simply the most honest, direct and intelligent statement on the subject I have ever heard or read." Frank E. Thompson of Los Angeles said, "How fine to see religion exposed for the nonsense it is." And Don Stountenborough of Carlsbad wrote, "Where have you been all my 60 years of reading, writing, thinking?"

But that, needless to say, wasn't the whole story. There were 35 letters from people who took a different view. Twenty-two of them disagreed for religious reasons (six of them were angry, and 17 were polite), and a dozen disagreed for philosophical reasons but did not mention any Supreme Being or other theistic belief. Almost all of the letters, some of which were quite long, were thoughtful and well-fashioned.

James E. Roberts of La Mirada noted that I had referred in my review to Sturgeon's Law, which says that 95% of everything is nonsense, and concluded that my review was an effort to prove it. "There's no question that 95% of what Dembart had to say was nonsense," Roberts wrote. "Four-fifths of the remaining 5% may sympathetically be attributed to simple nonsense." And then, for good measure, he quoted the Bible: "King David put it rather clearly, 'The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God" ' (Psalms 14:1).

Rick Weaver of Lompoc sent in the following questions: "If there is no purpose to anything except live and die: What drives mankind? What makes us strive for a better life? What makes us creative? What makes our species so far above all other species on Earth? What evolutionary event gave Homo sapiens intellectual superiority over all life on Earth? Why do our minds function so completely more complex than any other minds? Why do we, and we alone, possess such complex creativity? Why is man the only watchmaker on Earth?"

My answer to these very good questions is that they are backwards. That is, it is because we are creative, intelligent and complex that we can ask the questions at all. The creatures that have not evolved as far cannot think about these things. But just as there is nothing special about the Earth--it is not in the center of the universe--there is nothing inherently special about human beings.

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