The February-March issue of Cosmos contains my long-awaited review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a book that has been the subject of massive international controversy.
(This issue also has Jenny Blackford's excellent article on recent books about the mind, plus other reviews by one or other of us, but I'll put that to one side.)
Actually, my review of The God Delusion is not all that long-awaited: I wrote the review in early November, so the lag between writing and publication was three months. For a bimonthly magazine, Cosmos has published it quickly.
But in the three months between when the review was written and when it appeared in print there has been an extraordinary debate going on about Dawkins' book. I read and reviewed The God Delusion before any of this appeared, so I couldn't take the controversy into account - what you'll see in Cosmos when you pick up your copy is just a straight review of what I think is a very good, but certainly not perfect, book in which Dawkins argues his case that traditional, literal theism is a false and dangerous belief.
One thing that has since astonished me is how many secular or otherwise moderate thinkers appear to resent Dawkins speaking up in criticising religion. I was well aware of the unspoken pact among intellectuals to show a sort of paternalistic solicitude toward religion - something that has developed gradually since my youth back in the 1970s, when anti-religious feeling was more socially acceptable. But I hadn't realised just how strong this pact had become. If you write a book like that of Dawkins, arguing with wit and passion against religious belief, it now seems that most people who are in the position to review your work will question the propriety of what you're doing. It's as if any criticism of religion is seen, these days, as some kind of affront, or threat, to social stability.
As religious leaders and intellectuals have become bolder, in recent years, about attempting to shape public policy on explicitly religious or crypto-religious grounds, it has become important that those grounds be subjected to close sceptical scrutiny. If the exponents of religious and crypto-religious viewpoints wish to have a say in the formulation of public policy, then we need to scrutinise whether or not their arguments are based on any intellectually credible foundation.
Those of us who live in Western societies are no longer in a luxurious position where the proponents of religious and crypto-religious worldviews are prepared to keep out of policy debates, in the expectation that their beliefs, in turn, will be treated gently in the public arena. In particular, the Vatican is aggressive in demanding that public policy reflect its specifically religious morality. In the US, there has been a determined push to challenge the teaching of biological evolution in schools, while the President's Commission on Bioethics is dominated by religious and crypto-religious thinking. All of this is supported by levels of funding that most of us can only dream of gaining access to.
We can't pretend this is not happening around us, and go on blithely assuming that policy will be set on purely secular grounds, with religion agreeing to be sidelined.
I expect to see a lot more public questioning of religion in books and other media. The position has been reached where there will be more poking at the sore point, more intense probing at whether religious worldviews are even tenable - with more and stronger challenges to the role they play in the formulation of public policy. Contrary to so many critics of Dawkins, who obviously feel uncomfortable, I think that that's a necessary and healthy development.