Reading Richard Dawkins requires an open mind, no matter what your opinion of his chosen subject matter is. One could be a vehement and opinionated atheist or a raucously fundamentalist Christian -and Dawkins will still manage to find some way to needle you. Although he is without doubt a brilliant writer and even better evolutionary biologist, the man is undeniably pompous; one can feel the scorn for anyone who disagrees with him in his tone practically oozing off of the pages of his books. Pompous he may be, but once you can get past that, Dawkins is just plain interesting to read. His book A Devil’s Chaplain proves that beyond all reasonable doubts.
Although Dawkins is best known for books like The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, A Devil’s Chaplain provides readers with a much easier reading load. The book is composed of selected essays and short pieces written by Dawkins; they act as opinionated snapshots of him, on subjects that range from crystal balls to the jury system. Each entry is given loving attention, extreme detail and more than one example of Dawkins’ biting, acerbic wit.
Dawkins is a good writer. He knows just the right things to say to make people sit up and pay attention to his thoughts, whether it’s because they agree with him or because they’d like to sock him in the mouth. Writing about aspects added to The Origin of Species being a sop to religious sensibilities is bound to get someone in a huff, but at the same time, the points he’s making are nearly always valid ones. Even when agreeing with him, his smug tone can be infuriating, no matter how calm or indifferent a reader might claim to be.
A Devil’s Chaplain is a fascinating piece of writing. Its essay format, divided into several sections, with each essay acting as a single chapter, makes it easy to read when functioning under the constraints of a busy schedule, or just the desire to read something a little less heavy. An essay here or there isn’t going to take too much time out of a reader’s day, but Dawkins can pack enough scientific, ethical or legal information into 20 pages to keep someone up at night thinking about it.
That’s what makes A Devil’s Chaplain such a good read; the ability to write short, snappy pieces that nonetheless are filled to the very margins with fascinating information is a rare one, and to keep it as interesting as Dawkins does is an even bigger challenge, despite the fact that the essays were written at different times. Dawkins’ writing is at times elegant and thoughtful, at other times buzzing with excitement about telling the reader how creative science is and, of course, often jibing snottily at those who think our primitive ape minds are more sophisticated than they are.
Books like The Selfish Gene and the God Delusion are wonderful pieces of reading to get a thorough, rigorous explanation or denial of some concept, whether it’s genetic and biological evolution or the delusion he considers religion to be. A Devil’s Chaplain, on the other hand, feels more like a sampler platter: it gives readers a little taste of a lot of topics, and all of them are delicious.