The People’s Atheist
Clinton Richard Dawkins was born on 26 March 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, which at that time was a British colony. His father had gone to Kenya with the British army but the family returned to England when Dawkins was eight. He had what he calls “a normal Anglican upbringing“, but by the age of nine he had already started doubting the existence of God. In 1959 he went to Balliol College, Oxford to study zoology, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour.
In 1976 Dawkins came into the public eye when his book The Selfish Gene came out. It popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. This neologism coined by Dawkins refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted by non-genetic means from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, clothes fashions, habits, songs, dances, ways of making pots and the technology of building arches. They are the cultural counterparts of genes. Dawkins has argued that when a fertile meme is planted in your mind it literally parasitises your brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell.
Dawkins has also been an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. His 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, was a refutation of intelligent design theory. William Paley had argued that if you were you were walking along and you found a watch lying on the ground, you could not possibly imagine that something so complex had been assembled by chance. There had to have been a maker. Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living things and the adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer. For Dawkins evolutionary processes are analogous to a blind watchmaker; there is no need for a creator to intervene.
Dawkins’s most recent book The God Delusion is an atheist polemic from its uncompromising title. It is actually one of number of such books published in the last few years. I’m not sure what has brought on this trend – probably it is a reaction to the rise in fundamentalisms that has become apparent. These books have been a great publishing success and there have also been initiatives such as those atheist buses. Dawkins has been criticised for his understanding of theology. The most famous criticism came in a scathing review in The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I happen to think this criticism is wrong. You don’t have to be an expert on Tarot cards to critique it. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. He is studying religion as a natural phenomenon. Dawkins has come under fire for a death – the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore. Kilgore, who had been challenged to read The God Delusion by a college professor, said that Dawkins’ book had destroyed his belief in God.
As a non-believer I am not unsympathetic to many of Dawkins’s ideas and in his post as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford he was very effective raising awareness of science. He is always very quotable and has an incredible talent for coining metaphors. However I do think sometimes his role as Darwin’s Rottweiler gets in the way of his message. I think a couple of examples will suffice to show this. Before the 2004 election in the US, Dawkins along with John Le Carré and Antonia Fraser was part of a Guardian initiative to write letters to Americans in Clark County, Dear Clark County voter, Give us back the America we loved. Here’s what he wrote:
“Don’t be so ashamed of your president. The majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” The result was he found himself subject to a barrage of abuse from the voters. And the election? Clark was the only county in Ohio that, having voted for Al Gore in 2000, switched over to Bush in 2004.
Dawkins is also a member of a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, known as the Brights, which also includes Steven Pinker and philosopher Daniel Dennett. As the mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out you don’t need to have a degree in public relations to realise that this will come across as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant. Perhaps I see a little too much intellectual certainty there. There are many very intelligent people, including scientists, who believe in God. The existence of God is an objective question – he either exists or he doesn’t exist- but it is beyond our pattern recognition software to find the truth about thus question. We will always have answers that are at variance.
There is also a tendency to see the abolition of religion as a panacea for all the world’s problems. I think the twentieth century has shown that this is not the case. People commit evil acts with or without religion. Religion does make people do terrible things but it also can make them do wonderfully selfless things. Science is a wonderful too but it cannot tell us what is right or wrong and in my opinion neither can a book written thousands of years ago. We have to discover this for ourselves and it can be a very painful progress. Scientific progress may be linear but moral progress is a completely different enterprise.