Richard Dawkins by Linda BrownleeBefore I went to talk to Richard Dawkins in his Oxford home about the critical reactions to his best-selling book The God Delusion, I sat down and watched a quite extraordinary video of one episode from his promotional tour of the States. In this short film we see Dawkins reading extracts from his book and answering questions before an audience in Lynchburg, Virginia. This is already sensational enough: a no-holds-barred atheist standing up and strutting his evolutionary stuff in a town principally famous for the existence of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a university which proudly announces in its prospectus that “Liberty’s professors integrate a Christian worldview into every subject area… They join Liberty only after completing a rigorous interview process that confirms a born-again relationship with Christ.”

But what is truly extraordinary about this video is that although Dawkins is repeatedly confronted by students and academics from Liberty University, he never seems in any danger of losing the sympathy of most of his large audience. There are even moments when his replies attract not just generous applause but what sound awfully like enthusiastic cheers. As an exercise in consciousness-raising it may hardly be analogous to Stokely Carmichael arousing a black audience with the declaration that “black is beautiful”, but it does suggest that Dawkins was very astute when he described his new book as an invitation to atheists to come out of the closet and publicly declare their disbelief.

He greeted me with his customary friendliness, proposed coffee, and then settled down to answer my questions with quite enough eagerness to allow me to forget that he had been through scores of rather similar interviews in recent months. I reminded him that last time we had met, during an IPPR/New Humanist debate at the 2006 Labour Party Conference, I’d expressed anxiety about the reception he might receive from god-loving Americans during his forthcoming publicity tour.

“Well, let me tell you, it was quite an agreeable surprise. Everywhere I went, including Kansas and Lynchburg, I got rapturous responses. Obviously I was preaching to the choir but I hadn’t realised that the choir was going to be quite so big or so enthusiastic. In Lynchburg they’d obviously bussed them in from Liberty University and so they tended to dominate the questions. They were asking what they thought were testing questions, but the home crowd really were roaring their applause each time I knocked them down. It was rather like a wrestling match.”

“You felt that there was a sense of relief that at last somebody was speaking out. Your analogy with raising consciousness really seemed to hold?”

“Oh yes. I think it really does hold. It was what everybody said in the book signing queues. Time after time, people would say, often in a whisper, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ And I now get so many letters from people in America who say that they were afraid to come clean and say that they really didn’t believe. Sometimes they are afraid of their family, their parents, or their fiancée. Others are afraid of being victimised at work or passed over for promotion.”

I’d decided to start with what I knew was the unexpectedly generous response he’d received in the States because I wanted the main part of my interview to concentrate on the far more critical reaction to his book from a large range of popular and academic reviewers. Had he been ready for this barrage of hostility?

“It was quite a shock to me. All my previous books have been pretty favourably reviewed on the whole. But this one is the exception. It got off to a good start with Joan Bakewell in the Guardian and an anonymous one in the Economist but not elsewhere. I think that because the book has the word ‘God’ in the title they get religious people to review it. So what do you expect?”

“But”, I suggested, opening my file of quotations, “there were some interesting consistencies in this criticism. As far as I can see nobody strongly objected to the way in which you used evolutionary theory to challenge the idea of an initial creator, but there was real concern about your subscription to the idea of moral evolution. Some reviewers quite clearly regarded your belief in the progressive nature of what you call the liberal zeitgeist as a serious departure from strict rationality. Although you admit that there might be temporary setbacks to this progression, the movement is always forward. Contrast that with the views of someone like John Gray, professor of political science at LSE and author of Straw Dogs, who is every bit as Darwinian as yourself but nevertheless reaches deeply pessimistic conclusions about the possibility of human progress.”

“Well, in fact, I could be very wrong about this. But I thought that the illustrations I gave of the moving zeitgeist were fairly convincing. I feel that you can more or less judge the decade in which a piece of prejudice was written by the nature of the prejudice. One can say that this or that piece of prejudice dates from, say, the 1930s. There’s a kind of time signature to social attitudes.”

But wasn’t this to ignore the evidence of the past? I reminded him of the rush of books in the 19th century, like Hobhouse’s Morals in Evolution, which had appropriated Darwinian theory in order to argue that the world was becoming incrementally more moral and that such a movement could only continue in the future. But then, of course, Hobhouse and the other moral evolutionists had been entirely confounded in the first half of the 20th century by the arrival upon the scene of Stalin and Hitler and their organised campaigns of mass extermination.

As I knew from our previous meetings, and from attending his lectures, he always pays close and almost flattering attention to someone else’s arguments. He never rushes in with a response but carefully acknowledges the point before gently countering. His tenacity is only evident in the manner in which he pursues the argument. This was no exception. He was happy to admit that fascism and soviet communism created problems for his moving zeitgeist but still wanted to stick by his thesis.

“We have to consider the advancing technology that made it so much more possible for a Hitler or a Stalin to do the horrible things they did. If you planted Hitler or Stalin back in the middle ages, would they have stood out as they do to us now, or would they have seemed par for the course in terms of their nastiness? I would still suggest that they were temporary setbacks. There is general progress. We don’t now have slavery. We have equal respect for women. A universal revulsion against Hitler. Nobody can now say what Hitler once said without being instantly shouted down.”

Was he really happy to describe a planned policy to exterminate an entire race of people as “a temporary setback”?

“But that belief in the extermination of an entire race, you can say that it was a last gasp.”
But wasn’t this, as his critics insisted, not so much a rational argument as a personal belief? Not so much science as good old-fashioned optimism, a readiness to admit to what could only be called a belief in moral progress, to an ideological optimism?

“Well, I hope that someone in your field is giving proper attention to this because the idea of progress seems to me to be plausible but I wouldn’t be able to argue it for very long. But, yes, I think that is a fair cop. I am an optimist.”

It’s this sort of readiness to concede which causes some of the ambivalence one finds among both Dawkins’ friends and enemies. Anyone who reads The God Delusion can hardly doubt that they are often in the presence of an out-and-out dogmatist. Religious beliefs are mocked, subverted and finally dispatched with an almost chilling logic. There are almost no concessions to agnostics or deists or even the gentler proponents of intelligent design. All deviations from thoroughgoing atheism are ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of experimental science.

But Dawkins in debate or conversation almost seems apologetic about the hard-nosed impression that he so assiduously invites in print. One radio producer recently told me of his astonishment at finding that in the flesh Dawkins did not so much resemble an ideologue as “a gentle country vicar”. It was, said the producer, a combination of his gentle voice and manner as well as his occasional admissions of uncertainty.

I drew upon the remarks of one of his great friends and admirers in an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction. “Why,” I asked, “do so many of your critics complain about your dogmatism in The God Delusion? Even the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who describes himself as your ally and friend in his review, goes on to say, “some readers will probably come away from the book more impressed by Dawkins’s disrespect than persuaded by his arguments.”

“I think it’s almost a tactical point. You can see it starkly in the evolution debates. In America and elsewhere I am continually and very possibly rightly accused of providing real fodder for the creationists because in America atheism is such a no-no. If anyone stands up and says ‘I am an atheist because I am a Darwinian,’ which I sort of do, they think their birthday has arrived. It is wonderful for them. I had a meeting with Eric Rothschild, who was a lead lawyer in the Pennsylvania evolution case, and he said, ‘Thank goodness we didn’t call you as a witness.’ I would have handed the case to the other side. I don’t know what the answer is to this. There is such a double standard. If you use the same kind of language about religion that anyone else would use about politics, economics, architecture or the theatre, it would be seen as ordinary robust critical language. Yet the moment the same language is used against religion, it suddenly becomes obnoxious, intemperate and offensive. And that is so common among my critics. I don’t know whether I should moderate my language to woo the other side. Do I want to woo the bishops, people like the bishop of Oxford? He’s a terribly nice man and we have collaborated on more than one occasion.”

I suggested that perhaps his ambivalence arose because whilst he was more or less ready to concede, at least in conversation, that he might be mistaken about the role that evolution played in the development of morality, there could be absolutely no concessions when the issue at hand conflicted with the hard science upon which his reputation rested.

“Yes, that’s right. As a scientist I am only interested in the simple scientific question: ‘Is there a God?’ If someone wants to say that God started off evolution then that seems to me to be a total denial of everything that we have learnt.”

But was he always as true to science as he believed? Several of his reviewers had complained that he was too soft on bad science. Whereas his book was filled with examples of bad religion, what many believers would regard as deviations from true religion, he ignored examples of so-called scientific findings which had eventually proved to be quite unfounded but had led to quite disastrous consequences. Why, for example, had he not addressed such “bad science” as eugenics?

“Well, eugenics was a very fashionable science in the 1930s and nowadays it isn’t. Post Hitler there are people who say not only that eugenics is morally wrong but also that it doesn’t work scientifically. That is bollocks. It works with horses, cows and pigs and ducks. Of course it would work with humans. It’s quite another matter to say that it would be a good thing to do. It comes down to a moral and political choice. Just as the H-bomb. As for only giving examples of bad religion, that is not what I wanted to do even if I seem to have done it. I think I could have been accused of that not so much in the book but in the television programme I did for Channel 4 called The Root of All Evil. But a television programme does not have a single author. It was a kind of ‘over my dead body’ title, for example.”

But how would he answer those critics who attacked his persistent use of the loaded word “indoctrination” to describe religious education. As Terry Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books, “Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.”

“Of course, I recognise that it doesn’t always work. And that’s fine. I think it’s the labelling more than the indoctrination. I think the parallel with the feminists is extremely good. You can’t now say something like ‘one man – one vote’ without flinching. You should also flinch when someone says that here is a four-year-old Catholic. I fully accept that the child may not be made to say its prayers, it may not be indoctrinated in that sense, but society still labels that child a Catholic child and I would be content if we could just get rid of that labelling.”

This, I realised, was the awkward moment when I had to confront him with what one or two of my agnostic friends regarded as the most compelling part of Terry Eagleton’s scathing review of the book. How, I asked, did he respond to Eagleton’s taunt that reading Dawkins on theology gave one a rough idea of what it would be like to listen to someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject was derived from the Book of British Birds. “What, one wonders,” Eagleton continued, “are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?”

I could tell from his reaction while I read from the review that Richard had been stung by the ferocity of Eagleton’s attack but his response was positively cavalier.

“Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology. I think it is as simple as that. I’m all for professors of theology who write about little-known religious texts and study biblical history, but when theology turns to the study of the trinity, then I think it’s a non-subject”

“But isn’t Eagleton complaining that because you don’t know any theology, your account of God is necessarily naïve and simplistic? It doesn’t do justice to the more sophisticated ways of conceptualising God, to such matters as his transcendence and invisibility.”

Richard clearly had no intention of going down that path. With what was the first hint of acerbity, he simply repeated himself. “I think that my point about fairy-ology entirely disposes of that.”

It had, I now began to think, seemed like an excellent idea to confront Dawkins with his critics in the pages of New Humanist. After all, NH readers were probably all familiar with many of the arguments for atheism in The God Delusion even if they had rarely found them made with such force and authority. But I could sense that my litany of reviewers’ objections to his thesis was creating a slightly melancholy atmosphere. During our opening small talk I’d congratulated him on the runaway success of his book and mentioned my delight at having already seen two people on the underground reading it with the sort of attention normally reserved for best-selling potboilers. In the thick of so many critiques, though, this was now beginning to seem like a rather token form of appreciation. I decided to introduce some gentler objections.

What, I wondered, did he make of those reviewers who had gone along with most of his scientific arguments for atheism but queried his ubiquitous references to reason? Some had wanted to argue that reason and science were not at all the same thing and could not be conflated. Others had suggested that his dismissal of faith overlooked its part in everyday life.

“I don’t see that at all. I don’t know what it would mean to say that we live by faith in our daily life. There is, I suppose, a sense that we are sometimes too busy to reason everything out but otherwise I don’t know what it means.”

I reminded him of the very personal moments in The God Delusion: the moving thanks to his wife, Lalla Ward, and the touching references to his deceased friend and collaborator, Douglas Adams. No one could doubt that these were expressions of deeply felt emotions. Would he want to say these emotions were entirely prompted by reason?

“Let me turn it around and say why I believe that somebody loves me. This might look like faith because I can’t really prove it. But I think it would ultimately be based on evidence. It would be based on subtle little signs, on certain catches in the voice, on particular looks in the eyes. And I know where this argument is going. I’ve met it before. It suggests that the reason we believe someone loves us is analogous to God’s love. It isn’t based on evidence. It is not subject to simple experimental verification. Nevertheless it does use real evidence that comes in through the senses.”

“You don’t think that by reducing love to experimental evidence you are losing something of its essence?”

“I’m happy to be governed by feelings and I suppose, in a sense, by faith. But that doesn’t mean that I ultimately believe there is something other than the material world that is causing those feelings.”

“But if you were to tell your wife that you loved her but didn’t have the time to write down all the reasons, would she not be a mite dissatisfied?”

“Life would be intolerable if you wrote down detailed reasons for everything. So I don’t have a problem with faith in that sense. But that is so different from going on from there to declare that there must be something supernatural about it.”

My list was nearly at an end. But I noticed with slight alarm that the next entry simply read in capital letters: RAISE THE SOCIOLOGICAL OBJECTIONS. Richard noticed my pause and looked as though he might be on the edge of devising an escape route. I pressed ahead quickly.

Wasn’t there a danger, I suggested, that his thesis might be playing into the hands of the conservatives in America? Couldn’t his book be misread as an attack upon fundamentalism, and therefore as a contribution to the current climate of Islamophobia? Perhaps some of his American applause was elicited by the sense in the audience that he was attacking an alien and hostile religion.

“That might be true for this country but America is not short of Christian fundamentalists. There are those that kill abortion doctors and those who use the rhetoric of all fags roasting in hell. There are people who believe that they are going to be raptured up to heaven any time now. People who believe that the battle of Armageddon will be a nuclear war in Israel and that this is to be welcomed. One of the main criticisms I get in this country is ‘What are you going on about?’ People need to go to America and see what is going on there.”

I entered my very last objection. “In the language of experimental science, isn’t there a danger that your attack upon religion suggests that it is the independent variable, the cause of all our troubles? But might it not be that the advance of fundamentalism, the revival of religious belief, is dependent upon another sociological development, upon globalisation, upon the spread of a materialist consumer ethic? In such circumstances religion provides a way of resistance, a way of affirming values other than those derived from capitalism and the market place. By alienating the religious we risk losing allies in that fight.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose it fits with people like EO Wilson. He’s an atheist and what you might call more of a religious appeaser than Dennett. But the reason for that is that he is terrified about the imminence of the planet’s self-destruction and wants all people of good will to join together to save the world. But I think you have made a very good point. That’s not what my book is about but perhaps it should be.”

It was too generous a concession to go unrewarded. I closed my objections file and thanked Richard for his time. Thanked him for sitting through so much criticism. Thanked him for his patience and good humour. Thanked him for his book. I forgot only one thing. Standing outside on the pavement waiting for my taxi, I realised that I had not thanked him for perhaps the most valuable thing of all. I had not thanked him for his courage.