Richard Dawkins – An Aquired Taste?

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I’d never heard of Richard Dawkins until the release of his 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion. Around the same time, I’d been reading about Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation (which I still think is the best book of the three). Until then, despite a lifelong interest in critical texts on religion, I had never given ‘atheism’ much thought.

When an elderly aunt gave me $60 for Christmas in 2006 and told me to ‘buy books’ I purchased Dawkins’ and both the Harris books and took them with me on holiday.

By the time I read all three I remember feeling like I’d been hit by a lightning bolt.

“Shit!” I thought, “I’m an atheist! Who knew?”

This revelation was quickly followed by the discomfiting realisation that, if I was an atheist, I was, by definition, not a Christian.

It’s true that, apart from a brief period in my teens, I’ve never been a practicing Christian. My father was an atheist, my mother and grandmother both spiritualists. I tended more towards spiritualism but was never dogmatic nor wholly convinced.  But, if presented with a Census form and a question about religion I would have ticked ‘Anglican’ without a second thought. I was a ‘cultural Christian’.

Telling people I was an atheist was not particularly difficult. But, the first time I said, “I’m not a Christian” it did feel rather momentous – like a statement in need of a fanfare or a drum roll! It felt a little like the repudiation, not of God, but of my cultural roots. Still, eh bien, cultural schmultural, I cast off my Christian pretensions and haven’t missed them since.

Dawkins and Harris made me realise I’d been an atheist for quite a long time – a university education will do that to you – but I’d never put a ‘name’ to my growing conviction there was no God. They didn’t make me an atheist; they just put a name to it.

At that time, I was still holding on to some remnants of my spiritualist upbringing. For some time after, I resigned myself to being an atheist who believed in reincarnation. I really struggled to let go of the thought that, one day, I’d see my Dad again. But, as I read more widely and connected with a community of fellow atheists on the internet, I gradually let that comforting belief fizzle out; importantly, in my own good time.

In 2008 I joined an online community called Atheist Nexus. Soon after, I was invited to Skype into a conference in the USA at which Richard Dawkins was the key-note speaker. Coincidentally, at the time I skyped in, Dawkins was nearby signing books. I’d become rather a big fan of Dawkins so I was rather taken aback when I saw and overheard the following conversation:

Enthusiastic conference-goer (with copy of The God Delusion in hand): Mr Dawkins, I loved your book. Would you please sign it “To Harry …”

Dawkins (grumpily): I’m not signing names. If I sign names I’ll be here all day!

Not particularly gracious considering these were the people who had brought him international fame and fortune!

‘Grumpy Dawkins’  later become immortalised in an interview with Andrew Denton on ABC TV’s ‘Elders’.

(Part 3 – Part 1 and Part 2 available online)

Still, I reasoned, why should Dawkins be likeable? He isn’t a pop star or an actor or even a politician. He is a scientist, not a celebrity. Why shouldn’t we expect him to be as rude and irascible as any other ordinary human being? After all, that’s what he is – an ordinary human being with some extraordinary talents!

At that point I put away any ‘fan-girl’ feelings I may have had for Dawkins but remained grateful for the part his book played in my ‘atheist awakening’ and on-going scientific education.

In 2010 Dawkins attended the Global Atheist Convention. There had been a huge mix up in booking him resulting in the rather comical scenario of the (then) president of the AFA calling me at home and asking if I had a contact number for Richard Dawkins. I had a pretty good contact network by then, but Richard Dawkins? No, Dick and I hadn’t swapped home numbers, as it happened. Still, against all odds, I managed to find a phone number and Dawkins generously agreed to fly to Melbourne for one day in order to appear at GAC.

Yes, he was paid, but it was an extraordinarily generous thing to do seeing as someone (I never found out who) had seriously mucked up. He earned a few brownie points for that.

At the GAC, I heard a rumour (which I won’t repeat here) which put Dawkins’ later ‘Dear Muslima‘ comments in context (comments for which he has, subsequently apologised).

I began to realise that as enlightened as he was about religion, Dawkins’ views on women and feminism were verging on the antediluvian.

Again, I had to ask myself, “What did you expect of a man of his generation and class?”

By then (and certainly subsequently) we had plenty of evidence to suggest that being an atheist does not necessarily make someone a feminist, or a skeptic, or even a half-decent human-being. The biggest question was, “Why were we surprised?”

Richard Dawkins is not the Nelson Mandela of atheism – and why should we expect him to be? Even great heroes like Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy were badly flawed as people. Does that negate their key messages or the benefit their genius brought to the world?

Why do we have to deify great men? (Funny, we rarely seem to deify great women, do we?)

If, as a community, we are ‘over’ Dawkins, is it because we built him up to be something he never was and then rushed to burn him at the stake when he failed to meet our impossible expectations?

Atheism has moved on since 2006, and I think it’s true to say the atheist community has, largely, moved on from Dawkins. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think even Dawkins would agree we should be encouraging a new generation of young speakers and thinkers to carry the movement on – while not forgetting our ‘elders’ entirely.

Dawkins has, unwisely to my mind, become involved in some unbecoming online stoushes and rather tarnished his ‘brand’. I expect he doesn’t give a shit about his brand and, you know, that’s OK too. But, there’s quite a lot of chatter on Facebook and Twitter which suggests he is no longer the drawcard he once was.

In some respects, I think Dawkins has been unfairly treated – his words taken out of context, his intentions misinterpreted. On the other hand, I think he probably deserves some of the vitriol now directed towards him from the international community he helped to create.

I don’t pretend to know Richard Dawkins at all, but the few little insights I’ve had into the man suggest he’s not particularly likeable – nor particularly concerned about being likeable. He is the epitomy of the privileged, middle-aged, white Caucasian male and we were, perhaps, a little (perhaps a lot) naive to build up expectations that he would, or could be, anything else.

It is profoundly obvious from the Denton interview (particularly the third video) that Dawkins is excruciatingly uncomfortable talking about himself. At that time, at least, he could see no reason why anyone should have any interest in him personally; he prickled at the intrusion into his private thoughts.

None of which takes away from Dawkins’ brilliance as a leading evolutionary biologist, his important work in popularising and defending evolutionary theory or his role in creating a vibrant, growing, politically engaged international community of atheists.

If it weren’t for Dawkins, I doubt atheists would, today, be enjoying the books and blogs of those who followed in his wake, including this blog.

As we castigate Dawkins for his flaws, we should equally acknowledge his contribution.

Dawkins has recently published the first instalment of his autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. 

It’s probably no surprise that the book’s reception has been mixed. Criticised for its ‘indulgent superiority’it’s also been described as ‘warm and generous’. It’s very possible – given Dawkins is a somewhat complex chap – the book displays a bit of both.

You don’t have to be a fan of Dawkins-the-man to acknowledge and respect the importance of Dawkins-the-writer-and-scientist. And I’m excited about getting more of an insight into what shaped Dawkins – for good and for bad.

That’s why, when I heard the Atheist Foundation of Australia was hosting a series of interviews between Richard Dawkins and my friend, bio-ethicist, Leslie Cannold, I happily stumped up the money for a ticket. I should disclose that, subsequently, the AFA generously offered to provide me with a complimentary ticket. There were ‘no strings attached’, but I thought I should write about Dawkins’ forthcoming Australian tour and respond to those who sniffed rather grandly when I mentioned I was going that they ‘didn’t like the man’. I hope this post makes it evident that this is no ‘paid political announcement’.

Whatever one thinks of him, Dawkins is an important scientist and an infuential public intellectual. I don’t have to like him to want to hear what he has to say, and I can think of no-one better to interview him than the fabulously smart and savvy Leslie Cannold.

I’ll be going to hear Dawkins speak in Brisbane on 1 December and I’m sure I’ll come away with some new insights on science, religion and on Dawkins himself. Like him or not, Dawkins is a historic and iconic figure in the global atheist movement and we owe a debt of gratitude to the AFA for bringing us speakers and thinkers of this calbre.

I think his tour deserves our support.

Chrys Stevenson

17 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins – An Aquired Taste?

  1. John Newman

    It’s a pity us non-believers in nonsense are forced to use the term atheist. It’s only because there are so many theists around. Fortunately I don’t have to also call my self an a-Santa Claus or a-fairies.
    I would, if asked, rather call myself a more positive term such as scientist, humanist, rationalist, skeptic or whatever fits best.

    Reply
    1. Michael Barnett

      I don’t use the term John. I abstain from labelling my absence of “let’s play make-believe and try to convince the world we’re grown-ups”. I’m a person, Michael, who lives in the real world, mostly.🙂

      Reply
  2. Brian Wilder

    Dear Chrys,

    WHAT ? WHAT ! You’d never heard of Richard Dawkins before he published ‘The God Delusion’? Where were you ? In a cave or something ?

    Shame on you my friend. He shot to fame when he published, in 1976, his “The Selfish Gene”, (OUP) which has never been out of print. It made his name internationally as an evolutionary biologist. You should read it. It is a masterpiece.

    He has written many books between then and The God Delusion.

    He is a typical Oxford Don, not that I’ve met many of them, but Cambridge Dons I have – and they are the same, unless they happen to be Australians, and there are plenty of them around the corridors of Oxbridge !

    Richard is two years younger than me. I find that as one ages, one tends to suffer fools even less gladly and one losses one’s inhibitions when talking with idiots ! Such is ageing ! It’s a good excuse to be rude too !

    Hope this finds you well,

    Regards,

    Brian Wilder (friend of Dave Leaf)

    Reply
  3. Martin

    Great piece.
    As is pointed out, Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and “The Selfish Gene” was a transformational read for me towards acceptance of both my atheism and my daughter’s muscular dystrophy. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.

    Reply
  4. John Watson

    Good article Chrys.
    Atheism has become a worldwide phenomenon and I don’t suppose it will do any good to level a serious criticism against it. But, doesn’t it strike a discordant note with anyone else? In this world of ours, any belief should strike a note of discord. There is no place for it in science and, for my money, anywhere else. – No matter how you look at it atheism is a belief in opposition to the belief of theism. The fact is, we humans react quite predictably to those who pronounce themselves to be in opposition to ideas we hold dearly. Frankly I don’t see the need to create ‘A backs to the wall response’. – Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to respond in the same way as you would to an individual who fondly clings to the idea that the world is flat? The idea is patently absurd and no one in their right mind would create a belief in opposition. Why is it we don’t take the same view with religion? Atheism has the effect of empowering religion.
    Just a thought, regards, John.

    Reply
  5. rorschach

    “I think his tour deserves our support.”

    Well Chrys, I most certainly do not. He no doubt gets well paid for his appearances, and he is indeed antediluvian when it comes to anything other than his narrow focus on the fact that gods are man-made bogus, and he has in recent times even associated with the likes of CH Sommers, so in my view the guy is a liability to social progressives, not an asset.

    Reply
  6. Glen Mcbride

    Greetings Chrys Helen and I both Know Richard – we spent two sabbatical leaves in Oxford working beside him. Your analysis came close to mine – and of course I have many of his books as Kindle editions on this computer. Anything he writes is well worth reading. We are still close friends of his first wife Marian – she stayed with us on her last visit to Briz – delightful woman and fine scientist – also an ethologist as I was and Richard was. She and another very old friend wrote a classic book – Introduction to animal behaviour – now its sixth edition and sent me a copy – but I also bought a Kindle copy to keep my notes in. I am gradually recovering from my month in Greenslopes tho don’t have the energy even of last year – perhaps because I turn 90 in a few weeks. I have had a paper published last month on the evolution of language – a very controversial topic – but one I published on back in 1968. We still drive to Briz occasionally I now find it tiring – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren lived there. Helen still pops down just for an evening concert – what energy? We haven’t been to an atheist meeting since my spell in hospital – still receive messages and must make the decision as the time gets close usually other activities now intrude. Keep up the good work – even tho I remain an agnostic – I’m one who has just dismissed all interest in religion from my mind and life just 70 years ago when I arrived as a young RAAF pilot in Blighty and discovered G B Shaw who led me from the righteous path. Warmly and cheerily Glen ________________________________________

    Reply
    1. Mish Singh

      Dear Glen,
      Please forgive me butting in on your conversation with the wonderful Chrys. I just had one quick question: could I possibly adopt you?🙂
      Mish

      Reply
  7. Kevin McDonald

    I find myself in agreement with Brian Wilder, and Martin, and (somewhat) with Glen McBride. I am a long-retired university lecturer in the biological sciences, and can state that when I read The Selfish Gene (years ago), it entirely and utterly changed my outlook on life, evolution, planetary biodiversity, and so on. The book had a profound impact on the thinking of millions of people. I have since read other books by Dawkins, and I find that he writes with great clarity and insight. His later book: The God Delusion is simply an outstanding book, and should be read by everyone (not that the deluded fundamentalist “Christians” would ever read it!) It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Richard Dawkins is “likeable” or not. He is a great scientist, a polymath, and a great communicator. What an immense command he has of science in general and the biological sciences in particular. Equally, he has a vast knowledge of the world’s religions. I simply admire his contribution to knowledge, his insights into the vast complexity of life, and his ability to write so clearly and eloquently on an immense range of topics and issues. To me, he is a modern-day Charles Darwin.

    Reply
  8. Mish Singh

    Chrys, lovely to “hear” your thoughts again, and to see your post in my inbox. And I agree with you re Dawkins; he’s a bit of a twonk when it comes to stuff about us lady-people, and he may well be a rude grumpy bugger, but that doesn’t stop me appreciating his contributions on many fronts.
    By the way, have you seen the videos of him reading his hate mail? They’re hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZuowNcuGsc

    Reply
  9. Temy

    I have never met Dawkins or Harris of Hitch or Dennett, but I liked and like them all. I may not necessarily on any personal level, but there is no danger of that, so I like them and many others, in the same way that I like Robert G. Ingersoll, who was dead nearly 60 years before I was born. Very important work they do meant for the betterment of humanity.

    Reply
  10. Annette

    I too know people for whom reading the wonderful The Selfish Gene was enlightening and life-changing. And I agree Chrys, the science is the thing. I reminded a relative of this, nicely, when I gave him a copy of the 30th anniversary edition for his birthday and he refused to read it, not because he’s a theist or anti-science, but because he doesn’t “like” the man. His wife focuses totally on that interview with Andrew Denton as her one and only impression of Dawkins and opines that it cast him in a bad light. Personally I think it cast Denton in a bad light. His son read The God Delusion and found it “a bit preachy ironically”. So no one in that family will ever read The Selfish Gene. I wonder how many others might be unfortunately prejudiced by Richard’s persona in this way.

    Reply
  11. Mike W

    I’d be interested to know exactly why he ” deserves some of the vitriol now directed towards him from the international community he helped to create.” especially at the level of soul-crushing hatred that he has revealed in correspondence, or which can be read on public media.

    “Atheism has moved on since 2006, and I think it’s true to say the atheist community has, largely, moved on from Dawkins. ”

    In as much as you have to be careful about falsely propping up Dawkins as the leader of a movement or community, you have to be careful about statements like this. What is this “atheist community” that can move on in such a fashion in a few short years? It’s a bit like saying the “feminist community has moved on from Germaine Greer” and not taking into account a largely extant generation of people profoundly influenced by her work, and who generated a legacy of public policy and children/grandchildren raised in a new mindset. If a part of this community has anointed itself as the vanguard then it should properly identify itself, and I guess prepare for its own future backlash,

    Reply
  12. rorschach

    “If a part of this community has anointed itself as the vanguard then it should properly identify itself, and I guess prepare for its own future backlash”

    I think what has happened is that Dawkins has shown himself to be an arch-conservative anti-feminist at heart, with his atheism being one bright spot on an otherwise very dark canvas.

    Now some are ok with that and see their atheism as enough of an achievement to feel smugly superior to 7/8s of the inhabitants of the planet.

    And some keep thinking beyond that narrow scope. So there’s a home for everyone I guess.

    Reply
  13. Katamari

    Thanks Chrys for perfectly articulating my own thoughts on Dawkins. Love him, hate him, can’t ignore the contribution he’s made to science and creating a global community of atheists.

    Reply
  14. Dana McGuire

    Golly gosh talk about privliged! The average person doesn’t have time to ponder on such things for hours on end.
    Kids, vomit, gastro, nits, washing, bills and where the next meal is coming from.

    But yeah just sit there and call the average person stupid.

    Maybe Dawkins should write a book on his silver lined toilet paper. And how he visited the Queen and remembered to stick his pinkie in the air as he sipped his cup of tea.

    Reply

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