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’.
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.