Richard Dawkins: The Atheist Evangelist

This article, published in By Faith magazine in 2007, is an account of my first visit to Richard Dawkins’s home in Oxford. I think readers of this blog will find this very interesting given all that has transpired between us since that time. For the uninitiated, this interview precedes the first Dawkins-Lennox debate that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama that same year. There were three more debates between Dawkins and Lennox, the last on the set of the Charlie Rose Show in New York City, which never aired. The last time I saw Richard, we met as fellow sufferers – he was recovering from a stroke, and I from a serious accident. That visit was also in Richard’s home. I hope you enjoy the article:

“Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”
—Richard Dawkins

I sat in my room sipping a hot cup of tea while reviewing my notes. In an hour’s time I would be interviewing celebrated atheist and scientist provocateur Richard Dawkins, at his Oxford home. This would be a first: Dawkins granting an interview to someone he knew to be an evangelical “Bible Belt” Christian.

I wondered at the degree of his influence over the past 30 years in science and beyond. At that moment, as if to answer the unspoken question, my musings were interrupted by the lyrics of a song emanating from the radio. The song was titled “Selfish Jean,” a clever twist on the phrase Dawkins coined in 1976 in his highly acclaimed book The Selfish Gene. Has any scientist so thoroughly penetrated popular culture as Richard Dawkins?

As I made my way through the streets of Oxford, I speculated about the sort of man I would encounter. Was he a mad scientist bent on the destruction of the existing social order; an egomaniacal chap cleverly building the cult of his personality while laughing all the way to the bank; or a true believer, an evangelist for atheism,  who believes in his message and in his mission?

Visiting Dawkins at Home

It was with apprehension that I approached his house. I knocked and the door swung wide. “Larry?” A casually dressed figure stood in the foyer and beckoned me in. “Call me Richard,” he said, leading me to the living room. He was polite, even if he seemed a bit apprehensive, too. He cast a quick glance in my direction, seeming to assess me, like some sort of rare species.

He had undoubtedly been asked some of these questions many times before, but his response to each was thoughtful and measured, rather than canned. He relaxed, becoming animated, even chatty. He talked about his major books, The Selfish GeneThe Extended Phenotype, and his proudest achievement, The Ancestor’s Tale. His passion for science was obvious and infectious. In Dawkins’ presence, one can see why he has been so successful at making atheism cool again, particularly among disenfranchised youth. He’s not only charismatic, but also a clever marketer—a handy combination for Oxford University’s “professor of the public understanding of science.” And at 66, he appears a fit and attractive 50. Good DNA, I suppose.

“All of us have doubts at various times,” I began. “Have you ever had doubts about your atheism? Have you ever considered renouncing it?”

“Of course I have doubts all the time,” he said, “and I think in a way the word ‘atheism’ is misleading because it suggests that there’s just one alternative, which is God. I’m constantly on the alert for changes of mind, but extremely skeptical that those changes will just happen to be in the direction of embracing a god of Bronze Age camel herders from the Middle East,” he concluded, echoing a familiar theme.

As we waded into more controversial territory, Dawkins began to reveal the character associated with his more inflammatory works. His latest book, The God Delusion, is a vituperative assault on religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular. It is also a runaway bestseller, with 1,250,000 in print.

“What is the objective of your anti-religious campaign?” I asked.

“I think my ultimate goal would be to convert people away from particular religions toward a rationalist skepticism, tinged with … no, that’s too weak,” he said, correcting himself, “… glorying in the universe and in life. Yes, I would like people to be converted away from religion to skepticism.”

The Evolution of Atheism

Dawkins uses a lot of religious language. When he speaks of the “glory of the universe and in life” it comes out sounding like an atheist’s version of Psalm 8: “When I consider the moon and the stars which evolution hath ordained … .” And herein lies one of the striking features of the New Atheism: if the atheists of the Enlightenment were reluctant to come out of the closet and those of Nietzsche’s time “agonized,” the New Atheists are openly evangelical in their zeal. In September, the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., featuring Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, among others. The conference sold out. The purpose was to encourage, inform, and unite the unbelieving. Something like a Promise Keepers for atheists—minus singing, crying, and Tony Evans, of course.

As we talked, Dawkins discussed how it was his hope that he could provide support for oppressed atheists around the world. This, too, was an insight. Unfortunately, from the perspective of some Christians, atheists are an obnoxious and aggressive lot who make it their mission in life to oppress everyone else. The standard image is that of Madalyn Murray O’Hair or totalitarian states that have institutionalized atheism. But this picture is unfair and limited, since atheists have—along with Christians—suffered intense persecution, particularly in Islamic states.

The New Atheists certainly don’t consider themselves or Dawkins as oppressors. The cover of the latest edition of Skeptic Magazine gives some indication of this, featuring a caricature of Dawkins standing on the foundation of science, lance in hand, slaying the dragon of faith in the style of St. George. For atheists, Dawkins is their champion, leading them to an enlightened future.
It is clear that Dawkins writes primarily for them. While some of his documentaries and books have an “evangelistic” intent, The God Delusion is no more meant to persuade the religious away from religious belief than Ann Coulter’s Godless is intended to persuade liberals away from liberalism. It is “red meat,” in the manner of a Ted Kennedy speech at a Democratic National Convention, rallying the faithful (pardon the expression) and providing them with leadership.

Make no mistake about it: Richard Dawkins is their leader. As the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, Dawkins occupies the bully pulpit of science and culture and uses it to maximum effect. That he receives top billing at the AAI conference in D.C. should come as no surprise. Unlike Hitchens, a flamethrower and a mere pundit, or Harris, an upstart graduate student, Dawkins is a fellow of the Royal Society, the author of eight bestsellers, and a highly respected scientist. As one Oxford journalist told me: “Richard Dawkins is Oxford University.”

But he doesn’t seem to be doing much science these days. Some think that Dawkins is simply living off the capital he earned early in his career and, having established himself as an expert in one field, is now speaking authoritatively in fields where he possesses no such expertise. In a blistering critique of The God Delusion, fellow British scholar and atheist Terry Eagleton wrote: “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.” Eagleton says Dawkins is “appallingly bitchy” in The God Delusion. “His first few books were his best,” observed one of Dawkins’ colleagues. “His latest is just a rant.”

The Rising Popularity of Atheism

Whatever it is, it’s selling. Dawkins and his ilk have struck a chord among people who view religion as an historically corrupt purveyor of hatred and violence. Indeed, Dawkins recently hosted and produced a popular BBC documentary titled The Root of All Evil, and you may fairly guess that the love of money was not the subject. How do we account for this surge in atheism’s popularity and Western culture’s growing enmity for religion? Sept. 11. Dawkins says that the events of that fateful day “radicalized” him, and if his book sales are any indication, he is not alone. Religion, like illiteracy or disease, is a social ill to be eradicated. But for all of Dawkins’ sophistication, there seems to be little appreciation of the fact that religious faiths and practices are not monolithic. Dawkins disregards all nuances. To him, all religions are the same—irrational and opposed to the rigors of scientific inquiry. And that is the way Dawkins frames the debate: science vs. religion. We may reasonably translate this as “fact vs. fiction” or “rational vs. irrational.”

In debating Dawkins, some Christian apologists have implicitly accepted the science vs. religion paradigm and, as a consequence, have found their position untenable. In one instance, I watched as Dawkins overwhelmed a very able theologian who attempted a defense of the totality of religious belief. To this extent, Dawkins is right: some religions are irrational. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, all that do not lead to Jesus Christ are a dead end. What interest do Christians have in defending suicide bombings or Sharia law?

“What defines your morality?” I asked with genuine curiosity.

There was an extended pause as Dawkins considered the question carefully. “Moral philosophic reasoning and a shifting zeitgeist.” He looked off and then continued.

“We live in a society in which, nowadays, slavery is abominated, women are respected, children can’t be abused—all of which is different from previous centuries.”

He leaned forward as he warmed to his subject.

“I’m actually rather interested in the shifting zeitgeist. If you travel anywhere in the Western world, you find a consensus of opinion which is recognizably different from what it was only a matter of a decade or two ago. You and I are both a part of that same zeitgeist, and [as to where] we get our moral outlook, one can almost use phrases like ‘it’s in the air.’”

At this point, perhaps a word of explanation is necessary. Zeitgeist is a German word meaning “spirit of the age.” Dawkins here refers to the prevailing moral climate or mood of a given place or time. We may observe that what constitutes moral or ethical behavior differs from one culture to another; indeed, it may even differ within a given culture. This is not in dispute. The question, rather, is this: should moral standards be based on the societal zeitgeist or should they look beyond it to something else?

I asked an obvious question: “As we speak of this shifting zeitgeist, how are we to determine who’s right? If we do not acknowledge some sort of external [standard], what is to prevent us from saying that the Muslim [extremists] aren’t right?”

“Yes, absolutely fascinating.” His response was immediate. “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. But whatever [defines morality], it’s not the Bible. If it was, we’d be stoning people for breaking the Sabbath.”

I was stupefied. He had readily conceded that his own philosophical position did not offer a rational basis for moral judgments. His intellectual honesty was refreshing, if somewhat disturbing on this point.

Dawkins proceeded to cite the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement as examples of Western moral advancements, but would not credit Christianity in the slightest.

“Now you have to remember where I am from,” I objected. “Birmingham, Alabama—the home of the civil rights movement. Many there would argue that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was motivated by his Christian convictions. And what of William Wilberforce?”

But Dawkins would have none of it. Christianity, in his view, had contributed nothing worthwhile to Western civilization, morally or otherwise. Moral advances—and, curiously, he did consider them advances—were matters for further scientific inquiry.

Dawkins sat back again. “I think that’s the best answer to your question, although I agree that it’s a complicated answer—it doesn’t come from anywhere simple—and it is necessary to say that whatever else it comes from, it most certainly doesn’t come from religion.” He considered me for a moment. “Anybody who thinks that they get it from religion really is deluded. Certainly nobody could maintain they seriously get it from the Bible. I take it you agree with that, because if you got it from the Bible you’d have to cherry pick which bits of the Bible you accept and which bits you don’t.”

It was a provocation intended to flush me out. I obliged.

“I would disagree,” I began slowly. “I believe you can get your morality from the Bible.”

“Well, which bits of the Bible?” His eyes flashed. “Presumably not Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy?”

As I began to explain the function of Old Testament law, Dawkins pounced.

“You’re not telling me that as a civilized 21st-century man that you get your morality from the Ten Commandments?” He was incredulous. To him, it was as if I were saying, “The Easter Bunny gave us these laws, and they fall into three categories … .”

“What aspects of the Ten Commandments do you find objectionable?” I asked.

After an animated exchange and a brief search for a Bible, Dawkins went straight to the opening line of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The idea of a personal God who demands exclusivity of worship offended him. Given Dawkins’s worldview, this seemed like a logical protest. After all, the other nine commandments hang on that one.

An Evangelist for Atheism

One might conclude that Dawkins is just a postmodern cleverly hiding behind the sophisticated language of a scientist. That would be a serious miscalculation. Although they may sound like it on questions of morality, New Atheists like Dawkins are not relativists—at least not in the strict sense of the word. They are rationalists who believe very much in absolutes. For them, science and the scientific method is the way, the truth, and the life. In an interview on The O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly made precisely this miscalculation of Dawkins (and of Catholic dogma) when he said, “My religion of Roman Catholicism … it’s true for me.” Dawkins shot back scornfully, “How can something be true for you? Something’s either got to be true or not true.” Amen.

Our discussion meandered, eventually coming full circle. After an interruption or two of the domestic sort (door bell, phone call, etc.), he followed me outside and we concluded our discussion on the lawn.

I left with a distinctly different impression than that with which I had arrived. Dawkins was neither the mad scientist nor the sensationalist out to make money. He was a true believer, an evangelist for atheism. And while I believe him to be profoundly mistaken on what he calls “the big, deep questions of existence,” his commitment to his cause was admirable. Were more Christians to demonstrate a similar commitment to the Great Commission, the world would be a very different place.

Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists present a major challenge to the church. But like all the great controversies before it, the church has been given an opportunity to retool, regroup, and reclaim the truth of the gospel, speaking it into the void. “There is nothing new under the sun,” wrote the Preacher. Indeed. If we scratch the surface we will find the New Atheists are very much like the old atheists.

Image Credit: Surian Soosay

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