An Evening with Richard Dawkins

Buried in the depths of this site is a list of 50 Things to Do Before I Die. #12 is ‘Thank Richard Dawkins – in person or as close as possible’, which I’m happy to say I can now tick off the list!

A friend, my parents and I went to see him in conversation with a local radio presenter at the local civic hall. I’ve mentioned on countless occasions that he’s one of my intellectual heroes due to his The Blind Watchmaker launching me into science and skepticism at age 19, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was quite excited. A little nervous too, in case he disappointed. Although not a part of the official tour, the topic was his latest novel: The God Delusion. Happily, he was as eloquently vociferous in person as in print.

The first 45 minutes saw him questioned on various points from the book. The presenter wasn’t hostile, but didn’t shy from the big questions – as well he shouldn’t. What’s the problem with moderate religion? What about the wonder we all feel when we look at the stars? Why is there something instead of nothing? He also brought up various other famous moments, such as the so-often-misinterpreted comments equating religious upbringings with child abuse, which RD was quick to clarify.

Having read him, Sam Harris (whom he wholeheartedly endorsed) and various other atheists I could almost predict the substance of the answers and it was tricky to gauge how it came across to a ‘lay’ audience. I think he did a good job of emphasising that his quarrel is with religion, not the believer, although there were certainly audience members who took it personally. I can see how people could tune into the inflammatory parts and ignore the rest, but I don’t know how you counter that.

There was a final question regarding faith schools – he’s not a fan – then the interval, during which he signed copies of The God Delusion. I of course joined the queue! I’d taken my copy of The Blind Watchmaker along with me, and he kindly signed that instead πŸ™‚

My signed copy of The Blind Watchmaker

I said the thank-you I’d been rehearsing in my head and toddled off so as not to delay the very large queue. I am now most chuffed.

After the interval came a question and answer session, which was great. First up was a local vicar, complete with dog-collar (he’d come straight from a meeting rather than ‘attending in uniform’), who took great exception to the criticism of his church. He wanted to know what the evidence was that removing religion would result in a peaceful world. Stalin was an atheist, etc. RD replied that this misinterpreted the statements – he’d said that suicide bombings and many acts of horrendous violence would not happen without religion, not that the world would be peaceful. Despite having the reasons detailed, the vicar then again asked for the evidence, which didn’t make him look very good. He then wanted to know why there was something instead of nothing, which had already been addressed.

Possibly most interesting was a young guy who accused RD of attacking a straw-man. The extremists in The Root of All Evil? were not indicative of mainstream religion in any way, surely? It was pointed out that it may seem that way to those of us in the UK, but America is very different. The guy expressed doubts about this, but was visibly taken aback when told that 50% of US citizens believe the Earth is fewer than 10,000 years old.

The people behind me had been whispering incessantly throughout the evening, clearly unimpressed, and raised their hands en masse during the Q&A session. I was expecting something dramatic, given their apparent disdain. They turned out to be pagans, which utterly surprised me, and asked what RD thought of worshipping nature. I don’t think his reply about revelling in and adoring nature, but not seeing anything supernatural therein, impressed them much.

Somebody couldn’t see how picking and choosing from scripture meant you were applying an external system of morality. Another came out with the weird statement that mutations are only ever detrimental, so how could evolution occur in the way that’s claimed? Somebody actually asked how you can know right from wrong without a morality from God, which took me aback – I’ve never seen anybody say that in person before.

The evening’s only off-note came at the end, when the presenter asked how many people in the audience believed in an intercessory God, and how many were atheists. The latter far outnumbered the former, but then it was a self-selecting group – far more atheists will have heard of / be interested in seeing Richard Dawkins in the first place.

A highly successful evening! I know there are various commenters who will argue vigorously against Dawkins and some who would mock my excitement. I’m happy to debate anybody, but give me this one, please? It’s really intended as a description rather than an argument, and there’ll be plenty more posts detailing my religious views where you can lay into me as much as you like, I promise πŸ™‚