Here’s a proud confession. I have all of Richard Dawkins’s 11 science books (or 10 if we are strict and discount the massive best seller The God Delusion) on my bookshelves and have read them all. He certainly arouses strong feelings in others, both positive and negative, but without question, he cannot and should not be ignored.
I have written elsewhere of how in my younger days my eyes were opened to the wonders of science – thanks in no small part to the books of Richard Dawkins – and my dismay at the realisation concerning the ignorant claptrap about science and especially evolution that I had hitherto imbibed from Muslim religious figures.
In this second of his two part autobiography (the first part was 2013’s An Appetite for Wonder), Dawkins says:
…I dare to hope that my books, starting with The Selfish Gene in 1976, are among those that have changed the cultural landscape, along with the works of Stephen Hawking, Peter Atkins, Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson, Steve Jones, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Fortey, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Kahneman, Helena Cronin, Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, the two M. Ridleys (Mark and Matt)… (p7)
If Dawkins sounds a bit arrogant here then we ought to remember (and as Dawkins himself says about the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson) that he has a lot to be arrogant about. As former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins regularly took to print and to the airwaves to champion science and to ridicule what he regarded as unsupportable superstition. The targets of his criticism included the poor state of science teaching in some Muslim faith schools.
One of my most memorable encounters was being on the same team as the above-mentioned Professor Steve Jones and Matt Ridley on BBC1’s Big Questions (YouTube video here) as we debated the truth of evolution with some religious deniers.
In this autobiography, Dawkins accepts that he can perhaps come across as being almost too bullish about science, but in his defence recounts a funny anecdote to show that he is not alone.
A former and highly successful editor of New Scientist magazine – he actually built up New Scientist to great heights – was asked: ‘What is your philosophy at New Scientist?’ He said, ‘Our philosophy in New Scientist is this: science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’ (p262)
Naturally the targets of his ire – often followers of the main world religions maybe do not see it this way. Is Dawkins being unfair? Let’s take a more detailed look at the observations he makes in this autobiography regarding Christianity and Islam and see for ourselves.
I have tried but consistently failed to find anything in theology to be serious about. I certainly take professors of theology seriously when they use their expertise to do things other than theology: jigsaw the fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls, for instance; or minutely compare Hebrew and Greek texts of scriptures, or sleuth out the lost sources of the four gospels and the other gospels that didn’t make it into the canon. That’s all genuine scholarship, fascinating to read and deserving of respect. It’s even true that historians need to study theological logic-chopping in order to understand the disputes and wars that have stained European history, for example the English Civil Wars. But the vacuous deepities (Dan Dennett’s splendid word) of ‘apophatic theology’ (Karen Armstrong’s obscurantist smokescreen), or the expenditure of precious time arguing with other theologians over the precise ‘significance for us today’ of Original Sin, Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, or the ‘mystery’ (sorry, ‘Mystery’) of the Trinity, none of that is scholarship in any respectable sense of the word, and it should have no place in our universities. (p177-8)
Dawkins does appear to have a fair point here. After all, can we really justify university money – subsidised by taxpayers – being spent on such studies?
Later in the book, Dawkins draws our attention to a passage from the autobiography of his hero, Charles Darwin. Beginning by noting that “Darwin, as a young man, was a devout believer, destined for a career in the church”, Dawkins shares with us Darwin’s own words later in life in which he said he could:
…hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine. (p253)
Again, the words are very strong, but are they really unfair?
And here is Dawkins on today’s Muslims. He is at a dinner hosted by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with some of London’s leading Jews:
It was at that dinner that I learned the stunning fact that Jews, who constitute less than 1 per cent of the world’s population, have won more than 20 per cent of all Nobel Prizes. This makes a poignant contrast with the derisorily low success rate of the world’s Muslims, who are orders of magnitude more numerous in the world. I thought – still do – the comparison revealing…how could it not be revealing that one of them has a success rate per head which is literally tens of thousands of times higher than the other, in the fields of intellectual endeavour celebrated by Nobel? Islamic scholars were notable for keeping the flame of Greek learning alive during the middle ages and dark ages of Christendom. What went wrong? (p249)
What indeed? The words may be uncomfortable for Muslims to listen to, but they are surely worth reflecting upon with an open mind.
Back in 2010, Dawkins was one of the co-presenters (along with Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, James Dyson, Robert Winston and others) of the marvellous five part Channel Four series, The Genius of Britain. The series (which oddly is not mentioned in this autobiography) took a look at the British scientists who kick started the scientific revolution in the UK and which was subsequently exported to much of the world. It noted how 500 years ago, Britain was still very much in a state of darkness where ‘witches’ were still being hunted and burnt. These scientists, beginning with the 17th century giants Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton dared to ask questions about the workings of nature and were allowed the space to continue their research and experiments unhindered by the state. This contributed to an explosive growth in our knowledge and understanding and in due course would lead to the development of the theories of gravity, evolution and the Big Bang which underpin our current understanding of how the universe works. It would lead to practical benefits such as inoculation and vaccination which would prevent millions of needless deaths across the world. It would usher in the technological age which has brought us the PC, the internet and the dazzling new useful gadgets that are being invented every week.
The title of Dawkins’s autobiography is “Brief Candle in the Dark” which is a nod to the great American astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan who talked about “science as a candle in the dark.”
Long may this particular flame shine a light for all of us.