The Dawkins doctrine
- Credit: Archant
‘I lay out the evidence and people are free to ignore it or be fascinated by it,’ the world’s most famous aetheist tells a star-struck Katie Jarvis ahead of his appearance at the Chipping Norton Literature Festival
“Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”
Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality
I begin by telling Richard Dawkins a story. A true story. It involves my youngest, who came home from school one day (an Ofsted ‘outstanding’, no less), saying his religious studies teacher had taught him the eye was a good example of intelligent design.
And where to start? Even religious views aside, the eye is an appalling example of ‘design’. In humans, the wiring gets in the way of the light, for one thing. (I mean, if I’d designed the eye, even I probably wouldn’t admit to it.)
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So, I phoned the school’s science department... who shrugged and said, “Well, that’s religious studies, isn’t it.”
I tell Richard Dawkins this. Not to pull a tail; not simply to provoke the sort of reaction we all love to see on our TV screens. I tell him because I know he – unlike the school science department – will care.
“Did you ask whether the science teacher teaches it properly?”
“So the children get a kind of schizophrenic view,” he says, shaking his head. “It is a shocking story and I fear it’s not that rare.”
Professor Richard Dawkins: I could introduce him as the world’s most famous atheist (certainly now the equally-forthright Christopher Hitchens has gone to meet his maker). If you follow his Twitter feed, you’ll have seen the recent invitation to finish the sentence, ‘I’m an atheist because…’ The deluge – ‘Raised Muslim, wore a head scarf, prayed 5 times a day. Thanks to Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan, am now an atheist’, etc – was interesting. Vitriol, sadness, rationale. Roman Catholic, Muslim. Educated, ungrammatical.
But, actually, that’s not primarily how I think of him, as we sit talking in his rather lovely edge-of-Oxford home with its vast amounts of space and wall-to-wall books.
I’m in awe of him because of his scientific expertise (though I realise that’s far from unconnected with his atheism). In fact, I’m so nervous that I arrive at the interview fresh from a nightmare where I drove all night, unable to find his house and unable to utter a syllable once I got there.
Nor can I relax straight away. For a start, we sit at right-angles to each other, where eye contact has to be intentionally established. And then he answers my questions in a specific, focused way – finishing with a silence – rather than this being a flowing chat. But I soon come to realise it means he really does answer my questions. And he goes out of his way to make them seem important and worthwhile.
I’ve been longing to interview him because he is responsible (in my case) for one of those blinding flashes you get, probably a mere handful of times in your life. Flashes that totally change the way you perceive the world around you. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” (which, young as I was, I took literally as a third choice-belief between a creator’s existence and never-existence). Or Schopenhauer’s assertion that belief in freewill is just a necessary convenience (effectively, you decide according to your preferences, yet you don’t choose your preferences).
I read Professor Dawkins’s mind-altering concept in that seminal work, The Selfish Gene, in which he proposes that our view of people/animals, etc as individuals – I, Katie; he, Richard – is only true on one level. We are, he says, packages; collections of genes that fare better together than apart. The flesh and blood you see – perhaps even the states of consciousness you experience and interact with – are just survival mechanisms for these genes.
Isn’t that a startling, view-changing thought?
His raison d’etre is to elucidate. To provide clear and rational explanations for the phenomena we once – in our human infancy – attributed to supernatural causes.
And he does this brilliantly in his latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, his first aimed at a youth market. “All my books have been intended to do the same thing – explaining science to people - and it occurred to me that a very important audience that I hadn’t specifically tried to write for before was children - young people from the age of 12 upwards,” he says. “I love science; I love conveying the wonder of science to as many people as possible.”
This book is equally an eye-opener for somebody who stopped science lessons at 16, as I did. In it, he takes ancient myths explaining material phenomena and replaces them with scientific fact. So, for example, a rainbow is not created by the goddess Iris; nor is it – as the Vikings believed – a bridge for gods to cross to earth. It’s far more amazing than either. Instead, he explains how the ‘static’ rainbow we see in the sky is actually a raindrop journey: the colours stay fixed in place for the duration (for reasons he clearly sets out), while the raindrops are constantly falling.
Nor did I understand the phenomenon of dropping a pebble into a pond. Whereas it looks as if the water molecules are rushing away from the pebble, they’re simply moving up and down. It is, he writes, like a Mexican Wave, “in which people in a large sports stadium stand up and then sit down again in order, each person doing so immediately after the person on one side of them…”
Other chapter headings include: When and how did everything begin? Are we alone? What is an earthquake? Why do bad things happen? Its principal question is why, particularly post-Darwin, we need anything but rational explanations for the world around us. Professor Dawkins would say we have no need at all; I’m not so sure. Or at least I want to play devil’s advocate.
Couldn’t you argue that just because something doesn’t exist, that’s no reason not to believe in it? In fact, we do believe in all sorts of things that don’t exist: art, morality, money.
“That’s interesting,” he says. “Money is a very good example because money clearly has no intrinsic value; it has value only because other people value it. I suppose money started off as promissory notes where people would say, ‘I owe you a wagon-load of hay’; these notes then became negotiable currency.
“Do I believe in money? I believe that people value money and that, if I give them some, they will give me something I want in return – a car or ice cream. Of course I believe in money, even though it doesn’t have an absolute intrinsic value in itself.”
So, in a thought experiment, if it could be proved that religion was ‘valuable’; that it did more good than harm, would that alter his approach?
“Certainly, if you said church activities – like collecting money for starving Africans – do good, then let’s support collecting money for starving Africans.”
In a church context?
“It doesn’t have to go along with believing in a supernatural spook. If you said it could be demonstrated, as a thought experiment, that people who do believe in supernatural spooks do good, therefore we should encourage them to believe in supernatural spooks, I don’t think so. I value truth. Believing a falsehood is sufficiently negative in my book that I wouldn’t support it.”
I wasn’t just thinking of the moral actions people might be persuaded to perform in the name of religion. I was thinking of the way (good, in my thought experiment) religion might make people feel. The night before the interview, while washing up, I noticed a legend on my detergent bottle that made me laugh: ‘Up to 50 percent more grease-cutting action’. It meant nothing, yet it made me feel good. And the ultimate feel-good message is that of eternal life. We are, as humans, rather taken by such positive promises.
“Of course, advertising people do that all the time. It works beautifully.”
So isn’t that a problem in his fight against religion?
“It doesn’t mean to say we have to lie down under it. We can fight it. I’ve spent much of my life doing so.”
In the final chapter of his Reality book, he deals with belief in miracles, such as the crowd of more than 70,000 who gathered at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, summoned by a vision of the Virgin Mary, as relayed by three peasant children. En masse, according to various accounts, they witnessed the sun dance around the heavens in an apocalyptic display that frightened all but harmed none. Apart from discussing the effect of staring at the sun for prolonged periods, Professor Dawkins quotes Hume’s brilliantly clear and succinct advice: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”
Indeed, Professor Dawkins refuses to countenance the compatibility of intelligence with, if not religion, then certainly Biblical miracles: “When you meet an incredibly intelligent person who believes, ask them what they believe. Because it may turn out – and it very likely will turn out – that they believe in some sort of deistic spirit of intelligence underlying the universe, or something like that. But do they believe Jesus walked on water, was born of a virgin, etc? I bet they don’t.”
The one miracle I might be tempted to believe in, in all of this, is the fact that I’ve managed to get an interview with Richard Dawkins at all. There is, of course, a rational explanation. He loves the Oxfordshire Cotswolds – he grew up here; hence, also, his agreeing to discuss his book at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on April 21. “I have great affection for the place,” he says, simply.
In fact, he and his younger sister, Sarah, were born in Africa, where his father, John – an Oxford-educated botanist – worked as an agricultural advisor with the colonial service. After John Dawkins inherited Over Norton Park, near Chipping Norton, in 1946, the family faced a dilemma. Should they continue in Africa, or make a go at it as farmers on the estate which Dawkinses had owned for more than 200 years?
“It was a massive decision – a huge change – and, oddly enough, all four of my grandparents wanted my parents to go back to Africa. I think the Dawkins grandparents thought it was their duty to stay out there: Dawkinses have been in the colonial service for a long time. My maternal grandparents were worried about failing at farming, which was common at the time.”
Concerns about schooling, however, coupled with the fact that Richard’s mother had suffered from severe malaria, prevailed, and the family headed for Oxfordshire. “But it was very, very hard work for them. The main park hadn’t been farmed since the 18th century and probably before. Although my father’s profession was tropical agriculture, he wasn’t a farmer: he was a civil servant advisor. He didn’t know anything about English agriculture; but he was a vigorous young man, who put his back into it.”
And succeeded against the odds. Among other achievements, the young couple started the Upper Norton Jersey Cream Company, which supplied many of the county’s hotels as well as Oxford colleges. They eventually sold the business, but it’s still going strong today.
As for the Park, his mother, sister and her family continue to live in various of its properties: “If you count up the total, 16 family members are there, so it’s a sort of Dallas.
“And if you look in Chipping Norton church, you’ll see a Dawkins mausoleum. The names of my ancestors are written on the outside of it, and on the church walls.”
I’m obliged to tell you all of this ‘local’ information – and it is interesting, of course; but my other discussions with this fiercely clever man also jostle for space: his ‘consequentialist’ view of morality, for example: “You can’t simply say abortion is wrong, and that’s that. You say: Who suffers? Does the embryo suffer? Probably not; but, if so, it suffers no more than – and probably a lot less than – the animals we keep in battery houses and slaughterhouses.”
Can he imagine any future theories that would change the way we view the world in the way that Darwin’s did?
“Very interesting question. I can’t really think of anything as big as that, though I can easily imagine changes in our moral values. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in a few centuries’ time, we’re all vegetarian, for example.”
Will science ever be superseded?
“Only by better science.”
I’d love to repeat fully his descriptions of water-diviners, who were utterly, genuinely devastated to discover their powers failed them under scientific scrutiny. “There’s a lovely story about a homeopath, who was reluctantly persuaded to submit to a double-blind trial of his homeopathic remedies. Of course, they didn’t work. He said, ‘You see: this is why we don’t do double-blind trials! They never work!’”
But I’m obliged to skip to my final question. There will be regular churchgoers reading this, who feel anger, discomfort at even seeing Richard Dawkins’s name. Why should they listen to him?
He looks for a second – and this could be my misinterpretation – weary, perhaps.
“I lay out the evidence and they are free to ignore it or be fascinated by it,” he says. “It’s sad if the mere mention of my name makes people not read my books. I don’t speak out as much as I’m reputed to. A lot of it is actually made up and a lot of it sounds more militant than it is.
“We have become conditioned to think that religion gets a free pass; and so, if you utter even a mild criticism – even my questioning of religion – people hear it as militant.
“In any case,” he points out. “I spend most of my time talking about science, not atheism.”
The Magic of Reality is published by Bantam Press, £20, in illustrated hardback; and in paperback, £8.99, by Black Swan