Richard Dawkins sits on the edge of his sofa and plays his electronic wind instrument (EWI), a type of digital clarinet. He presses a button and it imitates the sound of a cello; another button turns it into a saxophone. He plays the theme of Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and the tune fills the sun-drenched living room of his Oxford flat. For a moment I imagine him as the Pied Piper of atheism calling the (un)faithful to his side.
He takes the instrument from his lips and flinches with a compliment. “I’m trying to get better.” Would he like to play with other musicians? “I think I would. Novelist Alexander McCall Smith started something called The Really Terrible Orchestra. I wouldn’t mind joining.”
His ambivalence about his musical talent is contrasted with the certainty he shows in his life’s work: the study of evolutionary biology and the forensic exposure of religion. His best-selling books The Selfish Gene (1976) and the God Delusion (2006), present an impressive double whammy. The former puts the gene at the center of the evolutionary process and argues that organisms—you and me, for example—are merely vehicles for successful genes, the kind whose encoded information remains largely unchanged for tens of millions of years remains. The latter book — a sensation upon its publication — uses science to argue that belief in God, any god, is not only wrong but potentially dangerous.
Dawkins is 81 years old. Wearing an open white shirt and blue Prince of Wales plaid trousers, he is attractively handsome but reserved, almost shy. He has been married three times but has been spending lockdown with a new partner. His patrician accent and measured language seem unsuited to overt expressions of emotion, although certain lines of poetry can bring him to tears.
Age has not softened his belief, or rather his lack of belief, in a higher power; don’t expect falling off your deathbed. The eulogy he chose for his funeral – the opening lines of his 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Madness and an Appetite for Miracles – hits the core of his secular, science-based worldview. “We’re going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people will never die because they will never be born.”
What will happen after he breathes his last? “It will be like unborn,” he says calmly. “A big nothing. Or rather, as much of a nothingness as before we were born.” He recites Mark Twain’s famous phrase: “I do not fear death. I was dead billions and billions of years before I was born and hadn’t suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Dawkins doesn’t look forward to “the process of dying” because “unlike a dog, I can’t go to the vet and be put down painlessly.” He could maybe go to a clinic in Switzerland? “Yes, and I can do that well.”
In the meantime, Dawkins has been busy writing books. He finished two during lockdown: Flights of the imaginationan exploration of human and animal flight through the prism of evolution, and a collection of essays and journalism called Books furnish a life. The Dawkins canon will continue to expand next year with the release of another title, The Genetic Book Of The Dead, and a lecture tour of Australia begins February 17 in Melbourne.
Dawkins suffered a stroke in 2016 and uses a treadmill to ensure his “organism” stays healthy. He watches TV while working out and has become a fan of it Young Sheldonthe sitcom about an American prodigy based on the science geek The big Bang Theory.
He looks pained when I ask him if he was a child prodigy at Oundle, the private school in England he attended after his family returned from Kenya. “Oh no, certainly not. I was in the middle of school.”
So a late developer? “I suppose I was ecstatic in my second year at Oxford [he studied zoology at Balliol College]. In my freshman year I still thought I was in school and thought in terms of textbook pedagogy. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized that a college education is about being a scholar – never touching a textbook, but going to the library and reading original papers and thinking for yourself.”
He begins with a story about starfish’s water vascular systems, how the creatures use channeled seawater to animate their limbs. He was told to write an essay on the subject and it sparked a eureka moment. “You can imagine that for a 19-year-old that was an exhilarating experience. The encouragement from the weekly tutorial meant that not only did you read about starfish hydraulics, you ate and slept too. I had seawater pulsing through my dozing brain.”
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS BY RICHARD DAWKINS
- Worst habit? Use any excuse to distract from the task at hand.
- Biggest fear? That the world might stop respecting reason.
- The line that stayed with you? The boundary between truth and lies.
- Biggest Regret? The loss of friends.
- favorite room? scope.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? Here, there and everywhere by Lennon and McCartney.
- If you could solve one thing… The evolutionary importance of consciousness.
It’s clear that his favorite thing to talk about is science. Science, he explains, is largely collegial; The arguments are passionate but generally respectful. The same is not true of atheism, the subject that has both revered and despised him. On several occasions he has given joking public readings of his hate mail, much of it written by American evangelicals who accuse him of doing Satan’s work.
I ask him if the letters and emails ever make him fear for his safety? “No,” he says firmly.
Dawkins would certainly be aware that hate mail has changed in recent years. High-profile individuals who express controversial opinions can be both physically threatened and insulted. “I’m aware of that, yes. I think of what JK Rowling was exposed to [the author has been accused of transphobia and sent death threats] and I find it terrifying. I have great sympathy for her and admire her courage and the fact that she is willing to speak up.”
Dawkins, whose own social media posts relating to Islam and transgender issues have occasionally landed him in hot water, has admitted he occasionally censors his public statements these days. But when I ask him about it, he falls silent. “Let’s talk about my books, shall we?”
The topic is closed, at least I thought so. We’ll come back to the subject later when I ask him how he reacts to criticism. Did it hurt when the American Humanist Association withdrew its Humanist of the Year award in 2021 because it felt Dawkins had belittled trans people in a tweet that said, “Some men choose to identify as women , and some women choose to identify as men. They are slandered when they deny that they are literally who they identify as. To discuss.”
The short answer: yes. “I’m what Americans would call a liberal – I’m on the left politically and see myself more as a feminist humanist. So, criticism from people I consider ‘my people’ hurts me in a way that criticism from religious people doesn’t – I don’t give a damn.”
What about the accusation of Islamophobia? Over the past decade, his comments and tweets about Islam – suggesting that the Muslim call to prayer “sounds aggressive” compared to the “much nicer” sound of church bells; blame Islamic doctrine for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting; calling Islam “the greatest force of evil in the world today” – have drawn widespread criticism.
Dawkins doesn’t flinch. “I’m not Islamophobic. I’m against throwing gays off buildings, cutting off young girls’ clits, forbidding the enjoyment of music and dancing. And I’m scared of getting little kids to memorize the Koran in a language they don’t speak. I am not afraid of Muslims because they are Islam’s greatest victims.”
There was a time – when the “New Atheism” championed by great beasts of unbelief like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett was embraced as a mantra by many on the left – when some of its more controversial statements would mostly pass without comment . But in the “awakened” era, the more inclusive instincts of the left sometimes clash with the science-based rationalism of the atheists.
Dawkins knows times have changed. But he balks at the idea of science adapting to the changing sensibilities of each generation. “I don’t really study trends,” says the man who coined the term “meme.” “I’m not one of those people who talks about this or that generation. Science is about things more eternal than that—things that have always been true and always will be true.”
Surprisingly, he does not consider himself particularly combative and insists that he is not an evangelist for atheism. That may surprise some of his opponents. “I hope I’m always polite,” he says quietly. “If I’m talking nonsense, I expect someone to tell me. One of the reasons people think [I’m combative] is that we have been brought up over the centuries to give free rein to religion; we don’t criticize it. So if you hear someone using even fairly mild language — the kind of language that would be considered mild if applied to a theater or a restaurant — it sounds very aggressive.”
There is some evidence that Dawkins’ view prevails. The 2021 Australian Census results show that 43.9 per cent identify as Christian, up from 52.1 per cent in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of Australians who say they have “no religion” has risen to 38.9 per cent, up from 30.1 percent in 2016. Similar results have been seen in Europe and even the United States, where belief in God has fallen to a record low of 81 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.
At the same time, religion is on the rise in Africa and Asia, a phenomenon Dawkins describes as “very disheartening.” His explanation: “Education in Africa is largely in the hands of Christian and Muslim missionaries, and reaching the children is historically what religions have been about.”
Would he really like to live in a truly secular, post-religious society? “Oh yes, I think the world would be a much happier place.” He pauses. “Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens said he didn’t like it because he had no one to argue with.”
An evening with Richard DawkinsMelbourne Plenary 17 February and Darling Harbor Theater Sydney 18 February. Tickets available now, www.tegdainty.com
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/why-richard-dawkins-doesn-t-fear-the-great-nothing-that-awaits-at-the-end-20220728-p5b587.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Why Richard Dawkins isn’t afraid of the “big nothing” that awaits him at the end