Richard Dawkins: I'm not like Christopher Hitchens!

The memoirist/scientist/atheist says he's felt something akin to a mystical experience -- but it's not supernatural

Published September 29, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Richard Dawkins                   (Lalla Ward)
Richard Dawkins (Lalla Ward)

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy.

The British evolutionary biologist has branched beyond the ivory tower with books and public pronouncements focusing largely on his belief that there is no God; "The God Delusion," published in 2006, made him perhaps the most notorious public atheist in the world. Recent public statements defending "mild pedophilia" on a relative scale and mocking Muslims for failing to obtain as many Nobel Prizes as had a college at Oxford have raised eyebrows -- and hackles -- across the world.

His most recent work, though, is more conciliatory. "An Appetite for Wonder" seems an almost bucolic examination of Dawkins's childhood in boarding school and his beginnings at Oxford, with asides indicating the degree to which biology had captivated Dawkins from a young age. Dawkins being Dawkins, though, he can't resist asides indicating his disdain for parents who teach their children about Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) without imbuing them with skepticism, and -- again -- about the Nobel Prize spread of Oxford versus the world's nations, though the language is dialed back. Dawkins spoke to Salon about how he differs from Christopher Hitchens, whether he loves controversy, and whether or not he's ever experienced the divine.

I wonder if you believe that having studied at Balliol in Oxford -- this university that has produced so many Nobel Prize winners -- makes you empirically more believable than a religious leader who did not study at Oxford and maybe doesn't have a degree from an advanced institution.

Well, I don't want to seem elitist about it, so let's leave Oxford out of it. But surely anybody well-educated does have qualifications which an uneducated fundamentalist probably doesn't. That's not controversial.

In the past, you've used Nobel Prizes as a gauge of success, and you've noted that the Muslim world (for various reasons) hasn't produced very many Nobel Prize winners.

Listen, I want to talk about my book.

So talk to me about your family in the Colonial Service. In the book, you write that "although there was much that was bad in the British Colonial Service, the best was very good indeed."  I was wondering if I could draw you out a little on that.

I wouldn't say they were exactly positive, I think that the atmosphere in Africa -- they were treated sort of like children. That's the way it was, that's what I observed. It is at least more positive than it had been at other times. It was at least paternalistic in a benevolent way.

Tell me a little but about Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. You say in the book that children ought to be gently questioned about their belief in Father Christmas, and I'm wondering whether or not you feel there is value in the imagination for a child. A lot of parents love telling their children there is a Santa Claus because it makes children feel imaginative and hopeful.

I do think imagination is enormously valuable, and that children should be encouraged in their imagination. That's very true. I don't find Father Christmas a very interesting piece of imagination. The main point I was making is that we don't want to tell a child there is no Father Christmas. We ought to encourage a child to develop habits of questioning, habits of curiosity, which would lead the child herself to see through such things.

I'm interested then -- do you feel as though people reach an age when they can't be encouraged to use skepticism? I feel as though it's harder to encourage adults to question their faith in God for instance.

Well, it's a curious thing actually, that children mostly do manage to give up the Lord and to give up their belief. But for some reason it doesn't carry over, a belief in what a particular God says, whether it's Apollo, Yahweh or whomever. So I don't really understand why that is, I would have though that a child's experience of having doubts would carry over to having doubts about God.

Do you think it's possible to be a Christian and a scientist?

Obviously, because there are many who are indeed both. So it is clearly possible.

Do you think it is a contradiction in terms in any way?

I find it quite hard to reconcile the two. It is easier to be spiritual or to have a sense of wonder that you could call being spiritual. Einstein had that, but it's not easy to believe in a supernatural God, which Einstein didn't, and be a good scientist. It's almost impossible to be a scientist and believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or that Jesus turned water into wine, and there are very few good scientists who actually do believe in that kind of thing.

Do you find that in writing books you're better able to communicate your arguments than through other forms of media? It seems as though you may feel as though you've been misinterpreted other time by members of the media.

I think the written word is probably the best medium of communication because you have time to reflect, you have time to choose your words, to get your sentences exactly right. Whereas when you're being interviewed, say, you have to talk on the fly, you have to improvise, you can change sentences around and they're not exactly right.

People are so fixed in their beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be, and some of your statements have been incendiary. Have you been able to win people over over time? Do you feel as though you've helped to convert believers? Or is it more a matter of encouraging people to be more outspoken about beliefs they already have?

Well, I see what you're saying. I think I've actually done both. I mean, I have a pretty good sample from people who -- from rather large signing queues, after my events, people who queue to get their books signed. About all of them say thank you. About half of them say Thank you for changing me, thank you for freeing me from the tyranny of religion, which I had in my family before. The other half say Thank you for giving me the courage to come out as a nonbeliever. So I think I get both.

It's interesting to me because I feel as though you seek to make arguments very methodically, yet they can sometimes end up being so controversial. Do you enjoy causing controversy or do you think of it as an unfortunate side effect?

No, I don't think I enjoy causing controversy. I don't hold back if something is controversial; I don't hold back on putting my thoughts across as forcefully as I can, though in the case of creationism for, example, I don't mind putting forward a case for evolution as forcefully as I can, knowing it will be controversial.

It has to be controversial; it can't be anything else. We have an absolute impasse between creationism and evolution; they are incompatible, and one is right and one is wrong. I don't hold back from controversy but couldn't say that I enjoy it. I mean, I wish there weren't any creationists to argue with. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, by the way, who I think rather enjoys controversy.

Do you foresee a situation when there wouldn't be any more religious people? It seems very far away in the future.

Yes well, lots of religions have died out. The Valhalla gods are no longer with us, the Norse gods. It would be realistic, then, to say there will be a time when Jehovah is no longer with us.

It seems logical that humans will evolve further. How will that happen?

That's interesting because in order for us to evolve further, it would be necessary that there should be differential survival or differential reproduction determined by gene. Now if you look at the dominant trends in human evolution over the last three billion years, the most important trend is that the brain has gotten bigger.

It’s interesting because some people – and it’s not scientific – some people question whether or not it’s actually moving in the opposite direction because the best educated people tend to have fewer children, at least anecdotally. We live under such different conditions now, and whether or not you reproduce doesn't depend on how clever you are.

And I think it's a pop-culture truism, at least, that the best-educated people tend to have fewer children, at least anecdotally. 

Yes, if there is a genetic component. One wouldn’t wish to say “un-educated” but if there is a genetic component towards intelligence, and if it’s true that the least intelligent people have the most children, than as you rightly say we would be headed in the opposite direction. I don’t know whether the premise is right, if there is a genetic component towards intelligence. I’m pretty sure there is some genetic component towards intelligence.

Talk to me a little bit more if you can about the relationship you and Christopher Hitchens shared, and whether or not there is anyone like him still around.

I wasn’t one of his long-term, inner circle of friends. I only met him in about 2006, so I missed out knowing him when he was younger. I didn’t know him when he was at Oxford. So I knew him in his last years of life. I admired him enormously. I think he was probably the best orator I’ve ever heard. He was a stunning public speaker. Beautifully modulated, he was extremely quick on his feet, extremely well read, erudite, resourceful and charming at the same time. So he was an enormous loss.

Have you ever felt the presence of what they call the Divine, whether it was being moved by music, or some sort of church?

Yes. I wouldn’t wish to use the word "divine" because it is so easily misunderstood. But when I’m talking about Einstein, and I said one might consider oneself a spiritual person, Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God, he believed in Spinoza's God -- and he says God is nebulous. When I think of the wonder I feel about the physical universe, yes, I feel that. I wouldn’t call it "divine."

But something like when I listen to Schubert or look at a great cathedral or look at the Grand Canyon, I do get a feeling which is probably akin to what religious people feel when they experience what they call a mystical experience. I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about it. I think it’s all going on in my material brain. But I wouldn’t wish to be upstaged by a religious person when it comes to my ability to feel an emotional response to something like a beautiful piece of music or a beautiful object.

Do you think that your rhetorical opponents take anything from this volume and if they take anything from it, what do you hope that they’ll take?

I think I hope that my memoir will show the sort of person I really am. And I have been painted as a rather controversial figure. Words like "aggressive," "trite" and "shrill" have been used. I’m not. I’m not any of them. I think. And I’d like to think that my memoir, my autobiography, will certainly shed more light on who I am, which is actually quite a gentleman.

Does it hurt your feelings to be referred to in this manner? Or at this point is it something to which you are accustomed?

It doesn’t hurt my feeling when I get vilified by fundamentalist religious people. I’ve actually made comedy out of it. I’ve made light of that. It does hurt me when people that I respect – well, I don’t respect religious fundamentalists, so that doesn’t worry me. It does worry if somebody I respect attacks me, in a way that I think is unjust. If I think it is just I don’t worry about it.

Given the degree to which you are often attacked, in a way that you find unjust: Has an attack by someone you respect ever made you reevaluate your positions?

Um, probably. You’ve challenged me to think of an actual example, I’ll probably draw a blank. But it has probably happened.

And this is in the book, a lot of pre-book publicity pertains to something that in the book I thought of as more of an aside. The incident with an older master that several students shared and the degree to which it was "minor pedophilia." Did it bother you that this was so jumped upon in the press?

Very much so, and notably by Salon itself.

And this was actually quite extraordinarily unjust. What I’d been accused of was making light of pedophile child abuse and trivializing it. It fact what I was doing was precisely the opposite. I’m hugely well aware what a traumatic, terrible experience child abuse, sexual child abuse is. And I have immense sympathy for people whose lives have been ruined by an encounter with a predatory child molester. And my feeling is, if I had taken the 15 seconds of unpleasantness that happened to me at school, and tried blow that up as if it was the worst thing that every happened to me – terrible experience – that would be an insult to the people who really did suffer the terrible experience. So, far from trivializing child abuse, it was precisely the opposite. It would have been trivializing it if I had made a vociferous complaint about what happened to me, rather than being realistic about it. Because it was only 15 seconds, about, and it didn’t have any lasting effect on me. I have enormous sympathy for those people who it did have a lasting effect on. Sometimes an effect that lasts well into adulthood.

Passions around this issue necessarily -- and understandably -- run so hot. Would you pull back from discussing this issue in the manner you did, in the future?

That’s very interesting. I think you’re totally right. That passions do run extremely hot on this, and it shows itself in a form of those who can’t really understand that there are degrees of evil. There are some people for whom child molestation is just so evil -- there’s no difference between the 15-second unpleasantness that I had and, for example, something that came up in the news almost the very same day. A 40-year-old man in Yemen who was legally married to an 8-year-old girl and on her wedding night, raped her to death. He raped her to death. This 40-year-old man who under Islamic law was legally married to her. Now there are many people out there who cannot tell the difference between that horrific incident of this little girl literally raped to death and my 15 seconds of unpleasantness, which occurred to me. Anyone who can’t see that one of those is bad and the other one is terrible, that there really is a difference between them, has a warped sense of value that I have nothing but contempt for.

You've mentioned this case in other news outlets. It strikes me that it fairly well serves your project, evincing as it does an anti-religion sentiment. Why use this case and not one with no ties to religion?

He was legally married to her, and the fact that he was legally married to her was the fact that Yemeni law allows it. The reason Yemeni law allows it, as the article said, was because to forbid the marriage of tiny children to adult men, to forbid that was regarded as un-Islamic. How much more clear can that be?

There are many cases of horrible rape that are completely removed from religion all together. I just think it is interesting that this is the one you’re using. I’m wondering if it's convenient in light of a career-long argument about religion and how evil it is.

I don’t really want to comment about that. I saw that article, it made me sick and I tweeted about it. If I see another story, I’ll probably tweet about that. Except I suppose that the fact is that this man was legally married to this little girl, now, and ordinary rape, horrific as it is, is not legally sanctioned. It’s not sanctioned by the law of the land. What this man did to his child bride was within the law of Yemen. That’s an important difference.

By Daniel D'Addario

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