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Dawkins: God . . . in other words

from vix - Thursday, May 10, 2007
accessed 835 times

Just thought I'd post this for general discussion.

Richard Dawkins may be Britain’s foremost atheist, but he is willing to be inspired and uplifted. Is he a believer after all?

Richard Dawkins believes that children should grow up reading the Bible and has a “soft spot” for the Church of England. He also believes some of the historic atrocities of human behaviour were not inspired by religion, but were a result of our “ruthless Darwinian past”. And he believes in the possibility of a transcendent “intelligence” existing beyond the range of present human experience. It is just that he refuses to call it God.

These are just some of the more surprising confessions to come from the man variously described as Britain’s angriest atheist and the self-appointed Devil’s chaplain.

We meet in the North Oxford Gothic splendour of his grand house near the colleges of Oxford, of which his own, New College, is one of the grandest and oldest, founded by a Bishop of Winchester and steeped in the religious and choral tradition of the Church of England. I am at once curious and anxious. I want to tell him how strange it is to find my specialism under such articulate attack from a biologist; that if I believed in such entities I would say he was my Nemesis.

In the background, as we speak, are the carved wooden fairground figures collected by his wife, Lalla (Ward), daughter of the seventh Viscount Bangor and known to Doctor Who fans as Romana. What does seem fantastic is to find myself, as a daughter of the cloth, a nongraduate and a traditionalist Anglican, quizzing this rather awe-inspiring Oxford don and author of The God Delusion ( GD ) about the existence of the Almighty. Or not.

Dawkins in the flesh bears no resemblance to the angry, hate-filled antireligionist he is portrayed as. In fact, he even believes that children should know their Bible. “You’d be rightly written off as uncultivated if you knew nothing of the Bible. You need the Bible to understand literary allusions,” he says at the end of our chat. By then I’ve concluded that, by many Anglican standards, and certainly by most Einsteinian ones, Dawkins is quite religious. He would get on famously, I feel, with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I ask him how he is getting on with his friend Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, who last last month condemned Dawkins for his “patronising” and “insulting” attitude to religion, which he said was in danger of damaging the public’s trust in science.

“He’s a dear friend and I have enormous regard for him. He either is religious, as he claims, or he believes in beliefs. He claims to be an observant Jew and I’m sure he does go to synagogue. I sometimes wonder whether he really believes it. He is offended by strong criticism of religion. I believe that what appears to be strong criticism of religion is not as strong as people think. Criticism that in any other field – theatre, book or restaurants – would be comparatively mild. It sounds outspoken and strident because we are not used to religion being criticised.”

I put it to him that negative criticism can finish off a book or a play, especially intelligently argued criticism, and that one of the ambivalences I feel about interviewing him is that his mission in life seems to be to destroy something that’s my livelihood.

“I think it’ll see you out. I think there’ll be plenty to write about. And under the banner of religion you can write about what I call Einsteinian religion, which I subscribe to and so do many scientists as a sort of reverence for the Universe and life, which has nothing to do with anything supernatural.”

In GD , Dawkins quotes Einstein as saying that he prefers not to call himself religious, because that implies “supernatural”. But Einstein acknowledged that behind everything “there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly”.

Dawkins admits : “If that’s what you call religion then I’m religious.” But when I suggest that, in this case, he is in touch with the transcendent, he accuses me of “playing with words”. He says: “If by transcendent you mean what Einstein believed then yes, but what I think, to come back on your statement that more intelligent and sophisticated religious people believe something close to what Einstein and I believe, that may be true, but they are a tiny minority of religious people in the world. It’s the majority of religious people in the world that we have to worry about.”

He is really talking about the US here, where hundreds of thousands of people believe that the Universe is less than 10,000 years old. “Apart from that, even the sophisticated intelligent so-called religious people that you mentioned, even bishops, do actually believe in something supernatural, they believe in the Resurrection.”

I suggest that not all of them believe in the physical Resurrection. “So I accept that there are a few wearing clerical collars who are not theists at all. I don’t think you can say that nowadays religion is the same as what Einstein said because if that were true we wouldn’t have a problem.”

His main beef is in fact with fundamentalism. I suggest that the people most likely to take his arguments on board are the intelligent, enlightened people in the middle ground. If he takes them out of the equation by virtue of intellectual supremacy, he leaves the space vacant for fundamentalists to take over the centre. This has to be one of the arguments for continued establishment, so the Church of England can act as a kind of buffer against extremism, a buffer lacking in the US.

“What you mean is that institutions like the Church of England would be taken over by fundamentalists because all the intelligent people would have left.” Or the institutions would cease to exist and the fundamentalists would become the centre. “I can see that and I think it’s certainly a sensible and arguable position that, short of vaccination, a weakened strain of the virus should protect against the virulent strain.” For a moment, I had forgotten I was talking to a biologist.

Being among those who have criticised Dawkins for an atheistic version of the fundamentalism he so detests, critics have accused me of mistaking his passion for fundamentalism. A more intelligent assault on his lack of beliefs came in sermons earlier this year at Westminster Abbey. The Rev Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, its Canon Theologian, accused him of lacking an “ethic of love”. Given that passion and love are so related, I tried to smuggle God in there too. It didn’t quite work.

“Love is not a rational process and I’m as susceptible to love as anybody else,” he says. “To say God is love, if that is an actual definition, then I believe in God because I believe in love. But God isn’t love, God is something supernatural, and in certain religions, love is supernatural. When you say love is not rational, there are two ways of interpreting that. You could say that love is not intelligible by rational means, and I’m not sure I believe that. As a scientist I believe that love is intelligible on rational grounds. That doesn’t mean that a particular person who is in love can learn anything, gain anything, or understand their own emotions in rational terms. But I do believe that love, like any other manifestation of brain stuff, is intelligible in rational terms, although maybe not in practice.”

So love is merely a biological phenomenon? “Anything to do with life is biological. So, in a way, you haven’t asked me a very big question and I haven’t answered it.”

He does suggest in GD , however, that some of the irrationality of religion may stem from the same place as the irrationality of love. “I think it’s right to say anthropologists would tell us that all human cultures have some form of religion. Which might make it hard to get rid of. It certainly doesn’t make it true.”

His passion and anger do stem from love, however, a love of the truth. “I am a scientist. It is my business to understand and help others to understand the nature of life in my case, or generally, as a scientist, the nature of the Universe. At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity is approaching a staggeringly impressively near-to-complete understanding. It’s hugely exciting to be a member of this elite species at this time when our understanding of physics, biology and cosmology are so exciting and near complete. It’s tragic that people are deprived of this not by misfortunes or lack of education, but by deliberate distortion, by organised of misinformation.”

He denies that he is setting up an alternative religion, an atheistic lack-of-belief system. He also resists the conclusion that, if God and religion are no more than human creations, his attack on religion is an attack on humanity, perhaps evidence of a certain degree of misanthropy. “There’s a lot to criticise in humanity that has nothing to do with religion, but that doesn’t detract from the importance of criticising religion as well and I would criticise the brutality of Stalin and Hitler, the idiotic beliefs that they had.”

He is equally critical of fundamentalist Darwinism. “A lot of what is good about human history has been an emancipation, a weaning, of humanity away from our ruthless Darwinian past,” he says. “As a Darwinian, I see that.” He even agrees that religion might have helped “a bit” in this civilising process, and that something is needed to stop humanity slipping back into the extremes of Darwinian natural selection. But he is not convinced that Christianity is the answer. “Why don’t you say enlightenment, moral philosophy? Enlightenment generally?” Because lots of people won’t understand that. “Well, people can understand a principle such as ‘how would you like it if people did that to you so why are you doing it to them?’ ” That comes from Christianity, I say. “No, Christianity is one belief system that has adopted it.”

By now it is clear that the thing Dawkins really detests is not so much God, or even religion, but superstition. I am still hopeful of persuading him that a belief in the transcendent does not equal superstition. I lob “n” into the equation: numinous.

“It’s not a meaningful word,” he retorts. So what about those other dimensions that some scientists believe might exist? Yes, he concedes, modern physicists do talk about 11-dimensional space. “But that’s nothing to do with theology.” How does he know? Might not God exist in one of those states? “That might be true, but what’s sure, well, highly unlikely, is that anything that theologians of modern day or any day have to say is going to have anything to do with the wonder of what future physicists are going to discover. It’s going to dwarf not only modern-day science but present-day theology as well.”

But was there not, in his mind, a tiny possibility that one of these future physicists could discover God in one of these dimensions?

“Well, I’m convinced that future physicists will discover something at least as wonderful as any god you could ever imagine.” Why not call it God? “I don’t think it’s helpful to call it God.” OK, but what would “it” be like?

“I think it’ll be something wonderful and amazing and something difficult to understand. I think that all theological conceptions will be seen as parochial and petty by comparison.” He can even see how “design” by some gigantic intelligence might come into it. “But that gigantic intelligence itself would need an explanation. It’s not enough to call it God, it would need some sort of explanation such as evolution. Maybe it evolved in another universe and created some computer simulation that we are all a part of. These are all science-fiction suggestions but I am trying to overcome the limitations of the 21st-century mind. It’s going to be grander and bigger and more beautiful and more wonderful and it’s going to put theology to shame.”

The day before we met I received by e-mail a promotion from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for a new DVD series for children, Growing up in the Universe . It looked superb and I will buy a set for my young son. I tell him how similar it was to receiving text from a religious company, the blurb almost like a creed. “You’re very close to being right,” he admits. How could I be more right? “To be spot-on would be to say that this had nothing to do with the sort of religion that believes in a divine creator who forgives sins, answers prayers and listens to your innermost thoughts, cares about your sex life, does all the things that the Christian God is supposed to.” It would be a “mysterious-beyond-present-comprehension physics of the future”. He has no name for it.

Again, I lob in the words “transcendent” and “numinous”, which I believe sum up what he is trying to describe. God, in other words. “I suspect they don’t mean anything at all,” he says. But being a good scientist, he leaps from the sofa for a dictionary. He reads: “Numinous: divine, spiritual, revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity, awe-inspiring.” A moment’s pause. Then: “I’ll go along with awe-inspiring. Also, aesthetically appealing, uplifting. I’ll go along with aesthetically appealing and uplifting. Those aspects of it, yes. Let’s look for transcendent.”

He finds a definition to do with lying beyond the ordinary range of perception. “That’s probably all OK and I could go along with that. Going beyond the range and grasp of the presently experienced. Maybe transcendent would be a good word to adopt.”

So there we are. Dawkins sums up our conversation: “I don’t think you and I disagree on anything very much but as a colleague of mine said, it’s just that you say it wrong.”

But his crusade will not be stopped, even if it can be proved that he and half the bishops of the Christian Church believe the same thing. “I do think that intelligent, sophisticated theologians are almost totally irrelevant to the phenomenon of religion in the world today. Regrettable as that may be.” Why so? “Because they’re outnumbered by vast hordes of religious idiots.”

I ask him what words he uses when he swears. The same as everyone else, he says. For example, “O God help us” when he gets a dreadful essay from a student. Does he ever think then that he’s invoking God? “No, it’s part of a language so it doesn’t really matter what the word means.”

Now I’m the sceptical one. Words have power. He’ll never destroy the Church if he doesn’t understand the power of the Logos. I’m not superstitious, but there is something faintly transcendent about Dawkins in the flesh. But I didn’t tell him that of course. He’d just accuse me of making it up.

Reader's comments on this article

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from vix
Thursday, May 24, 2007 - 09:13


If there's one criticism I have of Dawkins' 'mission' (it's not the only one but I can't be arsed to write an essay on the subject), it's that its whole premise is pretty much made redundant by the fact that those whose minds he aims most to reach are in fact the least likely ever to benefit from it. Reasonable people who subscribe to a religion are reasonable nonetheless, while those who believe (and act) unreasonably are so entrenched that they'd likely never even give his argument a serious chance.

(reply to this comment)

from Lance
Wednesday, May 23, 2007 - 08:15


My favorite paragraph of that article was: “I do think that intelligent, sophisticated theologians are almost totally irrelevant to the phenomenon of religion in the world today. Regrettable as that may be.” Why so? “Because they’re outnumbered by vast hordes of religious idiots.”

Excellent article. Thanks for posting!
(reply to this comment)

From Ne Oublie
Thursday, May 24, 2007, 07:41

I'd suggest that the same would apply equally well to the non-religious world.(reply to this comment
from Lance
Tuesday, May 22, 2007 - 19:21


If he were an Atheist, how can he describe himself as the devils chaplain? Since a true Atheist doesn't ascribe to such things as right and wrong in such religious terms?
(reply to this comment)

From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 00:21


Not that it matters much, but Dawkins does not describe himself as such.

(reply to this comment

From Ne Oublie
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 02:05

The guy's simply an evangelist for atheism. In the words of the old Bard, he "doth protest too much".(reply to this comment
From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 02:14


Again, not that it matters much, but there are far worse things to be evangelistic about, IMO. Further, I would venture that rather than being an 'atheist evangelist' he is actually an anti-fundamentalist evangelist, and I think he says something that definitely needs to be said.

(reply to this comment

From Ne Oublie
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 08:10

Doesn't matter - it's the evangelist thing that I dislike, not whatever the guy is preaching.(reply to this comment
From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 08:15


Uh huh, just like you don't have firm opinions and accompanying stances, right?

(reply to this comment

From Ne Oublie
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 08:26

Indeed I do, however my aim is not to evangelize - I want to have people who disagree with me, and I am prepared to respect the process which leads to the adoptions of views opposing my own.(reply to this comment
From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 08:48


How do you define the aim to evangelize? As far as I am concerned, anyone who campaigns for or against something could be said to be an evangelist. I don't think that such an aim is necessarily a bad thing in itself, after all without ardent subscribers to any number of theories and ideologies many brilliant ideas would never have been explored, nor great systems created.

(reply to this comment

From Ne Oublie
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 09:14


I recall a quote from our childhood along the lines of "not resting until the world thinks like you". Evangelism being an almost exclusively religious (Christian) term, I use it in the context of attempting to convince as many people as possible of exactly your view.

I on the other hand, want to explore opposing views, and the thought processes which produce them, and then find whatever synergies or 'overlap' there is between those views and my own - whether or not, I agree with their viewpoint or process.(reply to this comment

From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 10:07


Fair enough, I do see your point and I don't entirely disagree.

(reply to this comment

From Samuel
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 06:14

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

Forgive me if I'm stepping on your toes vix, as I haven't finished his book yet, but as I was reading that I couldn't help but recall what Dawkins wrote in the Preface to his book. On page 5 he starts a paragraph by saying "If this book works as I intend, religious people who open it will be atheists when they put it down."

I have to disagree with you on that one, vix. He definitely sounds like an atheist evangelist.(reply to this comment

From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 07:53


It's your prerogative to give him whatever label you choose, it really doesn't concern me. I choose to interpret his stance within a wider context.

(reply to this comment

From vix
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 08:04


I should add that were I to agree with you (you are, to a degree, correct in that he definitely is an ardent advocate of atheism. however I maintain that his problem is not with religion per se but with the religious fundamentalism so easily fuelled by it) I would still not take issue with his position.

(reply to this comment

from spori
Thursday, May 10, 2007 - 11:56

Dawkins is God, and anyway I'm sure he'd take exception to the extremely mislead notion that he is a "believer".
(reply to this comment)

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