Richard Dawkins is a biologist (more specifically an ethologist) by profession, a prominent writer of popular science and anti-religious books, and something of a spokesperson for the strangely overstated atheist "movement". Born in Kenya in 1941, he went to Oxford University, was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science there, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has made great contributions to popularising the gene-centred view of evolution, invented the meme, created the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, been on the Time magazine 100 and won enough prestigious awards to make the rest of us feel very much unaccomplished. He is often said to be one of the biggest popular science writers around today, and his books have sold many millions of copies in dozens of languages. As a writer, he is very good at putting complex ideas simply and explaining them clearly, which makes him very well suited to popular science writing. Although his books are occasionally magnificent, I often find them a bit too sentimental, and he is much better at giving the facts than he is at arguing a point. I think this is the reason why his earlier books on biology were so much better than his later works, since the earlier ones were more wholly concerned with the science than with the philosophy of science, science vs. religion, or any of the rest of that whole headache.
He is a man about whom there are few mild feelings. Recent editions of his books come with pages of adulatory quotes from reviewers, writers and scientists (my copy of The God Delusion has five such pages, The Selfish Gene eight). Dozens of books have been written in response to his work, there must be countless thousands of letters to the editor and unread essays floating around, and he has been decried on conservative television and radio shows. Most atheists seem to hold him in very high regard, and he has become something of a preacher in the new church of atheism. The real churches seem to feel strangely threatened by him, and I remember my school's chaplain holding up a copy of The God Delusion in Friday afternoon chapel and saying, without irony, "we all just need to remember that this is only a book".
He has been accused of being as dogmatic and vicious as the fundamentalist Christians in his support of Darwinism, and though this is a bit of an ad hominem, it is difficult to deny. He seems visibly angered when someone questions science, but then again, he looks pretty angry all the time. There is a video on YouTube of a question that he answered at what looks like a public lecture. A woman asks, "what if you're wrong?", to which he forcefully replies:
"Well, what if I'm wrong? I mean, anybody could be wrong, we could all be wrong about the flying spaghetti monster and the pink unicorn and the flying teapot. You happen to have been brought up, I will presume, in the Christian faith. You know what it's like not to believe in a particular faith because you're not a Muslim, you're not a Hindu. Why aren't you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you were brought up in India you would be a Hindu, if you were brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings you'd be believing in Wotan and Thor, if you were brought up in classical Greece you'd be believing in Zeus, if you were brought up in central Africa you'd be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian God in which, by the sheerest accident, you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question, what if I'm wrong? What if you're wrong about the great Ju-Ju at the bottom of the sea?"
And the crowd erupts into applause
Although I agree with pretty much everything he says, hearing him speak that way makes me cringe. Seeing that sneering, scowling face of his embarrasses me, because he has taken it upon himself to represent my beliefs (or lack thereof). In his capacity as an atheist advocate I am really unsure about whether he is doing more good than harm, because his vitriolic attitude turns religious people with atheist sympathies away. He is an extremist, a self-professed "militant" atheist, and that does about as much good for everyday atheists as militant Muslims do for middle-easterners at an airport. There is something about him that just seems so unpleasant; he is almost always scowling, and even when he smiles he looks like a vampire that has spied a particularly juicy-looking neck.
When he came to Melbourne in March for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, he said Steven Fielding (an Australian, Christian senator) was less intelligent than an earthworm, and he referred to the pope as "Pope Nazi". The crowd in attendance might love it, but this sort of thing isn't winning anyone over. Doing that takes an agreeable attitude as well as good arguments, which is something that it seems Richard Dawkins does not understand; or perhaps he is just not willing to compromise his ideals for the sake of their acceptance. When he talks about science, he is interesting and enlightening, with great clarity of speech, but as soon as he starts on the topic of religion, all I can think is, "shit, here we go again". He has all the information, he doesn't lie, and he doesn't use dirty tactics in debates, but that isn't as important as he seems to think. He and others like Christopher Hitchens gleefully score points by poking holes in theistic logic and winning debates, but neither of these things really accomplish anything. They can write as much diatribe as they like, but it only appeals to the people who don't need any convincing.
I think that is his biggest problem: when it comes to his antitheism, his target audience is the atheists. He is preaching to the choir, so to speak. Atheists can read this book and say, "yes, that what I've thought all along!", but believers won't be convinced because he is intentionally scornful of them and his arguments are just too weak. Even I, an atheist, was a little offended by how disdainful he seems to be of religious people. Perhaps he is just trying to level the field a little, because he feels like there isn't enough mainstream support for atheism today. Yes, we need to keep creationism out of science lessons and keep wealthy Christian fundamentalist lobbyists from buying the government, but if a proper understanding of the theory and evidence for evolution is as corrosive to religiosity as he has said (it certainly was for me), then he should stick to that. All this animosity he generates only makes atheists look ridiculous, and the books about evolution will actually teach people something.
There is another video on YouTube of a comment made by Niel DeGrasse Tyson after some kind of public lecture, speech or forum that Dawkins did, which I think holds a lot of truth about his mentality. I've transcribed it here, with some cleaning-up of what Tyson said, since he tends to mutter and stutter a bit:
NDT: I was in the back row as you spoke, so I could see the whole room as the words came out of your mouth, as beautifully as they always do and as articulately as they always do, and let me just say, your commentary had a sharpness... of teeth... that I had not even projected for you. And so I felt you more than I heard you, and I ask the question, and this gets back a little to what Fransisco was getting at: you're the Professor of Public Understanding of Science, not Professor of Delivering Truth to the Public, and these are two different exercises. One of them is, you put the truth out there, and like you said, they either buy your book or they don't. Well, that's not being an educator, that's just putting it out there. Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there's gotta be an act of persuasion in there as well. Persuasion isn't always, "here's the facts, you're either an idiot or you're not", it's, "here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind", and it's the facts plus the sensitivity when convolved together that creates impact. And I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, ends up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power of influence than what is currently reflected in your output.
RD: I gratefully accept the rebuke (laughter from everyone). Just one anecdote to show that I'm not the worst in this thing. A former and highly successful editor of New Scientist magazine, who actually built up New Scientist to great new heights, was asked, "what is your philosophy at New Scientist?", and he said, "our philosophy at New Scientist is this: science is interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off." (much laughter from everyone).
He is right, he isn't that bad, but he isn't too far off. I've ended up saying a whole lot against the man, despite agreeing with him, but on the subject of Richard Dawkins I tend to rant and rave a bit. I really ought to be so opinionated about people who are doing the real damage in the world, but antitheism is starting to become fashionable enough for it to be even more fashionable for me to dislike it.
In one of his TED talks, entitled "The Universe is Queerer Than We Can Suppose", which is well worth watching to get a feeling of his ideas, he says that people like him "rock the boat". And again he is right. However, putting it that way makes it sound like the alternative to his stance is to cower and hide, to just not mention it and have a "don't ask, don't tell" kind of policy. I'm definitely not in favour of that either, and I don't want to condemn him just for speaking out and challenging the religious majority, but I suppose that in a way I am. The key is to use a light touch, and to accept that you can't change people's minds by sheer force of action. People must push for change, but pushing too hard only turns people away.