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RE: virus: Richard Dawkins: Beyond belief
« on: 2006-01-12 12:38:57 »
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[Blunderov] Our hero is about to publish "The God Delusion".
I feel his pain.
Best Regards.


Richard Dawkins: Beyond belief

The renowned evolutionary biologist tells John Crace why he finds the
resurgence of religion so annoying

Tuesday January 10, 2006
The Guardian

Richard Dawkins has a new book in the pipeline. Photograph: Graham Turner
Men are supposed to mellow in their mid-60s. Richard Dawkins appears to be
going the other way. Never one to tolerate fools at the best of times, he's
become noticeably less patient as the years roll by. "It does appear that
I've become rather more grumpy," he says, without appearing that bothered
one way or another. And despite a contented home life with his third wife,
the actor Lalla Ward, there's a great deal to be grumpy about.
Back in 1976, as a 30-something research fellow recently returned to Oxford
after the obligatory two-year stint in the US at the University of
California at Berkeley, Dawkins secured his reputation with The Selfish Gene
as a cutting-edge thinker and a man blessed with the common touch. Long
before popularising science became a career route for academics, Dawkins
managed to advance the scientific understanding of the evolutionary process,
while making that knowledge accessible to the general reader.

There were two key parts to The Selfish Gene. The first was Dawkins's
inversion of the process of natural selection. Instead of trotting out the
established view that organisms use genes to self-replicate, Dawkins made
the revolutionary suggestion that genes use organisms to propagate
themselves, an idea that immediately answered many of the difficult
questions of Darwinism, such as the apparent selflessness of some animal
behaviour. The second important theme was the rehabilitation of memes,
self-replicating cultural transmissions - "viruses of the mind" - that are
passed on both vertically and horizontally within families. And it is the
meme, or rather one particular meme, that is the prime cause of Dawkins's
current grumpiness.

According to memetic theory, memes are subject to the same process of
natural selection as genes. And yet one meme, the religious meme,
steadfastly refuses to die. You can see where the religious meme sprung
from: when the world was an inexplicable and scary place, a belief in the
supernatural was both comforting and socially adhesive. But as our
understanding of the world grew, you might have expected the religious meme
to give way to rationalism. Yet the opposite has happened. Despite
overwhelming scientific evidence for the Darwinian explanation of evolution,
religious belief - and fundamentalist religion at that - remains as
ingrained as ever.

Religion offends every bone in Dawkins's rational, atheist body. "You can
see why people may want to believe in something," he acknowledges. "The idea
of an afterlife where you can be reunited with loved ones can be immensely
consoling - though not to me. But to maintain such a belief in the face of
all the evidence to the contrary is truly bewildering." If individual faith
is, for Dawkins, an expression of an ignorance, collective faith and
organised religion embody something much more pernicious. That is what drove
him to make two films for Channel 4, the first of which was shown last
night, and to write his new book, The God Delusion, to be published in

Dawkins describes these projects as "consciousness-raising exercises" but
the films come across as full-frontal assaults. Protestantism, Catholicism,
Judaism and Islam all get both barrels. Powerful and well-argued, they are;
subtle, they ain't. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, gets a walk-on role
as the liberal voice of religion, but mostly it's the fundamentalists of all
faiths who fall under Dawkins's scrutiny. "They are profoundly wrong," he
says, "but in some ways I have more sympathy with their views than I do with
the so-called more liberal wings. At least the fundamentalists haven't tried
to dilute their message. Their faith is exposed for what it is for all to

No such thing

What angers Dawkins most is the way religion gets such an easy ride. "We
treat it with a politically correct reverence that we don't accord to any
other institution," he says. "Even secularists talk about Jewish, Catholic
and Muslim children. There's no such thing. Children aren't born with a
particular religious gene. What they are is children of Jewish, Catholic and
Muslim parents. If you started to talk about monetarist or Marxist children,
everyone would consider you abusive. Yet for religion we make an exception.
We are incapable of distinguishing between race and religion. There is some
statistical correlation between the two, but they are very different
entities and we shouldn't allow them to be confused."

Predictably, Dawkins has no time for faith schools. "Segregation has no
place in the education system," he argues. "Take Northern Ireland. You could
get rid of the climate of hostility within a generation by getting rid of
segregated schooling. Separating Catholics and Protestants has fomented
centuries of hostility." But Dawkins reserves his greatest scorn for
creationists. "How any government could promote the Vardy academies in the
north-east of England is absolutely beyond me. Tony Blair defends them on
grounds of diversity, but it should be unthinkable in the 21st century to
have a school whose head of science believes the world is less than 10,000
years old."

Evolution offers Dawkins all the explanations he needs - "if there are other
worlds elsewhere in the universe, I would conjecture they are governed by
the same laws of natural selection" - but he does acknowledge there are
still large gaps in our knowledge. "Of course, we would love to know more
about the exact moment of Big Bang," he says, "but interposing an outside
intelligence does nothing to add to that knowledge, as we still know nothing
about the creation of that intelligence."

Unfortunately for Dawkins, it is into precisely these gaps that faith and
superstition insinuate themselves, a problem made worse for secularists when
scientists declare a religious affiliation. "I think the figures are
somewhat overstated in this country," he says tersely, "as it's generally
the same three scientists making their voices heard. Most scientists use the
term God in the way that Einstein did, as an expression of reverence for the
deep mysteries of the universe, a sentiment I share.

"In the US, the picture is rather different. Coming out as an atheist can
cost an academic his or her job in some parts of America, and many choose to
keep quiet about their atheism. In a recent survey, 40% of US scientists
said they believed in God; however, when the sample was narrowed to those in
the National Academy [the US equivalent of the Royal Society] the figure was
down to 10%."

He didn't start out as an unbeliever. Dawkins was born into a middle-class
family that went to church each Christmas. At school, Anglicanism, if not
rammed down the throat, was at least a given. "I had my first doubts when I
was nine," he recalls, "when I realised there were lots of different
religions and they couldn't all be right. However I put my misgivings on
hold when I went to Oundle and got confirmed. I only stopped believing when
I was about 15."

Opponents have claimed that Dawkins offers a bleak view of humanity,
something he categorically denies. "The chances of each of us coming into
existence are infinitesimally small," he argues, "and even though we shall
all die some day, we should count ourselves fantastically lucky to get our
decades in the sun." But even he expresses regret at our long-term
prospects. "Within 50 million years, it's highly unlikely humans will still
be around and it is sad to think of the loss of all that knowledge and

Greatest skill

Dawkins's greatest skill has been to synthesise other people's material and
come up with different ways of thinking about problems that revolutionise
future research. But to write him off as an ideas man, pure and simple, is
to lose sight of the man. He may not do any white-coat lab work these days
but he can number-crunch with the best of them. In person, he's friendly
rather than approachable, and there's a hint of distance that suggests
someone more at home in front of a computer than with other people.

"I did used to be addicted to computer programming," he admits. "In the
early days, there was no off-the-shelf software and I wrote everything, from
my own word-processing programmes to more complex programmes simulating
cricket sounds that were necessary for my research. However, I now view
programming as a vice, so I don't allow myself to do it."

This split between the nerd and the populist has been evident all through
his career. The nerd may have been more in evidence early on - not least
when he was doing his doctorate and ignored the advice of his Nobel
prize-winning supervisor, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and opted for a stats fest, "a
classic piece of Popperian science", instead of a fluffier study of animal
behaviour - but it's still around. Though Dawkins has held the Charles
Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford since 1995
and gets more attention than most other scientists, you sense there's still
a part of him that's not altogether comfortable in the public gaze.

It seems self-evident that his recent work has become more polemical, though
he becomes strangely reticent when you suggest he's now a political figure
as much as a scientist. "I don't know about that," he says. "I wouldn't want
to make those claims." But then he adds that he wishes more scientists would
stand up to be counted in the public arena.

There are similar competing pulls elsewhere. After declaring himself a
recently converted anti-monarchist and delivering a withering attack on
Prince Charles - "he's clearly soft on religion, just as he is on every
dopey, half-baked failure to think" - he pulls back, saying he has nothing
against Prince Charles as a person and giving the thumbs up to the Queen.

Even so, no one's ever going to die wondering what Dawkins really thinks. He
may agonise over the thinking process and worry about how his ideas are
interpreted, but the real voice always emerges in the end. Perhaps it is the
populariser's dilemma: you get remembered for the soundbite rather than the

Put on the spot, Dawkins reveals he believes his lasting contribution to
science is his 1984 book, The Extended Phenotype. Most lay people have long
since forgotten or never heard of the book in which he argued that genes
extend beyond their physical organisms - think beavers' dams and birds'
nests - to ensure their survival.

But phenotypes have to remain on hold for the time being as it's religion
that Dawkins has in his sights for the forseeable future. And what if, by
some mischance, he were to find there is a God when he dies? He looks at me
as if I were mad. "The question is so preposterous that I can hardly grace
it with a hypothetical answer," he says finally. "But, to quote Bertrand
Russell, I suspect I would say, 'There's not enough evidence, God'."

Curriculum vitae

Name: Richard Dawkins
Age: 64
Job: Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford
Likes: walking the dog
Dislikes: back-to-front baseball caps, gratuitous noise
Books: The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker,
Climbing Mount Improbable, The Ancestor's Tale
Married: to Lalla Ward (of Dr Who fame), one daughter from previous marriage

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