Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and atheist, has just published the second volume of his memoirs, Brief Candle in the Dark. The follow-up to An Appetite for Wonder covers the period following the publication of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976, through the massive success of The God Delusion, and his emergence as that rarest of contemporary figures: a public intellectual who actually knows what he's talking about. It's not easy to make compelling drama from what essentially amounts to four decades of increasing glory and acclaim, but Dawkins is a deft (though occasionally pedantic) stylist with a truly fascinating mind. Given the chance to interview him by phone, I was especially interested in the tension between his eminence as an outspoken atheist scientist and his position as a media figure in a resolutely colloquial culture. He indulged my often faltering questions but was eager to steer the ship back to Brief Candle, for reasons one needn't be an Oxford don to discern.
Has writing for a wider audience since the success of The Selfish Gene, and particularly The God Delusion, changed your relationship to writing?
I think it's important for scientists to communicate what they have to communicate to as wide an audience as possible. Even in my writing for other scientists like, for example, The Extended Phenotype, and indeed The Selfish Gene, I try to write in such a way that nonspecialists can understand it, and I hope it's true, I believe it's true that even The Selfish Gene has influenced the way my fellow scientists think. I would like scientists to pay a bit more attention to the art of communication even when writing papers intended only for their colleagues. Write it in such a way that it's easier to read, fun to read. One way to think about that is to think, "Would a lay person understand this?" Even when you're writing for scientific colleagues, it shouldn't be all that difficult to write in a style that nonspecialists can understand.
Do you see a separation between your role in what is called the new atheist movement and your work as a scientist proper?
They're not as separate as many people might like to say. There are people who think that science and religion don't overlap in any way. Religion is about "why" questions and moral questions and deep questions of existence, and science is all about "how" questions, and so there is no reason why they should tread on each other's toes. I don't go along with that. I think there is a reason why they tread on each other's toes. Religion undoubtedly treads on science's toes, except for a very few highly rarefied theologians, the vast majority of religious people, religious apologists, religious commentators, do in fact trespass on the territory of science. In extreme cases creationism, but in other cases as well. I think that my scientific writing and The God Delusion are actually in a way all of a piece.
Do you have the sense that there is a will among your readership to sort of be pro-science without fully understanding what you're really saying?
Well, I expect there is a will in that direction; I suspect there's also a will in the other direction. I think there are some people who are suspicious of science and anxious about science, worried about it. I think it sort of goes both ways.
It's often said that 9/11 kick-started the conversation about atheism in the mainstream. I'm wondering what your impression is of the hunger for that conversation 14 years on.
I think 9/11 did have quite a lot to do with it. For me, it was the realization of the power of faith. It happened to be the Islamic faith. Faith itself does have a great power over the human mind, and it comes, I think, from infant indoctrination. You're taught as a child that you have this faith and that faith is a virtue, faith being belief without evidence.
Yet belief without evidence is kind of immunized against reason. It's immunized against persuasion. All the faiths are guilty of teaching children that belief without evidence is a virtue, from the story of doubting Thomas in Christianity to the extremely strong statements of Islam.
I think for me, 9/11 kind of crystallized that—not just the act itself, but also the way religious people rallied around each other. There was a giant service, I think in Washington Cathedral, in which all the different religious leaders gave their solemn announcements of how awful this was, and I felt: "Look, you're the problem. You're the people who have been making a virtue out of faith, and it's boiled over in this particular horrifying event." But that's what you get when you teach children—of course, a vast majority don't do anything of the kind, but if you teach children that faith is a virtue, then you can't be too surprised when a minority of them take it seriously.
It seems like what you just said is at the heart of a lot of people's objection to the work that you and your co-irreligionists do. To interrogate the idea that terrorist acts are a natural if not inevitable outgrowth of faith itself is an idea that—
Yes. I think that's exactly right. Sam Harris put it rather well. He said, "The thing you have to understand is these people really believe what they say they believe." It's hard for many of us to grasp.
Right. But the objection is that in discrediting faith, you're generalizing about a massive group of people who may in fact share this root conviction of faith, but who would never go to any such extreme. I mean, obviously that's an idea that you must have come up against many, many times. Has your opposition to it changed—not to say evolved—in any way over the years?
It's what I tried to say a moment ago: The vast majority of people who are brought up in faith do not do these horrifying things—I'm often accused of lumping everybody, and I don't do that—but it only takes a minority, and you're going to get a minority if you teach a thousand children that faith, belief without evidence, is a virtue. Then it may be that only 10 of them put that into practice, but that's all it takes. When you tell a million people, 10 percent of that is a very large number.
I think a lot of people also object to what they consider the arrogance of the atheist movement.
I think "arrogance" would be the wrong word to use. I would call it "rational." I mean, if there is any arrogance around here, it would not be with the atheist, it would be with the religious people who claim to know god. Who claim to know what god wants, who claim to know what the right thing to do by god is. That's arrogance, if you like. It's also arrogance to suggest that our little tiny pocket of life of this little speck of dust welling around a rather insignificant star is what the universe is all about—now that's arrogance.
The position that people like me take, which is that we are just a product of the fixed laws of physics, working through evolution, lined up for selection—that's the opposite of arrogance, that's humility. That's the same humility that Copernicus showed when showing that the Earth is not the center of the universe. It's the non-arrogance, the humility that Darwin showed, and so on. I think that the charge of arrogance should be flung straight back.
Right, but what about arrogance on an interpersonal level, when people who are religious believers, even in a tentative way, feel they're being called stupid for believing an idea you're attempting to discredit?
Yes. I fear what happens is that people identify with their belief, so if you criticize their belief, they think you're criticizing them. I'm very happy to say that certain beliefs are stupid. I'm very happy to say that young earth creationism is hyper-ignorant, or stupid. People then take that personally—they think I'm saying that they're stupid. Most probably, actually, they're ignorant. Ignorance is no crime. Most people who are young earth creationists simply don't know the facts, and if we could only get across the facts—and people like me, philosophers, have tried to get across those facts—then there wouldn't be any young earth creationists.
Do you understand why people do make that leap past the logic of what you're saying to only hear the insult?
I suppose I do. There's this phrase "identity politics," which I get. There are people who identify so strongly with their religion that they feel a kind of loyalty bond to it, and they feel not only are they being insulted but their whole group is being insulted. I can't help that. I'm a rationalist. I'm a scientist. I want to tell it like it is. Young earth creationism is nonsense. I will say it's nonsense. I will demonstrate why it's nonsense. If somebody thinks that's a personal insult, that's their problem.
This gets right back into the issue of the wide readership. There is your primary source material, the long career you've had as a distinguished scientist. But then there's also your persona and your presence as a kind of celebrity, a public intellectual. There aren't very many public intellectuals reaching a particularly wide audience. I've always been curious about how you feel about that interaction.
Well, you're saying that the image that I project is rather different from the image that you get from my autobiography. I'm guessing in the autobiography I come across as quite humorous and genial and kindhearted. That's the real me, anyway. The real me is that which you find in my autobiography, in Brief Candle in the Dark.
Just to clarify, that's actually not exactly what I'm saying. I meant to ask more about the sort of dual nature of your career. I guess the real question is what is it like for you to be a thinker and a rationalist in a media environment that is almost intrinsically irrational?
Yes, there is that. I gain encouragement from the public speaking events that I do. I'm just embarking on a tour of the United States, presenting Brief Candle in the Dark, and I get hugely enthusiastic responses from people who want their books signed and who usually exchange a word or two while I'm signing their books, and I get the feeling from them that I'm getting across, and that these are people who are like-minded and think rationally and are good people, and so I take encouragement from that. I do get hate mail as well, and that's an aspect, I suppose, of what you're saying, and I try to make a joke with that. I've read out my hate mail in a couple of YouTube videos. That seems to amuse people, and I quite enjoy doing that. I'm not that much of a celebrity. I mean, I don't get recognized in the streets all the time.
I would feel remiss if I didn't ask about your experience of social media, Twitter in particular. A lot of your tweets have been very controversial.
I mean, that's so far away from Brief Candle in the Dark, it's almost not worth bringing into the same conversation.
I understand what you mean. But the question I guess I keep failing to actually ask, and I apologize, is precisely about this idea: That if people aren't attuned to what the rest of your work is about, don't your book and your Twitter presence become sort of equal?
I agree that is unfortunate. I guess the problem is I really am a lover of truth, and when I see nonsense things spouted, I can't resist the temptation to expose it. When you've got 140 characters, the exposing of nonsense as briefly as that can seem a bit terse. It literally is terse, of course, because that's what brevity means.
Does it trouble you personally to be misunderstood in that way?
Yes, it does and maybe it's a mistake when I try to clarify in order to reduce the misunderstanding. It can sometimes make it worse. I suppose the alternative is simply to keep silent, and that's something I find very difficult. When I see nonsense, I like to expose it.
I can see that our time is drawing short, but I very much appreciate your time and all the work that you have done. It's been very significant to me.
I'd like to emphasize that Brief Candle in the Dark is not a controversial book. I like to think of it as a humorous, generous-hearted book. I just think it will be giving a false impression if anybody thought that there was much about religion. In either of the two books. There's really very little about religion. There's a lot about religion in The God Delusion, but this book is not The God Delusion. Let me say that as my final message.
I'm happy to make that point clear. It's simply that your prominence as an atheist and a scientist is inextricably part of what you mean in the world, and why you would be asked to write a memoir, presumably.
Yes, I suppose. But anyway, the memoir gives a far better impression of the way I am.