Through his books and his many newspaper and magazine commentaries, Dawkins has leveraged his popularity and critical acclaim onto an entirely new plane of celebrity as a public intellectual. Unlike in the United States, there is—and always has been—a place of honor in the United Kingdom for scientists in the public conversation. Dawkins is the latest in a long line of stylish British scientific litterateurs that runs through immunologist Peter Medawar and geneticist J. B. S. Haldane all the way back to Darwin’s original “bulldog,” biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. When the British magazine Prospect asked its readers to vote for England’s leading public intellectual last summer, Dawkins emerged victorious atop a list that included the playwright Tom Stoppard, feminist Germaine Greer, historian Simon Schama, and a host of other seemingly more household names. An illustration accompanying the poll results showed Dawkins brandishing a trophy, but being the champion of public discourse can be a mixed blessing.
Last October The Guardian newspaper in England asked several prominent British intellectuals—Dawkins, the novelist John Le Carré, and the historian Antonia Fraser—to write open letters to residents of Clark County, Ohio, urging them not to vote for George W. Bush. Unbeknownst to Dawkins, these short essays were ultimately used to spearhead an ill-conceived letter-writing campaign organized by The Guardian. The idea was to deluge Ohio voters with mail from British citizens urging the defeat of Bush.
Dawkins began his essay with a riff that many Ohioans found condescending. “Don’t be so ashamed of your president,” he wrote. “The majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans traveling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” He went on to suggest that Bush was “Bin Laden’s dream candidate,” “an amiable idiot,” and a liar. “An idiot he may be,” he opined, “but he is also sly, mendacious, and vindictive.”
The people of Clark County, which is located west of Columbus, remained unswayed by—or in defiance of—one of the world’s great voices of reason. Dawkins found himself on the receiving end of the kind of verbal barrage—albeit less eloquent and certainly much coarser—that he himself occasionally unleashes. “The response, from all over America, was the most vitriolic, vicious, obscene outpouring of sheer naked hatred that I’ve ever seen written in a newspaper,” he told me after the election; the stricken look on his face made clear that this was not the way the hash is typically settled in Oxford. As it turns out, Clark was the only county in Ohio that, having voted for Al Gore in 2000, switched over to Bush in 2004.
Dawkins’s brief as a public intellectual has extended far beyond such politics. He has weighed in on educational policy, the fallibility of jury trials, “pseudoscientific drivel” such as quantum healing, the “yahooish complacency” of postmodernism, terrorism, and governmental stem cell and cloning policy. But if there is one topic for which he is the go-to guy in the world of intellectual combat, it is religion and especially the tentacles it sends into secular life—creationism, intelligent design, authority, superstition, and the method by which we determine what is true. It may be the ultimate culture war of our time, because it underlies fundamental and mutually exclusive visions of the path toward truth. It is a conflict that brings out the best—and, paradoxically, the worst—in Dawkins.
He is at his best when explaining the almost mystical richness of good science. Speaking at a meeting sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities last October, Dawkins drew a sharp yet dazzlingly poetic distinction between a science-based spirituality and the kind of religious literalism that, for example, esteems a biblical version of creation against the mass of geologic and paleobiological evidence that contradicts it. The former, he explained, is a kind of Einsteinian wonder at the precision and complexity of nature.
“Einsteinian religion is a kind of spirituality which is nonsupernatural,” he told the gathering at New York University. “And that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow less than supernatural religion. Quite the contrary. . . . Einstein was adamant in rejecting all ideas of a personal god. It is something bigger, something grander, something that I believe any scientist can subscribe to, including those scientists whom I would call atheists. Einstein, in my terms, was an atheist, although Einstein of course was very fond of using the word God. When Einstein would use the word God, he was using it as a kind of figure of speech. When he said things like ‘God is subtle but he’s not malicious,’ or ‘He does not play dice,’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the universe?’ what he meant was things like randomness do not lie at the heart of all things. Could the universe have been any other way than the way it is? Einstein chose to use the word God to phrase such profound, deep questions.
“That, it seems to me, is the good part of religion which we can all subscribe to,” he continued. If he had left it at that, everyone would have been both humbled and uplifted. But he did not. There’s a reason he’s been called Darwin’s rottweiler, and it became apparent as he went on to verbally mix it up with other participants in the New York symposium.
The occasion for Dawkins’s performance was a panel discussion with the innocuous title “Scientific Vantages.” As other members of the panel—Ken Miller, physicist Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and science writer Margaret Wertheim—made generally polite observations about the tensions between science and religion, Dawkins alternately cocked an ear at their remarks and periodically pecked a few notes into his titanium laptop, which glowed like a night-light on the stage. The mere tap-tapping on his computer had an ominous, premonitory quality. When he adjusted his chair at the end of the table, it probably appeared as nothing more than an attempt to see and hear his fellow panelists better. I couldn’t help thinking, however, of the physical vocabulary of aggression, an aspect of animal behavior that Dawkins’s original mentors and contemporaries—Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Desmond Morris—first introduced to the general public four decades ago. Had he assumed an angle of attack?
When it came his turn to speak—he had specifically requested to go last—Dawkins launched into a series of eloquent denunciations. He disparaged the United States as a nation of “religious maniacs” and cited polls suggesting that 47 percent of the American electorate “think the entire universe began sometime after the Middle Stone Age.” He derided the “cozy reconciliations” between science and religion suggested by other speakers at the meeting. He said, “I think that scientists who say they are Catholics or Jews or Muslims owe it to us to say how they reconcile this with the sort of petty, cheap, parochial, niggling religion which goes with those titles.” The theatricality of his delivery—each adjective attenuated to maximize the insult—made clear that Dawkins has traveled a long way from the one-on-one tutorials of New College, Oxford; he has learned to hone the kind of barbed bons mots that please large crowds. Even speaking on the fly, his remarks were as crisp and well-tailored as his suit, with barely a mortise or tenon of extemporaneous thought showing.
Throughout his remarks, Dawkins could barely suppress the contempt he feels for mystical religion. “What I can’t understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists, even great scientists, who at the same time believe in a god who does things like listen to our prayers, forgive our sins, perform cheap miracles,” he said, prompting a burst of nervous laughter to ripple through the audience, “which go against, presumably, everything that the god of the physicist, the divine cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature. So I don’t understand a scientist who says, ‘I am a Roman Catholic’ or ‘I am a Baptist.’ ”
Dawkins is the first to admit that, in the community of scientists who fight against creationism, he may be “a bit of a loose cannon.” Although he seemed reluctant to discuss religion when I spoke with him in Oxford, his combative stance on the subject has provoked comment and concern in England. As even his friend Patrick Bateson conceded, “Personally, I think he’s gone a bit over the top on that, attributing all the evils of the world to religion. . . . I am not a believer, but I know some of my colleagues have been very offended by his brief on this.” “I wish he wouldn’t do it,” said David Barker flatly. “It creates huge negative feelings in some people.”
At the New York symposium, Dawkins insisted that an antireligious stance is a natural and inevitable outgrowth of evolutionary thought. “It’s very clear that much of the opposition to evolution in this country—and it really matters; it’s a very serious educational problem—is fed by the very suspicion, which I happen to think is justified, that evolution really is antireligious,” he said. “Should we suppress our feelings about truths about the cosmos in the interests of I suppose what I have to call American politics? Possibly we should. I do think evolution may be a kind of test case.”
Dawkins is hardly the only observer to mark the contours of the battlefield in this cultural war. The day after the 2004 presidential election, Gary Wills famously asked the question, “Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?” But even as Dawkins waved the banner of evolution in New York, he engaged in a little friendly fire, attacking a fellow officer in Darwin’s latter-day army—Ken Miller, the Brown University professor, who sat at the other end of the table.
Miller is in many ways as staunch a defender of Darwin as Dawkins, and, from a practical standpoint, perhaps an even more important one. He has tirelessly traveled to Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other redoubts of creationism, to school board meetings and to courtrooms, to debate and refute those seeking to undermine the importance of evolution in modern school curricula. But Miller is also a walking paradox to people like Dawkins. As he confessed in his book Finding Darwin’s God, Miller is a practicing Catholic, and as he pointed out to Dawkins, “I will persist in saying that religion for me, and for many other people, answers questions that are beyond the realm of science.” Indeed, he complained that scientists often trafficked in a caricature of religion. And then, nodding toward Dawkins and Ann Druyan, he suggested that “atheists and agnostics are a whole lot more evangelical than religious people are.” The observation may have started out as a joke, but it landed at Dawkins’s end of the table like a spear.
Dawkins and Druyan proceeded to gang up on Miller. These arguments invariably devolve into snippy exchanges about the Genesis version of creation and unfold in a rhetorical no-man’s-land somewhere between King James and Watson and Crick. “I regard Genesis as the spiritual truth,” Miller said. “And I also think that Genesis was written in a language that would explain God that was relevant to the people living at the time. I cannot imagine—cannot imagine—Moses coming down from the Mount and talking about DNA, RNA, punctuated equilibrium. I don’t think he would have gotten very far.” Nonetheless, he reiterated his belief that the biblical stories of the world’s creation “are true in the spiritual sense and that they are written by human beings in the language of the time.”
Dawkins, at the far end of the table, almost levitated out of his seat with indignation. “But what does that mean?” he demanded, voice rising. The audience rewarded his indignation with combustive applause. “Is it a caricature for me to ask you, since you are a Roman Catholic, do you believe Jesus had an earthly father?”
“Ah, this is the famous Richard Dawkins question,” Miller replied, sounding a little defensive.
“No, don’t ridicule it!” Dawkins shouted, relentless.
“If I can just get a fragment of the body of Jesus,” Miller continued, “I could do DNA fingerprinting! I could figure out who gave Mary that Y chromosome!”
“That’s a facetious answer!” Dawkins cried out, his face flushed with conviction, shaking his finger at Miller. “That’s a facetious answer!” The heat was so palpable that, as Margaret Wertheim, the moderator, said later, “At least now we know that Richard actually believes this. Before, I wasn’t sure if it was just a performance.”
It was, as Dawkins himself acknowledged a few weeks later, a “robust exchange.” Reflecting on it
later, I was struck by two things. One was the substance of the debate, which is important for Western science-based societies and has long-range implications for the books our children read, the science they are taught, the logic by which national decisions ranging from social policy to military intervention will be reached. Dawkins’s contention that religion can’t really answer questions about the geologic date of creation and the biological particulars of a virgin birth raises a deeper question: Do we want to live in a world where deeds, perceptions, and public policies are rooted in evidence or faith, sanctioned by fact or authority?
The other thing that struck me was the tone of the debate—Dawkins, in his undeniably civil manner, was so aggressive, so relentless, and so pitiless toward his intellectual adversaries that it almost detracted from the quality of his argument. As Miller later put it, “I don’t think Richard realizes how condescending he is when he says those things.” And this is the ultimate paradox. Dawkins—this superb thinker and phrasemaker, this best-selling author, this crackerjack logician and analytic mind—is one of the biggest guns the scientific community possesses in the argument between faith and fact, authority, and enlightenment. And yet he also recognizes that the way he goes about it, “the sort of language that I’m using,” is “tactically unwise.”
It’s all the more puzzling when you consider an interesting notion that Dawkins floated at the conclusion of his remarks at the New York symposium. He proposed a kind of marketplace battle of ideas as a meritocratic arena for the cultural war. “I suppose my hope would be that science—the best kind of science, the sort of science which approaches the best sort of religion, the Einsteinian spirituality that I was talking about—is so inspiring, so exciting that it should be sellable to everybody, not just us, but them,” he had said. “It should provide a bridge to stop us from talking about them. There is a hunger out there for wonder, for understanding, and there are people out there who think that the scientific worldview somehow denies, somehow reduces the poetic vision of the universe, which in its petty, paltry way their religion seems to give them.
“We have something far better to offer,” he continued. “It doesn’t have to be couched in incomprehensible jargon. It can be put in language that anybody can understand.” Indeed, no one does that better, on the page or at a lectern, than Dawkins himself. “Why are we freethinking secular scientists not getting into that same marketplace,” he went on, “and selling what we’ve got to sell? Because it’s a far better product, and all we’ve got to do is hone our salesmanship to the level that they are already doing it.”
Then, to great laughter, he concluded, “I think I’ve made it very clear that I’m not the best person to do that.”
This recusal underlines the most obvious contradiction about Richard Dawkins and the cultural war in which he has so much to contribute: You can be the world’s greatest apostle of scientific rationalism, but if you come across as a rottweiler, Darwin’s or anybody else’s, when you enter that marketplace, it’s very hard to make the sale.