In the downstairs loo of Richard Dawkins’s house in Oxford there’s a framed award from the Royal Society; to remind visitors, or maybe Richard himself, that here lives a man of some purpose, some gravitas and intellectual clout. The Faraday prize is given to those who communicate science with brilliance and verve to the scientifically ignorant, thick general public. Richard has done a lot of that, ever since The Selfish Gene in 1976. It is his job these days; he holds the Simonyi chair in the public understanding of science at Oxford University. His latest wife, the actress Lalla Ward, has done her bit too, helping out various bereft timelords in Dr Who.
Richard himself is a bit of a timelord, if you like. A scientist forever battling an intractable foe — the daleks of religion. He is probably more famous these days for kicking God around than for the hard science of his earlier work (a fact he accepts, with some misgivings); he is our most belligerent and brilliant atheist. Show him a deity — Jehovah, Allah, Sat Guru, whoever — and he will stand up straight and nut it right between the eyes. He rarely yields, as I discovered when I interviewed him for Channel 4.
His latest book does all this and more. It is the (surprise) publishing success of the year and easily outsells those awful football autobiographies (170,660 so far). It is a book of rhetoric rather than science. The God Delusion is, like all the best books, riven with beguiling contradictions, full of interesting holes into which one can clamber and find oneself instantly transported to an alternative universe. It is Dawkins’s broadside against God and those who are stupid enough to believe in him, or her, or it. A book against belief written with the fervour of one who believes utterly in non-belief. A book which insists that science must be a humble undertaking but which — driven by the logic of his argument — contains Dawkins’s own abbrievated version of the Ten Commandments (for which thanks, mate). A book that, for a disinterested non-believer, shows a simple and touching faith in the scientific creed of Darwinism — which theory, only 147 years after its inception, is already looking rather flawed and careworn. And finally, as a neat little irony, a book that will trouser its author an enormous sackload of dosh, not because it is beautifully written and at times exquisitely argued, but because it is about that thing which the author believes must be banished — God.
The author is, as ever, affable, eloquent and charming. He settles into his armchair and immediately tells me, to my surprise, about the religious renewal he experienced when he was 14.
‘I think it was Elvis. I mean, I should have known better because of course practically all Americans of that class are religious maniacs. But when I discovered that Elvis was religious I went back on to religion for a bit.’
It didn’t last long; the man who gave the world ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was soon replaced, in Richard’s canon, by the man who gave us The Origin of Species. If Elvis rocked, Darwin rocked more. He rocks still, apparently. And thence there devolved along the years an insuperable belief in atheism.
‘There seems to be a tension,’ I venture, ‘between what I suspect you believe — that there is no God — and what science will allow you to say: that it’s extremely improbable that there is a God.’
‘Right. I don’t think you can disprove God. But I don’t think you can disprove God as you can’t disprove fairies and unicorns. It’s a kind of scientific purism that makes me say I can’t be an absolute 100 per cent atheist.’
‘But, to read your book, you are 100 per cent, aren’t you?’
‘No. Some of my friends and colleagues would say that [for them] it’s 100 per cent.’
Well, I counter, having read the book: it’s 100 per cent for you, too; it burns through on every page. Otherwise the acres of rhetoric would have been displaced by pure, disinterested science.
‘I think there is some truth in that. I think there are times when one has to resort to rhetoric. For a lot of people, religion is a question of feeling rather than rationality.’
But rhetoric is a device which must necessarily be in opposition to scientific discourse; in other words, Dawkins appropriates the tools of the believer when he feels that it is expedient to do so — and hang the science. But still, let’s move on. By far the weakest part of The God Delusion is when Dawkins attempts to explain why atheistic regimes have far outdone religious regimes in their murderousness, their inhumanity. I asked Dawkins when he would leave the god-botherers alone, and he responded by saying, ‘When they leave the rest of the world alone. When they leave children alone, stop fighting each other and endangering the rest of us.’ Which is fair enough, but the record of those regimes which presciently forsook religion is far, far worse.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I think that it is incidental that Stalin was an atheist. I don’t think that Hitler was. Stalin did his deeds in the name of a kind of Marxism, and you can argue as to whether that’s a religion or not.’
Isn’t that the point, I suggest. That with one set of values removed, another will always fill its place? That if you remove religion, there is a gap which will always be filled — and usually by something worse than belief in a deity? Are we ever worse than when we feel ourselves to be unconstrained masters of our domain, answerable to nobody but ourselves?
‘I agree with you that I have not sufficiently explained that. This gap, this absence — it could be a psychological weakness of the human mind. I did have one chapter at the end, but I think I didn’t do it justice, from your point of view. If I were to, then I wouldn’t have any trouble filling it — it might be science, it might be human love. Relationships, something like that.’
Relationships indeed. Richard has handily provided a new bunch of commandments to replace those which Moses handed down to the rest of us. But they are terribly ephemeral things, unintentionally hilarious — the sort of stuff that might be dreamed up by Polly Toynbee after someone had slipped an ecstasy tablet in her San Pellegrino after a long day in the Guardian offices. ‘Have an enjoyable sexual relationship with someone of either gender but try not to hurt anyone while doing so’ — that sort of thing. They have no resonance, not the slightest suggestion that they might outlast even our current generation, never mind provide us with a template for 2,000 years.
‘I’m astonished you think it a good thing, longevity,’ Dawkins counters, ‘You say that my commandments are here today and gone tomorrow — but that’s a good thing and that’s one of the points I am trying to make. That there is a steadily shifting moral zeitgeist.’
But all this leaves you with a sort of damp and most unconvincing historical relativism. By Dawkins’s argument, the moral imperatives of 500 years ago were, de facto, right then — and wrong now. In the end, it leaves you without a real sense of right and wrong, merely a constantly shifting plane — and thus open to the malefactions of a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot. But of course, as I concede to Dawkins, the simple fact that Christianity has given us a moral code which has, to an extent, lasted 2,000 years is no reason to believe in a divinity. It is, though, a very valid reason to doubt ourselves — as the historical evidence would attest.
Which brings me to the difficult stuff — and Darwinism. It is a creed to which Dawkins cleaves with the fervour of the fundamentalist, the true believer. And it is the real chink in his armour. For example, because Darwin showed us that life forms progress from the simple to the complex over hundreds of thousands of years of gradual modification, it therefore follows (according to Dawkins) that there cannot have been a divine being present before the amoebae swam in those soupy oceans at Earth’s toddler stage — because he would have had to be more complex than those organisms which followed him. And that doesn’t fit with the theory. But what if the theory, in its entirety, doesn’t hold — as Dawkins concedes might be possible? Even now, a century and a half after Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the notion of gradual, cumulative change in every case is being challenged (most recently by the evo-devo school, which believes that sudden change can occur within species within a single generation). Like all scientific theories, Darwinism will be amended — perhaps beyond recognition. Perhaps it will be discarded entirely. Either way, disavowing a divine being because it doesn’t quite fit in with another here-today-gone-tomorrow theory seems a tad peremptory. The question Dawkins can never satisfactorily answer is: what if Darwin was wrong? And yet, as a scientist, he must be aware that the likelihood is that Darwin was wrong here or there. In which case, where does that leave his philosophical argument?
And then there is this. For Richard Dawkins, the human being is a creature propelled by the blind impetus of his or her genes. Everything we do is, at root, guided by a cold mechanism designed to propagate the survival of these incalculably minute and ruthless constituents. There is nothing more. And yet Dawkins insists that as human beings we might uniquely overcome this mechanism. Why should we, alone among animals, be able to do so, to defy our genes? And how?
‘I mean that it is the selfish gene, not the selfish individual,’ Dawkins says.
Well, yes, sure; we talk about reciprocal altruism for a time. Clearly, though, Dawkins means that we can progress beyond even that. So what was it that gave us the ability mysteriously to overcome this implacable mechanism?
‘Because we’ve got very big brains. I mean ...no other animal practises contraception, for example.’
‘But,’ I say to him, ‘there is no reason why the complexity and size of our brains should lead us to do something which is precisely what our genes do not wish us to do, is there?’ It would surely be the reverse: it is perfectly counter-Darwinian.
‘Yes. But it happens to be true. Darwinian selection couldn’t possibly ever have favoured contraception. That’s simply a demonstration that it’s possible to decide to do other noble things, like being nice....’ Does that sound very scientific to you? It doesn’t to me. It sounds horribly like a devout believer — a believer in non-belief, except when it comes to Darwinism — rather ineffectually attempting to dig himself out of a hole.
At the end, as we sip our coffee in this agreeable secular house, I ask Richard Dawkins if he has ever had a religious experience, i.e., something more profound than signing up to God because Elvis had done so before. ‘No,’ he says.
‘What would convince you?’
He looks askance for a moment. ‘Of a supernatural being?’
‘Well.’ He has a think. ‘I suppose a large-scale miracle which could not have been engineered by a conjuror. But I, um, find it hard to imagine exactly what that might be,’ he concludes.
The question, I suspect, has never even occurred to him. It is one of those possibilities to which he is not — being human and fallible, and thus wedded to a certain train of thought and resistant to being diverged from it — wholly open.
Richard Dawkins’s Commandments
1. Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
2. Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
3. Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate science, and how to disagree with you.
4. Value the future of things on a timescale longer than your own.
The Trouble With Atheism is being shown on Channel 4 on 18 December.