Enduring Dawkins

Contributed by: Peter Dodson, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

As an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist I have known Richard Dawkins as an author throughout my professional career, and I have contributed steadily to his book royalties since 1977, when he published his wonderfully stimulating The Selfish Gene. I have heard him speak in Philadelphia on three occasions, once at Swarthmore College, once at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and now most lately on my own campus at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday March 12-13, 2013. The host organization was the Philomathean Society, which calls itself the oldest literary society in America, celebrating its 200th birthday. Dawkins is a brilliant writer and his expositions of evolution by natural selection are models of clarity and lucidness. I have especially enjoyed and have frequently recommended to students and colleagues The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins has rarely been free of controversy, which he seems to embrace happily. Stephen Jay Gould criticized Dawkins for his narrow reliance on natural selection as the sole mechanism for evolution, a charge that Dawkins vigorously disputed. A master of physics, Dawkins has shown increasing fondness for metaphysics. He has now become the leading scientific atheist of our time, author of the best-selling The God Delusion.

As a theistic evolutionist and a devout Christian, I am far from being a big fan of Dawkins. His engagement with Christianity is superficial and highly polemical. His knock out argument for the extreme improbability of God is an incoherent evolutionary scenario by which a more complex God evolves incrementally from a simpler one. Atheism has a long and honorable tradition—perhaps it deserves better than Dawkins, the apostle of atheism lite. I always feel that Dawkins is selling marijuana brownies to the unsuspecting. He fails to draw out the full implications of atheism. Bertrand Russell gave an indication of its abyss with the phrase “unyielding despair.” For a serious atheist like Albert Camus, the most urgent existential question is why not commit suicide?

Although I was not particularly happy with the notion of Dawkins up close and personal, it certainly has the ability to become a teaching moment. Dawkins brings religion front and center for discussion, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. As an openly professing Christian faculty member I was invited to participate in two panels in the aftermath of the visit. The first was two nights later and was sponsored by Penn Faculty-Staff Christian Forum and a variety of other like-minded campus groups. The second panel was the following week and was sponsored by the Philomathean Society itself, the host organization for Dawkins. It was encumbent on me to be as well prepared for these events as I could be. In the weeks before I spent as much time as I could in preparation. Most helpfully I read Jonathan Sack’s magisterial book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Rev. David Robertson’s scrappy The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, which is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on The God Delusion. Oh yes, and I read The Magic of Reality: How We Know What Is really True, Dawkins’ latest book.

The long-awaited presentation took place in the 1500-seat Irvine Auditorium on Penn campus, which Dawkins easily filled to overflowing. At least one enthusiast traveled from Atlanta and planned to stand outside in the spring chill for five hours in hopes of gaining admission (he was treated with Christiancharity by student organizer and Dawkins-host Paul Mitchell and granted a complimentary ticket. The talk was really part of a book tour promoting The Magic of Reality. I found the book surprisingly boring. It is intended as a children’s book but I failed to find charm in its pages, and likewise I failed to find charm in his talk. It was delivered in a perfunctory manner with unimpressive visuals and a palpable sense of ennui. He is justifiably famous for two things, his exposition of evolution by natural selection and his evangelical brand of atheism. He delivered on neither. Nonetheless, in the Q & A afterwards the vintage feisty Dawkins was on full display.

The next day I attended an afternoon discussion with Dawkins in the cozy Philomathean digs in College Hall. In the social beforehand Dawkins came up to me and introduced himself. “Hello,” he said. “I am Richard Dawkins.” I assured him that I knew who he was. I introduced myself to him as a paleontologist and a theistic evolutionist. He chose not to engage with that but continued around the room on his rounds. I did not expect him to be impressed with me—he considers the likes of me as “fleas.” The questions in the afternoon ranged from biological arcana to some aspects of his atheism. One of his answers I found especially interesting. He was asked about religious art and music from previous ages. He readily admitted to their beauty but he pointed out that Michelangelo and Bach produced religious art because that is where the money was. And might we not suggest that Dawkins has gone to atheism because that is where the money is? He has profited very handsomely indeed from his career as an evangelical in that field and is a millionaire many times over. Another annoying Dawkinism is that he interprets the intentions of other authors. For example, of arch-rival Stephen Jay Gould, whose book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life gores Dawkins’ ox, Dawkins wrote, “Gould could not possibly have meant what he wrote.” This surely is a dangerous game to play. Can we not equally say, “Surely Dawkins cannot have meant what he wrote!” That evening Christian nephrologist Ray Townsend, MD and I attended a Philomathean dinner for Dawkins at the University Museum. We dined under the unblinking gaze of a stern granite Sphinx in the elegant Lower Egyptian Gallery. The elegant dinner was quite informal, with no receiving line and no speeches. Ray and I were content to let Dawkins be surrounded by his young admirers, while we enjoyed the company of several mature archeologists. I am certain that Dawkins was none the poorer for being deprived of our conversation.

Thursday night Ray and I were joined by cardiologist and ethicist Jim Kirkpatrick, MD and law school colleague David Skeel. We drew an evening crowd of about 150 to the Wharton School, where we four Christian faculty presented an anti-Dawkins program entitled “Same Data, Different Conclusions.” Dave DeHuff, campus minister with Faculty Commons and coordinator of the Penn Faculty-Staff Christian Forum, moderated the discussion. It was almost difficult to begin because Dawkins had diverted from his usual form and offered remarkably little red meat for us to attack. Nonetheless the largely but not entirely friendly audience threw wide ranging questions at the panel, and all four of us were still standing at the end. One of the questions I was called upon to handle concerned doubt in a believer’s life. I responded that doubt is a sign of authenticity in the spiritual life, and that great Christian mystics including John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Lisieux and the beloved Mother Theresa of Calcutta have all suffered from doubt. Famously even Jean-Paul Sartre suffered from the temptation to believe! It is the sign of a mind that is still alive. The feedback has been positive from believers. It is good for students to know that there are many believers among the faculty. I like to point out that I know believers in every school and department with which I have been associated across the campus.

After three consecutive nights on campus, I finally on the weekend was able to reintroduce myself to my wife and relax, but I had one more event to go. The following Monday I was a panelist at the Philomathean Society, along with Rabbi Jack Cohen from Hillel and Gordon Bermant, a Buddhist who teaches a course in psychology and religion. Rabbi Jack studied physics and philosophy at Penn before pursuing his rabbinical training. Gordon had serial careers in experimental psychology and law before coming to Penn in “retirement” to teach. It seemed that a Philomathean audience had the potential to be less than cordial to those who preached the benefits of “organized religion” but the mood of the evening was upbeat and we had plenty of friendly faces in the audience. My two colleagues were more than equal to the task, and it was an evening of stimulating conversation. I can barely remember what I said—I hope it bordered on coherent. Each of us was asked at the beginning whether we could imagine a scientific discovery that would undermine our religious faith. None of us could. We each answered a series of structured questions from our Philomathean host. I remember discussing altruism, which surely has a biological basis but which in humans outstrips any simple genetic explanation. I was actually shocked when the evening ended abruptly after 75 minutes and no pie had been thrown in my face.

I have lived with Dawkins in my face for many years. I was goaded into the religion and science debate 25 years ago when I met another evangelical atheist, Cornell University evolutionary biologist Will Provine. I certainly never agreed with Will but he made his case plainly and honestly; he never stooped to the tortured and emotional illogic and misinformation of Dawkins at his nadir. Along the way I have encountered many constructive voices in the debate between science and religion, which should never be at odds with each other. Dawkins has encountered two Christian colleagues at Oxford who are far from fleas: mathematician John Lennox and philosopher and theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, each of whom has successfully debated Dawkins at Oxford. Sacks makes the strongest imaginable case for the value of religion, which he characterizes as a quintessential right-brained activity just as science is a classic left-brained activity. Science takes things apart and figures out how they work. Religion puts things together and figures out what things mean. A healthy society is one in which science and religion are in balance and neither tries to dominate the other. A Dawkinsian society is no more appealing than a Darwinian one. Let there be peace on earth and let us begin with me and with you.