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The National PostNovember 25, 2003

Richard Dawkins Talks Up Atheism with Messianic Zeal

By Robert Fulford

National Post

Richard Dawkins, the eminent Oxford zoologist, sets down his conclusions with wondrous confidence and not a hint of doubt. He's become popular as a science writer by combining literary skill with unassailable certainty. He doesn't make a fetish of seeing both sides of the question and believes that science should never compromise with its enemies. His new collection of essays, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, delivers the essential Dawkins, red in tooth and claw, alive with urgent vehemence. It makes excellent reading even for the scientifically impaired.

He's a proud atheist who never hesitates to condemn religion for spreading evil and ignorance. Still, for a non-believer he can write a rather preacherly prose. Sometimes he hectors us, raising the possibility that we're listening to a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Dick Dawkins, speaking from the pulpit of The First Church of St. Darwin & All Zoologists.

He won't mute his views of religion to avoid hurting the feelings of believers, as some scientists do. He lost any respect he had for that practice in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, "when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonation and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place."

He thinks we should honour the victims of religious terror by respecting people for what they individually think, rather than respecting groups "for what they were collectively brought up to believe." He's a pluralist, open to all varieties of humans but not necessarily to their institutions. He's in no sense a multiculturalist. No religion earns his deference simply by being a religion and making pious noises.

In these pages, as in more focused books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins demonstrates that he's more Darwinian than Charles. He considers evolution not only a great idea but the great idea of all time, a way of thinking that explains just about everything. That doesn't mean, however, that he admires the way it works. He stands beside one of his idols, Thomas Henry Huxley, the first great champion of Darwinism, who thought "the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." Dawkins embraces the Darwin who shook his head in sorrow over "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature."

Evolution, a process of nearly infinite trial and error, never spares a thought for suffering. Even beauty comes into the world through eons of misery, as Dawkins writes: "The racing elegance of cheetahs and gazelles is bought at huge cost in blood and the suffering of countless antecedents on both sides." However lovely its stride, the gazelle acquired its speed in order to kill and eat other creatures as they screamed in agony.

This doesn't, however, justify Social Darwinism. There's no reason self-conscious humans should act as thoughtlessly as nature has acted over millions of years. We do not let the slow and the sick die by the roadside, which is nature's way. Dawkins preaches evolution as a scientist while opposing it as a human being. He compares himself to an oncologist who patiently explains the workings of cancer but, when practicing medicine, fights it. Evolution, he notes, gave us a brain large enough to reject the moral implications of evolution. (One thing he never explains: Why did evolution bother to do that? Another: Why did the universe bother to exist? These questions don't trouble him.)

No doubt Dawkins excuses the bluntness of his arguments on the grounds that only a sharp, direct style conveys truth. But no reader will fail to notice that he also loves provocation. He sprays opinions in all directions, coming out against the jury system (after disillusioning experiences on three juries) with the same passion he directs at "alternative medicine" and what he considers a silly theory, the "gay gene" said to explain homosexuality.

He joyfully turns his rhetorical cruelty on post-modern cultural critics. Dawkins' Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that academic obscurantism expands to fill the vacuum of simplicity. Physics, being genuinely difficult and profound, struggles to make its language as simple as possible, but other academics cloak their relatively simple notions in complex language. Social scientists suffer, he believes, from Physics Envy. "They want to be thought profound, but their subject is actually rather easy and shallow, so they have to language it up to redress the balance."

In conversation, Dawkins says, he routinely asks anyone using the term "post-modern," except in the restricted context of architecture, what they mean by it. Always, he says, he puts the question in a spirit of friendly curiosity. His finding: "Never once have I heard anything that even remotely approaches a usable or even faintly coherent definition." At best people say "Well, you know what I mean." Dawkins says, "No, I don't." He must be fun at parties.

As we might expect, he affectionately revisits "meme," the word he invented in 1976 to express how cultural phenomena and terminology move from mind to mind and replicate themselves like viruses or genes. I always thought the word's flaw was in meaning too much. The idea of God is a meme, but so is the way Fred Astaire danced, the Gothic arch, the term "embedded," the Japanese kimono, and seat belts in cars. But now, a quarter of a century later, "meme" lives successfully in the language.

It's the subject of a 250-word article in the large Oxford Dictionary and appears (as Dawkins points out) 5,000 times on the World Wide Web. He even cites 10 books in which it's been carried forward by other scientists. Justifiably, he enjoys his bragging rights.

His confidence can of course shade into arrogance, which experienced readers accept as part of the price of admission. The ultimate Dawkins response to that charge was once reported by his friend Douglas Adams, the novelist, who died in 2001 and is eulogized in A Devil's Chaplain. Adams recalled Dawkins' saying that "I really don't think I'm arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don't share with me the same humility in front of the facts."

File Date: 11.25.03

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