A Day with Richard Dawkins
With the passing two years ago of godless barracuda Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins more than anyone has inherited the weighty throne as the world’s foremost atheist.
Driving to the home of Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) earlier today, I was reduced to the confused ramblings of Luca Brasi struggling in the opening scene of The Godfather to pay his respects.
“Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your home today on the day of your daughter’s wedding… and I hope that their first child, be a masculine child.”
Okay, so the comparison is both inappropriate and unflattering. But what words exactly does one speak when you’ve got about ten seconds (if that) to make a positive first impression?
To millions of secular humanists scattered around the world, Richard Dawkins isn’t just a pillar of free thought. More important, he’s an inspiration who empowers those desperately needing a guidepost with his work, words, and ideas. His intense love for science is paramount. That’s his religion. Trained as an evolutionary biologist, and until recently on the faculty at Oxford, Dawkins has dedicated most of his adult life pondering what happens both in the galaxies and under the microscope, with equally intense curiosity. Indeed, all great discoveries start with asking the right questions.
Dawkins has been asking those questions for a very long time. However, several years ago his academic career took an unplanned detour. While writing and talking about evolution (“The Selfish Gene“), the public began to look upon Dawkins in a very different way. In a sense, this was a lucky break — especially for us who became members of the same philosophical tribe. Though Dawkins never planned it, he went from a little-known scientist who spent a lot of time talking about genes, to a rock star-like celebrity who now packs auditoriums full of thousands of impressionable minds. Those minds gradually became a movement. Some are convinced this movement is not only humanity’s best hope but the new wave of mainstream thought.
Dawkins’s many books and articles in support of science, punctuated by worldwide tours highlighted by nightly lectures, televised debates, and non-stop radio interviews, almost became an afterthought to Dawkins’ close association with atheism. With the passing two years ago of godless barracuda Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins more than anyone seems to have inherited the weighty throne as the world’s foremost atheist.
To be clear, Dawkins doesn’t particularly like this term — “atheist.” He explains his reasoning this way. There’s really no reason to foster a common idealogy around non-belief, he says. Moreover, Dawkins actually longs for a new age when the word “atheism” won’t even exist. It won’t have to. It would be analogous to having a word for someone who doesn’t believe in gravity, senseless really. We just accept that gravity exists. Perhaps the day will eventually come when we accept science as our faith, rather than contradictory superstition.
Eternally optimistic, Dawkins believes that day may be closer than we think.
I’d been invited to join some friends who gathered this afternoon to hang out and be around Richard Dawkins. This was a most coveted invitation, extended only to a rare few.
Dawkins’ the celebrity didn’t matter. What did matter was being thrust into position next to someone who’s important enough to have shaped the way I think, and largely determine much of what I believe. Upon meeting, “Hi Richard, I’m Nolan — so, how was your flight?” just doesn’t seem to do justice to the occasion.
And so, I pondered those initial words I would mutter upon first meeting Dawkins, which was now minutes away and approaching fast. Should I express my admiration for his work? Everybody does that. Should I explain why I’m interested in his work? Everybody does that, too. How about saying something funny? No way — he’d see right through a rehearsed line. This guy is smart.
Dawkins appeared alongside Penn Jillette for 90-minutes as a guest on his weekly radio show, which was taped for later broadcast (tune into PENN JILLETTE’S SUNDAY SCHOOL here.). Next, he stepped into a home theater and stood alone, seemingly appreciative of a rare moment of peace and quiet on what’s been a long road.
Well, I had to obliterate the tranquility. Like a prized elk posing in the forest, Dawkins never saw me coming. I stepped into the room, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself. Fortunately, whatever I said — I didn’t ask him about his flight or tell him a joke.
What I did manage to convey was a sense of how empowering his life has been to so many others, including myself. I also tried to explain the secularist movement set forth in the RICHARD DAWKINS FOUNDATION FOR REASON AND SCIENCE desperately needed a more common approach so as to be embraced by many more, including those who consider themselves non-philosophical (or without formal education). In other words, to win the cultural war we don’t need more college professors. Instead, we need more construction workers and waitresses. The places where they hang out are the front lines of free thought.
I was flattered Dawkins seemed genuinely interested in the topic and even began to address my basic precept. However, our quiet moment alone didn’t last for long. Others came and found the giant elk too, and the discussion soon took a different path. Indeed, when someone like Dawkins is around, he is the party. He dictates the discussion. And that’s not an easy thing to do unless it comes very naturally, especially in the presence of Penn, who frequently dominates not just any room, but a cavernous 3,500 seat arena every night of the week as a stage performer.
Being around Dawkins up so close and personal, I came to sense he’s heard just about everything by now, almost to the point where it’s all become routine. Perhaps even boring. Not that he’s rude or impatient. Just that while he’s talking sometimes, using the same stock language he’s used countless times before when similar subjects came up elsewhere, the rest of his mind is dashing off in a different direction. It’s as though his thoughts are compartmentalized. No doubt, Dawkins could answer just about any question posed to him in his sleep, sort of like Penn performing a magic trick for the 850th time. Meanwhile, the remainder of his consciousness becomes a playground of solicitude and reflection. Perhaps something which pops up there will become fodder for a new book or the next debate.
That evening, Dawkins was the featured attraction at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, as part of a special guest speaker series. Dawkins was joined onstage by Lawrence Krauss, the noted physicist, and cosmologist at Arizona State University. Penn Jillette moderated the discussion.
However, before these powerhouse minds began their trapeze, a new (yet unreleased) film was shown to the audience, which numbered a few thousand.
The Unbelievers was made by a filmmaking tandem of two brothers, Gus Holwerda and Luke Holwerda. The 1-hour 20-minute documentary accomplishes three things. First, we witness the drudgery of what constant touring is like, which tests our two heroes — Dawkins and Krauss. We see that they’ve become to science what The Rolling Stones were to rock n’ roll. The only thing missing is the debauchery. Second, we get glimpses of Dawkins and Krauss’ best stage appearances, usually in front of an audience and with a microphone. It’s a virtual “Greatest Hits” package of thought-provoking ideas sure to provoke and inspire. Third, the film is an unapologetic celebration of what’s undoubtedly a growing movement and a romantic postcard to these pioneers of free thought who hold the batons in the parade of music growing louder.
To be clear, The Unbelievers isn’t a great film. It doesn’t pretend to be impartial. One might even call it a propaganda piece. Nevertheless, the film stands out as the first snapshot of its kind. Largely ignored by the media and rarely discussed in popular culture (when’s the last time you saw a television program on atheism?), atheists have finally arrived as a global movement now brimming over the fringes and headed into the cultural mainstream. Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have clearly made much of this possible.
Long after Dawkins and Krauss fly away to another city and make the next stop on their national tour, their ideas shall linger. The few thousand in attendance last night, most of them young people, are likely to become future disciples, an admittedly ironic misuse of language.
However, this new gospel isn’t based on blind faith or fairy tales from centuries ago. It contains no contradictions. Only science and reason, the basis of secular humanism. The real questions which remain are discoveries yet to be made and still to come.
Alas, the real joy is not just in spending a day with Richard Dawkins, although that’s pretty special. It’s in spending a lifetime with him through his consistent output of words and wisdom.
Note: Special thanks to Penn and Emily Jillette, Melissa Hayden, and Robyn Blumner.