RICHARD DAWKINS at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Beginner’s guide to ‘Growing out of God’.

Evolutionary biologist, author of over a dozen books and an outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins spoke to us in the Hague last night about his most recent book – Growing out of God: a beginner’s guide. Aimed at younger audiences, Dawkins explained that his purpose was to reach teens and anyone else who found the God Delusion ‘difficult to read’. Indeed his central concern is what he terms ‘education not indoctrination’ – the manner in which religion gets passed on from generation to generation, often without question. His latest book is an attempt to counteract this tendency and educate children to think for themselves.

Growing out of God is divided into two broad sections – the first focuses on religion, mostly Christianity and our understanding of it through the Old and the New Testaments. However he also looks at ‘other myths’ and religious sects in order to explore how such phenomena arise – from a scientific perspective.  He discusses anthropologist, Richard Feynman’s cargo cult concept which describes how pre-industrialised cultures in the South Seas interpreted cargo planes that arrived during the Second World War as gifts from their ancestors. In order to facilitate a ‘second-coming’, they built dummy planes, run-ways and similar constructions. Dawkins also talks of the Mormon religion, which is relatively new (it began in the early 19th century) and as such is easier to study. He highlights the inconsistency in the fact that its founder, Joseph Smith, was shown to be ‘an utter fraud and a charlatan’, yet Mormonism continues to command a substantial following.

‘Evolution really makes sense!’ – Dawkins

The second half of the book is devoted to the topic of evolution. This is where Dawkins is at his best. Indeed he openly admits that ‘this is my joy, to explain evolution’. Describing the ‘entire skin of an octopus’ as ‘a television screen’, the 78 year old scientist is clearly still in thrall to ‘the prodigious simplicity’ of this ‘fantastically powerful theory’. He tells us that he was brought up as an Anglican, attended a school run by the Church of England and was prepared to accept the notion of a greater power until he was introduced to the theory of evolution. At the age of fifteen, he found the latter far more compelling in its ability to explain the immense complexity of the natural world. ‘Evolution really makes sense!’ he says, going on to wonder at why it took so long for mankind to come up with this theory. His conclusion: it was so simple that it may well have seemed too obvious for the ancient Greeks or Newton or other great thinkers before Darwin.

Dawkins’ devotion to science and factually based evidence is absolute. As he says, ‘Evolutionary theory doesn’t leave much for God to do.’ He is particularly concerned about the difficulties faced by teachers of evolutionary theory in the US. To this end, the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently merged with the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) in the US. They focus particularly on how to teach teachers how to teach evolution. Traditionally this has been an area of real difficulty in many US middle schools Dawkins tells us. The biologist has little patience for fellow scientists who are also religious. ‘Doublethink is utterly beyond my comprehension – how can you live with yourself?’ he asks. He is similarly dismissive of those for whom religion provides the solace of eternity. ‘Would an eternity spent alive be that consoling?’ he asks one audience member who admits to fearing death.

‘Why would one believe in something that doesn’t exist?’ – Dawkins

Dawkins unrelenting devotion to rationalism is both his strength and his weakness. He is at his most convincing when arguing for the rationality of science and the non-sense of religious thought. However, his inability to empathize with those for whom the distinction is not so clear cut, makes his explanations of why people continue to choose religion and faith in spite of all the scientific evidence against it, less convincing. ‘Why would one believe in something that doesn’t exist?’ he asks. The question is quite reasonable but the many and varied answers to such a question are clearly something which he has little interest in exploring. Emotions are the domain of the arts he maintains and he is willing to concede a certain ‘spirituality’ in the wonder one might feel at the sight of something like the Milky Way but no more. Spirituality should not be confused with religion, he maintains.  Dawkins has begun work on his next book, somewhat ironically called, Flights of Fancy. He explains that it is nothing to do with religion but is all about flying. Specifically, the evolution of the phenomenon of flight and gliding in the natural world. Dawkins’ devotion to scientific discoveries of this nature is always welcome. Some of a religious persuasion may even envy his unquestioning commitment to the newest god of all – science.       Souwie Buis    19th November 2019

Photo by Wouter Vellekoop