Before he even opened his mouth, most of the 1,600 people in the audience were on their feet. Hands flew together and a chorus of shouts and whoops filled the large Richmond, Kentucky, auditorium, which had reached capacity well before that warm October night’s Chautauqua lecture was scheduled to start.
In three separate viewing rooms in buildings just steps away from the assembly hall at Eastern Kentucky University’s Brock Auditorium, video screens had been erected to simulcast the event to the 600+ disappointed fans turned away at the door.
Who was responsible for this adoring, zealous support in a small college town in rural Kentucky? Whose most recent book did this throng of mostly young adults clutch in their hands, hoping to see his autograph scrawled upon its title page?
A great British evolutionary biologist—a man hailed for his skill at communicating science to the masses—Richard Dawkins.
While event organizers at EKU made apologies to those watching via video screen and expressed their surprise at the overwhelming turnout, I mused that it probably had less to do with Dawkins’s knack at making the complexities of biology, cosmology, physics, et al. coherent to nonscientists (there are plenty of excellent science writers out there who’ve never drawn a 2,000-deep crowd) than his famously caustic attacks on religion, especially Christianity.
My own presence in the audience that particular evening was something of a coincidence. Just hours before Dawkins’s lecture was scheduled to start, I completed two days of travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Richmond, Kentucky. My purpose there was twofold:
1. Make the final preparations for my wedding
2. Get hitched
Yet upon arriving home and hearing that Richard Dawkins just happened to be gearing up to speak less than a mile away, my parents and I decided to take the night off from ribbon-tying and veil-making. I had a few strong, timely reasons not to miss his talk.
For one, I’d just published a long article here on God and Nature called “Clearing the MiddlePath,” exploring the social, spiritual, and intellectual merits of focusing on fostering productive dialogue rather than razing the road to mutual respect and appreciation between religion and science. My article featured theologian Peter Hess, who works at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) helping Christians and other people of faith understand why evolution (and the ancient age of the earth, the possibility of alien life, etc.) can enhance instead of threaten their worldview. Likewise, Peter helps reduce the level of religious intolerance held by some scientists by showing them that most mainstream denominations try and are successful at incorporating scientific theories into their respective theologies.
Peter related that in performing his work, it’s become very clear that neither the so-called “new atheists” (sometimes referred to as “evangelical atheists” for their fervor that parallels that of some evangelical Christians) nor fundamentalist Christians know nearly enough about what they’re rejecting, or whom.
To illustrate, Peter described a personal meeting he had a few years ago with an atheist biologist. In the course of a conversation about a project Peter was consulting on (helping the religion department at a nearby Catholic high school organize a series of lectures and discussions on evolution, called the “Darwin Project”), the biologist—who happened to be Professor Dawkins—expressed surprise not only that the Catholic school was enthusiastically pursuing public dialogue about what many assume to be a controversial theory, but that the religious studies department was instrumental in helping to organize it. Professor Dawkins demonstrated unawareness about the openness of Christians to engage with scientific culture. Like their non-theistic neighbors, many Christians are searching, curious people who want to learn more about the universe, how it was formed, and why thinking beings exist in it.
After my article went up on God and Nature, vitriolic comments from atheist defenders surged onto the NCSE’s Facebook page. Some were directed at the NCSE, accusing the organization of being “accomodationist” for having a Catholic theologian on staff. Others were ad hominem insults regarding Peter’s personal beliefs and how they affect the level of his intelligence:
~[Peter is] trying to shoehorn his fantasies and delusions into reality. He’s still trying to prove that all his childish beliefs work in the grown up world. Religion is fundamentally a magical world view; magic has no place in science.
~Courting the crazies and having them defend sanity is not a good call on our part. And as crazies go, give me a good, honest fundamentalist any day, at least they really BELIEVE. This guy is just another fence straddler without the courage to make up his mind.
~Truth and belief are not even close to the same thing and Peter knows this. To treat belief, not just Christian belief, with the same respect as knowledge is insane. I hate philosophy, [because] it seems like if you can’t win an argument with the facts, [and] it is a last resort for credibility.
~Both [Peter] and his position are negative acts in the very positive, supposed, goal to which NCSE claims to be dedicated, and the organization seriously needs to rethink.
Some of the most hateful posts were deemed unconstructive by the site’s administrator and removed. At several points throughout the 40+ comment stream, the NCSE stepped in to defend the importance of Peter’s job and why such derogatory, polarizing behavior should be avoided by those struggling to illuminate modern science for the public, “The primary objective of NCSE is to defend and promote the teaching of evolution in public schools. We do this by dealing with local flareups, by speaking at local, regional, and national meetings of professional organizations, and by communicating with various communities … We find that when we approach these communities with respect and sensitivity to the beliefs they regard as important, we are more likely to be successful in our goal of defending and promoting acceptance of evolution.”
More simply put, only those who give respect get respect. If we use hate speech, we should expect to receive it in kind—or at least, to have our message ignored by the people we target and/or deride. For those of us trying to advance knowledge and truth in the way Professor Dawkins does in his public communication about science, insulting someone who doesn’t automatically accept the validity and importance of our own views isn’t just impolite, it’s illogical. It harms, rather than helps, the advancement of scientific understanding.
A month ago in Richmond, Kentucky, I traded some of the only time I had left as a single woman to attempt to understand just what it is Dawkins and his cadre of atheists have against people like Peter Hess—one of the wisest and most intelligent men I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing—and that most pursued of all scientific questions: why?
My second reason for attending the lecture was more personal than professional. I wanted to see how the residents of my hometown would react to what Dawkins had to say.
While the so-called halcyon days of my childhood were spent scampering through the backyards of suburban Maryland, I entered that trial of sanity and reason known as “middle school” in Kentucky. Like most middle-schoolers, I was utterly dismayed at my luck in life—dismayed by the prospect of growing up, in general, and specifically dismayed by the thought of doing it in Kentucky. For starters, at all of eleven years old, I was certain that I’d never, ever make friends in my new home. I’d also heard somewhere that Kentucky schools were ranked pretty badly, so I could say goodbye to frequent field trips and the Magnet Program for advanced learning. Finally, so far as I could tell, Kentucky wasn’t full of cool stuff—just horse farms and regular farms. (I didn’t know about bourbon yet).
Throughout those years, my family attended a small Episcopal church on the edge of town, where I faithfully went to Sunday services, youth group, Bible school, acolyte training, and Confirmation classes before graduating high school. Had anyone asked, I’d have reported being just as true and good a Christian as the next, since I’d never really questioned the fact. It was around that time, however, that I started taking a long, hard look down my nose at Jesus Christ, his seemingly contradictory teachings, and his followers.
My temporary departure from faith resulted in no small way from experiences I had growing up in Kentucky. In high school science class, I learned to abhor how fellow Christians attempted to dismiss themselves from lectures in modern biology with the snide declaration, “I’m not a monkey.” Outside of class, I saw Christians my age standing in the middle of the mall and “witnessing” to passersby about the horrors of eternity in Hell. And it didn’t take a genius to figure out that many social leaders of our school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes were also some of its most notorious partyers and drug abusers.
In the four years I was a member of FCA and Campus Life, neither supposedly interdenominational club once dedicated a meeting to exploring what Christianity means to believers of varying backgrounds, nor how to question reality while taking a “leap of faith,” nor what one should and shouldn’t accept as interpretations of biblical truth. All those minutes were taken up teaching what I felt was a rather scripted, vacant version of Christian evangelism.
In a short-sighted reaction to the actions of a few, I allowed those unsavory encounters to color my opinion of the whole Christian community. By the time I went off to college, I, too, was jeering at Jesus and joking that he wasn’t much but a rebellious spiritual leader who could perform magic tricks.
I, too, would have adored Richard Dawkins, if I’d known about him.
Ten years, two university degrees, and one recommitment to Christianity later, I was sitting in the same auditorium where my high school band used to play end-of-year concerts, and near the spot onstage where I once sat, soloed, and counted out rests, Richard Dawkins was giving a speech called “The Magic of Reality.” The audience, which I later learned included folks from every major city in Kentucky, as well as the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, (not to mention Massachusetts), didn’t hear the bold religious attack many of us were anticipating.
What we did hear was a 45-minute commercial for Dawkins’s recently released book, also called The Magic of Reality. Targeted for teenagers about the same age I was when my family moved to Kentucky, the new work walks readers through several ways of thinking about difficult or misunderstood scientific topics. Dawkins’s mission in writing the book, he said, was to teach young people how to think critically, not what to think.
All 12 of the book’s chapters have questions for titles, like, “What is reality? What is magic?,” “Who was the first person?,” “When and how did everything begin?,” “What is an earthquake?,” and “What is a miracle?” Each of them starts out by describing myths that humans have used or still use to explain the topic at hand. Dawkins draws these from the religious traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American and Greco-Roman mythology, among others. The chapters then explain, “What is it really?” in more rational, scientific terms.
Dawkins began both the book and his EKU lecture by dashing the idea of magic against the masthead of reality. Miracles, magic, and other supernatural beliefs are incompatible with scientific truth, he said, using the fabrication of Cinderella’s carriage by her fairy godmother as an illustration of how such fanciful stories are simply contrary to nature. According to Dawkins, anything humans call a “miracle” is really just a mistake, a hallucination, or a scientific shortcoming—that is, something for which we don’t yet have an explanation.
For someone to decide that a mysterious event or feeling isn’t capable of being explained with existing or revolutionary science, Dawkins said, is cowardly and dishonest. “We should teach our young people to think critically,” he said.
“I don’t want to give the impression that science knows everything,” Dawkins admitted, “far from it. Science is constantly asking new questions, constantly opening new doors, constantly searching and changing and admitting mistakes. Not even the best scientist of today knows everything. But I don’t think that means we should block off all investigation by resorting to phony explanations by invoking magic or the supernatural, which don’t explain anything at all.”
Throughout the lecture, Dawkins illustrated the irrationality of such beliefs with an array of metaphysical stories that he claimed could be just as easily explained using logic. One of them was Portugal’s “Virgin of Fatima,” a Christian miracle reported in the early 20th century after a ten-year-old shepherd girl claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hill. The Virgin said she would return to the site and perform a miracle on an appointed day. This caused quite a stir, and some 70,000 people gathered to observe the event, which was described in an array of colorful ways by witnesses.
Some said that the sun began to dance and twinkle in the sky. Others said that it whirled around and around. The most dramatic interpretation had the sun crashing down from the heavens toward the “horrified multitude” and just before destroying them all, the miracle kindly ceased.
“What really happened at Fatima?” asked Dawkins. He gave three possibilities:
- The sun really did come crashing down. “The first possibility,” Dawkins said, “would have involved not just people in Portugal, but everybody in the daylight half of the world would have seen it and what’s more, it would have been the end of the world.”
- 70,000 people experienced a mass hallucination.
- The whole thing was misreported, exaggerated, or made up.
Favoring the latter explanation as being the most probable, Dawkins dismissed the others and explained that the purpose of this chapter on miracles is to encourage people to think critically and evaluate evidence, rather than just to believe what they’re told. “Don’t ever be lazy enough, defeatist enough, cowardly enough to say, ‘There’s something I don’t understand. It must be supernatural—it must be a miracle,” Dawkins encouraged his audience. “Say instead, ‘It’s a puzzle, it’s strange, it’s a challenge that we should rise to.’ Whenever we rise by questioning the truth of the observation or by expanding our science in new and exciting directions, the proper and brave response to any such challenge is to tackle it head-on … The truth is more magical in the best and most exciting sense of the word than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic—the magic of reality.”
With that, Dawkins concluded his talk.
Walking home from the lecture through Richmond’s quiet, small town dusk, I kicked at early-fallen leaves and talked with my parents about what the famous scientist had and hadn’t said that night. Rounding the corner into our neighborhood, my mother looked up at the clouded moon and mentioned something I’d completely missed.
“You know, Richard Dawkins may be a great academic and argue with intelligence and authority on some topics,” she said, “but tonight, every time he reasoned for something by logically eliminating all other possibilities, he didn’t do it logically at all. He just made assumptions about what ‘reality’ is, and left out all but the most extreme choices. Among the three explanations he gave for the miracle at Fatima, for instance, he didn’t choose to include the option that it really happened, but in a less ridiculous way than the sun crashing down. If you believe in God or miracles, then it’s just as probable that the saint appeared to the crowd in a beautiful, magnificent way—so what did he actually prove? You can’t claim you’ve eliminated a choice you never presented.”
She had a point. In the way that humble, rational people experience their faith, it doesn’t threaten our collective pursuit of scientific truth, it encourages it. As my mother pointed out, Dawkins only described and deconstructed the easiest types of beliefs and believers to denounce as antiscientific.
Maybe he was just playing to the crowd. Even the Richmond Register’s report on Dawkins’s talk the following day commented on the overwhelmingly homogenous audience, “Most in the crowd, which often applauded and cheered Dawkins and fellow speaker Sean Faircloth, seemed thrilled to see and hear Dawkins, even if he failed to deliver any ringing denunciations of religion … no one asked a hostile question or offered any protest the evening of his appearance.”
Nothing. Nada. Going into the lecture, I was pleased by the gap on the stairs where I assumed there’d be a throng of protestors and picket signs, thinking that the lack of outright antagonism from fundamentalists was an indication that real discourse was about to take place. Alas, those who’d come had either come with Dawkinsian reverence or tacit curiosity. Dawkins spent his hour illuminating scientific reality, critical thinking, and the need for judicious skepticism to an audience that already accepted the merits of each.
Standing in my family’s oak-tree-studded backyard, drinking a homebrew and trying not to feel a bit rooked by the whole experience, I thought,
Surely, somewhere among the 2,000 people attending this popular EKU lecture series was a believing Christian, Jew, or Muslim who was on the fence about evolution, the ancient age of the earth, anthropogenic climate change, or some other controversial mainstream scientific theory. Someone who merely needed to hear the facts in a well-thought out, inviting way to be able to say that she could start accepting the science behind them.
Yet Dawkins’s unsubtle insinuation that this believer’s irrational, lazy worldview must be sacrificed at the knees of science before apprehending “the magic of reality” would probably have sent her shrugging in the opposite direction. My thoughts rounded down to a single, regretful impression: What a waste.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way. Not at all. Not every brilliant scientist spends his or her off hours verbally tackling “the crazies” in defense of science as the only acceptable path to truth.
During my tenure in the graduate program in science writing at MIT, I studied with noted author and theoretical physicist Alan Lightman. Alan taught me many difficult lessons about the well-turned essay—the properly examined question whose elusive answer really is worthy of trying to write about. In his classes, Alan delved into what some professors consider unteachable territory: how to perform this work well, with literary style … (i.e., … don’t overuse ellipses … or Latin abbreviations … etc., etc. …). Alan also strived to instill in his students a sense of how to write with grace and humility before your topic and your readers.
In a recent essay for Salon.com, “Does God Exist?,” Alan explores a question that’s probably familiar to God and Nature readers. Subtitled, “The case for reconciling the scientific with the divine—and against the anti-religion of Richard Dawkins,” Alan’s essay was published the day before we posted “Clearing the Middle Path.” Both pieces explore what it means to successfully reconcile science with religion, and why it’s important and even practical to do so.
Alan isn’t a Christian, Jew, Agnostic, Buddhist, Transcendentalist or any other kind of religious believer. He doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak. As a scientist and atheist, Alan is not a defender of faith in God nor of religion, itself—yet he is a defender of respect for the people who practice religion and believe in something beyond what we can explain using the scientific method. Alan writes,
I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.”
We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but, in the end, we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.
Whether or not we think about it every day, our shared reality is an almost unbelievable balance of space and time, mass and matter, energy and gravity. A few faint measures nearer the sun and we’d all be up in a blaze of heat. A few tweaks in the laws of physics and the universe as we know it simply wouldn’t work at all.
The magic of reality is that this dance of atoms and space in such careful balance actually exists. Obviously, it’s up for debate who or what is responsible for initiating all of it, and when, and how. Somehow Earth ended up having not too much and not too little of any one thing. Maybe other planets are like that, too.
Whether or not you believe that it’s all very intentional and that there’s a loving God somewhere watching over it, no human consensus will actually change reality, whatever that happens to be. No matter what brand of consensus we subscribe to and would like other people to subscribe to, as well—we can’t help anyone, anywhere, change anything they trust and believe while simultaneously engaged in shredding their intelligence in front of them.
If each one of us could value human dignity as much as we value our personal brand of truth, we’d not only be as wise as we are intelligent, we might also get our adversaries to see things from a different point of view. At the very least, they might consider it, which would be a giant leap in the right direction. Times seven billion.