February 23, 2005

Dawkins or Hitchens: Who will convert first?

Which aggressive atheist will convert first: Hitchens or Dawkins? Various people, including Orrin Judd, have suggested that the most likely resolution to Christopher Hitchens' intense hatred of Roman Catholicism will be his conversion to that religion, although I suspect Hitchens is more likely to convert to the Judaism of his maternal ancestors. He already has taken to visiting synagogues on his travels.

Now, an article in the Times of London by Bryan Appleyard suggests that atheist cheerleader Richard Dawkins will someday convert to Anglicanism:

First, [Dawkins] is one of the strangest men I’ve ever known. We go back a long way. Our relationship started well, descended into hate-hate, recovered somewhat to love-hate and, latterly, has drifted into respectful acceptance.

He is a highly strung, frequently petulant man. I’ve seen him storm out of an amiable dinner because he didn’t like the music and I’ve heard of him muttering to his companion, when a lady cleric entered the room, that dog collars are always a sign of low IQ. But when relaxed, he is charming, deferring politely to opinions with which he disagrees and displaying a conscientious desire to understand.

On these occasions, he has the air of an eager-to-please country vicar, an air enhanced by the discreet serving of tea by his wife Lalla Ward and further emphasised by the large, rectory-like house they now occupy just outside Oxford city centre.

Dapper as ever in jacket, chinos and boat shoes, and looking 20 years younger than he actually is (63), this time he greets me with warm familiarity. Things are looking up. The rectoryness of the house vanishes inside. It is beyond the reach of any vicar I know — beautifully and expensively decorated and furnished with a vast flat-screen television in the living room.

Dawkins has done well for himself. He is endowed by Charles Simonyi, formerly of Microsoft, as Oxford’s professor of the public understanding of science and his books leap off the shelves.

...But the importance of Dawkins, though based on the brilliance and popularity of his writing, is mostly to do with what he represents. He is Darwin’s enforcer. Darwin discovered evolution through natural selection, but, a quiet man with a religious wife, he did not engage in the ensuing public debates. Dawkins does, combining evolutionary theory with anti-Bush, left-wing politics, expressed through the occasional article but mostly through pithy, angry letters to newspapers.

Dawkins is the supreme meta-establishment thinker, the eloquent defender of the dominant but seldom expressed world view of our time — aggressive atheism and secularity, soft leftism, scientism and faith in progress. To his fans, he is reason incarnate. And so if Dawkins says George W Bush is an idiot, which he frequently does, then Dubya must, rationally, be an idiot. But, in fact, reason has nothing to do with it.

“I’m not particularly proud of being visceral, but I am admitting it. My attacks on George Bush have nothing to do with science or the scientific method. I just can’t stand the man’s style, the way he swaggers and struts and smirks and the way he looks sly and deceitful and the way Americans can’t see it. I’m irritated by the way they think he’s just a regular guy you can have a drink with.”

Anti-Americanism keeps intruding in the new book. There is a very irrational paragraph on nuclear strategy that stoops to lampooning Bush’s pronunciation — “nucular” — and even an anti-foxhunting footnote which, I point out to him, is utterly illogical. He agrees.

"Oh, okay, fair enough. But I’ve always been against foxhunting. I was brought up in the country on a farm and throughout my childhood we were passionately against foxhunting and we always refused to allow the hunt to cross the boundaries of the farm.”

The intrusion of these irrationalities — combined with the peculiarities of his character — indicate that the dominant image of Dawkins in the public mind as the patron saint of contemporary reason is wrong. In reality, outside evolutionary theory, he is as much driven by prejudice, faith and conviction as the rest of us. Some — notably the late Stephen Jay Gould — have argued that the same is true within Dawkins’s evolutionary theory. His “selfish gene ” approach is, to his critics, little more than a thought experiment that distorts and simplifies the complex reality it aspires to define.

All of this, to me at least, makes the human reality of Dawkins much more interesting than the public persona. Even his anti-religiousness is not quite what it seems. His language is steeped in the vocabulary of Anglicanism. I once offered a bet that he would be converted on his deathbed but found no takers. Dawkins assures me I would lose. I’m not so sure.


Anonymous said...

'Faith' truly is blind if anyone believes for a second that either Dawkins or Hitchens will convert to any religion. And why would they? Only people who don’t have any faith can appreciate how barren the promise of religion really is.

Anonymous said...

Agree. As Hitchens would probably point out, who could turn away from the wonders of the event horizon and the double helix just to gaze at a burning bush?

Reginald said...

But what is the Burning Bush started talking?