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Full house captivated by atheist Dawkins' take on religion

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Full house captivated by atheist Dawkins' take on religion

Samara Kalk Derby

People feel strongly about their religious faith and are deeply offended if you insult it, Oxford University scientist Richard Dawkins told a full house Tuesday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Dawkins asked: Why is it that people are so offended when you insult their religion but don't get as upset if you insult the music, art or books they like?

"What is so special about religion?" he asked, noting that it's respected even by the nonreligious among us.

The British biologist and atheist wrote the best-selling book "The God Delusion" in 2006 and is on a university tour speaking out against organized religion.

Dawkins, 66, made a name for himself with his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," which popularized the gene-centered view of evolution. "The God Delusion" has sold more than 1 million copies in English alone and has been translated into more than 30 languages. It was ranked No. 2 on the best-seller list in November 2006.

And it explains why some Dawkins fans were turned away from the 1,300-seat theater after it filled up and why some opportunists were trying to sell the free tickets for $50 apiece on Craigslist.

Sean Carroll, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of molecular biology and genetics who introduced Dawkins, listed a number of Dawkins' books and asked audience members to raise their hands if they had read one or more of them. Almost every hand went up.

Carroll quoted comedian-magicians Penn and Teller on "The God Delusion": "If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed."

Dawkins joked that he's not absolutely positive there is no God. "Only in the sense that I'm not absolutely positive there is no large china teapot in orbit in the solar system."

No one can actually disprove the existence of a celestial teapot, he said, "which means we all technically have to be agnostic about the teapot. But in practice we are all 'ateapotists,' " he said to laughter.

Dawkins spoke about childhood indoctrination into religion. "Isn't it a remarkable coincidence, almost everyone has the same religion as their parents?"

Religions run in families, Dawkins said. If we had been brought up in ancient Greece, we would all be worshiping Zeus and Apollo. If we had been born Viking, we would be worshipping Thor, he said.

"If your God is a being who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, performs miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare, worries about your sex life, raises you from the dead," you are unlikely to be satisfied with "The God Delusion," Dawkins said.

Feminists helped raise consciousness for equal rights for women, Dawkins said, adding that he is trying to do the same thing with the unconscious assumptions everyone makes about religion.

At Christmas time, his daily paper, The Independent, took a photo of a school Nativity play, in which the three biblical wise men were played by 4-year-olds -- a Sikh, a Muslim and a Christian. The photo looked kind of sweet, Dawkins said. The assumption for most readers was how nice it was for three 4-year-olds of different religions to come together for a Nativity play.

The three children would never be labeled "a socialist, a conservative and a liberal." Nor would they be labeled "an atheist, an agnostic and a secular humanist," Dawkins said.

Nobody would even think about labeling a child at age 4 with the political or economic opinions of their parents, he said.

"You've never heard of a Keynesian child a post-modernist child," he said to laughter. "But the one exception we all buy into, whether we are religious or not, is religion."

There is no such thing as a Catholic child, there are only children of Catholic parents, Dawkins said. "I think it is a form of child abuse to speak of a 4-year-old child as a Catholic child or a Protestant child or a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Protestant child. There is no such thing as a Muslim child."

Annie Laurie Gaylor of Madison's Freedom from Religion Foundation, which was one of the sponsors of the lecture, said she is indebted to Dawkins for speaking out against religion in a country where 50 percent of the people claim to reject Darwinism and support creationism.

"It's wonderful to have this eminent biologist care so much about the truth of religion to be willing to question it publicly using his scientific credibility. He is in a unique position to influence people," she said.



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