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How to reconcile Richard Dawkins?

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Author of The God Delusion in person is a lot more open-minded than his critics would have you believe.

It's often been said that there are two Richard Dawkinses. First, there's the fire-breathing Dawkins of literature, whose books and essays declare religion a virus of the mind, "comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate," who maintains that religious instruction is a form of child mental abuse, and who will brook no opposition in his war on religious faith.

Then there's the personal Dawkins, the debonair Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, a man who is polite and gracious to a fault.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with the second Dawkins Monday morning in Vancouver, so I decided to ask him about the first, and in particular about the many criticisms levelled at him and his most recent book, the bestselling The God Delusion.

The book, which is a sustained attack on both belief in God and the negative consequences that can flow from religious belief, has provoked a litany of hostile reviews, essays and even book-length treatises from theologians, scientists and other observers.

Chief among the criticisms is that The God Delusion presents an all-too-rosy picture of atheism -- Dawkins cites John Lennon's Imagine to paint the picture of what an atheist world would look like -- while accusing religion of inspiring all manner of unspeakable acts, including crusades, wars, witch hunts, suicide bombings, and on and on and on.

Now on that latter point, Dawkins will get no argument from me: Religion has driven otherwise good people to do many evil things.

But what of atheism? Surely Stalin's purges, including his execution of orthodox priests and nuns, and Mao's attempts to eliminate Buddhism count for something, no?

Well, yes and no. According to Dawkins, Stalin was an atheist who did evil things, but there is no direct "logical pathway" from atheism to bad deeds, as there is with religious faith. I have to say I don't entirely understand Dawkins's thinking here -- how, after all, could the executions of religious figures not follow logically from the promotion of atheism?

Dawkins does mention, a la Nietzsche, that many religions' belief in the afterlife could lead believers to commit unspeakable acts because they believe they will be rewarded in heaven. This would represent a logical pathway from religion to bad deeds, and it does seem that atheists, who don't believe in an afterlife, wouldn't be duped by claptrap about heavenly rewards.

But here's the rub: Atheists have not only engaged in suicide bombings, but have pioneered the practice -- specifically, the Marxist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Dawkins is aware of this -- despite writing in The God Delusion that a world free from religion would also be free from suicide bombing -- and he does seem somewhat puzzled by the phenomenon.

But he offers that perhaps it's because Marxism itself acts something like a religion in its appeal to a higher power -- the Party, rather than God. And in this Dawkins may be absolutely right, though it reveals that an atheist philosophy can indeed operate as a religion, and therefore offer a logical pathway to evil deeds.

Dawkins -- in person at least, if not in print -- also admits that politics often plays a large role in much strife commonly attributed to religion. Despite "imagining" in The God Delusion that Northern Ireland's "troubles" would not exist in an atheistic world, he now freely acknowledges that the troubles were largely a political matter.

But he maintains that religion merely served to exacerbate the troubles, by, for example, having segregated schools for Catholics and Protestants. Dawkins may be right about this too, but it reveals something important about his thinking: He doesn't necessarily think religion is the root of all evil, but rather is perhaps only a branch.

The root, strangely enough, is that which first made Dawkins famous -- evolution. Dawkins acknowledges that people have a natural tendency toward tribalism, a product of evolution, and that this is the real problem. Religion is a problem too, but only because it encourages tribalism, rather than because it's responsible for tribalist instincts in the first place. This might come as a surprise to those aware of Dawkins's 2006 BBC documentary about religion, peppered with interviews with fundamentalists, and provocatively titled The Root of Evil? But the personal Dawkins is full of surprises.

When asked for, example, whether religion might drive people to do good things -- whether there might be a logical pathway from religious faith to good deeds -- Dawkins, while not particularly warm to the idea, allowed it as a possibility. And he acknowledged that there is much people can learn from the "great books of religion."

Similarly when confronted with scholarship concerning the important influence religion played in the development of scientific method in both the Islamic world and the Christian West, Dawkins, while admitting to a lack of knowledge of the history of science, said "it wouldn't surprise me if religion had predisposed people to do better science."

Nevertheless, Dawkins believes that religion now has nothing to offer science, and hence there is no point in trying to reconcile the two disciplines.

But can we reconcile the two Richard Dawkinses -- the literary one who has nary a good word to say about religion, and the personal one who admits that religion doesn't have a stranglehold on terror, may inspire ethical behaviour, and may even have contributed to the scientific enterprise?

I must admit I have a difficult time reconciling these disparate figures, but I can say this: Richard Dawkins the person is a lot more open minded than his critics would have you believe. And perhaps that's because the personal Richard Dawkins is a lot more open to contrary evidence, and much more nuanced in his thinking, than the literary one.

Dawkins speaks at the Chan Centre at the University of B.C. at 2 p.m. today.



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