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How the Great Atheist got polite society standing

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Giles Hattersley meets Richard Dawkins

If, belting out carols at church tomorrow, you notice a defiant swell in the chests of the normally half-hearted worshippers, you can thank one man: Professor Richard Dawkins.
Surprising really, given how he has spent most of 2006 kicking the God-botherers. First he fronted a television programme on faith, The Root of All Evil? Then his book The God Delusion, a call to atheists to out themselves and join him in science's perfectly evolved meadow of enlightenment, sold a Jordan-tastic 180,000 copies in hardback.

Not without considerable backlash, however. Thanks to Dawkins, religion is suddenly the sexiest dinner-party subject going, with all sorts of folk revealing themselves as, if not religious exactly, then unwilling to jack in God quite yet. This reedy-voiced Oxford don and his Darwin-centric vision of a Godless land — with no Sunday schools or jolly carol singing — has got polite society clinging to what's left of its loosely Christian morality.

Not that Dawkins, 65, seems overly bothered. As the Charles Simonyi professor in the public understanding of science ushers me into the palatial drawing room of his Oxford home, his cold stare and measured tones suggest it would take more than the mewling of a few semi-lapsed religionists to penetrate the permafrost of his ego.

As we settle on chairs in a 20ft-wide bay window by a coffee table piled with books (all his), it is clear that what gets him going is religious zealotry. So, professor, is The God Delusion your attempt to lob a bomb at towel-heads and Bible-bashers? "I didn't really think of it as that, but with hindsight it's not a bad thing to have done," he says. "Six years of Bush bringing religion to the world in a rather, um, aggressive way, plus the aggressive Islamicism coming the other way, I think people are about ready for somebody to start speaking the words they would like to have spoken themselves."

Soon he is boasting about the growing numbers he has personally freed from the shackles of faith.

"I've heard a lot of stories from people who are afraid to 'come out', because being an atheist is a bit like being gay. Sometimes people are afraid of their parents, sometimes they're afraid of their fiancé, sometimes they're afraid of being ostracised at work. Time after time people would come up to me in the book-signing queues, especially in America, and say, 'Thank you, thank you for articulating what we had longed to say but didn't dare'."

How lovely. But did he need to rant so much? It seems strange in his preface to write, in between references to "faith-heads" and atheists having more "healthy minds", that, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."

"I don't think so," he says. "If I'd written a book called The Socialist Delusion or The Monetarist Delusion,

the level of robustness in the language would not have raised eyebrows the way it does when it's religion. We've all got used to a kind of norm where it's hands off religion, where you have to tiptoe away respectfully when you come across someone's beliefs."

A fair point, but it still seems odd that one of the most celebrated scientists of his generation is getting into the recruiting business. Are you setting up a religion of your own? "It's a risk. It's something to watch out for," he says. "But I think it's very unfortunate if there's the slightest suggestion I'm setting up any rival church . . . Although, I suppose to the extent that people have a kind of psychological need for something equivalent to a church as a social centre it wouldn't be a bad idea to have secular meeting places. But that's very different from anything approaching a personality cult, which I think is highly undesirable."

He warms to this theme of social networks. "A lot of what people get from church is the coffee mornings. It's like a sort of extended family. It's been suggested that one of the reasons America is such a religious country is that, being a nation of immigrants, wave after wave of people arrived from Europe setting out on a new life having left behind their extended family and needing something to fill the gap.

"In England belonging to a church is a bit like going to the pub. People know who you are and you have your own mug. You feel you belong."

But if religion only amounts to coffee mornings and more upbeat passages from the New Testament, why the pressing need to turn its followers atheist? "I don't exactly want to turn people, I suppose." That's what you say you want to do in your book. "Well, I think they're missing something. The scientific world-view is so exciting, so breathtakingly enthralling when you think of what we now understand. Here we are sitting on a planet that may possibly be the only planet in the entire universe which has anything like life. We don't have it for long. What a shame to spend your few decades grizzling and grumbling about your lot when you could be revelling in the fact you exist at all." And religion is the barrier to such pleasures? "I think so, yes."

There was plenty of science in Dawkins's childhood. His father worked in east Africa for the Colonial Service as a specialist in tropical agriculture. The family returned to Britain when Dawkins was eight.

He recalls his upbringing as casually Anglican. "But at the age of nine I realised there were lots of religions so I worked it out that they couldn't all be right. At 13 I was prepared for confirmation and briefly took it up again, but then at 16 I finally gave it up for good when I discovered Darwinism."

At Oxford he decided to become an evolutionary biologist. He spent much of the 1960s at the University of California before going back to Oxford in the 1970s to produce his most famous work, The Selfish Gene, using his superior skills as a gatherer and assessor of data to retool Darwin's theories to expose the intricacies of gene-powered human evolution.

Decades passed, more books followed (notably The Extended Phenotype and Climbing Mount Improbable) and Dawkins became, according to Prospect magazine at least, the globe's third most influential public intellectual after Noam Chomsky and Umberto Eco.

It was Charles Simonyi, the man who invented the Word and Excel programmes for Microsoft and funds Dawkins's current gig at Oxford, who dubbed him "Darwin's rottweiler". In recent years he has earned a reputation for hot-headedness ("if you express yourself very clearly in a field where obscurantism is the norm you can be mistaken for hot-headed, yes") and an intellectual bully ("I don't look like one. I don't sound like one" ).

He definitely has a temper, though. When he starts talking about Nadia Eweida, the Christian recently denied permission to openly wear a cross by her employer British Airways, his cheeks are positively puce.

"I saw a picture of this woman," says Dawkins. "She had one of the most stupid faces I've ever seen. She actually said, 'Christians should be allowed to work for British Airways'."

He continues, face reddening: "Well, of course, Christians are sodding well allowed to work for British Airways. It's got nothing to do with it. She is clearly too stupid to see the difference between somebody who wears a cross and somebody who is a Christian."

All of a sudden it seems possible that as much as Dawkins believes religion is the natural foe of science, a part of him just isn't keen on religious types themselves. Could he ever respect a believer? "Oh yes," he says breezily, "because there's such an enormous spectrum of people who call themselves religious, some of whom don't really believe in God at all."

So there you have it. Dawkins doesn't mind religious people so long as they don't believe in God. Should his first concern as a scientist really be to snarl about religion? "I have to say no to that, as a kind of duty," he concedes. "Ideally what a scientist should do is enthuse people. In the best of all worlds that should be enough to kill religion off on its own. But I would also say, because I'm interested in whether a supreme being exists, that I do think this is a scientific question."

In The God Delusion Dawkins almost, but not quite, proves that God doesn't exist. But while his reasoning may be thrilling to witness — scientific, imaginative — its implications quickly become social, even political. Does it worry him? "I worry about being discounted as a lone voice — like, 'Oh it's typical Dawkins, He's always banging on'. I wish more of my colleagues would stand up and join in because they mostly agree with me."

And if religion disappeared tomorrow? "I would be pretty pleased," he says, and smiles fully at last.



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