I rarely idolize writers or public personalities. But last Wednesday I found myself in a long line at Kimmel Center to get my copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book signed after a talk he gave. The talk at NYU was part of a series of appearances to advertise the launching of his memoir, “An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.” The novels describe the events which led to his well-known intellectual position as a proponent of new atheism, and in particular to the writing of “The Selfish Gene,” the book that turned him into a global celebrity in the ‘70s.
I have yet to read the book, but his talk at Kimmel and the extended interview he gave to John Stewart on “The Daily Show” already shows that his discourse has grown milder, less combative. He seems to have extended his reach to broader concerns instead of only ridiculing religious practices in interviews with creationists.
Dawkins has certainly made a lot of religious enemies, but he has also angered atheists. Critics argue that he ignores the social and psychological benefits provided by religious practices and instead attacks beliefs, dogmas, rituals and sacred scriptures.
Although I agree with this criticism, I also think that people like Dawkins and books like “The God Delusion” are necessary. As I wrote in a previous article, Dawkins provides an argument for individuals who want to eliminate religious superstition. There is a distinct lack of credibility for atheists after their religious ties are broken. While it’s easy to see what is wrong with blind faith, no alternative is provided and the atheist is left to deal with major life questions traditionally broached by religion — such as ethics, will and purpose.
Dawkins’ new discourse indicates his awareness of these issues. It can be seen predominantly in his interview at “The Daily Show,” when John Stewart asked about the consequences of knowing that man is just “individual genes fighting for their own survival.”
“Natural selection working at the level of genes has put our bodies here and our brains here, but our brains are capable of taking off and departing from, cutting ourselves adrift from the dark side of our Darwinian heritage,” Dawkins said in response. “You don’t have to be pessimistic and say we’re only a machine for our genes. We rise above that. We’ve got big brains, we’ve got culture, we’ve got art, we’ve got music, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got science. We’ve left behind the wild world in which our genes were naturally selected.”
Much like this response, I hope the author will further discuss secular accounts for major life questions in future publications. As is the case with religious criticism, a secular approach to those major questions is also necessary.