Some critics may dislike his outspoken criticism of religion, his distillation of complex arguments into the 140-character limit of Twitter, and his use of ridicule as a weapon of choice against what he sees as ridiculous. But the recent pattern of personal smears against him is disproportionate to any reasonable disagreement that his critics may have with him on issues, and it grossly misrepresents the man conveyed in his memoir.

Richard’s memoir

When Richard Dawkins recalls losing his virginity he concludes “But I’ll say no more on the subject, and will betray no confidences. It isn’t that sort of autobiography.” And indeed it isn’t. It is a generous and empathetic recollection of the first part of a remarkable life, in which he gives credit to those who helped him to channel his sense of wonder into science, expresses regret and guilt about some things that he feels he could have done better, and tries to see in a compassionate way the faults of those who have hurt him. It could not be further from the cold caricature of Richard that some of his critics, within and outside the atheist movement, like to inaccurately convey to the public.

His parents traveled widely throughout Africa before bringing Richard to England. Many of his childhood memories recall his natural gullibility, and his willingness to believe tall tales told to him by adults, including a man who convinced Richard that he had become invisible while playing hide and seek. He was terrified by ghosts, and he prayed to God to help him in various ways, before becoming an atheist after his confirmation. A common theme in the early part of his memoir is the need to teach children critical thinking skills, and to evaluate plausibility. He adds a caveat that he did not keep a childhood diary, so he may be mistaken in some recollections, and he reminds us that false and true memories can be indistinguishable.

Early schooldays

Richard compares his schooldays in England with some aspects of the movie ‘If’. He writes of a headmaster who caned boys with such severity that the bruises took several weeks to fade, turning from purple to blue to yellow on the way. Yet he does not believe that this man was guilty of cruelty or sadism, but sees this as an example of the speed with which customs and values change. He recalls that the same man was also capable of great kindness. He read stories to the boys, comforted frightened boys during severe thunderstorms and, on Sundays when parents took their children out for a day, he and his wife would take boys whose parents were absent for a picnic with their own children.

Richard writes of the cruel bullying that took place between boys at school, and declines to name one boy who was badly bullied in case he happens to read it and the memory is still painful. He recalls being empathetic towards boys who were in trouble with the school authorities, and thanks to reading Doctor Dolittle he was empathetic with nonhuman animals, but he expresses retrospective guilt that he did not have the empathy to try to stop the bullying between boys at the school. He compares the dynamic of this school bullying with the verbal cruelty and bullying in some internet forums today.

Because academic ability was not admired among his peers, Richard would sometimes pretend to know less than he did. Also, he disliked saying out loud when he got ten out of ten, because he had a stammer that made the word ten hard to say. He tells of a teacher who once put his hand down his pants, and when he told his friends, he discovered that many of them had the same experience. He writes that he doesn’t think that this teacher did any of them any lasting damage, but that some years later he killed himself. He also tells of his extracurricular immersion in beekeeping, poetry and music.