Converts, Wed, Jan 30 2013 #(485)

Jan 30, 2013

Dear Richard Dawkins,

Technically, you didn't convert me to atheism. Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Sagan, and Joseph Campbell beat you to it. But I want to tell a story that illustrates your indirect influence on my life.

As a sophomore in college I took my first philosophy class. One class featured a debate between a philosopher and a biologist about “nature vs. nurture.” The biologist argued that this formula is a false dichotomy, while the philosopher hammered on the allegedly nihilistic immorality of naive reductionism and genetic determinism — his interpretation of the selfish gene. A seed was planted in my mind: “Obviously our brains — and therefore our minds — are products of natural selection. How could it be otherwise?” In hindsight I now recognize a debate between the ignorant and the exasperated, but how ironic that by arguing badly against the selfish gene, the philosopher actually proved the concept to my mind!

I should have switched then and there to biology, but theism still had its hooks in me, and I desperately needed to find a way to reconcile science and faith. So I studied philosophy. But always the concept of the selfish gene (and its immense explanatory power) lurked in the background, and I noticed from then on that the name Richard Dawkins was like the bogie man to a certain kind of insufferably politically correct humanities specialist. It took almost two decades before I got around to picking up one your books, but once I had been exposed to it the meme was always there.

The meme of the selfish gene perfectly encapsulated the mechanism of evolution that I learned as a child from Carl Sagan's “Cosmos.”

The same meme enabled me to read Nietzsche and recognize one of the first evolutionary psychologists in action, and it enabled me to recognize the cheat in any philosophy unwilling to account for evolution in its theory of mind.

And the meme gave credibility and power to Joseph Campbell's immense anthropology of religious development around the world, so that when I finally set down the fourth volume of “The Masks of God,” I had a small revelation: The only credible candidate for the origin of so many gods and values, similar in so many ways but dissimilar in other ways, is a process of natural selection that has generated a certain kind of mind and then shaped the ideas that percolate in those minds. There is no god, but there is something grander, subtler, and more astonishing than any god could ever be that accounts for all our ideas of god.


And at the margin of all my studies was the name Richard Dawkins, a word with which to terrify theists and postmodernists alike. So when, just a year ago, I finally picked up one of your books — “Unweaving the Rainbow” — it was like coming home. A worldview full of shattered and contradictory parts shuddered into alignment and turned into a machine capable of doing work instead of languishing as a giant, fragile mess of unconnected cogs. It still needs maintenance and improvement, of course, but it works.

So now, thanks to your past efforts, I find “The God Delusion” almost superfluous (though I certainly like the style). Instead I'm “following my bliss” by reading “The Selfish Gene” and “The Extended Phenotype.” For which I want to thank you, even though I'm a couple of decades late in doing so. Please keep up the good work! The wolf is at religious dogma's door, and that wolf is Darwin's Rottweiler.

Best wishes from a guy who was your fan long before he knew it himself,


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