Congratulations to Sarah Outen, Oxford graduate in Biology, on yet another amazing feat of endurance and courage, her four year journey around the world under her own muscle power. I have long admired Sarah since, in July 2009, she sent me the following magnificent e-mail out of the blue (literally), during her unprecedented row across the Indian Ocean from Perth to Mauritius. I replied by writing her a poem, which you can see below.
Dear Professor Dawkins,
I am currently 116 days into my solo crossing of the Indian Ocean and anticipate arriving on the beach in Mauritius about 14 days from now. I haven’t seen another person since leaving Australia on April 1st; I have faced ocean storms, capsizes, close encounters with cargo ships and had 20 metre fin whales checking out my diminutive 6 metre boat. Albatrosses have soared low over my head and schools of tuna joined the ‘fishcade’ of pilot fish escorting me. Daily I am treated to 360 ° shows of sunsrise, sunset, moonrise and starscapes and all the while with a horizon from 20ft to 3 miles away. Unfathomable blues lie beneath and the infinite inky black of the night sky lies tented overhead. The whole experience of my middle world and feeling that I am teetering on the edge of it is mind-blowingly wonderful. I am literally full of wonder each minute I am out here.
When there is ‘juice’ enough in the solar powered batteries, I listen to music and audiobooks. I have just finished listening to you and Lalla reading ‘The God Delusion’ and wanted to write and tell you how it made me laugh, made me cry, made me think and reassess various things. I learned a huge deal from it and am only sorry I have no immediate access to a library to follow up on the books you cite. Prior to your book, I had never considered myself an atheist. I didn’t believe in God or the possible existence of any such improbable nonsense but didn’t really pay much attention to it, didn’t call myself anything.
But your book got me thinking on various things and I have now decided that I am as much an atheist as the next rational person with half a brain cell. The section on the indoctrination of children particularly struck a chord. After finishing at Oxford (St Hugh’s, Biology, 2007) and before my row, I worked at St Edward’s School as a Graduate Assistant – I worked with the lovely Kate Kettlewell [my niece-in-law, RD] before she moved to the Dragon (but this is incidental..) so I have experience of school post childhood. Compulsory chapel services-eek! Grace before formal dinners-why not read a bit of a fairy tale or the football results?! The Peter Vardy academy farce almost made me choke on my chocolate bar- somehow I could readily believe such nonsense in the US, but in our own country, endorsed and paid for by our government?! I’m glad to be at sea, is all I can say. Returning to my old school to give assemblies on my row, I felt awkward and incensed by the floor of children chiming in prayers for me, like a body of robots. There is the laughability of it all – belief in the invisible, omnipotent God etc etc – but then as you say, it is wholly and spine-tinglingly scary that children are brought up to believe this nonsense with unquestioning faith.
I have had various readers of my blog post comments asking if they mind their ‘sending up a prayer for me’ – to which I don’t reply for sake of keeping my blog free from religious twoddle as far as I can help. My reply would be ‘ Knock yourself out if you have nothing better to do, but instead why don’t you read Prof Dawkins’ book?’. I have mentioned your book as being in my onboard library, to which one reader posted, ‘How can he say something doesn’t exist?’ I didn’t want to turn my blog into a warspace, so just let it be, though screaming inside to let him have my sensible reasoned defence. And then another reader suggested I ‘turn off all my comms and music etc for 72 hours ‘ to see if that did anything for my non-belief. Replying that I am happily and firmly seated on the opposite side of the fence left it there. Anyone reading my blog can see how inspiring my surroundings are to me, just for their very being so brilliant and my intimacy and intrinsic, but yet extrinsic, connection with it all. I am but a blip on the face of a massive swathe of blue. And it is all the more brilliant for my scientific understanding of how it all came to be, and then the even greater unknowns and questions about the pieces of the puzzle yet to be drawn up. And even more amazingly perhaps never to be understood or elucidated, like the quantum quote of understading and not understanding.
Ironically, the next book after yours is Barack Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope’. In Chapter 2 he talks of the Declaration of Independence and the right of every child to be free to think, act , grow etc etc as they please. I couldn’t help but think of all the terror tales of American religious zeal from your book. Here’s hoping his less blinkered and scientifically astute mind helps bring about at least the start of a shift over there.
And with that I must head to the oars. Your books are genius, may they help many people see the right light and start appreciating life for what it is. One lucky adventure.
So long and thanks for all the fish,
And here’s my verse reply:
I’ve received a splendid email
From a most courageous female.
Battling onward to Mauritius,
Lone among the flying fishes,
Albatrosses, giant whales,
Turning turtle in the gales.
To hell with Health and Safety rules,
She’s in tune with tuna schools.
She’ll dance, while others dance in bars,
With pilot fish and Pilot Stars.
I have not the faintest notion
How to brave the Indian Ocean
In anything that keeps afloat,
Let alone a rowing boat.
But Sarah takes it in her stride,
And going with her, for the ride,
A book, or audio CD
Read by Lalla and by me.
To speed her trip to its conclusion
We’re reading her The God Delusion!
All godly tripe and tosh she’s doubtin’
So raise your glass to Sarah Outen.
The exchange above was previously published on the old RichardDawkins.net, now no longer accessible so we are repeating it here as a tribute to Sarah on her latest epic accomplishment, and with heartfelt good wishes for her marriage to Lucy Allen, to whom she proposed by radio while half way across the Pacific.
Sarah’s books are A Dip in the Ocean (about the Indian Ocean voyage and it quotes my poem) and Dare to Do (about her circumnavigation).