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Dawkins has a new book out called Science in the Soul, a collection of writing and speeches. While ostensibly an anthology, it would be wrong to say this does not include new work. On some pages, the footnotes he has added on re-reading his old writings take up more space than the original material. . . .
There is a geniality to Dawkins that does not come through sometimes on the page. In 2013 he debated with Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Cambridge Union, and it was an extremely civil affair. The two get on very well. “He’s a delightful man. So nice, it’s almost impossible to argue with him. It was never actually clear to me why he disagreed with me.”
Yet when the quotes appeared in the paper they felt anything but genial. Talking of the theology of crucifixion, the central, holiest, moment of Christianity, he asked why “the architect of the universe, the divine mathematician, deviser of the laws of physics, of quantum mechanics, of the carefully tuned physical constants, this paragon of superhuman intellect, was unable to think of a better way to forgive the sins of one species of African ape than to have himself tortured and killed as a blood sacrifice?”
Is he worried that his stridency puts people off? “If you are concise in what you say it can sound aggressive. I don’t think I am personally hostile most of the time. Part of it is that people identify so closely with their religion, they take it as a personal attack. They take offence in the same way as if I said, ‘You have an ugly face’.”
As if to prove he is not all about argument, he turns to a favourite passage in the book, a pastiche of P G Wodehouse, and gives an impromptu reading. Its premise is that Bertie Wooster has come across a bendy bus and is quizzing Jeeves. “‘I say, what about these buses?’ ‘Sir?’ ’You know, the buses. The what-is-this-that-roareth-thus brigade? The conveyances with the kink amidships’.”
It is really rather good. It is also, I discover, as he continues reading, an imagined response to a 2009 secularist advertising campaign in which buses displayed the message: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
And so, via Wodehouse, we are back to God. Was there not a moment, even if he viewed it as weakness, when, after his stroke, he thought it might be nice to have faith in a higher power? Did it cause him to re-evaluate his views? “No, no, no. It’s caused me to take blood pressure medicines.”
Richard Dawkins appears at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Sunday, June 11
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