Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Professor Richard Dawkins at his home in Oxford. Professor Dawkins is an Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and served as the University of Oxford’s inaugural Professor for the Public Understanding of Science from 1995 to 2008. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature and has published numerous international best-selling books including The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.
Dawkins is best known as a vehement atheist. I am intrigued as to his views on the rights of atheists and whether or not atheists as a group are becoming less ostracised within society. “In Britain”, he said, “it’s not so much of a problem. In the United States, it is still widely believed, and it is probably still true that atheists can’t get elected to public office. I think that is changing, slowly.
“There is statistical evidence that the number of people who, if they are not atheists, at least profess no religion, is increasing in the US. My foundation, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, along with its associate organisation the Center for Inquiry, are part of Openly Secular, which is a campaign to raise people’s consciousness to the fact that being a non-believer is not a particularly terrible thing, and that ordinary people, nice people, people you know, are atheists.”
I asked Dawkins what advice he has for someone who is atheist but afraid to divulge their beliefs to friends and family for fear of being ostracised. He responded: “I’m well aware that this is a problem, especially in the United States. My website and my foundation get a lot of letters from individuals who are in real distress because their families in some cases go as far as to disown them. It is astonishing that something as innocuous as what you happen to believe about the cosmos, about the origin of the universe, about the place of humanity in the world, should lead to parents, fiancés, spouses, ostracising somebody.
“It’s a terrible situation. I don’t know what to do about it except to try to raise people’s consciousness, to get across the point that being an atheist is not a terrible thing … It’s not like being a criminal. It’s just a difference of opinion about a matter of philosophy.”
It seems as if more and more people are rejecting the logical and scientific approach to life’s big questions espoused by academics like Dawkins and are instead turning to the evil ideologies espoused by Daesh and other terror groups. With this in mind, I asked Dawkins whether he believes the human race is becoming more logical as a whole, or whether today’s world is at a breaking point where society has failed to lift up certain groups of people, with these people in turn facing identity crises and deciding to turn to radical groups and fundamentalist ideologies to fill the void.
He remarked, “Yes—I think the phrase ‘identity politics’ has currency… People are, in the case of radical Islam, identifying with this conception of Islam as a way of identifying with an ‘in’ group. [They are] feeling threatened, feeling not appreciated in society. So yes, that is a problem and I think that could be part of the explanation. It is hard to think of any other explanation as to why people should be so illogical, why people living a decent life in a place like Britain should think that they want to go to a hellhole like Syria or Iraq. Many deeply regret it when they get there, but what idiots they are not to look into it in the first place and realise what they are going into. They are idiots. But I can see something of why they do it—it may be identity politics.’”
Britain is not exempt from political turbulence. I could hardly ignore June’s Brexit result when talking with such a politically-minded and outspoken public figure. Dawkins has expressed his support for a second referendum concerning the UK’s membership of the European Union. But a second referendum almost certainly will not happen in the wake of Theresa May’s announcement that the government will invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty early next year, offi cially beginning the two-year process of exiting the EU.
Dawkins noted, “I want to make a distinction between objecting to Brexit and objecting to the idea of having a referendum. My primary opposition was to the idea of having a referendum at all, because the issue is such a complicated one, economically, politically, historically. To hand that over to a single ‘yes or no’ vote, by people ill-qualified to judge it, is a case of irresponsibility by David Cameron.
“We live in a representative democracy, not a referendum democracy. There should never have been a referendum. To require a 50 per cent majority on a single vote is a scandal, and Cameron behaved atrociously in doing this for political gain within his own party. That is quite separate matter from whether Brexit is a good thing. It might be a good thing, but it certainly should never have been put to a referendum with a 50 per cent majority. I don’t think it is a good thing as it happens, but I want to keep that separate.”
But of course Dawkins is a scientist, not only a political commentator. In the wake of the Brexit result, scientists were among the many who were outraged. Many feel Brexit will disproportionately aff ect British scientists who risk losing a large portion of their funding. “Certainly the scientific community is going to be in trouble—large numbers of people who had EU grants are in danger of being swept aside at the stroke of a pen and the stroke of a 50 per cent majority, on issues on which the voting public had no understanding. The scientific community is rallying around, doing its best to cope with this disgraceful situation. It remains to be seen what will happen.”
If the exact repercussions of Brexit are not yet certain, I can at least ask about Dawkins’ time at Oxford. He does not falter in expressing his affection for the university. “I love Oxford. I love the Oxford tutorial system. I think that is educationally beautiful, and I loved it as a student. I think the Oxford tutorial was—if anything was—the making of me. I love the idea of, as a student, studying a subject intensively, for a week in the library, and reading the original research literature on a topic, becoming as an undergraduate almost like a world authority on a subject, however narrow. I think that is a terrific discipline… I have a lot of aff ection for Oxford and a lot of admiration for the Oxford and Cambridge educational system.”
Finally, I asked Dawkins what continues to excite him about his work. “I am a passionate scientist. I am a passionate believer in scientific truth, and how wonderful it is that at the beginning of the 21st century we are so close to an understanding of the universe, where we live, where we come from, what life is about. That is a wonderfully exciting thing, and it is a wonderfully exciting time to be alive. We ought to be rejoicing about how much we do understand. Of course, there is an awful lot more to understand and that is exciting as well. It’s wonderful to be a scientist now both because of how much we already know and because of how much of a challenge it still is to find out more. I suppose my personal mission would be to try to convey that to young people and to try to inspire them with a love of science, with a love of understanding the universe and our place in it.”