I rarely idolize writers or public personalities in general, but last month I found myself in a long line at Kimmel Center to get my copy of Richard Dawkins’ new book signed. The talk at NYU was part of a series of appearances to advertise the launching if his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, in which he describes some events that led to his well known intellectual position, and in particular to the writing of The Selfish Gene, the book that turned him into global celebrity in the 70s.
I still have to read the book, but there’s already something to say based on his talk at Kimmel, and an extended interview he gave the day before to John Stewart at The Daily Show. Namely, that Dawkins’ discourse got milder, less combative, and reaches to broader concerns, rather than simply to ridicule religious practices — what he is most famous for, since the publishing of The God Delusion in 2006.
Dawkins has certainly made a lot of religious enemies, but he also caused controversy among atheists. Critics argue that the scientist ignores the social and psychological benefits provided by religious practice, focusing simply on attacking beliefs, dogmas, rituals, and sacred scriptures.
Although I agree with the criticism, I think people like Richard Dawking, and books like The God Delusion, are necessary. As I wrote in a previous article, they provide support to individuals who want to get rid of religious superstition, and need help understanding why it is alright to do so. But in the article I also point to the lack of support to atheists after the religious ties are broken. That is, while it’s straightforward to see what is wrong with blind faith, no alternative is provided, and the atheist is left to deal with major life questions traditionally approached by religion (such as ethics, will, and purpose) all by himself.
Dawkins new discourse indicates he’s aware of these issues. It can be seen, for instance, in one of the highlights of his interview at The Daily Show, when John Stewart asks about the consequences of knowing that man is just “individual genes fighting for their own survival.”
“Natural selection working at the level of genes has put our bodies here and our brains here,” Dawkins replied, “but our brains are capable of taking off and departing from, cutting ourselves adrift from the dark side of our Darwinian heritage. You don’t have to be pessimistic and say we’re only a machine for our genes. We rise above that. We’ve got big brains, we’ve got culture, we’ve got art, we’ve got music, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got science. We’ve left behind the wild world in which our genes were naturally selected.”
I hope the author will further discuss these topics on upcoming publications. For, as in the case of religious criticism, a secular approach to them is also necessary.
(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)