Eminent scientist Richard Dawkins was in Tempe tonight, and it was quite a surprise for me. I knew that Dawkins had been making book tours through the US, and I knew that he had even made concerted forays into the southern bible belt, but I thought even Dawkins would have to turn tail and run from the pig-ignorant savages that dominate certain sectors of the great state of Arizona.
In other words, it just never occurred to me that he would ever come here. Monday I learned that I was wrong – not only was he coming to the US for a new tour, but that he’d be starting at ASU, my old Alma Mater. My excitement was quickly crushed when, not 10 minutes after learning he was coming, I also learned that the show was “sold out” – which is only euphemistic, since the tickets were free. Luckily, with just a slight bit of whinging on RichardDawkins.net, a kind stranger gave me two tickets that he had but was going to be unable to use.
Like most everyone else that frequents the RDF website, I’ve heard (and read) what Dawkins has to say. In addition to wanting to show my support for “the cause” (as it were) I also wanted to see the extemporaneous side of Dawkins. Would his presentation be a crafted and methodical lecture, or would it be more free-form? Dawkins is (in my opinion) at his best when he’s answering questions.
To answer that question: His talk was well-honed and planned, which is a bit of a disappointment because, for the large part, it is just a recap of his book, the God Delusion. However, some parts of the lecture concerned response to the hardcover edition, and allowed him to rebut some of his critics, and to further clarify some central ideas to the book. Basically, I won’t recount the speech, just buy his book.
I’m not sure if Dawkins was just playing the audience, but as he came out he stated this was the biggest audience he’d ever addressed. I’m not sure how big Grady Gammage Auditorium really is, but it was about 90-95% full – and this in Arizona! I was shocked and more than a little proud.
The audience, as a whole, looked a bit like a casting call for eccentric university professors, complete with tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. The age of the audience was probably in the upper 40s, on average, although there was a fair-sized contingent of college-aged people.
The Beyond Center, which sponsored the event, thoughtfully provided real-time close-captioning for the hard of hearing. The person doing the typing was amazing, but, unfortunately, from time to time he/she was either unable to keep up with Dawkins, unable to understand what he said, or just plain missed or paraphrased what he was saying. This resulted in a few unintentional laughs throughout Dawkins’ presentation at inappropriate times. I can’t help wondering if he knew why the audience was laughing. (Example: At one point he mentioned his wife, Lala. There was an unusually long delay before the words “Law Law” were written out on the screen. I didn’t notice if, when he mentioned PZ Myers at Pharnygula if it was spelled “Myers” or “Meyers”.)
Even though I had no need of the subtitles, it was almost impossible not to watch them during the show.
After the presentation, there was a Q&A. The questions were fairly typical. One person asked if perhaps it was better to approach converting people out of their religion by non-confrontational means. Dawkins responded that is not know as his long suit, but that others are good at that and that he hopes that his lectures and book help other atheists and agnostics and if they can, as he said, “seduce” them, that’s all good.
Another fellow rambled incoherently about how perhaps rather than use the Celestial Teapot analogy, he should use one that is patently impossible, as a teapot is in theory more possible than god. He suggested using a triangle with three 90Âº angles as a more appropriate analogy. Dawkins kindly took that as a comment and not something that needed a response to.
A doctor who specialized in cancer brought up points about religion being something that provides comfort for his terminal patients. He wanted to know if Dawkins felt that “happiness” ever should trump “the truth.” Dawkins responded with an emphatic, “no.” (Although he did say, in the case of someone on their death bed, he’d change the subject or something rather than debunk their delusion.
Another audience member, from India, I should based on accent, appearance and question, asked about why Dawkins doesn’t address Hinduism and what he thought of that, and also Chinese religion. I thought the answer a little weak, basically, “Well, I don’t know anything about Hinduism, except that it is polytheistic and based on supernatural things. That’s why I restrict my book to the three Abrahamic religions.” He also showed an astounding lack of understanding of Chinese religion, confusing the typical Buddhism for Confucianism. He did mention that he was very interested in having a Hindu challenge the UK’s charitable laws which requires you to recognize “one” god only.
Finally, I mentioned that the audience looked like it was dressed for a college professor-themed party. That wasn’t entirely true, there were a few very well dressed individuals – it would appear they were the bible thumper crowd. Based on the applause for their one question, there were 8 of them. His question was… you say religion leads to war, but it doesn’t, blah blah. It was rather incoherent and he put on his best duds for it, too. Dawkins simply reiterated that atheism doesn’t have a logical pathway to violence. That is, there’s no tenet of atheism that demands certain course of action, whereas religion, if truly believed, has many direct, logical paths to violence – if you really believe.
Overall, it was an enjoyable couple of hours, and I was really pleased as how large the crowd was.
A couple other blogs have also posted some thoughts on Dawkins’ talk the other night:
Jim Lippard over at the Lippard Blog
Omnthought over at the Tribe
John Wilkins over at Evolving Thought
That later one just shows that there’s plenty of latitude in people’s attitudes about the subject.