Richard Dawkins enters an office space and seeks out the woman he is to engage in the most extraordinary of conversations with. They are introduced and there is some forced politeness.
The woman is Wendy Wright, a creationist, and as much a classic English gentleman as Dawkins is, he can’t really hide some of his contempt. He has openly criticised creationists saying he doesn’t care what they think, after all they know nothing.
Wendy has a striking presence, curiously attractive with enormous cow eyes, yet with an icy, sardonic tone, a cold defensive dismissive demeanour, she could be a controlling, subversive character from a sitcom – the one who always has her eye on some hidden prize only she sees. This is a woman clearly on the defensive who retorts throughout in a faux polite, faux chirpy, patronising tone, perhaps anticipating how this conversation will go and how it will scan on the Youtube channels its resting place will inevitably be.
Her approach for coming out of it well would be to remain calm, be seen to be in control, and not to allow herself to be provoked into an emotional outburst which would clearly damage her credibility, yet her sheer lack of credibility, is going to be obvious. She is up against a master of debate, she is up against the might of hundreds of years of education and research and Richard Dawkins is clearly the favourite by some distance. Wendy’s debating style is one of trying not to be intimidated, but for all her great personal training and no doubt prayers to God in preparation - that he might provide her with the tools to overcome - she seems on some level deeply intimidated.
There is no invitation for them to begin their debate in any comfort, she beckons Richard to a corner of the office where they will stand and talk for an hour, as if they were passing each other on the way to make coffee in the kitchenette nearby, but instead have a polite if brittle discussion about the validity of atheism verses the perceived insanity of creationism.
This was an entertaining conversation, a road crash of minds. Wendy is a phenomenally intelligent performer and I’ve not seen anyone counter Dawkins so articulately, even despite the fact that her entire creationist belief seems absolutely pointless, irrational and founded in some very odd forge of reality. Certainly in terms of her own collection of logic and the ground rules of creationism she absolutely knew her stuff, she knew a lot of what was outside of creationism also, which is oddly disturbing, you ask yourself how a woman of her knowledgeable depth would settle on such a fragile bundle of ideas. Even if creationism was the truth, there is just no good reason to believe it is the truth.
What I thought was apparent was that Wendy was a product of layers of experiences, for whatever reason she believes in a bizarre interpretation of history and never seemed likely to accept that raw evidence; actual fossils and dinosaur bones, would convince her of Darwinism / evolution. For her the Earth could not be proven to be older than 10000 years unless God himself came down, shook her by the shoulders and told her she was completely wrong – but even then, you could be forgiven for thinking, she would still be unable to adapt her beliefs.
What seems so familiar with this debate, with fundamentalists is that they CANNOT change their views, there is so much identity at stake that you have to wonder what of Wendy in this case, would be left if she did re-evaluate her belief, and we were able to witness her public self implosion, the tragic scene as her entire investment stock became worthless.
By the end of a quick fire, leg aching back and forth, I was no more a creationist than I was before the conversation began, but it also struck me, that I still remain sceptical of Richard Dawkins, who is himself a fundamentalist -though he doesn’t see it. Such a suggestion is out of the remit of the world of logic he inhabits, much like it is for any other fundamentalist. Just as any other fundamentalist he believes he has the gravitas of evidence on his side, only this time the evidence is a newer, more modern kind of evidence that seems impervious and sound in cross examination.
I’ve come to like Richard Dawkins, he is just ever so slightly eccentric and reassuringly old fashioned; he would be an amazing grandparent for a certain kind of grandchild. He seems limitlessly polite, has an attractive twinkle in his eye, and is nobody’s fool. He is able to decapitate at will and is un-intimidated by the wide range of individuals he encounters, which includes every possible leader of any religion and also a collection of pop stars and celebrities. He is fast becoming the kind of popular speaker we’d all quite like to have at a dinner party, and he is quite in danger of becoming an accidental UK national treasure in much the same way as TV presenter Stephen Fry currently is.
Richard has that intoxicating combination of charismatic intelligence and yet -with a highly tuned self-effacing humility, which means he is accommodating, and rarely seen to be reactive no matter how cruel some of the accusations levelled at him are.
He is of course, the complete intellectual, the cream of the British education system, while he excels in the sciences, he clearly has other depths which seems to range from English Literature, Art History, Geography, Latin and a great deal more; you can’t get an education like that unless it is paid for. It makes people such as him appear effortlessly commanding – we relinquish power to such people way too easily; the educated elite are like those street magicians who can hypnotise you with some trick, while simultaneously lifting your wallet, watch and car keys, they delight and they rob you, and you won’t even know it.
But Richard’s big thing is that he is a blatant atheist and that his personal mission is to obliterate ignorance. He believes that all of existence will eventually be explained away by science and he is clearly frustrated at the refusal of others - namely those in the religious and spiritual communities, who simply will not accept that there is no God, mystery or magic left in the world.
When he talks of science he does so lovingly and softens noticeably, he describes his own atheism as far from a miserable, gloomy and terrifying starkness; describing a Godless void as actually a very poetic and beautifully humble concept; one that he believes is somehow the saviour of humanity, were we all to share his views.
If we all did share his views, wouldn’t we live life far more respectfully? Would we not love and appreciate each other more knowing that this was all temporary?
In this brutal, harshness is a quality missing from the lives of those who may be holding out, waiting for life to start; perhaps when their own spiritual healing is completed. Those people to Richard are wasting an opportunity; it is a crime against this short time available to live it hoping for a better life, or if not a better life, an afterlife; where there is no pain and everyone will remain young, beautiful and free. There is urgency in his appeal; to stay asleep, to remain deluded is exactly what certain oppressive systems want of you - religion has been designed to shape apathy.
Wendy and Richard primarily debated evolution. Creationists of course don’t accept it since they feel that it was in fact God that created the Earth; it is important that the timescales line up, otherwise this rogue dissenting thread may go on to undo the entire tapestry of a fundamentalists ideology.
Wendy argues that even taking into account certain evidence, that in fact there is no cross evolutionary evidence; which she describes, as those missing fossils and bones that show the transformation from one kind of species to another; or more precisely a primate becoming a human being.
It is an interesting retort, one that Dawkins does seem to falter over. The expectation would be that he would then list a great many examples of such evidence, but curiously he offers only the same invitation to join him in a visit to a decent museum, where he feels he will find, and share an absolute truth Wendy will not be able to deny.
If you can suspend an allegiance to any one personality type, Wendy’s argument becomes more attractive as we learn that she could be fighting for an anti-fascist idealism; that we shouldn’t just accept another person’s interpretation of existence, even if the evidence was overwhelming and to ignore it, or not to value it, made you look positively deluded.
The truth is that no matter how much evidence is gathered and stands up under cross examination, there will always remain a significant ‘X’, namely that of context, which is to say; what is the context of this evidence, and how could we ever truly know the scope of that context?
Of course, it is not as if Wendy wouldn’t actually herself become a militant fascist if science was usurped in favour of her own dogma. The creationists would very much like it if it were their theism that was adopted in schools and taught on the curriculum. This would be a worrying, and let’s be honest, highly unlikely development; there is something intuitively right about leaving behind creationism, just as there is perhaps in not interpreting any religious text literally, and while some will stubbornly do this; the writing is on the wall. That is not coming from an especially aggressive tide of sinners - as much as it does from a kind of natural entropy; a phenomena that is dissolving certain fundamentalist arguments through actual, regular interaction with our world.
Can we really imagine a world being a great deal healthier, if we taught our children that the Earth was only 10000 years old and that human beings were planted fully formed straight into the Garden of Eden? Wouldn’t that surely promote a totalitarian double-speak when it came to creating technologies, medicines or studying history?
Would the study of history then become one that had to kick dinosaur bones under the rugs; would we have to ignore the messages engrained in the rocks or avoid certain plants if they somehow challenge the age of the planet?
Or would this double-speak mean that there would become a hypocritical atmosphere in which scientists could manipulate the values, yet have to deny the mathematical significance?
Wendy though I’m sure does not see a problem. Instead she would regard a creationist centred society as one that would become aligned with God; God and love would become more abundant. Any problems we have would be solved by God, those rug covered bones would be explained in a creationist belief system, folks would bake for each other again and children would be free in a non-predatory, non-consumer driven society.
It is just that despite everything, you can imagine problems further down the line. If, for example, the drinking water becomes poisoned and the prayers don’t have any effect, things may quickly devolve into sacrificial gestures; the prayers are not working, God must be angry - perhaps it is because the sins of the people are so accumulated, we must organise a cull.
Wendy’s articulate defensive of her belief is oddly inspiring and to my mind has value, Richard didn’t get away without any battle scars; she was a formidable opponent, and her bastardisation of what most of us would ordinarily call commonsense, was surprisingly coercive, albeit it that it was her, rather than her words that were impressive.
I valued her attempts to tame the onslaught of arrogance found in science, but Creationism today is in a subdivision of religious ideology that just doesn’t work successfully in any of our world perspectives; it is a weak philosophy to argue, one feels that even God might suggest she drops the dead donkey.
We understand tidal waves and fires and plagues in a very different way to how we once did.
If these events are acts of a purposeful God then the conscious mind of today requires less ambiguous interpretations; the fables and drama of spiritual antiquity were relevant to uneducated sheep herders, but for today’s audience, one detached by some 2000 years from the birth of Christ and the era of miracles; we need more than a lightly nuanced phenomena, but something bold and undeniable; otherwise science seems to have explained any unusual events satisfactorily enough.
I guess this is the point; while in the grand scheme of things Creationism has as much a right to justify its beliefs, that it can accumulate evidence of its own which might be believable if you tried hard enough - in reality Science is easier - it is this explanation that travels further and with less resistance.
Evidence used to build cases from the past can seem entirely un-evident to us today; witch hunters justified drowning women based on a peculiar set of values which we of course regard as ignorant barbarism today.
Through the ages it has often been used as a vehicle to suit the needs of any one particular group of people, and evidence, no matter how tight it may seem, is vulnerable to perspective, manipulation and subterfuge. In 1991 a team of Americas best lawyers were drafted into refute the camera footage of the Rodney King graphic police beatings, as recorded by an unseen amateur camcorder witness. They argued that to an ‘untrained’ eye while the video appears to show un-necessary violence, that in fact all was not as it seemed. Using a particular approach, which involved casting doubt at every stage in the collective minds of the jury, not a single police officer was charged with the offenses one would expect them to considering the intensity of the footage. Even what is seen with the eyes is not a guarantee of certainty.
Evidence is synonymous with trust and yet historically those in positions of trust have regularly deceived the broader public either accidentally or purposefully.
We should remind ourselves that Richard Dawkins is peddling just another version of evidence, a supposedly, newer improved process for mounting cases that uses figures and chemicals to justify it, yet it remains only a particular point of view, a point of view that can date, be debunked or simply consigned to ignorance.
Importantly, in matters of science versus theology we should be aware that actually we cannot know the meaning of any evidence until we are able to pull back from our existence , which presents certain conditions I cannot imagine would ever be possible. For example; we have preconceived ideas of the purpose of dogs, perhaps only because we are not dogs; we might rightly or wrongly make certain conclusions about their cognitive abilities or level of consciousness but only because we can view them from a certain distance, we observe them interacting with the planet and make notes.
To do the same for humans we would have to first of all, be able to do this to ourselves, objectify human beings whilst still being a human being in order to interface and pass the information over. It is what science currently attempts to do and why every scientific experiment operates in sterility, yet it is already operating in a highly toxic environment if it is humans using their 5 senses to interpret the data. We could only create the correct environment for study if it took place...without us actually doing it, or extracting human relevant data.
This does not seem even conceptually possible, how does one view oneself in the context of our habitat, while not then interpreting the observations with a biased, habitat influenced human perspective? Even the observations of dogs is entirely flawed since they exist in our world, we would have to be a being, not human who did not live in a human world to be able to objectify and study human life.
Anything we learn about ourselves and the environment in which we live works only on an inward looking perspective. Science therefore is only really a set of rules that works within our human interpretation of existence, maths could be a meaningless drivel if the universe had ears and a brain and could technically follow your logic, but then, it doesn’t appear to have ears or a brain and even if it did we would be submitting this data to an already pre-configured to agree human flavoured interface.
Of course, I doubt this is how Wendy see’s her own particular cause, I would imagine despite her remarkable capacity to argue for creationism that ultimately Wendy is just keen to supplant a more credible description of our origins with her own. She is not on a mission to encourage freedom of expression; she is on a mission to install creationism as a solution to all mankind’s ills and to save us from an apocalyptic conclusion.
Meanwhile Dawkins is fixated on a rather old fashioned and un-nuanced interpretation of spirituality. The very mention of that word will bring out great criticism from him, not entirely without some basis since far and away for the largest amount of time it has been pre-occupied with an infantile image that God or Gods will be a old bearded man, who is supposed to be both loving and extraordinarily mean, that he allowed his only son to be tortured to death without intervening for the benefit of mankind. Religious faith requires us to believe in miracles much the same as we are supposed to believe in Father Christmas as children.
If that is what you grew up believing then at least, learn about it and question it and be open to other plausible interpretations. Dawkins has done this, it is just that these days he seems predominantly engaged with advocates of a version of belief that he himself grew out of. Of course he is going to be impressive when set against aging old Irish Catholics who are caught in a perpetual cycle revolving around conviction in the resurrection. The more scrutinising or cynical are not comfortable enough to accept that the Bible is an authoritative guide book to life and salvation, as much as it might be the ancient, well meaning propaganda of its time.
Those of us who have had to look outside of our family and institutional models, and who feel unable to accept a school doctrine or family lineage that connects us with Christianity, Catholicism, Creationism, Hindu, Islam, Judaism etc, do tend to agree that a literal account of Religion is flawed. The evidence for resurrections, for miracles can only work in a time where there is no forensic data, where hearsay is a legitimate form of transmission. To be a fundamentalist Christian would mean that you do have to ignore what your environment is telling you, you have to argue all of your points within the constraints of a biblical world view and all evidence you provide to the contrary cannot overcome the Christians trump card which always is...it must be true because God said it was.
You cannot construct an argument against an individual who might listen to your every point and yet ultimately draws the curtains shut by arguing that a) The bible is true because God wrote it and b) God is real because he wrote the bible.
What seems so lacking in this perspective is to entertain the idea thus – that a divine force did not influence the writing of the bible at all. If you could get a devout religious person to talk within that framework, to consider a world without a bible, then maybe, a chance you might be able to boil down all of that complexity into a much more believable simple recognition. That organised religion is a gathering of communities who occasionally try and do something to help others, or, perhaps an unattractive way of manipulating people to go to war with other human beings.
Just because that level of argument seems so brutally damaging to Religion however, does not mean that there is no place for Spirituality, yet Dawkins appears to lump all of this together, I think unjustifiably and to the detriment of his cause. There is no reason why Dawkins cannot be both a non-religious person and a scientist but also exist as a spiritual person - by this I mean recognising life as a journey and a journey that has mystery within in it, mysticism can still have a meaningful role in how we make that journey.
He is asked to describe his own consciousness; Wendy regards this as what makes up her soul. Richard describes everything physiologically, a complex neural network of potent images all essentially designed to give him functionality; he openly admits that he finds nature staggeringly beautiful, that poetry or an opera can make him cry, yet he only concedes or describes this as a kind of soul in order to have a meaningful dialogue with her, he himself does not regard this as the soul.
Wendy asks him if this means that he believes that people with severe mental issues are also complete humans to him, or does their compromised, ineffectual functioning render them useless in a mechanical, scientific landscape.
It is a good leading question, she hopes that this will demonstrate that empathy operates outside of a logical explanation for existence and if he thinks otherwise is he not pro eugenics? Which is the theory of breeding genetic faults out of society, sinisterly adopted by the Nazis and which consequently lost a great deal of social-scientific credibility.
Of course Richard does not think this; of course he had major reservations about the value of eugenics.
This is the area that science does not explain satisfactorily, that otherness to life, it seems pointless in a way for Dawkins to deny this ‘Soul’ for honestly, what harm does it do to describe it as such or to describe this unknown value as being a purposefulness?
It does not mean that you have to believe in God, the bible or an afterlife, the power of Reiki or aromatherapy rather, it just means you cannot conclude; that life is itself an evolution where it is impossible to predict where it might be going. It is only a minor shift of perspective, yet it seems self-harming to deny yourself it. You can still be an atheist, regard life as temporary, but to deny spirituality seems un-necessarily masochistic and narrows our options for explaining experiences.
Dawkins then must be describing himself as a robot. Are we Robots? Are we just machines marching around this sphere ingesting chemicals, enzymes, procuring hormones and responding to people and events in entirely calculated, pre-determined ways?
When we make love do we regard the intimacy as having no quality beyond that of pacifying chemically induced loneliness, or manufacturing clones of your own genes? Is love itself nothing more than a social construct, a physiological convenience or does there seem to be within the act of intimacy, respite from reality, an interface with something both primal and localised yet simultaneously immortal and universal?
We can of course agree that yes – it is possible that love, intimacy, empathy and relationships are all driven by chemicals and convenience, but does that also mean it is evidence of there being a lack of soul or spirituality?
We should agree not, and furthermore we should also easily see that what we might regard as evidence for a lack of soul is as much evidence for its existence, it just comes down you your interpretation of what you see.
What use is an argument that all life and the universe is without mystery and mysticism?
What really does it matter if science is somehow ever proven to be undeniably correct in its assumptions?
While Wendy’s creationist argument creaks along painfully complex and un-convincing, Dawkins is just rebranding religion in a sense, one he would deny and one he could not see because he is caught up in the perceived authenticity that science provides.
It is possible that science is not the final resting place when it comes to understanding and exploring the origins of life, the universe and existence fully. It is possible that science itself, when deeper knowledge is unlocked - will assume that old science feeling, much as we feel about those images of mediaeval limb amputations on gangrenous ships.
It is hard to imagine, especially hard for someone like Richard Dawkins when he lives in such justification – everything he reads, everything he has been taught, every experiment he has been involved with only confirms his view point, all the measurements from a benchmark he consults align. Culturally we may have nothing more convincing than science to look to in replacement of God, culturally we may recognise that there is something unconvincing about religions, something deceitful, yet actually the truth remains that we cannot know, it makes far more sense to go forward science and spirituality as one rather than as enemies, is there not something far more well rounded about that?
Finally, we have very good reasons to be cautious about retiring our spirituality, for it seems that this is what message this scientific move contains within it.
Consider the leading industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th century who funded public schools for their workers, and hired education reformers like Elwood P Cubberly to design a public school system based on a Prussian method for churning out mediocre intellects, and ensure a docile workforce.
It was a cynical effort to control and manage the otherwise chaotic characteristics of human beings, in order that they could be harnessed to repetitive and dull tasks with less complaint or fear of revolution. Something of this chimes today.
We may actually find ourselves many years later somewhat mentally castrated by the consumerist society in which we are shackled, yet, in light of recent developments – where we hear once more evocations of revolution, primarily due to disparities in wealth and opportunity, we may not be shackled enough.
The events of this last decade have shown us such unfairness that it has shaken many sleepers awake once more and combined with the power of the internet, groups are mobilising, combining their best ideas, and governments, like the aristocracy during times of revolution are becoming concerned.
They are concerned that their established models may be about to be threatened, that the workers will revolt.
If I was one of those establishments, I might consider an approach from the past once more. I might look to hire a group of charismatic, seemingly authentic individuals to actively set about eliminating notions of spirituality, because those of us who value it, are natural revolutionists who will always ask questions and want more justice, more empathy and equality. What way would you do that more effectively than simply eradicating uncertainty and replacing it with methodology and answers, a seemingly passive system yet equally totalitarian should you attempt to question it.
This is not a call to spirituality though, more than it is a call to suspend your conviction in someone else’s idea, or to default to redacting some less popular idea and vilifying the instigators as we do. Conscious ambiguity is what we need and is ultimately the saving quality available to us in an impossible to explain world. The more we question and the more chaotically we live, the less compliant we are.