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Saturday, October 28, 2006

An Evening with Richard Dawkins

I was fortunate enough to get to see Richard Dawkins last night here in Portland. Originally, he was scheduled to speak at our local Powell's book store, but since that venue can hold only 300 people, they decided to move it to a hotel ballroom a few blocks away, which was a good decision since by my estimate there were easily over 700 people in attendance.

The event got off to a good start even before Dawkins took the microphone. Before the official introduction, a bookstore employee came up front to do a little advertising for a few upcoming readings. It just so happens that on Monday, Oct 30th, Deepak Chopra will be in town to discuss his new book "Life after Death: The Burden of Proof". Needless to say, we all had a good laugh, including Dawkins who was waiting just off to the side.

Dawkins spent the first 30 minutes or so reading selected passages from his book. He is a very eloquent speaker and although I had just finished reading the first two chapters of his book while waiting for the event to begin, hearing them again from Dawkin's own voice made them even more impressive. Dawkins book is quite funny in places, and he highlighted many of those parts in his readings:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolvent bully." (p 31)

Not usually a run of words you would associate with humor, but Dawkins was able to bring the house down with laughter and applause.

"The Catholic Community Forum helpfully lists 5,120 saints, together with their areas of expertise, which include abdominal pains, abuse victims, anorexia, arms dealers, blacksmiths, broken bones, bomb technicians and bowel disorders, to venture no further than the Bs. And we musn't forget the four Choirs of Angelic Hosts, arrayed in nine orders: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and just plain old Angels, including our closest friends, the ever-watchful Guardian Angels. What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along." (p 35)

"Pope John Paul II created more saints than all his predecessors of the past several centuries put together, and he had a special affinity with the Virgin Mary. His polytheistic hankerings were dramatically demonstrated in 1981 when he suffered an assassination attempt in Rome, and attributed his survival to intervention by Our Lady of Fatima: 'A maternal hand guided the bullet'. One cannot help but wonder why she didn't guide it to miss him altogether." (p 35)

Even when he wasn't reading directly from his book he was funny. After finishing up selected passages from chapter 2, he continued (and I'm paraphrasing here):

"And on to Chapter 3, which is entitled Arguments for God's Existence ... (pause for dramatic effect) ... And now on to Chapter 4 ..."

"God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking afterall, 'tempting' Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: 'I was only obeying orders'." (p 242)

"The temptation to sexual infidelity is readily understandable even to those who do not succumb, and it is a staple of fiction and drama, from Shakespeare to bedroom farce. But the apparently irresistible temptation to whore with foreign gods is something we moderns find harder to empathize with. To my naïve eyes, 'Thou shalt have no other gods but me' would seem an easy enough commandment to keep: a doddle, one might think, compared with 'Thou shalt not covet my neighbour's wife'. Or her ass." (pp 243-244)

Of course it wasn't all "shits and giggles" (to quote another famous British gent). Dawkins did leave some lasting impressions on the audience (this one is a little long, but made quite an impact):

"Tamarin [an Israeli psychologist] presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, 'Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction...But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.'...Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and assess, with the edge of the sword...And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: 'Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted righty or not?' They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent gave total dissaproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth." (pp 255-256)

Continuing on a little further:

"Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua's own name replaced by 'General Lin' and 'Israel' replaced by 'a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago'. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it." (p 257)

After the reading, Dawkins opened up the event to questioning. Some of the questions were merely people relating their own deconversion stories or just thanking Dawkins for coming to Portland. And then there are always a few people whom it seems want to try and impress the rest of us with their superior intellect by cramming as many syllables into a word as possible or quoting from their doctoral thesis. Even Dawkins was confused by a few of their questions and had to ask them to elaborate before finally trying his best to be polite and give an answer that at least was slighty relevant to whatever it was they were attempting to ask. We did not have any theists come up to the mic and try to argue with Dawkins, but that's not too surprising seeing that the NorthWest, and particularly Portland, has one of the largest non-believer percentages in the country.

WARNING: Extreme ranting of opinion ahead. Of course, I'm not talking about you!

To be honest, I often find the question and answer period to be a little boring, especially in such large groups. Not boring in the sense that Dawkins is a boring speaker but rather boring in the questions asked. Professional interviewers (good ones at least) know how to ask questions which elicit interesting answers that are relevant to the discussion at hand. The general public unfortunately is not quite as good at it and it seems that sometimes the worst of them are drawn to these types of events. The next time, before you ask a question before 700 people, ask yourself "Are the other 699 people in the audience even going to care or understand what I am about to ask?" And further more, your question should actually have an actual question in it. If you can't put a question mark at the end of your sentence (or paragraph as is usually the case), then it is not a question.

OK, done with that. Now for some interesting things that I did remember from the Q & A. In response to someone asking if he had any thoughts as to why Europe was less religious than the US, Dawkins hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. He said that although people have suggested several theories to him, he felt the best explanation was the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. Separation creates a free-market of religions that compete for your brain, soul, and money, which causes them to work harder and thus they must try to make religion more enticing. In contrast, religion has become boring in Europe because it has come to depend on the State for support. This is "the only good reason I've heard for NOT abolishing the Church of England."

ATTENTION Religious Right theocrats and anyone else who still doesn't get it: Read the above again. The separation of church and state is the only thing keeping you from assimilation with the secular State apparatus you so vehemently oppose. You all should be on the front lines in the battle to protect the First Amendment. Just let me know where I can send those ACLU reg forms.

Someone asked what his plans were for the future. Though he didn't have specifics, Dawkins did say that he would like to write a children's book, maybe a child's version of The Ancestor's Tale. Personally, I think the letter to his daughter at the end of A Devil's Chaplain would make great reading for an older child. On a related note, while he was signing my book, I asked him if he was going to start writing articles for Free Inquiry magazine again and he said yes. Also, somebody asked him when we were going to see a scientific TV series from him similar to Sagan's Cosmos (which got a big round of encouraging applause). He said he would be more than happy to do it but that the decision wasn't up to him, it was up to the producers with the money.

Another person asked Dawkins for advice on how to approach his God-fearing mother who continues to insist that he is going to burn in Hell since he lost his religion. Dawkins explained that sometimes you can't always reason with the unreasonable but the only approach he recommends is through logic and reason. And then he suggested that the young man could start by getting his mother his book for Christmas (tongue-in-cheek of course, and it got a good laugh as well).

Overall, it was a very entertaining evening and I am still slighty awestruck to have been in the midst of such a great thinker. I actually would have preferred a smaller venue, because it would have been more intimate and we might have had a little more time to chat with him during the signing. But I completely understand the need to accomodate more people and did not leave disappointed.


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