Richard Dawkins in Sydney

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to see Richard Dawkins in Sydney this week at an event hosted by The Atheist Foundation of Australia.  R Dawkins was paired with Leslie Cannold in an interview format presentation. The evening started with a brief discussion of Dawkins’ newly-released autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, including a reading of a charming eulogy that he gave at the funeral of his academic mentor, Mike Cullen.

Using pre-submitted-by-the-public questions as prompts, Cannold guided the interview/conversation into various topical areas, such as:

  • The “social ants” disagreement between Dawkins and EO Wilson, in which Wilson disparagingly referred to Dawkins as a “journalist”!
  • The atheist bus campaign by Ariane Sherine.
  • Dawkins’ social media activity (especially twitter), and the resulting controversies (eg., see previous blog post)
  • Sexism in general, and specifically within Islam.  This point also led into a discussion on the so-called rise of “Islamophobia”, and for a moment it appeared that Cannold was trying prompt the claim that Islamophobia was actually A Real Thing, citing the example that the Christian Bible was just as bloodthirsty as the Qu’ran.  But Dawkins was having none of that, reminding her and the audience that Islamophobia was a nonsense term. Furthermore, he made the point that in comparison to Islam, Christianity had at least by-and-large moved out of its dark ages – in particular, Christianity has no earthly penalty apostasy or for being the victim of rape, it doesn’t cut off peoples’ hands or stones them to death, and for the most part doesn’t treat women as second-class citizens.
  • Discussion of homeopathy (a successful scientific demonstration of homeopathy “…would win not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but for Physics also…!”), placebo effects, and a short video clip of an interview segment between Dawkins and Deepak Chopra… Although the segment shown was fairly mild by Deepak standards.  To paraphrase Cannold at that point, ‘that doesn’t seem so bad…’, to which Dawkins replied “you haven’t seen the half of it…!”. Certainly there was no inclusion of any of Deepak’s bat-shit-crazy quantum healing claims.

The format then switched to audience Q&A, and along with dozens of others, my own hand was among the first to go up.  And… I was staggered, and frankly a little overwhelmed, that it was me who got the very first turn on the microphone!

Although I had my question already prepared in my mind a few days in advance (with no realistic expectation of the probability of getting to actually ask it), the oppressive sense of the audience around me and the significance of the moment had me fumbling over my words like a nervous kindergartner.  Damn.

(Actually, I did try to break the ice by beginning simply with: “Hi Richard. Love your work.”  It eased my nervousness for about the first two seconds of my actual question.)

However, I managed to get the gist of it out. To my delight, RD both understood it and answered it with the passion that I’d hoped for.

To paraphrase the question:

You’ve been criticized by various religious “intellectuals” as being unsophisticated in your philosophical views. In particular, on the infinite regress problem (“…who made God…?!”), David Bentley Hart, and other Christian apologists, say you make a simple category error.  Do you have any response to that?

(Actually, the written form of the question I had prepared was far more clear than the above, but my delivery of it was far less articulate than the above.)

Without hesitation, RD began with a forthright “Yes, I do.” I was still on a buzz from my 15 seconds of spotlight, and so I can’t do justice here with an accurate recall of his eloquent reply.  I only hope that the AFA have a video recording of this, and that perhaps sometime we’ll get to see it on Youtube.

He described in simple terms the obvious realities of scientific parsimony, and that necessarily any intelligence capable of deliberately creating a universe must be complex. The claims of the sophisticated religious intellectuals, that either God was “infinitely simple”, and/or that He somehow exists outside of time and space, are special pleading** and plainly nonsense, and there is no reason why we should accept these forms of apologetics and every reason to reject them.

** RD may not have actually used the term ‘special pleading’ – or indeed any of the other words in the arguments I’ve paraphrased here!  In my mind this is basically how he answered the question, which was met with a vigorous audience applause.

Lots more interesting questions followed, and a few less so.  There was a quick one on his opinion of the federal government chaplaincy program for Australian schools, to which the reply was (to paraphrase again), ‘I usually avoid these types of questions on domestic politics, but in this case I have to say it’s a disgrace!’. Which was met by much cheering and applause, of course.

One of the more memorable moments was potentially more controversial, and the questioner forewarned of this, concerning a comparison between the problems of sexism experienced by Westerners versus those of Muslim women. But RD handled this beautifully, by refusing to diminish the experiences of Western women, while stating that his own, stronger concern was now for the horrific treatment of women in Muslim countries – including “mild” treatments, such as having to wear veils, not being allowed in public without a male chaperone, and not being allowed to drive, through to honour killings, stoning to death of adulterers and execution of rape victims, and so on.

The night ended with this answer, and the formalities closed with Leslie Cannold thanking Richard, and Michael Boyd (the AFA president) thanking Richard and Leslie.  If not for the need to retrieve children from babysitter care, I would have happily waited for over an hour in line for an autographed copy of An Appetite for Wonder!  Alas, the book signing for me will have to wait until his next public visit to Sydney.