The God Delusion Book Tour - Dawkins thanks the RRS (in his blog)
Last half of US BOOK Tour FOR THE GOD DELUSION From the blog of Richard Dawkins...
DC, Portland, Pasadena, SF, Philadelphia, Charlottesville
It’s been an amazing trip. Really very encouraging. Especially the public readings and even more especially the long Q & A sessions. I have already told the story for the earlier stops, and it was the same for the later ones (Washington DC, Portland, Pasadena, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Charlottesville). All conformed to the same pattern, with gratifying predictability: very large crowds, very wam reception, constructive questions that assumed no relligion and went on from there, huge numbers of books signed. Maybe I was only preaching to the choir – but how large and how enthusiastic does a choir have to be before it counts as a congregation? On hearing of Hitler’s boast that he would wring England’s neck like a chicken, Winston Churchill memorably growled “Some chicken! Some neck!” I feel like growling, “Some choir!”
Also, I cannot resist mentioning again the many people at all venues, of all ages and both sexes, who repeated to me in the signing queues, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for expressing what I have long felt, but was not able to articulate.” I was also greatly moved by the people who had driven long distances to get there. A typical example is the party of enthusiastic young students who drove to Virginia from Akron, Ohio, and attended both my speeches in Charlottesville. I spoke to Sam Harris later in San Diego, where we were both attending a conference on (this wasn’t its official title) ‘What are we going to do about religion?’, and he told me a similar story of large and enthusiastic audiences on his book tour promoting Letter from a Christian Nation. I really think something is going on.
The other thing that I get again and again in the signing lines is endlessly repeated praise for this website, and what a class act it is. Josh Timonen, its inspired creator and energetic dynamo was in the audience in the large lecture hall in Pasadena, and it was my great pleasure to recognize him and invite him to stand for a round of applause. Pasadena was also a welcome opportunity to catch up with my old friend Michael Shermer who, with his Skeptics, hosted the event. Michael and I have a slight disagreement over the right tactics to employ in dealing with religion. He thinks it is not just tactically unwise but actually irrational to be too confrontational, and it was good to discuss the matter with him. I disagreed, but I am still thinking about it.
In San Francisco, I didn’t do readings but was interviewed on the stage of the Palace of Fine Arts by Roy Eisenhardt, a deeply thoughtful man who clearly saw his role not as sparring with me but as coaxing me to give the book its best shot with the audience. This he did with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. It was a real lesson in how effective ‘talking with’ can be as opposed to ‘fighting against’. I noticed the same thing some years ago, in a marvellous on-stage discussion between Steven Pinker and me, in a London theatre. When the BBC heard how the audience of 2000 had loved it, they wanted to get in on the act. Would Steve and I do it again in their studio? We agreed, and then the BBC producer rang me up to prepare for the broadcast: “Could you just summarise for me the core of your disagreement with Dr Pinker?” “Er”, I said, “I don’t think we do disagree, not much anyway.” “Don’t disagree?” she said, aghast, and promptly cancelled the show. I think the San Francisco audience appreciated Esidenhardt’s approach as much as I did, and the questions from them were also helpful and constructive.
During my time in San Francisco, I was driven down to Menlo Park by David Cowan and Dan Mendez for a reading in the much-loved Kepler’s Bookstore: loved enough to be saved by popular action when threatened, a couple of years ago, with bankruptcy. The ringleaders of this public-spirited philanthropy (philanthropy without the tax breaks that a church, but not a bookshop, can attract) were the same David Cowan and Daniel Mendez. David introduced me to the audience at Kepler’s, and I responded by describing his speech as one of the most interesting and thoughtful introductionsI had ever enjoyed. Josh has posted a video recording of the Menlo Park event, and several contributors have commented favourably on David’s speech. One perceptively remarked that it could only have been made in Silicon Valley.
Afterwards, David hosted a dinner for me with 50 guests in the garden of his splendid home, where I met such heroes as Bill Atkinson, programming genius behind the original Mac, now working on some fascinating ideas on neuroscience with his colleague Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot. David’s generous hope in hosting this dinner was that the contacts I made might prove useful to our Foundation in the future.
While this hope must largely be put on hold until we achieve charitable tax status, we have already had generous promises of help, for example from George Phipps, and especially from Geoff Ralston whom I have gratefully put into contact with Josh to work out plans for getting us a faster and more powerful server for this web site. Volume of traffic has soared since our launch in September – which is gratifying, but also expensive.
In Philadelphia I had lunch at the Museum of Natural History with Ted Daeschler, and he showed off the recently described fossil Tiktaalik rosea, exquisite bridge between aquatic fish and terrestrial amphibians (Google it, and the first hit to come up is a creationist site, bleating that God made it only a few thousand years ago). Also at the lunch were Eric Rothschild and the other lawyers who won the famous Kitzmiller (‘breathtaking inanity&rsquo case in Pennsylvania. Rothschild agreed with me that it was a good thing I didn’t testify: I’d have lost the case for them by admitting (no proclaiming) that my understanding of Darwinism led to to atheism.
Later that afternoon in Philadelphia, it was fun to meet the Rational Response Squad, and do a recording with them. I persuaded the Squad that, rather than interview me (after three weeks of book tour I’d been interviewed to death) it would be more interesting if we had a general conversation. At the end of the discussion, they presented me with a giant cardboard cheque: a generous donation to the Foundation. Thanks guys!
Charlottesville was special for me because of the ubiquitous presence of Thomas Jefferson, that extraordinary polymath and scientophile, founder of the University of Virginia and the original designer of its beautiful campus. I gave two talks at Jefferson’s university. The first, to a large audience with an overflow hall, was billed as a commemoration of 30 years of The Selfish Gene. Accordingly, I abandoned my usual act and substituted a program of readings from The God Delusion called ‘Morality and the Selfish Gene’. The next day I was honoured to speak in the Rotunda, a modification of Jefferson’s original design which was unfortunately destroyed in a terrible fire in 1895. Here, my readings included the section of Chapter 2 on Secularism and the Religion of America, which includes many quotations from Mr Jefferson (as they still call him at his university). The audience was a small one, largely limited to faculty and the elite Jefferson Scholars, whom it was a delight to meet.
The signing afterwards stands out in memory for the young atheist student from out of state, who told me a harrowing tale of ostracism, persecution and even death threats. What continually baffles me about such stories is the naked hatred shown towards atheists by followers of ‘gentle Jesus’. Aren’t these people supposed to derive some goodness from their religion? How, in any case, can a mere difference of opinion about the cosmos and morality generate such malignant venom? (This is not a peculiarly American phenomenon, by the way. My first public appearance in England, the day after my return, was in Barnstaple, a small town in the mainly rural county of Devon. When I arrived, I was told by representatives of the Devon Humanist Group – I have yet to see the transcript myself – that a local Vicar had gone on Devon Radio and said that I should be executed! Is religion unique in motivating murder for the sake of a mere difference of academic opinion? No, on reflection, disagreements in political science can do it too. But only, I suspect, in those cases where the political schools of thought are quasi-religious ideologies like the various factions of Marxism.)
Back in Charlottesville, the young man in the signing line said he was contemplating suicide, and he asked my advice. I’m afraid I was too shocked to say anything constructive. In Oxford I might have told him to go to his College Chaplain (many Anglican chaplains are very nice people, and some are even closet atheists). If he had been at Harvard, he could have gone to the Humanist Chaplain. As things were, I’m afraid all I could think was that he should write in to this web site in the hope of finding fellow victims of Christian bigotry. Not very helpful spur-of-the-moment advice, I fear, and I don’t know whether he followed it. Perhaps we need to set up some kind of internet counselling service? An Agony Aunt?
Finally, I have repeatedly been asked what I think of South Park and of Ted Haggard’s downfall. I won’t say much about either. Schadenfreude is not an appealing emotion so, on Haggard, I’ll say only that if it wasn’t for people of his religious persuasion, people of his sexual persuasion would be free to do what they like without shame and without fear of exposure. I share neither his religious nor his sexual persuasion (that’s an understatement), and I’m buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there was a serious point in there I couldn’t discern it. And then there’s the matter of the accent they gave me. Now, if only I could be offered a cameo role in The Simpsons, I could show that actor how to do a real British accent.