In the digital age, reputations made over decades can be lost in minutes. Richard Dawkins first achieved renown as a pioneering evolutionary biologist (through his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene) and, later, as a polemical foe of religion (through 2006’s The God Delusion). Yet he is now increasingly defined by his incendiary tweets, which have been plausibly denounced as Islamophobic.
“Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great medieval cathedrals,” he wrote to his 2.8 million Twitter followers last July. “So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?” How, I have sometimes wondered, does the former Oxford University professor for the public understanding of science feel about his new reputation?
One recent afternoon I met Dawkins, who is 77, at the spacious apartment he shares with his girlfriend (he is twice-divorced) in central Oxford. He proudly showed me his meticulously catalogued library (including a “controversy” section). The occasion for our meeting was the publication of The Four Horsemen: The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, a transcript of the 2007 discussion between Dawkins and three fellow atheists: the late Christopher Hitchens (with whom Dawkins conducted the final interview in the New Statesman in 2011), Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.
Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist, has since warned that Dawkins’s tweets “could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy”. The theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, another friend, has remarked: “I wish he wouldn’t do it [tweet]. I told him that.”
When I put these judgements to Dawkins, he conceded: “They’ve probably got a point… I’m trying to be more careful to make sure that my sticks don’t have wrong ends.” He reflected: “The problem with tweets is that they’re too short. What I should have added, which I did in a reply, is that I love the [Islamic] call to prayer, it can be very moving, especially when done by a decent voice. But often ‘Allahu akbar’ is the last thing you hear before you’re blown up. Church bells are never the last thing you hear before you’re murdered.”
Dawkins, who tweeted in 2013 that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge” (adding that “they did great things in the Middle Ages, though”), dismissed all charges of Islamophobia: “I think it’s a very bad term, a very mischievous and misleading term.” He is, he said, a “religionophobe”, but does he have no sympathy for Muslims who are demonised by the far right and the British press?
“It’s terrible. Muslims are the greatest victims of Islam and they’re the greatest victims of prejudice against Muslims. I have no prejudice against Muslims whatsoever, my dislike is of the ideology with which they’ve been forcibly indoctrinated as children.”
Six years ago, Dawkins described Islam as the “greatest force for evil today”. Now, he says, nationalism is a better candidate, but he has not ceased his crusade against religion. In the autumn, he will publish a new book, Outgrowing God (“I think of it as atheism for teenagers”) and he hopes to write one for “younger children” too.
Is this not precisely the indoctrination he denounces? “I’m very keen to avoid that, of course,” Dawkins said. “The book will be loaded with, ‘Do you agree? Think about it for yourself.’” He remarked, without irony,that the reference by some non-believers to “atheist children” was “a sin” since “the child is too young to have made up its own mind”.
Dawkins is aggrieved by Brexit (“I’m trying to learn German as a gesture of solidarity”), though he conceded with scientific modesty: “I don’t think I know enough to say much about the actual pros and cons of the European Union.
“What I feel passionately is that [David] Cameron should never have called that referendum. Cameron will be damned by history as one of the worst prime ministers ever for sacrificing the long-term future of the country for the sake of a petty internal squabble.”
He argued that, as with US constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority should have been required for a binding result. “A simple 50 per cent majority is not good enough on an issue this important.”
Theresa May, he said, had “shown a quasi-religious impulse in her obstinate determination to see Brexit through because that’s what the British people want. It’s almost a kind of theological mantra.”
Dawkins is a long-standing supporter of the Liberal Democrats and has unsuccessfully urged them to rename themselves “the European Party” as a means of detoxifying their brand. “I’m sorry that the Lib Dems are seen as having blotted their copybook by joining the Tories.”
At the close of our conversation, I asked Dawkins how he viewed the prospect of death. “I find the idea of eternity and infinity frightening… Death is a general anaesthetic.” And what of his posthumous reputation? “I do derive great comfort from the thought that I’ve written quite a number of books and they’re very widely read and I hope that they will go on being read. I depart from Woody Allen’s remark: ‘I don’t want to live on in my works, I want to live on in my apartment.’”
Does he worry that some may first encounter him through his tweets? “That is a worry. I’d rather they read my books.”
This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail