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Richard Dawkins: The foibles of faith

Friday, 12 October, 2001, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
Following 11 September, Professor Richard Dawkins has this week re-stressed his belief in the danger of faith. As Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit explains, this comes after the best-selling author's long-running diatribe against all things religious.

When he applauded the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, moral pundits called him "the most dangerous man in Britain".

For his view that religious education is tantamount to child abuse, he has been labelled in some quarters as "evil incarnate".

The Professor is one of Dolly's defenders

But, just as the events of 11 September brought American citizens into direct contact with forces far more perilous than the intellectual opinions of an Oxford don, so these incidents served to crystallise Richard Dawkins's already strong opinions on the nature of religion.

Whereas the evolutionary biologist has previously dismissed the power of faith as "harmless nonsense and a crutch for consolation", he now derides the weaponry provided by religion as tools of "righteousness", "false courage" and the "enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition".

And as for the usually required tolerance of the personal faith of others, he urges everyone to "stop being so damned respectful!"

This is hardly the first time Richard Dawkins's vision of society has brought him attention. He courted controversy as long ago as 1976 with his publication of The Selfish Gene.

The sum of all our parts: a DNA helix

With powerful use of metaphor and electric polemic, he propounded his thesis that we are all but a rich DNA combination of genes and memes, self-interested reproductive instruments using our bodies and minds merely to host their "survival machinery".

Although for Dawkins this signalled a natural progression from the Darwinism of his studies, the best-selling book caused ripples. The author was cast in the role of intellectual apologist for self-seeking Thatcherite economics.

For a man who had worked for the liberal-leaning US Senator Eugene McCarthy and took part in anti-war marches during a stint at the University of California, this was a slur.

But for Dawkins, the pursuit of truth comes before ego, or the protection of his image. He admits that "saying what you think can sometimes be mistaken for arrogance".

A farmer's son, Dawkins was born and raised in East Africa; both his parents were interested in natural sciences. Used to having his questions answered in scientific, not mythical, terms, Dawkins's biological interest was sealed as an Oxford undergraduate, where he studied under the Nobel Prize winner Niki Tinbergen.

Dawkins great influence: Charles Darwin

The Selfish Gene was only written because the three-day working week and power cuts of 1974 left Dawkins unable to continue his laboratory work.

But in the book the zoologist turned biologist analysed human genes in exactly the manner he had studied young chicks as a student. He said, "We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we ARE apes."

Now at Oxford and holding the first Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science, Dawkins remains defiantly serious and his clinical worldview leaves little room for magical manoeuvre.

He has talked about suing astrologers under the Trades Descriptions Act, and respects Doubting Thomas as the only disciple keen to impose laboratory conditions on the miracles of Jesus.

There's this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out

Dawkins dismisses the less technical areas of science
To Dawkins, the leaps of faith found in the pages of the Bible, crystal balls and tarot cards only serve to cloud and interfere with the study of the real world. In the words of this detached scientist, "just because something is comforting doesn't mean it's true".

Some people might find a life with so much uncompromising reality a depressing experience, but for the man who made science sexy, the world remains a tantalising Petri dish. For any mystery, he says, "the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle".

In his most recent book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins describes waking his two-year-old daughter to witness the passing of Halley's Comet, to give her "something she'll be able to tell her grandchildren".

The world for Dawkins remains a magical one
This cool-headed don cannot be accused of lacking sentimentality. He met his wife, former Doctor Who assistant Lalla Ward, at the 40th party of his great friend and fellow passionate scientist, the late Douglas Adams.

In what sounds suspiciously like an unscientific display of heart ruling head, the couple left the party after ten minutes and were married within six months. Perhaps even the most clinical observers of the human condition have after all a softer centre.

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