Richard Dawkins: 'I never meet people who disagree with me'

Woodstock's first big-name speaker charmed and ruffled feathers in equal measure last night

Richard Dawkins seemed to be saying last night that he rather envied those teachers who have to drill irregular Latin verbs into the heads of schoolchildren. At least they do not have to teach their discipline against the background noise of well-organised and expensively funded pressure groups who deny that ancient Rome even existed and claim that all languages sprang into existence simultaneously more recently than that.

But that, in a sense, is the fate of the scientist who wants to teach evolution. In the USA, 40 per cent of the population believes that every word of the Bible is literally true.

Professor Dawkins recently visited an Islamic school in Leicester – "a lovely school, beautifully appointed, a lot of money spent on it, a lovely headmaster" – where no one among the staff and pupils, not even the science teacher, believes in evolution.

There he was informed that the Prophet had said that salt and fresh water do not mix, and therefore it must be true. He wished afterwards that he had had the presence of mind to send for some salt water and fresh water and mix them in front of their unbelieving eyes.

The audience that the Professor faced last night presented less of a challenge. He was giving the opening lecture of this year's Woodstock Festival, in Oxfordshire, where it was a safe bet that the crowd who filled the Orangery in Blenheim Palace to capacity included a negligible proportion of creationists.

He admitted, when questioned about the reception he gets travelling in the US Bible Belt, that, "nobody who disagrees ever comes to my lectures – or if they do, they keep very quiet afterwards".

In places like Alabama and Oklahoma, he pulls in crowds of people who take pleasure in finding that, for one evening, they are not in a minority. In Woodstock, he pulled in an audience who were there to enjoy the wit and erudition with which he attacked the creationist myth.

When asked by the chairman, David Freeman, how he kept his cool when talking to people who refused to open their minds to scientific argument, the Professor said that actually he does not always. He quoted in his defence of his own sharp tongue a sentence written by The Independent's Johann Hari: "I respect you as a person too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs."

There was one question from the audience which provoked a brief flash of the anger and rudeness which has given this generally mild man his notoriety.

A lady wanted to know how evolution could explain phenomena like the clotting of blood, which – she claimed – required a number of agents all to be present at the same time, and if one were taken away, the blood would not clot.

That, he retorted, was "a creationist lie". And even if it were true, it would not prove the existence of an intelligent designer. "You have got to look at the detail," he added. "You have got to stop being lazy and saying, 'Oh, I can't explain that so God did it.'"

He was challenged on whether it had ever crossed his mind that he could be wrong. Scientists are always getting things wrong, he replied. Two centuries hence, scientific knowledge will tell us that much of what we think is right has been disproved.

But in the contest between evolution and creationism, he said, he thought it "highly unlikely" that the particular direction scientific progress will take "will just happen to be the beliefs of a tribe of Bronze Age goat herds".

First screening: Courage of 'honour' victims inspires film

A filmmaker whose drama is based on real-life accounts of "honour" killings said it was partly inspired by Afghan women who were murdered for appearing on film, radio and television.

Nelofer Pazira, the writer and director of the film, Acts of Dishonour, which is to have its first English screening today at the Woodstock Literary Festival, said she sought to capture their courage on film.

Even after the fall of the Taliban, female singers are forced to use pseudonyms to avoid trouble for their families, she added. "They risk their lives because they are easy for the community to identify. They are at risk even when they wear headscarves," she said. Her film is partly inspired by the Afghan women who have been beaten or killed by family members as a result of participating in a film.

Pazira struggled to fill the few female roles and had to go to Tajikistan to cast one of the central characters and she played one of the roles herself. The lead actress is a 19-year-old former beggar, Marina Golbahari. "We had a lot of difficulty finding someone to participate in the film. They come forward at great personal risk," she said.

The film, which she hopes to take to Afghanistan this autumn, dramatises the culture clash between Afghan villagers and a Western film crew who cast a bride-to-be in a leading role. She is killed by her community for bringing disgrace to her family.

Pazira, who grew up in Kabul and moved to Canada, starred in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's award-winning 2001 drama, Kandahar. She travelled across the country, hearing people's stories, and incorporating them into her script.

Meanwhile, The Independent's award-winning foreign correspondent, Robert Fisk, will today argue that the real images of the destruction of war should be exposed on Western television screens, in his appearance at the literary festival.

Fisk, who has reported from the Middle East for 34 years, covering the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, said the reality of war could not be understood without these graphic images of death and destruction.

"Television reporting does not show the hideous realities of war, the bodies that are torn apart and eaten by dogs, the torsos of babies without limbs. Unless these images are shown, viewers believe in the idea of a bloodless war."

He will also argue that the language surrounding the reporting of war has become skewed and politicised, so that readers are misled.

Arifa Akbar

Festival highlights

Today

Robert Fisk talks to Andreas Whittam Smith 2:00pm

Steven Berkoff talks to John Walsh 4:00pm

Matt Ridley talks to Justin Byam Shaw 7:30pm

Nelofer Pazira 7:30pm

Friday

Val McDermid talks to David Freeman 11:00am

Howard Jacobson 2:00pm

Philip Pullman in conversation with Martin Jennings 2:00pm

Rupert Thomson talks to Boyd Tonkin 5:30pm

Saturday

Michael Frayn 12:00pm

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown 4:00pm

Andrew O'Hagan talks to Sarah Crompton 4:30pm

David Aaronovitch, Kevin Maguire and Paul Staines, Chaired by Ann Leslie 5:00pm

Edmund de Waal 7:00pm

Sunday

Daisy Goodwin talks to Simon Kelner 11:00am

Dom Joly 12:30pm

Lady Antonia Fraser talks to Geordie Greig 12:30pm

Colin Dexter 2:00pm

For a full programme for the Woodstock Literary Festival, visit www.woodstockliteraryfestival.com

To book tickets, call 01865 305305. For further programming information, go to www.woodstockliteraryfestival.com

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