Profile: Darwin's disciple: Who needs God when we've got biology? Nick Cohen meets the scourge of theologians

Nick Cohen
Sunday 02 January 1994 00:02 GMT

'HE'S THE most evangelical atheist I've ever met,' said a senior Oxford theology don. 'He's left people like me feeling very embattled and under attack. Charming when you meet him, of course, but quite certain that religion is a false hypothesis and Darwin had a better explanation.'

It may seem strange - even paranoid - for theologians at Oxford to fear for their future. The university, after all, has been a profoundly Anglican institution for most of its history. But fear they do, and see as their chief opponent an intense evolutionary biologist, whose books sell in hundreds of thousands and who could reasonably claim to be Britain's most prominent, indeed only prominent, spokesman for atheism.

Last week Richard Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at New College, Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, returned to the offensive. He stirred up a furious row by saying theology was no longer a respectable subject for universities to teach.

The cause of the latest outcry was a tongue-in-cheek letter in the Independent from Professor Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, in response to the Bishop of Durham's dismissal of hell, the virgin birth, second coming and three wise men. The professor still believed in the wise men, he said, even though the Bible did not actually say there were three kings and it had taken the Catholic Church 600 years to decide who they were. There were medieval relics of parts of their bodies in Cologne, he said, and 'some of us, at least, are not ashamed to believe whatever we are told'.

It was a sophisticated joke that did not quite work. Modern theologians, including Professor Ward, allow students to challenge the truth of pretty much every belief in the Bible, and modern bishops seem ready to prove the old joke that atheism is no bar to advancement in the Church of England.

But Dr Dawkins took the letter literally. If the professor meant what he said 'by all means let him believe whatever he is told, but some of us would be ashamed of being paid a professor's salary to do so'. If the professor was joking, he continued, 'what kind of a subject is it that cannot be distinguished from a parody of itself?'

The reaction was immediate and furious. Professor Ward described Dawkins as a 'fanatic'. It was 'shameful and a simple intellectual confusion, to attack an academic discipline because one dislikes the opinions (or what one believes to be the opinions) of some of its teachers'.

Dawkins has said far worse. Last year, in a debate with the Archbishop of York, he developed his idea that religions could be compared to viruses. Just as the rabies virus, say, gives a dog wanderlust, 'which has the effect of spreading the virus more widely', so Catholicism preaches against contraception and 'has the effect of bringing into the world fresh new minds to carry on the same belief'.

But his attack on theological departments last week touched a rawer nerve. It questioned not belief, but livelihood. Theologians at Oxford were already on the defensive. Recently, in a little noticed decision, the University's General Board used an obscure European Community directive to end the Theology Department's insistence that Oxford college chaplains should also be academics. In future any cleric can be made a chaplain regardless of his (they are all men) intellectual credentials.

'We've always relied on having academics hired as chaplains to keep our work going,' said one theologian. 'Now the university is following up what Dawkins and others are saying. It is implying that religion is all very well for those who believe, but that theology is somehow intellecually disreputable as an academic subject.'

Theologians have responded with ad hominem attacks. 'Off the record' (this is Oxford), the reporter is urged to look into Dawkins' family history. There must be something in his childhood or something about one of his wives (he has been divorced twice and now lives with the actress Lalla Ward, forever condemned to be best known as Dr Who's assistant Romana) which explains his 'hatred' of the church.

But, speaking in his cramped Oxford flat, Dawkins showed more signs of rational conviction than trauma connected with religion in his past.

RICHARD DAWKINS was born in 1941, the son of a farmer, and educated at Oundle school. 'It was a Christian upbringing, and I certainly did believe at the time of my confirmation at 13. But I never had strong beliefs and what I had went a few years later when I started to understand what Darwinism was.'

A conventional and successful academic career at Oxford and Berkeley University, California, followed. Then, in 1976, he published The Selfish Gene, which argued that evolution operates at the level of the gene rather than the individual and that animals are nothing more than machines for preserving their DNA. The book was a hit across the world.

In both his writing and in person his enthusiasm for new ideas and his seriousness are evident. He is not given to romanticism or nostalgia. He has a clear-eyed view of his youth. He regards, for example, his days as a protesting junior lecturer at Berkeley in 1968 as silly rather than inspiring.

'I joined in the protests, rather to my shame,' he said. 'I suppose I enjoyed the whiff of revolution and running around with tear-gas in the air instead of having regard for the academic institutions I was working for. I can't even remember what the demonstrations were about. I think it was something to do with a piece of land we wanted to turn into a people's park or something. Very trivial.'

So why does Dawkins proclaim his unbelief so? Christianity in Britain (or England at least) appears to threaten no one. There are no American-style creationists demanding that evolution be banned in schools; no real attempts by the churches to impose their beliefs on sexual or social life. Instead, there are sincere people at church fetes and in bishops' palaces who somehow represent England. It is generally regarded as, at the very least, rather impolite to attack them - a throwback to T H Huxley and Bertrand Russell when the battle between the secular and the religious was important.

Dawkins says he does get profoundly irritated by the homilies of Radio 4's Thought for the Day. 'I once heard the Chief Rabbi condemning racism, as well he might,' he said. 'But instead of criticising it on grounds that you or I might understand, he took the story of Adam and Eve and said we were all descended from them so racism was wrong. Now he must know that Genesis is not true, he's presumably an intelligent man. Yet there he was, recycling a fairy story which had as much truth as the tale of Cinderella.' But there must surely be more to Dawkins' cool contempt for the religious than this?

HIS OWN explanation for his atheism is prosaic: he is a biologist. Physicists may still be trying to understand how the laws of nature can reconcile the contradictory theories of quantum physics and relativity. They may talk, as Stephen Hawking wrote, about how they may know the 'mind of God' when they finally find a unifying theory to explain the universe. Biologists, however, already have the answer to how complex life on Earth has developed. It was supplied by Darwin and, according to Dawkins, there is no place for God in the explanation.

'Life is enormously complicated, diverse and beautiful,' he said. 'We can explain how we got here, how we came to be. There are not many biologists who find evidence of God's hand in nature.'

The argument is made time and again. In The Blind Watchmaker his attack on anti-evolutionists was so powerful that readers wrote to him saying that it had converted them from Christianity. This particular route to atheism or agnosticism is an old one. Darwin himself could not reconcile the idea of 'a beneficent and omnipotent God' with a particularly unpleasant parasite called the Ichneumon wasp, which lays its eggs inside a living caterpillar, which then forms the food of the wasp grubs. The late Sir Peter Medawar had similar trouble with the sickle cell gene (one such gene gives Africans protection against malaria; two means probable death from sickle cell anaemia). It is 'a profound truth that Nature does not know best; that genetical evolution is a story of waste, makeshift, compromise and blunder,' said Sir Peter in the 1958 Reith lectures.

Anglican theologians have few problems with Darwin today, although they did during Darwin's lifetime. As John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, told Dawkins in last year's debate: science 'explores the relationship between phenomena', while religion 'is about the reality which underlies all phenomena'. There is no need in the modern world, he added, for the two to be in conflict.

This may explain the bitterness. Professor Ward, echoing the Archbishop, was outraged that modern theologians should be treated by Dawkins as if they were bigoted enemies of knowledge.

Dawkins admits that most scientists do believe that religion and science can coexist. But he does not. Like traditional believers, he takes the Bible at face value. Unlike them, however, he finds it wanting. 'Religions have their explanations of biology and they are just wrong . . . lies if you want,' he said. 'They are buttressed by ideas of hell, by instructions that faith must be passed on to children, by the fact that they comfort the dying and believers are told it is a positive virtue to have faith rather than look for evidence.' So he will carry on infuriating bishops and theologians and being a lone voice for militant athiesm. His latest book, Growing up in the Universe, to be published this year, will urge readers to grow out of religion and superstition as a key step to maturity.

'I know it is considered bad taste to be critical. But people around the world are killing just because of beliefs they happen to have got as children. Religion is not simply vicars giving tea parties. There are evil consequences.' Then, pausing for a moment to consider whether evil is quite the right word to apply to the faithful he sees in Oxford, he added with a smile: 'Though, of course, every vicar you meet is a very nice man.'

(Photograph omitted)

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