Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meeting Richard Dawkins (and his wife)

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A few years ago I met Richard Dawkins at a small, relaxed party.

I had a question I wanted to put to him.

At the time I was not a Christian, but I was interested in religions and was (for example) studying religiosity and atheism in relation to personality.

I had discovered that over the same period of the twentieth century that the US had risen to scientific eminence it had undergone a significant Christian revival.

The point I put to Dawkins was that the USA was simultaneously by-far the most dominant scientific nation in the world (I knew this from various scientometic studies I was doing at the time) and by-far the most religious (Christian) nation in the world.

How, I asked, could this be - if Christianity was culturally inimical to science?

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Unfortunately I lack Boswell's ability to recall conversion verbatim, and I would not like to misquote.

But Dawkins simply shook-off this point, with a shake of his head looking downwards, and the comment to the effect that the scientists and Christians were two entirely different groups of people.

(Even if broadly true, my point had been about US culture, not individuals.)

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I had thought that this was a genuinely interesting and challenging paradox from Dawkins perspective and looked forward to some kind of analysis; but it was rapidly obvious that I was wasting my time and that no engagement with my point was going to happen.

The mind was decided, the manner was impatient, irritable. 

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I gave-up - and instead spoke to his wife, Lalla Ward, who was Dr Who (Tom Baker)'s assistant (I was a huge fan of the Fourth Doctor era in the late 1970s - LW was Romana II, dressed as an old fashioned schoolgirl); and she was absolutely charming in the face of my rather gushing fan-boy talk - indeed she was probably the nicest famous person I have met.

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My point? Richard Dawkins was exactly like he appeared on the telly; Lalla Ward was much more of a real person than she appeared on the telly.

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6 comments:

Stoyan said...

The point I put to Dawkins was that the USA was simultaneously by-far the most dominant scientific nation in the world (I knew this from various scientometic studies I was doing at the time) and by-far the most religious (Christian) nation in the world.

How, I asked, could this be - if Christianity was culturally inimical to science?


Dear Prof. Charlton, I think You could find the right answer here:
http://jacwell.org/Fall_Winter99/Fr_Schmemann_The%20_spiritual_problem.htm#TheRootsoftheCrisis

Dennis Mangan said...

No need for comparing your mnemonic capabilities to those of Boswell; he took extensive notes.

dearieme said...

"Even if broadly true, my point had been about US culture, not individuals." He could have replied that mass US culture has no place for intellectuals, including scientists: all you were seeing was a nation split in two. But you can give 'em credit for not burning their intellectuals, unlike some Christians of yore.

bgc said...

@dearieme - On the face of it, if Christians had been anti-science as Dawkins (and maybe you?) believe, then there is something to be explained when both rise in the same nation at the same time.

The ref from Stoyan is one explanation - probably about half of what happened - but in fact CHristianity has a positive effect on science (i.e. a certain type of religion - of which + is one example - is necessary but not sufficient for science over the long term of generations) - as we observe when it is taken away and science collapses.

Daniel said...

Presumably the proper response of a coherent materialist would be that the USA has the largest concentration of white people in the world, and that white people tend to do the best science (whether the reasons for this are cultural, genetic, or other). It also has massive resources and material wealth that only China could even dream of matching (and that's debatable... other large countries like Russia, Canada, and Brazil lack the sheer natural plenitude of the mid-North American landmass). But presumably Dawkins is also too PC to admit the obvious about white people and science.

When I was in Boy Scouts, my troop was into made-up role-playing games very loosely based on the concepts of Dungeons & Dragons. We would all make up our own games with rather arbitrary rules, and then our fellow scouts would play the game as characters within the world the leader had created. My game was called "The Candy Game." Each character was a different kind of animated candy-bar and he would have to fight against monsters made from candy. Ha ha.

There was one game that one boy invented that we all wanted to play. It was called simply, "The Game." In "The Game" each player got to pick a real country to be in his alliance. The idea was that the various alliances would go to war after the picking was done. We all picked round-robin style until all countries were taken. The first pick was ALWAYS the United States. Some people picked Saudi Arabia very high because of its oil. Others picked Russia for land mass and nuclear weapons. Others picked Japan for isolation and technological knowhow. But it was absurd for any of us to pick any other nation first other than the USA.

[The wars never actually took place, though the implication that they would take place was key to our fascination. The whole game was picking nations... it was actually quite intense in the way that the games of 13-year-old boys can be.]

Anyway, if the game were to take place today, with real stakes and with real players, you'd be a fool not to pick USA number one. Any other choice is just foolishness, or willful cuteness.

It's the sheer a-historical might of the United States that makes it so tempting for people to ascribe to it all features and none. It's the cipher-nation. Dawkins can dismiss your question because, well duh that's just America.

Though you didn't mean it at the time, I'd seriously consider the notion that it's the combination of white people plus resources plus Christianity that has made America so mighty (in science, war, and otherwise). As America fades, we can't really claim a lack of natural resources. But we can point to non-white immigration (materialist explanation) and our own gradual de-Christianizing (theist explanation) to explain what's going on. My intuition is that both explanations carry water, and are not unrelated.

bgc said...

@Daniel - that's the best explanation I've yet heard.

The point I had in mind, in tackling RD, was much smaller: that at least the US being a highly Christian nation (well, highly Church-going, at any rate, and expressive of Christian beliefs in polls and public statements) certainly didn't seem to do science any significant *harm*.

I think Dawkins should have conceded that point, at least.