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The Evolution of Richard Dawkins, the Rock Star of Neo-Atheism

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Is Richard Dawkins getting soft? It's hard to believe that the leading exponent of a brash new school of pugnacious atheism would somehow, miraculously, transform into the soul of charity. But consider the evidence:

Dawkins says, for one thing, that he is tired of rehashing the forceful -- many would say withering -- arguments against religion he made in his best-selling book, "The God Delusion," and he objects to his frequent portrayal as a gratuitous provocateur.

"I'm not really that at all," he told me during a recent stopover in New York to promote his latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution." Dawkins almost sounds hurt by the criticism. "That's propaganda made up by religious opponents, I'm afraid. They love this word 'strident.' They always call me 'strident and shrill.' I'm not the least bit strident or shrill."

He also admits to having nostalgia for the old English village church of his youth and for "evensong on a summer evening," and he has been described as stricken by the recent death of one of his beloved dogs, Pamba, a Coton de Tuléar.

But the most damning link in the chain of evidence pointing to a mellower Dawkins is that he is writing, yes, a children's book.

"I'm looking forward to it," Dawkins says, brightening at the thought. The book will be titled "What Is a Rainbow, Really?" and the answer won't be the one you find in the story of Noah's Ark. The book, which expands on a letter about critical thinking that he wrote to his daughter, Juliet, when she was 10 (she is now a medical student in her 20s), will be illustrated by the British artist Dave McKean, whose rather dark images have appeared in DC Comics and the cover of the young-adult fantasy/horror novel "Coraline."

So has Richard Dawkins, well, evolved? Maybe not so much. Like an old bull whose nostrils still flare at the rustle of a red cape (or a cassock, in his case), Dawkins can't help but charge if offered a target.

"We have a war on our hands," Dawkins announced in a startling opening line at a book-signing for "The Greatest Show on Earth," held at a Lower Manhattan Barnes & Noble. The war, he says, is against scientific ignorance cloaked in religious belief -- twin myths that for the next hour he proceeded to vanquish in a talk that alternated between the crisp lecture hall style of the Oxford don that he was, and the tart-tongued polemicist that he still is.

Indeed, "The Greatest Show on Earth," written to mark last month's 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species," opens by comparing religious believers to Holocaust deniers or "a baying pack of ignoramuses," who try to stifle scientific inquiry. And a few days after the book tour wrapped, Dawkins was back at it, blasting the Roman Catholic Church as perhaps the "greatest force for evil in the world," as well as a "disgusting institution" that was "dragging its flowing skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp" by trying to attract dissident Anglicans to Rome. (For good measure he called the eucharist a "cannibal feast.")

Truth be told, the new Richard Dawkins can sound a lot like the old Richard Dawkins, despite his protestations that he wants to move on to topics other than battling religion. But if Dawkins can't help himself, there are indications that the New Atheist movement he helped launch may be mutating into a milder form, and challenging Dawkins to change for the first time in decades. Can he? Does he want to? It won't be easy.

Since the 1970s, well before the rise of neo-atheism, Dawkins had been a prominent popularizer of the biological sciences in which he was already a leading authority. In retrospect, his career path seems predestined. Born in 1941 in colonial Kenya, Dawkins was the son of a naturalist; his father worked in the British colonial service. He had a rigorously scientific education and a perfunctory Anglican upbringing. By his mid-teens, living back in England and already immersed in evolutionary theory, science easily won out over religion and Dawkins left belief behind with scarcely a second thought. At Oxford, he excelled in his studies, and after a brief stint as an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, he returned to teach at Oxford in 1970.

He was a prolific writer, and within a few years Dawkins had coined terms like "the selfish gene" and "memes" (cultural equivalents of genes), as well as establishing his bona fides as a scourge of religious belief. But it was not until the publication of his 2006 book, "The God Delusion," that he became the rock star of neo-atheism, selling 2 million copies of that book and selling out every public appearance. In September 2008 Dawkins retired as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a prestigious position he had held since 1995, and has since devoted his time to the crusade against religion and on behalf of atheism.

"The God Delusion" arrived at a propitious moment. By that time, other scientists and polemicists were also publishing blistering critiques of religion, and like Dawkins, they were using the bully pulpit of the Internet to mobilize the growing ranks of the unchurched, the unaffiliated, and the unbelieving -- a category sociologists of religion sometimes call "the Nones," as in those attached to no religion.

In 2004 Sam Harris, an author and neuroscientist, had published "The End of Faith," following it up in 2006 with "Letter to a Christian Nation." Also in 2006, Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and proponent of evolutionary biology, published "Breaking the Spell," which outlines his view of religion as a product of evolutionary processes. In 2007, the fearsome scribe Christopher Hitchens took a rhetorical blunderbuss to whatever remained of religious arguments in his obviously titled diatribe, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." Little wonder that these authors have been known as the Four Horsemen of the atheist apocalypse (or sometimes the Unholy Trinity, if one or another is left off the list).

The neo-atheist movement was also helped along by the undeniable fact that religion in this post-millennial period came to be identified as much by terrorism, scandal, and political maneuvering as it was by the evidence of sanctity.

Yet despite the success of these antagonists, religion has persisted, and perhaps even grown. And many atheists in turn are now looking to engage faith rather than simply disparage it -- an upgrade that has been dubbed "Atheism 3.0."

"The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and nonbelievers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree," Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of "Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe," told Religion News Service. "When our goal is erasing religion, rather than embracing human beings, we all lose."

Other exponents of Atheism 3.0 would include Austin Dacey, author of "The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life," Samir Selmanovic, author of "It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian," and Bruce Sheiman, author of "An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion than Without It." There is a web site called "The Friendly Atheist" and there is even a burgeoning movement of "possibilians"-- nonbelievers who allow for the possibility of an immortal soul. Possibilianism sprouted unbidden when author and neuroscientist David Eagleman mentioned his views about the possibility of an afterlife in an NPR radio interview earlier this year. "I was stunned after that NPR talk. By the time I got back home to my desk, I had all these e-mails from people saying, 'I think that's what I am, too!'," Eagleman told The Dallas Morning News.

For many atheists, the shift to engagement over confrontation is seen as a sellout rather than a worthy adaptation. For others, however, it is a return to the kind of intellectually engaged, less combative approach that characterized prominent atheists in previous eras, and one that moves away from what some, including the grand old man of secular humanism, Paul Kurtz, has blasted as "atheist fundamentalism."

Dawkins does not rise to the bait when I ask him about the fundamentalism charge, and diplomatically says that both his approach and that of Paul Kurtz are necessary. But he is clearly more sympathetic to the blast furnace approach to debate -- understandably, given the praise, bordering on adulation, that he receives from his many fans.

"People say some very nice things," Dawkins said. "Many of them say how I've changed their life, which is very gratifying."

Such affection was on full display at the New York book signing, as devotees -- some of whom had waited 12 hours for a good seat -- packed the available space and waited patiently for more than an hour after the talk to have Dawkins sign their copy of "The Greatest Show on Earth." Dawkins was methodical, almost mechanical about the signing, as he had to be, scribbling only his name and moving quickly to the next customer. "You opened a whole new window onto life for me," one woman blurts. He smiles briefly, and she is ushered on. A young fellow wants to tell Dawkins a joke, and swears it is really, really short and please give him a chance. There is a moment's pause and the 20-something guy smiles and interjects: "Religion." He giggles loudly and moves on too. "Thank you for making my day," another person gushes to Dawkins.

"He is the evolutionary biologist of our time," says Serge Braida, a science teacher, who showed up with a stack of Dawkins books. "I would say he is a descendent of Darwin himself." Cory, a 28-year-old medical student, says Dawkins "helped bring clarity to thoughts I had inside that I was not able to articulate on my own."

The event was classic Dawkins: a rapt audience with many more younger people than older folks, and lots of friendly questions. In other words, the kind of sanctuary any pastor would love but too rarely sees. "Maybe I'm preaching to the choir, but the choir is extraordinarily big," Dawkins told me the next day. He says he doesn't understand why, especially given his controversial views on such a volatile topic, he doesn't encounter more pushback at public events. "I guess people who disagree don't like to go hear talks that they disagree with."

As a leader, Dawkins has clearly been successful in animating like-minded irreligionists. In 2007 he endorsed a new venture, the Out Campaign, which encourages not believers to publicly identify as such by wearing a scarlet letter "A," a la' Hawthorne's adulterers, though Dawkins models the campaign more on the gay rights movement. Dawkins has helped fund and promote ad campaigns like the one that ran on the side of buses in London in early 2009 (a similar campaign was launched in New York at the time of Dawkins' visit, though it was unrelated). And the Secular Student Alliance reports that the number of atheist or agnostic student groups on U.S. campuses has more than doubled in the past two years, from 80 to 162.

So even if their numbers have not necessarily grown in absolute terms, non-believers certainly feel less alone than ever before.

That should count for something, though whether Dawkins will win the battle over belief -- his ultimate goal -- seems unlikely. That may be because he too often brings the same blinders to religious debates that his religious foes wear. With his jaunty (or haughty) style and his amusing (or annoying) jibes, Dawkins certainly puts on a good show. But he rarely ventures beyond attacks on the low-hanging fruit of religious literalism. At the Manhattan book signing, for instance, it was the story of Noah's Ark. "Sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small and slender a nut" (pause for comic timing) "but I'm afraid I must" (cue the laughs.) When it comes to doing battle with belief, Dawkins is himself of a force of nature, preying on the weak -- be they ideas or people -- in the belief that the fittest will survive.

Yet there may be another evolutionary meme at work, in the co-dependence of religious and atheistic fundamentalists who seem to need each other in order to survive -- as they both likely will.

What becomes clear in talking to Dawkins and in reading his newest book is that if Dawkins could be called a fundamentalist when it comes to religion, he is more of an evangelist when it comes to science. And that, indeed, is where he is most effective and needed. As Dawkins points out, as many Americans believe evidence supports Darwinian evolution as say the evidence does not support it (35 percent a piece, according to Gallup).

Tipping that balance to the side of scientific literacy is the aim, and strength, of Dawkins' latest book -- once you skip over the snide asides about faith -- and it is clearly his higher calling. "Evolution is so utterly fascinating," he exhorts the congregation at his book signing. "How could you possibly be so dead in your soul if you're a biologist not to want other people to share in the enthusiasm you have?"

The next day, Dawkins is still preachifying. "There is a lot of ignorance, which is no crime. But it is something you can do something about. A lot of people don't take evolution seriously but that's because they don't know anything about it. I want to correct that. But I also want to enthrall and excite people, because the evidence so exciting and so wonderful."

With such passion, it is no surprise that a children's book would be a natural development for Dawkins, much as C.S. Lewis tried to reach the young for Jesus with his "Chronicles of Narnia."

Of course, Dawkins has a different goal, hoping to disabuse little ones of any silly religious beliefs they may acquire as well as educating them about science. Each chapter will ask a question about the natural world, and Dawkins will provide first the traditional answer from Greek myths or Judeo-Christian beliefs or other religions "and then we'll finally come on to the truth, which is the scientific answer."

"I want to convey the idea that humans have been asking these questions and have been giving mythological answers for a long time," he told me. The mythological answers "are often quite beautiful," but they are also wrong, and can be dangerous.

For all his talents and successes, Richard Dawkins may have his work cut out for him with his new project. Alan Brown brought his seven-year-old son Earvin to see Dawkins at the New York event, and they were eagerly waiting in line to have their copy of "The Greatest Show on Earth" signed when I asked the boy if he liked what Dawkins had to say as much as his dad did. Earvin shuffled his feet and looked down for a moment before confessing, "I didn't understand it."

Not to worry, Earvin. If Dawkins' letter to his own daughter years ago is a sign of what's to come, you'll soon understand plenty -- and realize that somewhere in his atheist's soul, Richard Dawkins is a soft touch.

"Dear Juliet," he began. "Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are really far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? The answer to these questions is 'evidence.' "

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