Richard Dawkins: Rock Star in Oklahoma


 UPDATE: In September 2006, Michael Dowd posted a half hour PODCAST on this topic, titled "The New Atheists as God's Prophets"

 Yesterday (6 March 2009), Connie and I drove 90 minutes from our host's home in Stillwater, Oklahoma to the campus of Oklahoma University, just south of Oklahoma City, where a landmark event would be taking place that evening: a presentation by Richard Dawkins.  (Click HERE to see a video of the introduction to his presentation.)  Professor Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist of the highest rank—but he is also well known for rankling religious conservatives.  He is the author of the best-selling and controversial book, The God Delusion, and he has become perhaps the best known of "the new atheists."

My wife, Connie Barlow (whose science books have featured evolution), has known Richard Dawkins for years.  I've not yet met Richard in person but we've exchanged email on several occasions and he graciously allowed me to reprint a letter that he wrote to his (at the time 10-year-old) daughter as Appendix A in my book, Thank God for Evolution.  Connie and I made the long drive not just to hear Richard speak but to witness a rather unique phenomenon: a scientist/atheist whose presence on a college campus in the reddest of red states had a "rock star" feel to it—and had prompted a state legislator to introduce a resolution "expressing disapproval of the actions of the University of Oklahoma to indoctrinate students in the theory of evolution; opposing the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak on campus."

We were grateful that the day was sunny and delightfully warm, as we got there early, prepared to stand outdoors for an hour or more with throngs of students and visitors before the doors to this free event would open.  We got there two hours early, and already hundreds were waiting in line.  I found a spot to park our van where our logo of a Darwin fish and a Jesus fish kissing could easily be seen (see photo below; our van "Angel" can be seen just next to the tree, between the students).


The crowd was well managed by students of the campus "Freethinkers Society", many of whom wore black teeshirts and tags that identified them as volunteers.

The black tee-shirts also sported a logo that represented an astonishingly bold act of re-appropriating a negative symbol. In the photos above and below, notice the red "A" over the heart.  This, of course, calls to mind an 1850 novel by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorn titled The Scarlet Letter, in which a 17th Century Puritan woman was forced to wear a Scarlet A as an emblem of shame, branding her as an adulteress.  In a YouTube video, Richard Dawkins explains the "A" as standing for "Atheist".

Inside, the stadium rapidly filled.  Many of the students and visitors carried their copies of Dawkins' books, as a book signing would follow the event.

Professor Dawkins came onstage to roaring applause and an audience who felt moved to give him a standing ovation before he uttered the first word.  The title of his talk was "The Purpose of Purpose," and it included both science and advocacy.

Richard began his talk by projecting extracts of the House Resolution opposing him (below left).  He concluded with a long period of Q&A.  The photo below right shows the questioners lined up at one of the three microphones placed in the stadium.

With the exception of one outburst during the Q&A by an angry man who shouted to Dawkins that he "would burn in hell" (the man was removed by stadium guards), the event was marked by a high level of decorum and respect: audience for speaker - and speaker for audience.

All in all, the event reminded me of the necessary turn that our society must take: the coming out of the closet of the group that still must hide its leanings if it ever wishes to be heard on public policy or to seek public office: atheists. (See the guest blog my wife posted last year, "A Place at the Podium").  It also reminded me of just how important is the evolutionary evangelistic work that Connie and I are engaged in!


To my mind, few things are more absurd than the current debate about the existence of God.  (I discuss this at length in chapters 4-7 of my book, Thank God for Evolution, the section titled "Reality is Speaking".) Here's how I begin Chapter 7, titled "What Do We Mean by the Word 'God'"?

Do you believe in life?

What an absurd question! It doesn’t matter whether we “believe in” life. Life is all around us, and in us. We’re part of it. Life is, period. What anyone says about life, however, is another story, and may invite belief or disbelief. If I say, “Life is wonderful,” or “Life is brutal,” or “Life is unimportant—it’s what happens aft er death that really matters,” you may or may not believe me, depending on your own experience and worldview. What we say about life—its nature, its purpose, its meaning—along with the metaphors we choose to describe it—is wide open for discussion and debate. But the reality of life is indisputable. This is exactly the way that God is understood by many who hold the perspective of the Great Story—that is, when human, Earth, and cosmic history are woven into a holy narrative. Our common creation story offers a refreshingly intimate, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring vision of God that can provide common ground for both skeptics and religious believers. For peoples alive today, any understanding of “God” that does not at least mean “Ultimate Reality” or “the Wholeness of Reality” (measurable and nonmeasurable) is, I suggest, a trivialized, inadequate notion of the divine.

The crux of the problem, as I see it, is the failure of millions of people, religious and non-religious alike, to distinguish meaningful metaphor from measurable reality.  God as a subjectively meaningful interpretation simply cannot be argued against.  God is always a legitimate interpretation.  But God is NOT (and never has been) actually, physically, measurably real, like you and me.  (Those who would attempt to argue that God is real, but only in an unnatural otherworldly realm, are left in the difficult position of claiming that God, the Creator of the Universe, is less real than the Universe, as I discuss here.)

HERE'S A WAY OUT OF THIS IMPASSE:  Whenever you hear the word ‘God', think ‘Reality'.  "I have faith in God" can be translated "I trust Reality".  "God is Lord" means "Reality rules".  Throughout the world, God has never been less than a mythic personification of Reality as a Whole, Ultimate Reality, or what today some call "the Universe".  If we fail to recognize this, we miss everything.  ALL images and characterizations of God are meaningful interpretations of Reality as it Really Is.  When we forget this, we will naturally and inevitably trivialize God, belittle science, and desecrate nature.  As renowned systems thinker Gregory Bateson has said,

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. Th e environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.

God does not have multiple personality disorder, as a literal reading of the world's scriptures might imply.  Cultures that tell stories of God as Mother have known reality as mother-like.  Those who speak of God as Father, or as a steadfast rock, have known reality as father-like and as solid and unchanging as a boulder.  And as we all know, reality at times can be like a trickster—a fox, or coyote—as some indigenous stories remind us.

There are an infinite number of metaphorical images and instructive interpretations of Reality, but there is only one Reality, a Uni-verse.  Religions are all about meaningful interpretations.  Science is all about trying to understand the nature of measurable reality.  The two really can work together, but only if we distinguish what in my book, Thank God for Evolution, I call, descriptive "day language" and interpretive "night language".

This is not theological rocket science.  Theists are right when they insist that God is real and faith (trust) is transformative.  Atheists are right when they insist God is imaginary and supernatural claims are fiction.  If we do not understand how both of these can be true, we don't understand the evolved nature of the human brain and the metaphorical nature of human language.  Arguing whether it was God or evolution that created everything is like debating whether it was Gaia or plate tectonics that created Mount Everest.  Such silly and largely unnecessary confusion will remain the norm until we distinguish and value both metaphorical and descriptive language.  In the meantime, I'm grateful to Richard Dawkins and the other new atheists for bringing this debate front and center.  Perhaps in the coming decades we can finally move beyond the mistaken notion that science gives us a meaningless universe and religion is primarily concerned with unnatural (supernatural) entities.