Richard Dawkins, world-class scientist and staunch atheist, is surrounded by admirers and skeptics at the home of Andres Roemer, the Mexican consul general in San Francisco. They are assembled to learn more about the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, which supports science education as an antidote to religious fundamentalism, broadly defined. Roemer, a Jewish atheist representing a mostly Catholic country, had invited Dawkins into conversation as part of his lifelong quest for truth in public discourse.
An Oxford zoologist by training, Dawkins became famous 30 years ago for his reframing of Darwinism in “The Selfish Gene.” The book asks readers to look at evolution from the point of view not of a species, but of the gene. Our bodies, by extension, are merely the disposable mechanisms for passing the gene from one host to another. His reformulation is brilliant, merciless and disorienting.
In recent years Dawkins has been beating the drum of atheism, most notably in the book “The God Delusion,” in which he argues that religion — let’s not mince words here — is “lunacy,” and the root of most of the world’s evil.
Dawkins’ talk comes at a moment when religion has a blacker eye than usual. The Jewish community has been rocked by the allegations of mikvah voyeurism against Washington, D.C., Rabbi Barry Freundel. Climate-change denier James Inhofe will become head of the Senate’s environmental committee, leading a Republican cabal in Congress that believes in the Bible over science; and there is ISIS, whose perfidy needs no elaboration.
Dawkins’ conversation took place just after Pope Francis made waves by saying that evolution and the Big Bang are consistent with the notion of a creator, and that we should not view God as “a magician, with a magic wand.”
The pope’s comment, Dawkins explained, doesn’t fundamentally change the essential error that allows a community to swear that, as in the communion, “a wafer turns into a first-century Jew.”
The consul general’s living room was full of academics and techies from all over the world, and from many religious backgrounds. And while most were inclined to agree that an anthropomorphic God was unlikely to exist, most guests weren’t quite ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The question, as many in the room wanted to know, is if religion and science can coexist, or if one must be vanquished.
“The gentle answer is, if one doesn’t force religion on others, that’s fine,” Dawkins answered in his calm English accent. But on a fundamental level, “the two are incongruous.”
But the questions persisted. A woman who identified as “an atheist from a Catholic background” said that when she arrived in California from Argentina she could go into any church and be welcomed and comforted, “and I couldn’t have walked into a chemistry lab and gotten the same reception.” A Jewish man extolled Judaism’s values as producing many extraordinary moral, artistic and scientific thinkers — because of, and not despite, religion.
Dawkins acknowledged that religious communities have offered succor and belonging, but at too high a price. He suggested that humans cut out the middleman, and offer “a ministry of simple kindness” without recourse to fables and myth.
The question I wish I had asked was prompted by the musings of a slightly more affable atheist, Alain de Botton. In “Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion:” “When God is dead, human beings — much to their detriment — are at risk of taking psychological center stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythm of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honoring all that slips through their grasp.”
Religion begins with stories of genesis — how did the world begin, how did we begin? — and of apocalypse — how and when does it all end? As many religious-oriented scientists (or scientifically literate clergy) have articulated, global warming is offering us an unprecedented opportunity to glimpse a worldwide life cycle happening in fast-forward. Our rituals for navigating this moment — whether we are atheists or creationists, and whether we like it or not — will draw from the language of both religion and science.
Daniel Schifrin is producer of “Ideas of Late,” a conversation series sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.