Yesterday was Richard Dawkins’s book “talk” at Northwestern University in Evanston (just north of Chicago). Actually, it wasn’t a talk, but 45 minutes of conversation between him and me, followed by an equal amount of time devoted to Q&A with the audience. This was part of a tour promoting his new autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, which I’m told is now #11 on the New York Times bestseller list.
The moderator, who introduced both of us and kept the questions flowing, was Hemant Mehta (“The friendly atheist”), who did a terrific job.
I decided that because we had to leave for the venue at 4 p.m. (three hours before the event!), I’d go downtown early and treat myself to a nice late lunch before meeting Richard at his hotel. (There was no opportunity for dinner thereafter.)
After due deliberation, I selected The Purple Pig, a Mediterranean restaurant which specializes in meat and charcuterie. It was on Michigan avenue, close to the hotel. And, of course, because this was a treat, I made no attempt to eat “healthy.”
The main course was turkey leg confit (I’ve eaten many a duck confit in France, but never turkey), served with crispy lentils, endive, and “agrodolce,” something I’d never heard of. Wikipedia tells me that it’s a traditional Italian sweet-and-sour sauce, and this one had added ingredients of unknown provenance. It was terrific, and a lot of food. I washed it down with an Italian beer, “Moretti la Rosa Doppio Malto,” another beer new to me, but which is apparently brewed by Birra Moretti in Italy. Its heaviness and sweetness went well with the turkey:
Feeling expansive, I decided to have dessert: a bread pudding with whipped cream. After this, and a beer that contained 7.2% alcohol, I was ready to face anything.
A random photo from the restaurant, since I had my camera out:
After meeting Richard and his “handler,” the amiable Aisha Goss, the Deputy Director of the Secular Coalition for America (they’re merging with the Richard Dawkins Foundation), we drove to the venue, about 45 minutes away. As we had tons of time to kill (why do they make us get there so early?), Richard and I went for a walk along Lake Michigan. This was a good thing to do, not only because the weather was lovely but because it gave us a chance to talk about this and that, and discuss questions for the evening to come.
Richard was much taken by the rocks along the shore, painted by Northwestern students. Many of them are romantic, and include not a few marriage proposals, which I imagine have stunned many a woman getting betrothed before a painted rock. Richard was fascinated by one religiously-painted rock, and photographed it (it’s the gray one lying flat before him). You can make out a few words, which I later found came from Isaiah 25:1: “O LORD, You are my God; I will exalt You, I will give thanks to Your name; For You have worked wonders, Plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness.”
We were introduced by Hemant, and Richard got a tremendous ovation—the audience was clearly going to be friendly. The venue, an auditorium seating about 900, was sold out. (The photo below, and the succeeding one, were taken by reader daveau.)
I was a bit nervous about our conversation, but I think it went well. I’ve known Richard for a longish while, and so we were pretty well acquainted with each other’s views. I assumed I’d just ask questions, but Richard wanted more of a give-and-take, so I compromised, occasionally interjecting some of my own views. Some of the questions I asked, by the way, were suggested by you readers when I asked for suggestions a while back.
Here are some of my questions and, as far as I remember, Richard’s answers:
My first question was “Richard: briefs or boxers?”, but I didn’t let him answer. That was just to loosen things up with a bit of humor (I’m sure he’s never been asked that before!), and at any rate I’m not sure they use those terms in England. My impression is that over the pond men’s underwear is simply called “pants.”
Richard did a great job, and anyone who calls him “humorless” simply hasn’t been to one of these events. Much of the time he had the audience in stitches, something I don’t think Karen Armstrong does very often! It was a lot of fun, and we covered a lot of ground, including his book, atheism, religion, evolution, the compatibility of science and faith, and some personal stuff.
My favorite question was this: “I know you wouldn’t disabuse your grandmother of her faith on her deathbed, but do you think religious belief, although false, can indeed provide comfort for some people? That is, in your discussions of religion you always emphasize its falsity, but why must truth always trump comfort?” I added that it did for me, too, though I couldn’t quite explain why—perhaps because, as a scientist, that’s the way I’m trained.
Richard agreed that he wouldn’t hector his dying grandmother, but did say that it was hard for him to see how one could gain comfort from something false. He added that a lot of religious dogma, like that of hell, didn’t bring comfort at all, and he learned that, in hospices, it was the Catholics who most feared dying. What I wanted to ask, though, was for those people who really are comforted by religion, and don’t engage in any malicious activity, why would you want to dispel their faith?” We didn’t get to that, and although I have my own answer, I’ll let the readers chew it over.
I asked Richard why wrote an autobiography—a new genre for him (A: “My publisher asked me to”), and why he wrote The God Delusion (A: “I wanted to write it after 9/11, but my editor thought it wasn’t yet time. And then Bush became president, and it was time.”)
Book question: “In your book you note that ‘And insofar as anything was the making of me, Oxford was.’ Could you explain that?” Richard talked about the advantages he reaped from Oxford’s tutorial system, involving one-one-one meetings with professors and weekly essays, which, he said, were much better than conventional lectures and tests on which you’d have to regurgitate facts. When I noted that this rarified method would be difficult in a mass educational system like the U.S. , Richard suggested that one could have graduate students do the tutoring.
Accommodationism: “Do you think being a vociferous atheist makes it harder to sell evolution, because you turn off religious people?” He gave the same answer I would, which you should know if you’re a regular here, and it’s really too long to reproduce. The gist of it was that he was unable to lie just to bring people to evolution, and that there wasn’t much evidence that such accommodationism worked anyway (that was my addition). In the Q&A someone asked him why he saw religion and science as incompatible, and he gave a marvelous answer. It was along the lines that the essence of evolution, and of naturalism—and the wonder of it all—was that all of life, including human intelligence, was a product of a simple and naturalistic process. To sneak in intelligence at the very beginning, in the form of a creator or as a guider of evolution, simply “pulled the rug out from under the whole business.”
Sadly, they didn’t tape the event, as I’d like the readers to be able to hear his answers—and his humor. That video would forever silence those who accuse the man of being humorless.
On The Selfish Gene: “That book has been your best-selling work. But do you see it as your best book?” Richard said no, that he considered The Extended Phenotype as his best book, largely because of the original thought in it, which made it more than just a popularization of the ideas of others. (My favorite, for the sheer beauty of its writing and its expository clarity, is The Blind Watchmaker.)
Our conversation: two scientists on two chairs:
We talked a bit about immortality, and Richard adamantly maintained that he’d rather be dead than immortal, even in Heaven, adding that his preferred fate was simply to be anesthetized forever, which is in fact the way it is. I pointed out Hitchens’s own regret at mortality, famously encapsulated in Christopher’s quote that what’s worse than being tapped on the shoulder at a party and being told you had to leave (i.e., die) is the idea that you not only have to leave, but that the party would continue. Richard noted, though, that Hitchens had added more: “But the party would go on forever.” Richard said the idea of an infinitely long life simply didn’t appeal to him. I disagreed, saying that there would always be wine to drink and good food to eat, even if, after a while, you’d have drunk every wine and read every book. And besides, you’d presumably get to see what happened on Earth.
Finally, I asked Richard what he was proudest of in his life. He answered, “Having written The Extended Phenotype,” but I clarified my question, saying that I wasn’t asking about a book, but about what he had accomplished in general. His answer was touching: he noted that at book signings, like the one that followed the Q&A, people would often come up to him and tell him that he’d changed their lives for the better.
He wasn’t comfortable answering that question, but it was a good and honest answer and, in truth, that’s what I’d be proudest of, too.
Here’s Richard at the Q&A. The questions were pretty damn good—better than the usual run one encounters, probably because the audience was smart and many had read his books. And his answers were eloquent, even when one person asked him whether he thought that the energy of the body lived on as some kind of “mind” after the body died, and why he didn’t accept that. I knew Richard was going to come down on him when he started his answer with, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I don’t think you understand what the concept of energy is.” His answer was very polite, but devastating in content.
It was a delightful evening, marred by only one thing: the organizers screwed up and forgot to order my book, as I was supposed to be signing copies as well. I don’t regret the loss of income, which would have been trivial, but I much regret the lost opportunity to meet people and chat with them (Richard, with hundreds of people in line, has little time to exchange words with his fans.)
Reader Su even made me a poster for my nonexistent book-signing table. Here it is, with a drawing of Professor Ceiling Cat, and you can see my expression of profound regret that I didn’t get to use it.
I did sign books for some people who brought them, but I apologize to readers who expected a more formal signing, as well as a sale.
Richard is having more events like this on the west coast, with discussion and Q&A; you can see the schedule here. I think that many of them are sold out, but if you can get into one, you’re in for a treat.
Come to think of it, I should have brought my copy of The God Delusion for signing. And to the Dawkins Foundation: how about sending me an autographed version of the autobiography instead of the tattered draft copy I have, just as a reward for my hard work?