Richard Dawkins to discuss atheism, evolutionary biology at the C of C

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins sat in a Colorado hotel room last week before heading out to protest the Good News Clubs, which take Bible-based after-school activities to public schools, while he mused about his upcoming foray into the Holy City.

He’s excited about coming.

“I love going to the Bible Belt!” Dawkins exclaimed. “I seem to get rather enthusiastic audiences.”

Indeed. The internationally known evolutionary biologist has popularized — some would say polarized — a debate between evolution and atheism on one hand, creationism and faith on another.

Dawkins will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday at the College of Charleston in a talk billed as the world’s most famous atheist meets South Carolina’s most famous atheist. The latter is Herb Silverman, a Charlestonian and founder of the Secular Coalition for America, who will interview Dawkins at the Physicians Memorial Auditorium.

Silverman promises a healthy store of intellectual-bending questions such as: How do Christians believe in biblical stories they know aren’t scientifically true?

“I prefer having evidence-based answers,” said Silverman, also a retired mathematics professor and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”

His friend, Dawkins, an exceedingly polite man with a British accent, fully agrees and is even known to turn a wee bit pugnacious when people defend biblical creationism or place it on par with evolution.

“There is this view that somehow belief carries value beyond evidence,” said Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design” and others.

For instance, one tenet of Christianity is a belief in original sin (Adam’s disobedience in the garden). But Dawkins contends that evolution has proven there was no Adam, no single original Homo sapiens man, so the narrative is negated. Not to mention all of the raising-from-the-dead and other scientifically impossible miracles and acts.

“I believe in scientific truth and think that scientific truth is inspiring,” Dawkins said. “One of the most interesting questions to answer is whether there is an intelligent designer. The answer is no.”

Yet, for the religious faithful, Dawkins misses the point.

“It takes far more faith to believe there is no God then to believe there is one,” said the Rev. Ed Grant, pastor of Calvary Lutheran in West Ashley. “The beauty and complexity of nature, and especially the intricate design of the human body, bear the stamp and signature of an unseen God. His invisibility, a stumbling block to sense-dependent people, cannot be allowed to diminish the evidence his creation provides.”

The faithful point to the intricacy of complex organisms or systems as proof of a divine creator. Take the number of simultaneous evolutionary “coincidences” required to create something as complex as, say, a working human eye. Could evolution alone achieve that?

“It really doesn’t take very long to evolve something as complicated as an eye,” Dawkins countered. “(Charles) Darwin showed that we don’t need a creator. We don’t need to be fooled by what looks as though it was designed.”

Which raises another common argument: Without God, how did life arise from nonlife?

“There is not a hard-and-fast line between being alive and not alive,” Dawkins said. “And there never was a moment when something went from being not alive to alive.”

To Dawkins, it comes down to a lack of scientific knowledge.

More than once while being interviewed, he exhorted something like: “If they’d only read a book!”

And he’s not talking about the Bible.

Therein rests his greatest influence beyond academia. Dawkins has become a best-selling author and arguably the most influential evolutionary scientist today by writing books that are intellectual yet accessible to most curious readers.

Since launching to best-seller status in 1976 with his first book, “The Selfish Gene,” he has since published 10 more.

His most recent, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” was published in 2011. It targets readers roughly in middle school on up and explains how science refutes the world’s various creation “myths” and claims of an original god-made human, among many other topics.

He wrote it partly due to his irritation at seeing children “indoctrinated” into religion without knowing the science those beliefs must reject. He takes particular umbrage to telling children they will go to hell if they don’t believe or act accordingly: “That makes me really angry,” he said.

However, the Rt. Rev. Steve Wood, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Carolinas and rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Mount Pleasant, takes issue with Dawkins comparing religious education, such as telling children they could go to hell, to “child abuse.”

“Does it then follow that children being raised in ‘fire and brimstone’ households should be made wards of the state to protect them from such abuse?” Wood asked. “How much latitude and discretion do you think parents should have in raising their children? Would you, for example, allow young Earth creationists to home-school their youngsters?”

While Wood will be out of town for Dawkins’ talk, he encourages church members and theology students to attend.

Dawkins says he welcomes them all. But he especially enjoys meeting his fellow atheists.

“They are not as alone as they thought,” Dawkins said.

Most atheists feel the scorn of others who view them as inherently bad because they don’t believe in a divine authority.

“We are just ordinary people,” Dawkins said. “We have altruism.”

Atheists who act charitably do so “because it’s the right thing to do, not because we expect a reward,” Silverman said.

Therefore, he added, atheists might be the most altruistic of all, a contention sure to generate even more debate.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerry Hawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.

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