Crowds jammed into the Physicians Memorial Auditorium and three overflow rooms at the College of Charleston Saturday night to see Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist.
“Wow, lot of people here. Must be the rapture,” joked John Huddlestun, religious studies professor at the college and moderator of the talk. People even sat on stage to hear what was billed as the world’s most famous atheist meets the state’s most famous atheist, Herb Silverman.
Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America and a retired Charleston mathematics professor, hosted Dawkins’ appearance.
Dawkins’ entrance was greeted with a raucous standing ovation. He said he likes to tour Bible Belt towns where like-minded people often thank him for publicly supporting atheism and for challenging religious beliefs.
One woman in audience asked how to deal with being called militant or extreme because she is open about being an atheist.
“Our society has been lulled into treating religion with kid gloves,” Dawkins said. “The result is that if you use really quite soft and mild language, people hear it as militant and extreme.”
He encouraged atheists to be open about their beliefs despite pressures in a largely Christian nation to espouse a faith.
“When people discover that ordinary nice, pleasant, decent, law abiding, taxpaying people are atheists, it must make a huge difference,” Dawkins said.
The audience applauded his criticism of the view that religion keeps people morally in check.
“It is an astonishing idea that the only reason you are good is because you’re frightened of the great spy camera in sky. What a terribly ignoble reason to be good. It’s a very cynical view of humanity.”
Dawkins, referred to as the most cited scientist alive, is bestselling author of 11 books including “The God Delusion” and “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.”
His talk often returned to the idea that the natural world is so complex that a divine being must be at the helm of its creation.
“I love truth, and I think the truth about the world and about the universe is awesomely exciting,” Dawkins said.
But he cautioned that there is a difference between awe and faith.
“Don’t ever say I don’t understand something, therefore God did it,” Dawkins said to loud applause.
For instance, he questioned how people can believe Jesus literally turned water into wine or that people have souls but other animals do not. “At some point God stepped in with his divine hypodermic and injected a soul?” Dawkins quipped.