On October 12th I attended a lecture given by evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Richard Dawkins. Fresh out of a reading given by legendary fiction writer Dame A.S. Byatt and thus feeling fulfilled that way, I found a seat in the packed IU Auditorium in the second row from the front, up in the balcony. I understood previously Dawkins’ fame as popular science writer and the local Athiest kids had tagged up campus with chalk about a week prior to the talk, so I sort of had an idea about what his shtick would be. The place filled to capacity in no time and with fanfare, Dawkins strolled out onstage in a light-colored suit. He read from his newest book, The Greatest Show on Earth.

This is where I started to bristle. Firstly, I seem to recall a warning he gave, a cultural caveat regarding his being British and capering before an American audience, and that the following passages were how “we (the British) saw things”. Fine.  He then read this passage about how silly (logistically) the Noah’s Ark myth is, poking holes in it (ha) and generally receiving warm sounds from the assembly. I was disappointed because A.) after hearing a real writer read, I was disappointed in his scientist’s prose, and B.) was upset that unlike greater pop-sci writers, say, Carl Sagan for instance, or Jared Diamond, he spent the entire passage bashing a myth and may have offered a sentence in explanation, saying something to the tune of, “science is the answer”. Okay, fine. If you’re going to blow something out of the water (ha!) at least give me something to grasp in its stead. Destroying a defenseless myth seemed a little too easy, a little too expected. I began to wonder if the rest of the book was in that tenor, and whether it might be better suited for academic criticism than Barnes & Noble, perhaps available for free on JStor. People clapped when he had finished, their cognitive ability generally unapproached, and thus an atmosphere of anticipation (rather than appreciation) fell over us for the next segment: Q&A!!

The Q&A section promised something closer to what I’d come expecting, anyway; a snapshot of one of science writing’s leading minds in action, volleying back and forth with the crowd and proving some mettle. Argument! Discussion! Illumination! Lines formed in the two aisles below me, at the front of each a microphone so that people from both sides of the Auditorium might get a chance to ask something. The first question was posed by a Turkish student and it went something like, “When will your website be legal in my country?” or “When will (X atheist event) happen in Turkey?”. He spoke eloquently and the room had a good laugh that Dawkins’ site is banned in Turkey. I should have guessed, however, (damn my stupidity) what the questioner demographics were. Here they are, as you, being significantly more aware than me, might have guessed:

  • 85%: Atheists
  • 25%: Scientists
  • 5%: Drunk Idiots
  • 25%: Post-Christians

The steady stream of Atheists was punctuated now and again in that half-hour or hour with a few earnest questions. By “earnest” I mean “knowledge-seeking”. One poor bastard, a Christian, (read: same thing as an Atheist standing up to speak during a Pentacostal snake-handling session) said something like, “Why don’t you expound on your beliefs via the Bible, or at least take the holy book into account” and was met with requisite heckling from the crowd and an uncouth remark from the stage which echoed something like, “and why would I believe a thing from a book written by a bunch of goat-herders”, to which the crowd, reaffirmed, gave great approval.

One young man, stunned and breathless, exclaimed, panting: “I may be an Atheist but you,” and here he stuttered, “a-are a god to me.” The crowd didn’t exactly love the sound of that, and neither did Dawkins. He looked very unhappy, shaking his head “no” and scissoring his arms before his body as an NFL official might as a forward pass is dropped, saying “No, no”. I can’t remember what question this kid asked but I do recall its tone, falling somewhere between self-affirming and and self-aggrandizing. So began the rise of the Atheist Church in that auditorium, and what a pitiful display it was. They disappointed me, the Atheists, or at least these Atheists; their questions rang hollow with regurgitated rhetoric, they themselves clearly desiring to hear answers they already knew and the ones they knew Dawkins would offer to their queries. Dawkins didn’t disappoint, continually defining aloud the thrust of his beliefs and thus, theirs.

I looked down the row to my right, and again to my left, recognized the glittering eyes and heard in the questioners’ voices the old, familiar, religious quaver. It occurred to me then, with no little irony, that these empiricists, the skeptical horde, desperately sought someone to turn to, to hold aloft as a paradigm to strive toward and there he was, standing before  and above them bathed in light and listening, listening to their endless questions…of course the analogue is too easy, especially in terms of stage performance logistics. I’m being a little hard on the kids, too, and I’m almost done. I bore in mind all the while that Dawkins had asked for none of this…perhaps. It’s wrong to say he’d “elected” himself Grand Poobah of anything, but when does a prominent figure in a given field/belief system become responsible for realizing (and in this case, remedying) his own exaltation at the hands of the assembled mob?

Another questioner, the last one I’ll mention, told a sad tale as a precursor to a question of psychological nature. Approximately: he confessed to having been brought up Catholic and five years back quitting all that (a man after my own heart!) and since has turned to Atheism. He couldn’t shake, however, the fear of Hell instilled in him by the good friars, nuns, fathers, or whomever. “How do I do it, Dr. Dawkins,” he said. Clearly he was suffering, this young man. “Well,” Dawkins began, “it seems you’ve become a rational adult…” and his tone was conciliatory, warm, and approached sympathy. The crowd sensed this and reacted like as a whole, as if the place housed a hive mind. Their movement was subtle, and impossible to discern at ground level. From the balcony, I witnessed a small lurch pass over them like a wave coming inward toward the boy questioner. He took a step back, either as an emotional response to Dawkins’ kindness or an unconscious response to the wall of crowed attention crashing about him. I was revolted at the “Atheist help group” tone the show had taken. So much back-patting and grab-ass, so much reaffirmation. It was religious, plain and simple. “Support” is a common reason people attend church. There stood a priest on a podium, doling compassion to the lost.

Dawkins stormed for awhile about how wrong it is for parents to force their religion on children, which I agree with but the wind had been taken from my sails. I endured a few more questions and got up to leave when it was over, deflated and amused for having discovered that this, one of the figureheads of Humanist/Atheist culture, wasn’t more than a shaman for people who disapprove of shamans.