Richard Dawkins’ Delightful Memoir Dilutes The Poison

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On Tuesday, famed evolutionary scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins' new book — a memoir called An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist — will be published here in the United States. (It came out in the United Kingdom on September 12.) Spanning the years from Dawkins' birth in Kenya in 1941 to the publication of his bestseller The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book tells the story of how Dawkins fell in love with learning and then science.

Dawkins is a controversial public figure. Last year, when I interviewed Dawkins at NPR's Washington headquarters, I found myself in keen disagreement with his style of religion-bashing. And only just last month he caused a furor when he tweeted this message:

All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

So, I approached An Appetite for Wonder with some trepidation. Indeed, the book was lampooned in The Guardian's "digested read" feature as boastful and arrogant. But what I discovered was something quite different. It's a memoir that is funny and modest, absorbing and playful. Dawkins has written a marvelous love letter to science.
 

Written By: by Barbara J. King
continue to source article at npr.org

15 COMMENTS

  1. I agree it’s a fair review. But it is funny how in the US religion has these special “please don’t offend”-priviledges, so a man should omit certain facts in his memoirs, because “they add nothing good”. That “nothing good” being a simple fact.

    Joseph Smith really was a convicted 19th century charlatan. To me, talking about mormonism without mentioning this fact would sound biased and very strange, and it will sound strange to people in a few decades. Just like to us now, writing about Josef Stalin being a Russian leader and not mentioning he was a paranoid monster, or writing about Josef Mengele being a famous doctor and not mentioning he tortured people to death conducting human experiments in concentration camps.

    • In reply to #3 by Blasphemyman:

      The Grauniad is the most miserable ,politically correct,left wing rag in the UK.
      The journalists who write within it ,do not belong in the same intellectual street as RD.

      Sorry but compared to the rest of our press, the Guardian is the best, and the only remotely left of centre paper we have. Unfortunately it does have one journalist determined to take pot shots at Dawkins for some reason. I hate that. But it is the only paper taking pot shots at our crap politicians and being remotely honest about our economic status so I guess we need it.

      • In reply to #5 by PG:

        In reply to #3 by Blasphemyman:

        The Grauniad is the most miserable ,politically correct,left wing rag in the UK.
        The journalists who write within it ,do not belong in the same intellectual street as RD.

        Sorry but compared to the rest of our press, the Guardian is the best….

        This is known as “damning with faint praise.”

  2. his people-are-programmed-by-genes rhetoric

    He doesn’t think that.

    Now, it’s not that I fully embrace all of Dawkins’ ideas… I do have an objection to the book and it’s a matter of style, rather than ideas.

    So King disagrees with Dawkins but doesn’t bother explaining why.

    I have recently had occasion to look at The Book of Mormon, fabricated by a nineteenth-century charlatan called Smith … What do these poisonous passages add to the book?

    Pointing out the fact that Smith was convicted many, many times of fraud is not poisonous, nor is inferring that the overwhelming majority of people who agree Mormonism is wrong have good reason to think that way.

  3. Below is an exchange from the comments section from the NPR webpage of where the above article appeared. Here we see the author Barbara King doubling down attempting to defend her position therewith displaying the toxicology of the undiluted poison of what is most corrosive (more than religion itself) to the atheist movement: apologetics behind a smokescreen of pseudo-rationality ordaining the suppression of truth in order to avoid possibly hurting peoples feelings.

    “Can we know what, if anything, he (Joseph Smith) genuinely BELIEVED to be truly coming to him from God. as he created the Book of Mormon? I’m not sure” King earnestly lectures us with a straight face. Can we know whether Smith’s faith spawned the abuses of women by a polygamous cult, the racism written into his scriptures (not rescinded by the Mormon Church until 1978 upon “receiving a revelation”), the $20 million Mormons (yes, NOT the belief but the persons who, according to King, we should not denigrate) contributed to defeating the right of gays to marry in California? Barbara King is not sure. Can we know what, if anything, the author of Mein Kampf genuinely BELIEVED to be truly coming to him from God when he wrote: “And so I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord.”

    Barbara King is not sure. So please, until Barbara gains certainty: no mocking. Monty Python shame on you.

    >

    Joseph Woodhouse

    I am an unapologetic student of Richard Dawkins and he has been one of the very greatest teachers in my life, so Barbara, thank you for this mostly kind review. To me, Richard has the greatest sense of humor. I see the comment, “I have recently had occasion to look at The Book of Mormon, fabricated by a nineteenth-century charlatan called Smith …” as an extremely funny statement of truth. I see no insult in it. Since when is the accurate statement of truth become an insult?*

    Barbara King NPR – Joseph Woodhouse

    This is always the blowback I get on Dawkins, so it’s expected– and I’m certainly up for discussion on this point. Here’s my answer:
    Is there no way to understand [supposed] revelation from God as in The Book of Mormon or any other text apart from the accusation of ‘charlatan’? Why should I believe that people of faith, people who think differently than I do since I’m an atheist, are frauds? For that is, after all, the definition of a ‘charlatan,’ someone who is willfully deceitful. [LATER ADDITION: I understand that Smith is a contentious example because of his history and his actions. Can we know what, if anything, he genuinely BELIEVED to be truly coming to him from God. as he created the Book of Mormon? I'm not sure. I will say that there are other examples of Dawkins' poisonous rhetoric available-- and I have written about those here in the comments, please look for those if interested, and in my Reason Rally post from '12 linked to in today's post. My overall point doesn't stand or fall on Joseph Smith. Please remember also that my review praises this book for toning down the shrill rhetoric- but it isn't absent completely]
    Dawkins has the right to deploy that word, obviously. But WHY he feels the need to denigrate the character (as opposed to challenging the beliefs) of a person of faith is something I don’t get. And no, it’s not an adequate rejoinder to say ‘atheists are insulted all the time’. That won’t cut it.
    Why not just lay out the facts?

    Joseph Woodhouse – Barbara King

    Is a person their beliefs? Or is the person the dynamic living awareness that has the potential to free itself from the prison of false belief?
    Further, what exactly is your response to people who live in a world where a wafer turns into the body of a supernatural being which they then devour?

    Barbara King NPR – Joseph Woodhouse

    My response? I’m an anthropologist: to listen, to observe practices unfolding in a community of people living their lives, to try and see the complexity beneath the surface and not assume I already understand what I see by peeking in from the outside and filtering everything through my own assumptions. Doesn’t mean I accept what the people in question say as truth, certainly doesn’t mean I see a need to mock anything.

  4. This review is better than most, but it is certainly not fair in some places, and is positively obtuse in a few others. These two clangers stood out for me:

    “How many anthropologists take his people-are-programmed-by-genes rhetoric as scientific truth?”

    When did Dawkins, or anyone with functioning brain cells, ever claim that people are 100% programmed by genes? When did Dawkins ever deny that behavior, or even a morphological structure like a spider’s leg, is always the result of a combination of genes and environment? Did he not say that, even if we have a genetic tendency to be selfish in most circumstances, that we can TEACH other forms of behavior? Did he not repeat this over and over again in The Selfish Gene, and his other books??? And again and again in decades of articles and interviews, most of which are freely accessible with a google search?

    What was it about TSG, which she appears to have read, that Barbara did not get? Was the fertilizer analogy, simple enough for a child to understand, too much for her to grasp what is meant by the term “a gene for X”?

    What is wrong with these so-called bright people, many of whom are unfortunately liberals like me, that they can’t even understand Dawkins’ simple arguments well enough to represent them properly in print?

    Also, given the state of anthropology these days, I’m not sure I care what many anthropologists think. I would be more interested in what evolutionary biologists, geneticists, ethologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists think.

    Then she takes offense to this statement:

    “I have recently had occasion to look at The Book of Mormon, fabricated by a nineteenth-century charlatan called Smith …”

    Well, was it not a fabrication? Does Barbara herself think it likely that it wasn’t? And was Joe Smith not a charlatan?
    Of course, Barbara would certainly agree that The Book of Mormon is a fabrication and Smith was a charlatan. But apparently, she thinks that nobody should be saying this out loud. Or, they should be finding delicate ways of saying it that do not offend the sensibilities of Mormons.

    I guess such a statement would look something like this:

    “I recently had occasion to look at The Book of Mormon. I came to the conclusion that it was a fabrication because there is no evidence to support the many claims about reality that the book makes. In fact, a great many of these claims are implausible on their face, as they contradict fundamental laws of physics. There are also numerous sloppy errors of composition and obvious historical inaccuracies. The book is also littered with contradictions, and hence is not even internally consistent. So in order for this book to be true, we would have to 1) rip up our current understanding of many broad areas of natural science 2) construct an alternative recent human history and patterns of migration across continents, and 3) ignore logical consistency completely.

    Now, since the quality of a book says something of its author, I wondered who could have written it, so I informed myself of the life details of its author. I discovered that, at best, Joe Smith was an extremely incompetent and deluded man, and at worst, a malicious huckster. Either way he was clearly a charlatan, because he spent most of his life representing both himself and reality as something other than they are.

    This is my honest opinion based on my best use of reason and evidence as applied to the assertions of the Mormon religion. Mormonism appears to have as much validity as Scientology or young-Earth creationism. Which is to say, zero validity.

    However, I can see how everything that I have just written might be considered offensive to Mormons. So please understand that I hold the Mormon faith in the highest respect, or something like that. I’m sure that many good things are done in the name of Mormonism (and Scientology and young-Earth creationism, for that matter). And rest easy; I would never challenge, say, a Mormon political candidate on the factual basis of his or her beliefs. Even if such people are seeking positions of great power and responsibility over us, such challenges would make him or her uncomfortable, and we mustn’t ever do that to people in public forums. Also, a person’s firmly held religious beliefs about the nature of reality never have any correspondence with how they think and behave in real life.

    So please, dear Mormon, do not take offense to my honest and well-supported assertion that your religion is almost surely false and was founded by a charlatan.”

    Would that be better?

    • And, are anthropologists the ultimate arbiters of scientific truth? I am wondering just how many anthropologists know as much about genes as Richard (or me for that matter)….

      In reply to #9 by blitz442:

      This review is better than most, but it is certainly not fair in some places, and is positively obtuse in a few others. These two clangers stood out for me:

      “How many anthropologists take his people-are-programmed-by-genes rhetoric as scientific truth?”

      When did Dawkins, or anyone with functionin…

  5. Pericles won the osktrakon poll and was banished. Why? Athenians just got tired of hearing what a great person he was and all his good deeds. This effect is part of what encourages pot shots at Dawkins.

    If you are not enjoying a shower of virtual vegetables, you are not accomplishing enough.

  6. I found myself in keen disagreement with his style of religion-bashing

    There are basically two styles: pretending not to notice that religions are lies and cons and not pretending.

    The first is in itself lying. The author prefers a polite liar.

    • In reply to #13 by Roedy:

      There are basically two styles: pretending not to notice that religions are lies and cons and not pretending.

      The first is in itself lying. The author prefers a polite liar.

      So… so… BULLSEYE!

      Busy memorising to ensure faithful duplication forever.

      It’s never easy to build a novel axiom.

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