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Richard Dawkins is emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. His most recent is An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, part one of a two-part memoir. He has inspired millions with his popular science books, yet also drawn fire for controversial remarks—particularly on religion. Rowan Hooper wanted to know how he feels about his public image and if, at 72, he worries his role as the world's most famous atheist will eclipse his scientific legacy.
Rowan Hooper: You have just published part one of your memoir. Is it intended as a humanizing exercise, to show you're not a mean, nasty baddie?
Richard Dawkins: I don't know how many people think I'm mean. I'm certainly not and I didn't consciously set out to do any image-cleaning or anything. I like to think it's an honest portrayal of how I really am. And I hope it is human, yes.
RH: Nevertheless, there's a gulf between the real you and the caricature Richard Dawkins. How has that come about?
RD: I have two theories which are not mutually exclusive. One is the religion business. People really, really hate their religion being criticized. It's as though you've said they had an ugly face, they seem to identify personally with it. There is a historical attitude that religion is off-limits to criticism.
Also, some people find clarity threatening. They like muddle, confusion, obscurity. So when somebody does no more than speak clearly it sounds threatening.
RH: You definitely polarize people. How do you feel about the hate mail you get?
RD: I did a film that's on YouTube of me reading hate mail with a woman playing the cello in the background. Sweet strains to contrast with this awful, "you fucking wanker Dawkins" and so on. Making comedy of it is a pretty good way of absorbing it.
Written By: Rowan Hooper
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