NEW YORK — The world’s foremost atheist devotes a lot of time and resources to believers.
Teaching kids they’re worthless sinners headed for hell is child abuse, Richard Dawkins said over lunch at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.
The evolutionary biologist was here to talk about “An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist,” in which he describes growing up in Africa, his intellectual awakening at Oxford and the publication of “The Selfish Gene.”
Q: What are the best things you remember about growing up?
A: Smells, sights, colors, nothing very coherent. It was just where my family lived. We had a very spoiled life, I suppose: It was like England in Edwardian times – servants, meals cooked, beds made.
I was sent away to boarding school at a very young age, which is probably not ideal, but I think I had a good education. I didn’t come away with much of a naturalist view of Africa, though. I don’t think I ever saw an elephant or a giraffe or a lion.
Q: In your teens, you were a big Elvis fan – he gave you religious inspiration?
A: It came as a blinding Damascus experience when I saw this album by Elvis called “I Believe.” I thought this was a call from God that I should devote my life to propagating not actually Christianity – I’d seen through Christianity by then – but some kind of deism.
It was my moment of thinking there was some kind of creative force behind the universe.
Q: And then what happened?
A: I saw the light – the Darwinian light.
Q: You’ve since decided to combat religion – how is it child abuse?
A: For one, telling children they’re going to hell, which is, of course, totally harmless if they don’t believe it. There’s a kind of law of inverse horribleness that the more implausible a threat is, the more horrible it has to be.
The threat that you’re going to roast forever in hell is so implausible it has to be made really horrible. That’s abuse because you are threatening a child with unspeakable horrors that never end.
Q: You have two foundations, one in England and one in the U.S.
A: More than 40 percent of the American people, according to Gallup polls, believe the world is less than 10,000 years old. That’s a very serious figure. It’s like believing North America is less than 10 yards wide.
We do mostly education, producing DVDs, YouTube films, sponsoring lectures and things like the Clergy Project.
Q: Yes, for ministers who have lost their faith.
A: They’ve become atheist, but have kept quiet about it because they can’t bear the thought of losing their jobs and their families in some cases, their social networks, their social respect.
So we set up a website with a high degree of confidentiality for these clergymen and clergywomen to meet each other online to discuss their common problems, cry on each other’s shoulders and eventually encourage each other to come out, which they’ve now started doing.
Q: You travel around saying a lot of inflammatory things about God. What’s the reception like?
A: I go out of my way to visit the Bible Belt. Everywhere you go in the Bible Belt, they claim to be the buckle.
My experience is you get a warmer reception there than you do somewhere like New York or San Francisco. The people who come are beleaguered and threatened and then they see that there are a couple of thousand others there and they get encouragement from that. I serve the purpose of bringing them together.
Q: You must get a lot of hate mail?
A: Yes. My policy is to turn it into comedy and post it on YouTube. We had a log fire and I was in a dressing gown and slippers. I read out this appalling noxious hate mail to the accompaniment of laughter from the film crew.
There were things like: “I hope you get a painful cancer.”