Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Richard Dawkins In Minnesota

Last night I drove to Rochester, Minnesota to see in person the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. He's attained that level of worldwide cultural permeation such that to ask who he is is to disqualify you from among those who have been paying attention to important matters. I believe this was his first visit to our insecure, xenophobic state. I wasn't about to miss it.

He appeared alongside a third rate performer from Los Angeles, Julia Sweeney, a somewhat shrill woman who had an epiphany in Mass one day and saw through the whole thing. Unlike the Flannery O'Connor character who loses his Catholicism and becomes a tedious Bible thumping fundamentalist, Sweeney left religion altogether. Or so it initially appeared.

I wasn't sure what to expect and so had no substantive expectations. At a minimum, I thought I'd hear a thoughtful disquisition about biology, evolution and modernity's science-based crowding out of God from our lives, which has been going on for some time, certainly long before Dawkins saw a profitable role in being atheism's traveling minstrel player. Hawkin' Dawkins.

At more than 700 paying customers, the attendance at this event was nothing to belittle. A very warm, gorgeous Tuesday evening in this Mayo-centric place, the Dawkins event was the only show in town. I was happy to be reminded of the verdant beauty of greater Minnesota that I saw driving between St. Paul and Rochester.

The program began with an off-putting series of short videos, essentially haranguing the audience to become a member of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, with any number of membership levels available depending upon how much one wanted to pay in support of the cause. The similarity to televangelist pitches was so palpable that I couldn't shake it off for the balance of the evening. Of course, other analogies to religion and religious fervor and structure that I saw that evening didn't help.

At any rate a caricature of newly elected Iowa senator Joni Ernst appeared, with a comment from her about climate change. What this had to do with the thoughtful examination of life, biology, evolution and, not to be grandiose, cosmology I had no idea. Initially. Gradually, it dawned on me that the audience was to receive continuous reinforcement as to its specialness, its faux bravery in attending this event and its innate sense of superiority to those unenlightened fools who still believe.

After the hard sell to join the atheist borg, Dawkins and Sweeney took the stage, sitting comfortably in over-stuffed chairs with a small table between them. A somewhat scripted conversation took place between them, not without glitches and awkward pauses or unintentional non-sequiturs, for about forty-five minutes. In it, we learned that Dawkins sometimes identifies as a cultural Anglican, that Sweeney misses the community of her Irish-Catholicism despite her professed atheism even as she admitted, once Dawkins brought it up, that she was considering joining the Unitarian Church. She waxed oleaginous over Pope Francis and what she perceived as his very liberal social policies on any number of topics, marriage, sexuality and abortion notwithstanding. I could be forgiven for thinking, momentarily, that the entire elaborate event was designed to gaslight me.

The discussion between Sweeney & Dawkins was a missed opportunity. The audience was educated, attentive and obviously self-selected. Instead of a serious talk between two people about important subjects, we were treated instead to a devotee making nice to the guru, who indulged his not-as-intelligent stage companion. To his credit, Richard Dawkins is invariably polite and civil, no small accomplishment in the age of snipe, sneer and snigger.

Question time, however, was an even greater disappointment. Out of perhaps a dozen or more, I counted only two that had intellectual meat on them, and one of those dealt with the late Christopher Hitchens and the still very much with us Sam Harris. Oddly, the sound configuration of the auditorium made it hard for Dawkins on stage to fully hear what was being asked; this was a metaphor too obvious to miss.

I came close to being called upon but no luck. I had wanted to ask Dawkins about Thomas Nagel and his 2012 book "Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False." Nagel, himself an atheist, is one of the world's great living philosophers. His book caused an enormous upheaval in any number of disciplines. Specifically, I wanted to ask Dawkins what he thought about this quote from the book:

"The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the physical world, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind."

For something like $250 I could have spent a couple of hours with Dawkins before the main event but I'm allergic to paying for access to people like that. Perhaps I was mistaken to think in a Q & A session with an audience this large serious philosophical questions could be entertained. Yet the premise of the evening's event was just that. It was never realized.

At the conclusion people rushed to stand in line for Dawkins to sign books in specially set-off rooms. He had asked that people refrain from requesting personalized inscriptions because of the additional time it took plus the invariable question as to spelling a particular name: is that Caitlyn with a C or a K?

Leaving the Mayo Civic Center I saw a young man barrel past me, a strong but grim look on his face. His t-shirt proclaimed "I think therefore I am an ATHEIST."

It provided an unwitting but perfect coda to my first attendance at a secular church meeting.

UPDATE: The Guardian ran a remarkable piece "Is Richard Dawkins Destroying His Reputation?" that was brought to my attention by my friend, Canadian author and blogger Denyse O'Leary. It can be read by clicking here.