For some fringe events at this year’s conference I have been OK to pitch up with a couple of minutes to spare and still expect to get a seat. However for the ‘Reason under threat – the war on irrationality’ event with Richard ‘God Delusion’ Dawkins, I wisely plumped for getting there about 20 minutes early. Even then I ended up fairly near the back!
I found myself sitting next to an interesting chap called Alex, from Maidenhead, who explained that when he was a kid he was brought up religiously, and was taught rather confusingly that God loves him, but also that God hates him and wants to kill him. I suspect Professor Dawkins would have something to say about that!
The event itself consisted largely of the good Professor reading out excerpts from his new book The Greatest Show on Earth – The Evidence for Evolution along with some commentary. Here are a few highlights:
* He used a good analogy, for those who do not believe in evolution, trying to imagine how an argument from people who refuse to believe in the Roman Empire would pan out – which would mean Latin never existed and all languages with a Latin root had sprung up fully-formed;
* He suggested that those who deny evolution are on a par with holocaust deniers, as he claims the evidence for evolution is at least as compelling as that for the holocaust, even taking into account eye-witnesses. As usual, he is nothing if not controversial!
* He thinks that it would be easy for those who deny evolution to prove it by unearthing an anachronistic fossil – but of all the millions of fossils ever discovered, not one has ever been out of place;
* He mapped out a very amusing scenario, based around the supposed migration after the flood in the Bible, asking why all the animals ended up where they did and why there is no trace of any of them en-route.
After this he took questions, and I am pleased to say I managed to get one in. I asked about his view regarding faith schools, and what we as a party and country should do about it. He explained that he is in favour of religious education but as a subject where you learn about the history of religion and how it has affected our culture. He is passionately against indoctrination of children into religion and finds it bizarre that children can be labelled Catholic children or Muslim children just because of what their parents believe. He pointed out that you would never label a child a Monetarist child or a Keynesian child!
A few more highlights from his answers to the questions:
* He described a fascinating and ongoing experiment by Richard Lenski, an American evolutionary biologist who has simulated the equivalent of millions of years of human evolution by using bacteria in flasks and transferring a small sample to a new flask every day for over 20 years;
* He agreed that a major gap in our knowledge is the origin of life itself and that it needs further research;
* He left us with a rather odd thought. He explained that it is possible we are the only planet in the universe to have life on it. However, he said that if that is the case then it would demonstrate the event that triggered life was so staggeringly unlikely that … He didn’t finish the sentence but we all got the message – some sort of divine intervention. He also made it clear that he does think there is life on other planets!
It was a fascinating discussion and I must admit to being a little bit star-struck. Dawkins is a real hero of mine and it was great to see him in the flesh.
(As a postscript there was a certain fluffy pachyderm sitting not too far away from me at the event who afterwards actually got to sit with Richard Dawkins and get his photo taken!)
* Mark Thompson blogs at Mark Reckons.