December 2016By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.
An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. By Richard Dawkins. Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins). 320 pages. $15.99.
A more apt title for Richard Dawkinss memoir of his early life would have been My Descent into Nihilism: The Making of an Anti-Theist. Surprisingly, Dawkins, a notoriously militant atheist, reveals how he experienced faith in Jesus Christ as a child, believed in angels and miracles, prayed fervently, and even enjoyed a personal intimacy with God. He lost his faith around age seventeen.
Dawkinss faith was fostered not by his parents but by his teachers. At age seven he was sent to a boarding school where he prayed incessantly that the matron would somehow be transformed into my mother. He didnt think it would take a very big miracle to effect that transformation. He still remembers the exact words of the prayer he and the other boys would say at bedtime. When he was bullied once, he told himself, If I prayed hard enough, I could call down supernatural powers to give the bullies their come-uppance. Since he did not get the hoped-for results, he concluded that he had not prayed hard enough.
As a child on his fathers farm, he prayed that he might communicate with animals: I wished and prayed and willed all the animals from miles around to converge on Over Norton Park, and me in particular, so that I could do good works for them. Here was a budding St. Francis! He prayed like this so often, he says, that he must have been deeply influenced by preachers. Indeed, he even believed you could move mountains if your faith was strong enough. From his present God-hating perspective, Dawkins debunks the fervent faith of his childhood as naïve and gullible. From what he says, however, it is evident that he once had a close relationship with God, a relationship he tragically renounced in order to be accepted by a couple of fellow students. One is reminded of St. Peter, who writes, It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them (2 Pet. 2:21).
At age thirteen, Dawkins was in his last year of prep school when the headmaster, an extremely religious man, arranged for the Anglican boys to be confirmed into the Church of England. While preparing for his confirmation, Dawkins says, I became intensely religious . I prayed every night, not kneeling at the bed, but curled up in a fetal position inside it, in what I confided to myself was my own little corner with God. Here we have a glimpse of the intimacy he had with God before he apostatized. He confesses that at that time he longed to, but dared not, steal down into the chapel in the middle of the night and kneel at the altar where, I believed, an angel might appear to me in a vision. How near to him was supernatural reality!
Then he went to a school where peer pressure was notoriously strong, and he became an abject victim of it. This is the cause of his apostasy: The dominant motivation for doing anything in that school was to be accepted by the influential natural leaders among us. Yet for a time he still loved participating in sung Masses, such as Bachs B-Minor Mass and Haydns Imperial Mass, as well as in Handels Messiah. In his first year, too, he even went to Holy Communion a few times.
When he rejected his faith, he was at first only a follower. One of his two comrades, in whose company I later refused to kneel in chapel, persuaded me of the full force of Darwins brilliant idea. The phrase in whose company suggests that his defiance in chapel was a matter of fellowship. The three of them acted out a militantly anti-religious part, sitting defiantly upright like proud, volcanic islands in an ocean of bowed necks. This image is striking: a volcano, after all, is fed by fires from deep below. He says that he and his two companions were proud, and pride, of course, is the original sin, the cause of the fall of man. It is plain that Dawkins was but a follower; when his English teacher asked him in class to explain why I was leading a rebellion against kneeling in chapel, he could only stammer and demur.
As recently as his confirmation, Dawkins had urged his mother to go to church. But now he agreed with her, who had told him at around age nine that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldnt all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up? Up to age sixteen, he had been impressed by the beauty and apparent design of the living world and had firmly believed that it required a designer. Even when his father explained Darwins theory to him, he remained unmoved: I didnt think it was a big enough theory to do the job. He could see that the exquisite order all around us could not possibly come from blind, purposeless chance, as Darwin taught. It took blind submission to peer pressure to bring him around to that absurd, nihilistic worldview and to make him shed his last vestige of theistic credulity.
Although Dawkins tells us a lot about his childhood faith, he dismisses it as unimportant because he doesnt believe the child is the same person as the adult. He claims that some of our deepest-thinking philosophers have debunked the illusion of our personal continuity through time. Really? Of course, since Dawkins, like other Darwinists, denies the reality of the soul and free will and puts human beings on a plane with chimps and other animals, he has no foundation for positing a substantial continuity through life.
At Oxford University, Dawkins studied zoology and wrote a dissertation on the pecking behavior of chicks. After this, he wrote on the drinking behavior of chicks, on self-grooming in flies, and on crickets attraction to different songs. In An Appetite for Wonder he devotes page after page to these dreary topics. This brings to mind what Alexander Pope said about the atheists of his day in the mid-eighteenth century: O! Would the Sons of Men once think their Eyes / And Reason givn them but to study Flies! / See Nature in some partial narrow shape, / And let the Author of the Whole escape .
Besides this research, Dawkins went on to make a computer program that generated random and meaningless but scrupulously grammatical sentences. For what purpose? He doesnt say. This too reminds one of Popes Dunciad, where learned atheists boast of their superficial approach to learning: Like buoys, that never sink into the flood, / On Learnings surface we but lie and nod. They never take the full measure of mans beaming soul.
In 1976 Dawkins, at age thirty-six, published The Selfish Gene, the book that eventually led him to an endowed chair at Oxford, among other honors. He admits that the book contained no original thinking; it was just a new way of presenting what Darwinist scholars had been saying since the 1930s. In the preface to the second edition, he confesses that it was a popularization of neo-Darwinism based on genetics. After writing on chicks, crickets, and flies, he now took the microscopic gene as his subject and gave it godlike importance as our creator and ruler. His debunking our human nature accorded so well with the Zeitgeist that it immediately catapulted him to global fame.
In The Selfish Gene Dawkins insists that genes created us, body and mind, and that their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. We are merely robots who have been blindly programmed to serve as the genes temporary survival machines. When we have served our turn, we are cast aside, whereas genes go on and on because they are immortal. Blindly programmed implies that we have no free will, and cast aside that we, unlike the genes, have no immortal souls. O, how far Dawkins fell from his childhood belief in God, miracles, and angels! His current worldview echoes another atheist, the poet Swinburne, who wrote in The Sundew that since a flower will be reborn year after year when we have vanished forever, it is worthy of our worship: Bow down and worship; more than we / Is the least flower whose life returns, / Least weed renascent in the sea.
Some readers of The Selfish Gene have written to Dawkins over the years to say that his book threw them into depression because it makes the world so meaningless. His reply in the thirtieth-anniversary edition of the book is, So what? Its the truth, he says, and besides, we dont really need a meaningful cosmos. At the end of Appetite for Wonder he says he hopes to spend the rest of his life persuading people of Darwins own truth, bleak and nihilistic as it is, and serving, with no hope of eternal life, as one of the laborers in Darwins vineyard. He sees a great harvest of atheists to be reaped in this age of Western apostasy!
DOSSIER: Atheism & Its Discontents
DOSSIER: Evolution, Science & Intelligent Design