More cheers arose when Dawkins answered a question about morality being based on belief in an afterlife of punishment and reward by saying how ridiculous it is for people to think that only religion can keep us morally in check. He added that fear of punishment by a deity is a cynical and ignoble reason to be good. And applause erupted again after Dawkins urged us to always search for evidence and to never say “God did it” if we don’t have an answer.
While there were Christians in the audience, none asked pointed questions. I hope they didn’t feel intimidated by the hundreds of passionate atheists around them. Richard Dawkins is a rock star in the atheist movement, and it was very gratifying to see such large, young, and enthusiastic crowds of atheists, confirming for me that it’s not your grandfather’s South Carolina anymore.
Later, as Dawkins and I sat together for book signings, I was moved when so many people told him that reading the book he was signing had changed their lives. People were thrilled to shake his hand, to chat briefly, and to have a picture taken with him.
Dawkins recently completed the first book of a two-volume set of his autobiography, to be published soon. I’m pleased that he wrote the foreword to my one and only autobiography. When he asked me for advice on how to remain humble when writing an autobiography, I said that I had a great advantage—because I had so much more to be humble about.
Of course, many more people wanted to buy Dawkins’ books than mine. One person playfully asked how it feels to play second fiddle to Dawkins. I said, “It feels great. First, I get to play the fiddle. And second, I get to play it with Richard Dawkins!”
As I walked away from the auditorium, I overheard a student who had not been present ask a friend who Richard Dawkins was. The reply was most revealing: “Richard Dawkins is really famous, but he doesn’t act like he is.” So true, and March 9 was certainly a big night in the Bible Belt—thanks to Richard Dawkins.
Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.