I had been trying to persuade bestselling author Richard Dawkins to give a talk in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina for a long time, so I was thrilled when he agreed to speak at the College of Charleston on March 9. But instead of giving a typical lecture, he suggested a format I liked even more: having an amicable conversation with him over a glass of wine on stage.
Local organizations sponsoring the event included the College of Charleston Departments of Biology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies; the Secular Students of Charleston; and the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Anticipating a big audience, I reserved the College’s largest auditorium, which seats 500.
Local reporters were eager to interview Dr. Dawkins by phone and to write about him before he arrived. However, I was once again struck by how frequently articles about atheists include comments from ministers, as this nice piece about Dawkins reveals. I hasten to say I’m pleased that positive voices on atheism are finally getting coverage, even if they are invariably countered by opposing voices. I wonder how long it will be until articles about religious leaders include any comments by atheists.
As local and regional enthusiasm grew about Dawkins’ appearance, we began to worry that the auditorium might not suffice, so we reserved two overflow rooms with a capacity of 100 each. Fortunately, the event could be streamed to those rooms.
As it turned out, we had vastly underestimated the public’s interest in Dawkins. The event was to begin at 7 p.m., but by 5:30 the auditorium was filled, and by 6:00 both rooms had overflowed. We then opened a third room, with the same result, leaving many sitting or standing in the aisles. Finally, we even allowed people to sit on the stage floor, just a few feet away from where Dr. Dawkins and I would be conversing. Although we managed to accommodate about 1200, at least a couple hundred had to be turned away. Fortunately, the event was videoed, and it should be on YouTube in a few weeks. Check the Richard Dawkins Foundation website for details.
After an introduction by Sean Faircloth, Director of Policy and Strategy at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Richard and I walked onto the stage to a standing ovation. When the applause finally died down, I thanked the audience for applauding me, indicating that I understood for whom the applause was really intended.
This reminded me of the time I was working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Atlanta with Jimmy Carter and about 100 others. We usually had dinner together at nearby black churches. One day, I happened to walk in with Jimmy Carter, and all the church members stood and applauded enthusiastically. I whispered to Jimmy, “I hope you don’t mind. This happens to me wherever I go.”
Dawkins explained that he first wrote expository books on science to help make it accessible to non-scientists, and that his interest in promoting science motivated him to engage conflicts caused by religious beliefs, where fundamentalists often treat the Bible as a scientific text.
I asked Dawkins if he agreed with the quote from Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, that “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Before Dawkins had a chance to answer, most of the audience broke into applause. Dawkins just smiled in assent. More applause erupted when Dawkins said that teaching children that a God can send them to hell is child abuse.
After we had talked for about fifty minutes, the next hour belonged to the audience, who had more questions than even an additional hour could satisfy. One young woman said that she had been accused of being a militant atheist because she was open about her atheism. In response, Dawkins praised her and pointed out that society has been so loath to criticize religion that even the mildest criticism is seen as militant. And he encouraged atheists to be as open about their status as are religious believers. Then the public will come to understand that atheists are also ordinary, decent, law abiding, taxpaying people.
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.