This past weekend Richard Dawkins was in NYC for two separate events. The first was on Friday March 14th at a Barnes & Noble book store. He read from the new paperback edition of The God Delusion, did a Q&A, and signed books. The second event was a lecture at the Ethical Culture Society. Since I have been a fan of Dawkins since before the whole "new" atheist movement I went to both events.
The Friday bookstore event started at 7 PM and being hard core I arrived at 5 PM. I wasn't the first though. There was one guy there ahead of me. They started setting up chairs and soon we could sit to wait out the two hours. I sat right in front of the podium and signing table. As I joked too many times I could have given Dawkins a foot massage as he sat there. Luckily an interesting physicist from Binghamton sat next to me so our conversation made the time go quickly. But I was kind of hoping a religious nut would sit next to me to help pass the time in a different way. (A nice heated discussion to keep the blood pressure up.)
I think the seats filled up soon after 6 PM and by 7 the standing crowd was who knows how deep. I couldn't see very well from my sweet spot in the front. Dawkins arrived but just walked by generating anticlimactic applause. I guess they don't have a back door to the green room. (Yes, B&N has a green room. I overheard a worker mention it earlier.) Dawkins came out sporting a zebra tie (I mean a tie with pictures of zebras on it, not zebra stripes) and a nice red 'A' pin. The pin looked very fancy and I can't find it for sale anywhere so it must be a custom job.
I've already heard and read the new paperback preface in various forms so I kind of tuned out during the reading and just enjoyed his nice accent. (You can see another reading of it here.) I was more interested in the Q&A session and I hoped there would either be thought provoking questions or bat-shit insane questions. Anything in between is too boring. I was somewhat satisfied. I can't remember them all, but here they are in the approximate order they were asked:
1. A journalist (supposedly) asked if Dawkins was invited to some conference about a new aspect of evolution called the theory of form or something like that. Dawkins knew about it but couldn't remember anything about the conference. It has something to do with the basic forces in physics causing the form of living things to change over time. I couldn't find anything during the 10 second span of my patience for google searching just now. Dawkins seemed to say it was important and needed more research but it couldn't explain adaptation as fully as natural selection does.
2. Someone asked Dawkins how he became an atheist. Didn't she read the book? It would be hard for me to think of a more boring question than that one. In any event I'm sure Dawkins makes various evolution proponents cringe with his albeit honest story of how Darwin's theory led to his atheism. The fears of the Bible Belt school boards are confirmed!
3. There was a good question about why there seems to be a correlation between science fiction fans and atheism. The questioner mentioned Dawkins various references to people like Asimov and Douglas Adams. I certainly could be included in those data points. Dawkins commented that no one asked him that before and had to think for a moment of an answer. He suspected it had something to do with having a good scientific imagination. Good question whoever you are! That is why I never bothered to ask a question because I could not think of anything unique enough.
4. A large man in my front row with a clip board asked a longish question about why Dawkins doesn't consider the large numbers of Christians (he mentioned Joel Osteen's mega church) as evidence. Another boring question and not quite crack-potty enough to pique my interest. You could tell Dawkins switched on the various set answers he has memorized to these set questions he gets asked over and over and over.
5. Finally we got a nut. He was a bit far away, and I had to crane my neck but he seemed to resemble Wilford Brimley. He asked Dawkins why he had to go to the extremes of atheism with the "Hitlers and Stalins" instead of more reasonable agnosticism. He said a lot more and had to be shouted down by the crowd and the no-nonsense B&N lady. It was funny because just a little earlier I joked to my physicist friend there that we should make an atheist drinking game that included drinking whenever Hitler or Stalin are mentioned. Dawkins again gave the standard reply basically saying what he has already wrote in his book (level 6, not a 7 atheist.) that the angry man has obviously never read.
6. Another guy asked a question regarding Sam Harris' (now I know what I should have asked: how Dawkins (and Harris too) make their last names possessive. Dawkins's? Dawkins'?) research on the neurology of belief. He didn't express the question clearly and Dawkins hasn't read Harris' paper so he skipped that question.
7. An attractive young woman asked him what she should say to those annoying subway preachers. This led to a funny moment where Dawkins asked if there were really preachers on the trains and all of us New Yorkers in the audience started yelling out yes! welcome to NY! etc. Dawkins said it would depend on what the person was saying, but in general he doesn't engage those people (he mentioned e-mails and debate requests too) because they never let you go.
8. The final question asked Dawkins what his long term goals are. I can't remember what he said exactly here. Sorry! (Probably something about raising consciousness...)
Being right in the front I got my book signed super quick. I brought my Japanese copy of the God Delusion which caused Dawkins to pause a bit to exchange a few words with me about that. (I mentioned there was a Richard Dawkins fan group on the Japanese social network Mixi.) Here it is:The next day was a Saturday so I figured I should get there even earlier. I arrived 2.5 hours early at 4:30 PM. A substantial line had already formed on the sidewalk. By the time the doors opened after 6:30 PM I heard the thick line had already stretched across the entire long city block. I think most of the people got in but the 800 seats were full and some were turned away.
By chance a couple of guys from NYC Skeptics were on line near me. Along with a friendly chap who drove all the way from Boston, we passed the time having a deep and witty atheistic conversation. Being a captive audience on line, various folks were handing us pamphlets for things like veganism or Lyndon LaRouche. A man claiming to be a playwright wearing a Satanic red shirt was soliciting interviews with atheists from the line. Regrettably I missed a chance to speak with him which would have given me some more material for the blog here.
Eventually we got in. I felt no need to sit in the front row a second time so I stayed with my NYCS buddies. Dawkins gave a great lecture which I enjoyed a lot because there was a lot of new material and the multimedia slide show was very well done. One point I thought was interesting was that we don't think it's strange that we can color a world map based on the various religions in the world. (Blue for Christian, green for Islam, etc.) But imagine a similar map for a scientific controversy like how the dinosaurs went extinct. (Blue for asteroid proponents, Red for climate change believers, Green for scientists supporting a viral theory for the extinction, etc.) There was a lot of other good stuff I could mention, but there will probably be a video available eventually.
Next was the Q&A. Surprisingly the question quality wasn't as interesting as the ones from the day before. However I did record these more diligently:
1. A medical social worker asked about comforting the bereaved and terminally ill. Dawkins talked about how death as oblivion isn't so bad. He reiterated the Mark Twain quote which was in his lecture, "I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."
2. The second question was my favorite because it was a bit of a pet peeve for me as well. The questioner asked why Dawkins always uses the term Darwinism or Darwinist when physicists aren't called Newtonists or Einsteinists, etc. This point of Dawkins language has always bugged me since it seemed like the only people using the term "Darwinism" as if it were a personality cult were creationists and Dawkins. Dawkins thanked the guy for raising his own consciousness and promised to refrain from using it improperly. Good show! I give this questioner the gold star of the evening.
3. This guy asked about Dawkins' point that certain issues like the "In God We Trust" slogan on money are a waste of time for activist atheists. The questioner claimed that these issues could also be consciousness raisers. Dawkins agreed that he could possibly be convinced of that, but he thinks other things deserve higher priority, like his proposal to teach comparative religion to children in schools.
4. The next question was about Dawkins being too cruel or rude to religious folks. The questioner mentioned how the audience laughed a bit "perversely" at some of the humorous bits of Dawkins' lecture. Dawkins said yes we should be careful of being mean spirited, but often passion is mistaken for nastiness. Dawkins stressed we should be polite to reasonable religious people, but for people who think the Earth is 6000 years old, they are just "idiots" who deserve no respect. Zap!
5. A woman not so much asked as read a statement about how the colonizers of history have fallen away from religion, yet the colonized have clung fervently to the faith they have been converted to. Dawkins didn't have much to say except, yes how ironic. He did amusingly point out that, "I'm just really repeating what you said!".
6. This questioner asked Dawkins if he thought the media's glorification of anti-intellectualism was a way for "them" to keep the populous ignorant and properly indoctrinated into the economic machine. Dawkins doubted that religious leaders were cynically brainwashing their followers for a vast economic conspiracy.
7. The last question was more of a warning about the proposal to teach comparative religion could be abused by teachers who would take advantage of it and try to convert students to their particular belief. Dawkins agreed it was a danger and the curriculum would have to be controlled carefully.
That's right, there were no crazy nuts this time. How disappointing! Dawkins did get a long standing ovation and then set about signing books. The line looked too long for me so I headed out to grab some grub with my atheist pals.
Thanks for coming to NYC Dr. Dawkins!