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In April 2010, Richard Dawkins announced an initiative to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the Pontiff made an official visit to Britain in the autumn, the ostensible reason being his involvement in the Catholic clergy abuse crisis. Benedict was 83 and in ill-health at the time, caused in part by the campaign against him by some Vatican insiders precisely because he was proactive in exposing and punishing abusers. It was one of the factors that led to his resignation three years later.

It's an intensely revealing insight into the mind and manners of Richard Dawkins, and one far more accurate than the first volume of his autobiography. An Appetite For Wonder (Bantam Press) reads as though it were written by an extremely angry Charles Pooter, unaware that misplaced hubris is hilarious. But Dawkins is not a nobody and nor, of course, was Pope Benedict. Both surely knew that the abuse horror involved at most 3 per cent of the clergy, that the vast majority of cases were in the past, that abuse rates were far higher in public education or organised sport, and that an arrest was impossible and had been suggested merely for publicity.

There we have it: publicity built on a deeply flawed premise. Dawkins does have this selfish, perhaps genetic, need to be noticed. When the cuttings file diminishes, he makes another outlandish statement or growling comment, often suburban and ill-informed. The Benedict incident also showed Dawkins as a man happy to silence those with whom he disagrees, as his atheist followers — and they often act in a cult-like manner — demonstrate on a regular basis.

Benedict seldom responds to attacks, but just recently, in a letter to a more respectful Italian atheist, he explained that "an important function of theology is that of maintaining religion connected to reason and reason to religion. Both functions are of vital importance for humanity. Besides, science fiction exists in the sphere of many sciences . . . Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is a classic example of science fiction." I bet Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford reacted generously and calmly to that dig from the pope.

The overrated tag is a vital one to understand in this case. As an evolutionary biologist Dawkins is considered by his peers as a sound and, at one time at least, a cutting-edge academic. To question that would be foolish. In recent years, however, his academic reputation has declined, which is not something he discusses in his memoirs or elsewhere. Frankly, he would be largely anonymous, and neither underrated nor overrated, if it were not for his ostentatious atheism, and in that field he has never been considered sound and certainly not cutting-edge. 

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March 3rd, 2014
7:03 PM
The more we know the more Darwinism fades away.

February 27th, 2014
4:02 PM
I am glad this magazine/website has the small readership it deserves. Frankly, stumbling upon it, I have happened to read two of the most vacuous articles I have read in a long while. I will not stumble again.

Harley Fd
February 18th, 2014
7:02 PM
Dawkins is nothing more than a learned egoist. The wide appeal he has to young secularists can only be attributed to his shrewd wit, vanity, and his dictatorial approach to all religion. Behind all his "wisdom" and "enlightenment" is deep anguish. Where is the remotest sense that he has grappled with the REAL issues? Which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture, and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of objective moral values, or the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom. Historians will look back at the phenomenon of new atheism in the 21st century with sheer wonder at their popularity! On the surface it may sound profound but deep down, it's superficial.

December 28th, 2013
6:12 AM
Best article I've read in a long time (and good comments).

Malcolm McLean
December 11th, 2013
6:12 PM
I think this is substantially unfair. Dawkins sometimes does himself no favours, as with the silly, gimmicky "arrest the Pope". But he has homed in on the most pressing question of our age - is the secular, material, empirical, scientific model right, or is there a God?

November 29th, 2013
7:11 AM
Although I agree that Dawkins is overrated and that he's ill-informed yet supremely confident and that in many ways, he resembles a fundamentalist than most so called 'fundamentalists' do, the article just wasn't quite as nuanced as one would hope it to be. The criticism was self-indulgent and insipid, not powerful enough.

Bonnie Tiler
November 28th, 2013
1:11 AM
Atheists are in many cases dogmatists every bit as much as religious zealots. No-one can say for sure if there is no "higher power". After all, when there is no real explanation of why a bunch of atoms can be endowed with a conscience - or some similar concept, is it not better to say: we don't know. Emphatic certainty is a desire by many humans to be sure. In that, Dawkins is quite religious in his behaviour.

November 27th, 2013
5:11 PM
He's a talented science writer but was never up to much as a scientist - he last published a peer reviewed research paper in the 1980s and it was pathetic. It now turns out that the basic idea of "the Selfish Gene", technically known as "inclusive fitness" is wrong (see the latest PNAS paper by Nowak, EO Wilson & others which you can find from so his "science" is wrong as well. As for his hysterical attacks on "religion" they are almost laughable in their naivite.

November 26th, 2013
5:11 PM
A peculiar article...a lot of wasted words to claim to claim what? the point of the article is lost on me.

Haylan Fraser
November 20th, 2013
9:11 PM
The war on Christianity here in the USA is an even greater absurdity since our country was founded by those who sought religious freedom. I have never been a believer myself, however, I am glad that I was brought up in a Protestant household. In that household we discussed philosophy, theology, and other points-of-view. So many atheists seem petty, small, minded and unaware of intellectual history or the foundations of scientific inquiry. I thank all the comments here. This book and RD are outstanding examples of the vacuity of progressive so-called thought.

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