Richard Dawkins: What the Divisive Atheist Would Ask God


"I hate your f***ing guts. I hope you get hit by a big church van tonight. And then you die slowly."

Not my words, I remind Richard Dawkins, but an excerpt from an item of lively correspondence generated by his atheism, posted on his website. It's indicative of the fury inspired by his books such as The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion that the complainant wants Dawkins to be struck down not by just any church van, but a sizeable one, and that his agony should be prolonged. "A more recent message," he remarks, "simply said, 'I hope that you lose your watch and are late for an appointment'".

Even his bitterest critics recognise his intellect. Dawkins, 74, who meets me at his house in North Oxford, is regularly top of lists of world's greatest thinkers.

"Who were the others in the top 10?" I ask him. "I can think of the most obvious ones: Alan Shearer, Björk, and Will Self."

"[The Canadian-American scientist] Steven Pinker is always in there," he replies. "And deservedly so."

Ian Dury once wrote a song celebrating figures such as Einstein, Van Gogh and Segovia, called "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards". It's hard to imagine, were that written today, that the scientist's name would be absent.

"Goodness," says Dawkins. "I wouldn't know about that."

Contemplating the question of the origin of the first atom, Richard Dawkins finds the idea of some external creator "almost impossible". "But when you meet God," I ask, "I assume you'll have a few questions?"

"Indeed. How did life originate? Where did the laws of physics originate? How did consciousness evolve?"

"And why did you allow Stockport County to be relegated to the sixth tier of English football?"

"That," Dawkins replies, "might not be my most urgent of my priorities".

With no good evidence whatsoever, I sense in him the potential for great anger.

"Other people have said that. I don't believe it. Anger isn't the right word."


"No. I do use ridicule a lot."

Dawkins has never shied from controversy. In 2013 he provoked considerable outrage on Twitter after tweeting that "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though".

"That," he concedes, "was a mistake. Lalla [his third wife, the actress best known as Romana, companion of her former husband Tom Baker in Doctor Who] and I had been to dinner with the then chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. About 20 leading Jews were there."

He was informed that "between a quarter and a fifth of Nobel Prizes had been won by Jews. We also learned that the total percentage of Jews in the world is below 1% [and that] only one or two Muslims had ever won a Nobel Prize".

"They were boasting?"

"Yes but with good reason." The number of Muslims in the world, Dawkins says, "Is gigantic compared to Jews. I wrote a tweet about it, then I thought, I can't send that. So I crossed out 'Jews' and I put 'Trinity College Cambridge'."

Richard Dawkins is a kind of equivalent, in the digital age, of the professor who can't be trusted to post a letter. He described Nadia Eweida, the British Airways check-in clerk who was fired for wearing a crucifix as having "one of the most stupid faces I have ever seen" and observed that "Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse".

What was he thinking of?

"I don't remember that [last indiscretion]. I don't think that these are interesting topics."

Could such episodes have fostered the misunderstanding that he is aggressive?

"Clarity," he believes, "can be mistaken for aggression. Maybe I'm a bit impatient".

Dawkins believes Hitler's life-path could have been predetermined by the "poisonous" nature of his father's sperm. He has little time for my suggestion that the Führer might have been a fundamentally decent lad who fell in with the wrong crowd.

While he has no faith in the possible existence of God, it's a different story when you get him on aliens.

"There are probably billions of incarnations of life around the universe. It would be extraordinary if we were the only one."

He ends our meeting with an eloquent speech about the joy of investigating evolution: "The process that gave rise to swallows and kangaroos and, er, giraffes. When I die I shall be grateful to have understood how we got here".

When I leave, I get horribly lost, even though this is an area where I once lived for six years. One attempted shortcut takes me right back to his house, where I have no doubt Dawkins is still sitting, negotiating that slightly more challenging landscape inhabited by genius.