12 March 2008

I Met Richard Dawkins!

Ok, well, maybe it would be more accurate to say that I did my best to mumble hello and thank you very much, but in my book that counts. I should start at the beginning though.

Richard Dawkins spoke, this evening, about his book, The God Delusion, here at the University of Wisconsin as part of the Distinguished Lecturer Series. Doors were to open at 7:00, and I got in line at about 6:25 and was probably about the 100th person in line. We (me and my friend Vora, who is probably as big of a Richard Dawkins fan as I am) got in and Vora arbitrarily picked the left aisle. It turned out to be a very good decision because we wound up with the closest seats you could possibly have that weren't reserved for volunteers. This was incredibly fortunate as the theater he was speaking in, the Wisconsin Union Theater, houses ~1300, and some poor souls had to sit way up in the balcony. He spoke for about an hour and fifteen minutes about a number of topics from The God Delusion. The majority of his speech related to Chapters 3, 4, and 9 titled Arguments For God's Existence, Why There Almost Certainly is No God, and Childhood, Abuse and the Escape From Religion, respectively, and I'm not going to spend a great deal of time recapping it. I can't write nearly as well as Professor Dawkins so I'm not going to try. What I will say is that you really have to read the book yourself. It truly is a very convincing (and I believe accurate) argument against the existence of God, the usefulness of religion, and the idea that religious belief deserves unconditional respect. Reading the book however doesn't really do him justice though. There's something unique about listening to Richard Dawkins talk. He's not the most prolific speaker by any means, and he is obviously reading essentially from a script, but as my friend Vora put it (and I paraphrase), he has a certain way of talking to or about someone with a tone of voice that politely says you're an idiot, while remaining civil. In all seriousness, anyone who has ever seen any clips of Professor Dawkins speaking will know what I mean when I say he really is unique. It was truly one of the coolest speeches I've ever heard.

The lecture was followed by an open book signing upstairs in the Inn Wisconsin Room. We high-tailed it out of the Theater as soon as the Q&A session was over and got in line for the book signing. It only took about ten minutes for us to get to the front of the line (five of them taken up by some guy who went on this big rant to him about god knows what). Vora made sure I got a picture of him signing her books (I'll post them as soon as she gets them to me and I figure out how to do it). I had thought a bit about what I was going to say to him when I finally got to the front of the line. What I had been afraid I would just sort of blurt out was something along the lines of you're my hero. I had made up my mind that I was going to say I just want to let you know that this book is what pushed me to ‘come out of the closet’ about my atheism and really declare with confidence and pride that I, Jeremy Berg, am an atheist. When I was actually standing there in front of him the only words I could get out of my mouth were hello when I handed him my book and thank you very much when he gave it back.

Nonetheless, Professor Dawkins is by far the most famous person I have ever met, and I have to say it was really surreal to meet one of my heroes in real life. I just want to tack on the end here the paragraph regarding fear of death from his book Unweaving the Rainbow that he ended the evening with:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Update: I went in to the University Bookstore after class today to see if they had any copies of The Selfish Gene left over from the signing. The guy said they did, walked me back to a box of various different Dawkins books left over from the signing that they had not put on the shelf yet, and asked me if I wanted a signed copy. Needless to say I took it. So I now have a signed copy of TGD and The Selfish Gene and am currently resisting the urge to go back and buy a signed copy of every other book they have.

1 comment:

The Inoculated Mind said...


I've been looking around to see who's blogging about Dawkins' talk last night. Great post, and I know what you mean about bumbling in front of someone so famous. I managed to say what I meant to say, and get a few pictures. I'll be blogging about it later in the week.