Putting The Wind Up Richard Dawkins (videos and commentary)

BBC Series like Doctor Who and The Rev. have had a go at Dawkins, and so has Victoria Coren Mitchell in The Guardian.

I don’t often write about Richard Dawkins, but doing so gives me a chance to drop in bits of British slang like “putting the wind up” and “taking the mick.” While taking the mick at the expense of Dawkins may not be ultra-civilised, it’s a leisure sport that some in the UK media can’t resist. And let’s face it, he kind of deserves it…

I previously quoted Victoria Coren Mitchell in The Guardian like so:

There is a new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists.” The trickle-down Dawkins effect has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

Aptly put, Miranda! Doctor Who also had a go at Dawkins in the episode titled “The Big Bang”:

This is actually profound stuff. (It helps if you watch both episodes in the story arc, beginning with “The Pandorica Opens.”) A very special little girl named Amelia Pond is growing up in an alternate time track — an Earth where there are no stars in the sky. But unlike most people, she remembers the original time track well enough to insist on painting the sky with stars, so of course a child psychologist has to be brought in to persuade her logically that “there’s no such thing as stars” — it’s “just a story.”

With the camera mostly on Amelia, her mum chats with the psychologist and confesses her worst fears: “I just don’t want her growing up and joining one of those star cults. I don’t trust that Richard Dawkins!” ROFL

The beauty of art is its varied applicability to the experience of the beholder. Those who’ve been following my series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom” would perhaps make the connection that the psychologist is “deprogramming” Amelia of her irrational belief in stars. (Amusingly, the slogan of the Flat Earth Society is “Deprogramming the masses since 1547.”)

In cramming for my series on Picasso, I stumbled on this riveting quote from the old master: “Everything you can imagine is real.” It may not be literally true, but would make a great topic for late-night conversation. With the sad passing of Leonard Nimoy, I’m also reminded of his rapid-fire response (as Spock) to the quiz question “What was Kiri-kin-tha’s first law of metaphysics?”: Nothing unreal exists.

Back in high school, you might have noticed that the jocks, pre-law, and pre-military service guys had a hard time relating to abstract art, stream-of-consciousness poetry, and free jazz. I often think there’s a whole segment of society determined to batten down the hatches of reality so that no trace of imagination can infiltrate the 39th parallel of dull and boring. Amelia Pond is a typical would-be art major who paints what she sees whether or not it’s anatomically correct.

The Doctor Who clip can be viewed as a metaphor for faith versus reason. Maybe it takes a combination of innocence and imagination (both being positive qualities) to have faith in God, in spite of being told that God is just a made-up story.

To artists and writers, the phrase “only a story” is sacrilege because such folk inherently believe in the power of story. It is (in a sense) their God; and so I have argued that Salman Rushdie is not really an atheist. If you read his Haroun and the Sea of Stories you would walk away convinced of his faith in a pure, creative stream which is the source of all stories, and which is constantly changing and evolving. You might even say he’s devoted to that stream. (I hear some people mouthing the words “Universal Consciousness.”)

The urge to stamp out “magical thinking” is largely the province of dullards. That leaves out Rushdie, who writes of young Haroun: “He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”

C.S. Lewis is best known as a fantasy writer predating the Dawkins era. It’s no secret that his Chronicles of Narnia are infused with Christian allegory — subtle commentaries on the nature of faith and doubt. There’s a scene in Chapter XII of The Silver Chair where an evil underworld Queen tries to deprogram the protagonists of their belief in an Overworld, a sky, a sun, and Aslan. It’s a kind of literary precursor to the opening scene from “The Big Bang.” The Queen says:

“You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story…

“There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow. But, first, to bed; to sleep; deep sleep, soft pillows, sleep without foolish dreams.”

[Then Puddleglum, who is a Marsh-wiggle and the quintessential British pessimist, comes to the rescue. He deliberately puts his foot in the fire to clear his head and dissolve the Queen’s magic. Then he gives this little speech:]

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you’ve said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

“Oh, hurrah! Good old Puddleglum!” cried Scrubb and Jill.

Of “The Big Bang,” Puddleglum might say that an invented sky with stars beats a real one that has none. And he might have a thing or two to say to Richard Dawkins…

Only yesterday I discovered the BBC comedy series Rev. about an Anglican vicar in inner city London. It was so clever I ended up binge-watching. It seemed a vaguely guilty pleasure, as I assumed (rightly, it turns out) that opinion is mixed as to whether it fairly depicts religious life. Still, one fan wrote on IMDB:

This meditation on how a Good man might fare as a Priest in modern inner city London is so real that, as in life, it’s often almost impossible to know whether you want to laugh or cry. Often I did both. And at the same time. The story arc leads to flirting with the old postulation on what would we do to Jesus if he walked among us today, but the deeper insight is into what it means for us mere mortals, just to try to be good, even Christian, in this world, surrounded by the selfish and the self involved, the deluded and the indifferent…

— HillstreetBunz, IMDB review of Rev.

Now what does this have to do with Richard Dawkins? Well, near the end of Season 1, Episode 1 of Rev. is this mini-tribute to the Dawkster:

Definitely taking the mick, but I love it! (Guess I’ll always be an irrational nutter.)

Anyway, my playful swipe at the Dawkster is not meant unkindly. After all, he’s married to Lalla Ward (one of my favourite Doctor Who girls), so he can’t be all bad! The reason he deserves a bit of ribbing is due to the phenomenon cited by Miranda Hart, where people who believe in God sometimes feel intimidated in the present climate.

Michael Howard

P.S. I highly recommend an article in The Atlantic called “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy.” It’s mostly about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books, and makes the case that reading (or writing) fantasy is not escapism because you bring your problems with you and work them out in the realm of fantasy.

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


4 comments on “Putting The Wind Up Richard Dawkins (videos and commentary)

  1. LOL!
    “batten down the hatches of reality”…..what’s so scary about a little imagination? 😛
    Innocence and imagination, maybe, but sometimes it’s just making up your own mind and not caring one bit about other people’s opinions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Habibi. I agree, and think I could learn from your sense of freedom and creativity. What I’ve been writing about is how when people try to be free — not just in art but in the real world — they run afoul of authoritarians who say “That’s not allowed!” and try to punish them. To give an example: I love your idea in alteredhistories that “In several Muslim countries on Thera, the answer to gender equality without ‘ruining’ their culture was to build massive women-only cities…” But try that in the real world and watch the ensuing Dance of the Fatwas.

      It’s a universal problem that some people with power want to keep that power by making the world an utterly dull, predictable place where no change is possible. Imagination is scary because it’s the harbinger of change. If you’re not too busy, check out I Am Not Charlie: Further Thoughts where I discuss how the French are trying to create social cohesion by imposing drab, secular sameness (forbidding Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public). I tie this in with The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.


  2. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5 | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence | Ethics and Spirituality

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