Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh Book Festival

I had been looking forward to Richard Dawkins‘ appearance at The Edinburgh Book Festival for quite some time. The main arena was packed to capacity when Dawkins and Muriel Gray walked onto stage and placed themselves on two Philippe Starck chairs. The paperback and hardback editions of Dawkins’ million plus bestseller ‘The God Delusion’ lay before them.

Mud at The Edinburgh Book Festival 2007

The session was of the question and answer form, with Muriel Gray (referred to as the ‘chair’) asking the questions until near the end when audience members were invited to join in the discussion (described as “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” by Muriel). Throughout the session I thought Muriel Gray a strange choice to chair Richard Dawkins’ talk. Muriel is a carved in stone antitheist who consistently demonstrated this fact to the audience, culminating in her proud display of ‘The Out Campaign’ T Shirt (The Out campaign is designed to encourage Atheists to publicly share their idealism). It was Richard Dawkins who appeared as the calming force, emitting a far more balanced and reflective opinion than the chair. In fairness to Muriel she knew her stuff about the book and did facilitate much useful conversation.

Richard Dawkins’ intelligence is striking. I thought he looked a little uncomfortable sat down at first, perhaps more used to delivering speeches from behind a lectern. His passion for the subject at hand first became evident, and subsequently stayed for the entirety of the talk, when speaking of the Muslim cartoons, which caused widespread violence and threats a while ago. He stated the reason for British editors not publishing them as prudence, as opposed to cowardice. You could see his point. It was noted that there must be some underlying problem if violence and death threats are utilised by some elements of a religion in order to defend it. Why should this be necessary?

Dawkins continued that labelling a child by their parent’s religion amounted to child abuse and asked why religion should be any different to decisions such as which political party a child supports or which football team they support. i.e. the child should choose their beliefs. Dawkins was also worried about creationism being taught in schools and how benefactors south of the border could influence such curriculum decisions. His astonishment to how long ago the scientific community believe the world began as opposed to creationists was elegantly put in terms of distance in the United States of America.

Later came a few well constructed questions from the audience, including the obligatory how could something have been created from nothing. “Same problem - how did we create God from nothing”, was Dawkins’ immediate counter.

One question asked how much success Dawkins had observed in turning God believers into non-believers. His honesty was apparent when saying the majority of his readers already did not believe in the existence of a God or were sceptical before becoming sworn Atheists. So not a large conversion rate for those pre-committed to a Religion. This led nicely onto the last question, which was the best of the day.

Dawkins was asked how he thought his book would help counter the radical elements of certain religions: those with extremist views and sometimes deadly intentions. It was queried whether the moderates of such religions should be the ones who play the major role (and have more effectiveness) in this and whether books like The God Delusion, which are at the opposite extreme would spur the extremist elements on even further. It was an excellent point, if Dawkins ideology couldn’t convert moderate religious believers, what hope would it have on the extremists? Might it not make their views more extreme? Whilst Dawkins acknowledged the work moderates must play, he described his own strategy in terms of forming a two pronged attack against such extremists. For once Richard Dawkins lacked a convincing answer.

After the talk Richard Dawkins proceeded to a book signing, where he was greeted with a very large queue. Given the audience seemed very comfortable with the content of The God Delusion; it seemed certain many would end up with duplicate, albeit it signed, copy of his book.

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