What do we find out about Richard Dawkins in his recently-penned autobiography? Maddeningly little.
We find that Dawkins—Clinton Richard Dawkins, to be precise—had a kind of romantic beginning living in Africa. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya to kind and loving parents who treated him well, and who remained married until his father passed away at 95 years old, just a bit after the couple's 70th wedding anniversary.
While his parents, John and Jean, were non-religious, they were not anti-religious. We don't find an overbearing religious tyrant-father against whom the son could rebel, or a model of militant atheism to devotedly imitate.
His parents didn't take him to church while they lived in Africa, but he did go (in good English fashion) to boarding schools where students went regularly to chapel, and said communal prayers every evening. Young Dawkins is quite happy to sing and pray along with everyone else—he loves hymns and prays nightly just like every other child-like child. If anything, boarding school caused belief to blossom.
So, when his family moved to England, his boarding school experiences only deepened his faith. Near the end of his time at Chafyn Grove, when he was thirteen years old, young Richard was confirmed at St. Mark's Anglican Church. "I became intensely religious around the time I was confirmed. I priggishly upbraided my mother for not going to church," he reports. A very interesting sort of rebellion against one's parents, given his later career.
The year after his confirmation Dawkins went from Chafyn Grove to another prep school, Oundle. He began, as before, with prayers and chapel, but would end up, within three years, refusing to kneel or pray with the others. Why?
As a first phase of the transformation, he came to reject what he calls "the particulars" of Christianity as a result of doubts sown by his mother when he was just nine. She told him that there were other religions than Christianity, "and they contradicted each other." So, Dawkins reasoned, five years after this seed was planted, "They couldn't all be right."
The result was interestingly mixed. He gave up anything particular (as in, the "particular" beliefs of the "particular" religion that surrounded him as a "particular" English Anglican adolescent) and embraced an "unspecified creator…because I was impressed by the beauty and apparent design of the living world, and—like so many others—I bamboozled myself into believing that the appearance of design demanded a designer."
In a very strange and ironic twist, having given up Christianity, Dawkins now imagined himself to have a vocation, a calling "to devote my life to telling people about the [unspecified] creator god—which I would be especially well qualified to do if I became a biologist like my father."
If Dawkins had continued on that trajectory, he might have become as famous for his arguments on behalf a designing God as he is now famous for his arguments against a designing God.
What happened? "I became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to my creator god as an explanation of the beauty and apparent design of life." Interestingly, "it was my Father who first explained it [i.e., natural selection] to me but, to begin with, although I understood the principle, I didn't think it was a big enough theory to do the job….I went through a period of doubting the power of natural selection to do the job required of it."
One wonders what would have happened if Dawkins had followed through on these doubts. That would have put him among those evolutionists who believe in God precisely because they find that atheistic natural selection alone is woefully insufficient as an explanation for the drama of the majestic development of life.
Such were the eminent evolutionists in Darwin's own time (and in some cases, Darwin's own friendship), Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Lyell, or St. George Jackson Mivart, or are in our own time, like Simon Conway Morris.
But Dawkins did not remain an evolutionary theist for long. As he reports, "eventually a friend—one of the two, neither of them biologists, in whose company I later refused to kneel in chapel—persuaded me of the full force of Darwin's brilliant idea and I shed my last vestige of theistic credulity, probably at the age of sixteen. It wasn't long before I became strongly and militantly atheistic."
And that is the last we hear of it. The rest of Dawkins' autobiography relates the details of his becoming a scientist. To be somewhat cruel, but I think truthful, the rest of the book is boring, dealing with the details of his career building as he works his way up through the university system as a student, and eventually into it as a teacher. The book ends with the publication of his splash first-time writer bestseller, The Selfish Gene.
But the very thing we want to know about Richard Dawkins is why he became "militantly atheistic," and what I have just quoted in the above paragraphs is the entire of his explanation. That's it—about a page and a half.
We lack, then, a deep and through account of both elements: Why did he really become an atheist, but even more, why a militant atheist?
Presumably, we would find the answer in his later books, such as The Blind Watchmaker and even more, The God Delusion. But that doesn't really help us in understanding the actual trajectory of his life because he deals so quickly with the path-defining beginning of the arc.
According to Dawkins he was a confirmed and convinced atheist in 1957, at the unripe age of sixteen and by virtue of knowing very little about Darwinism—how much could his fellow adolescent rebels really have understood? The Blind Watchmaker was published almost thirty years later, and was therefore the fruit of three decades of thought as someone already long convinced, at a very young age and on much slimmer evidence, that atheistic Darwinism was right.
As for the militancy, The God Delusion was published in 2006, nearly a half century after he became a militant atheist. We certainly witness his splenetic, anti-religious venting in The God Delusion, a potful of anti-religious passion that has been bubbling for some five decades.
But our question is, what exactly was it that first caused Dawkins to boil up against religion in general and Christianity in particular—so quickly and so young? What brought him from intense piety, through theistic design enthusiasm, to vehement antagonism within a space of three years?
This last question—the one of militancy—is of particular importance precisely because The God Delusion was so decidedly bad, so poorly argued, and so gratingly fatuous—and that's the assessment of prominent atheists and evolutionists.
Fellow atheist and Darwinian Michael Ruse lamented, "The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist," and atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel noted that Dawkins succeeded, not in his arguments, but only in "being as offensive as possible." The eminent evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr summed up the reaction of many: "Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more of an amateur."
If such is the shallowness of his atheistic militancy five decades after its initiation, how immeasurably thin must have been the reasons for it at the beginning? Is Dawkins being silent about the real reasons, or (and I lean toward this explanation) has he not dug deeply enough in his own life, his own psyche, to know?
So, what to say of Dawkins' autobiography? The only reason people want to read it is to find out why he became a militant atheist, and that is exactly what the reader is left wondering. If we want to find out about the real Dawkins—what makes the real advocate of the Blind Watchmaker tick—we'll have to wait for someone else to write about him. I'm not sure Dawkins knows himself well enough to understand how he turned out.