Last Thursday, the faithful faithless made pilgrimages from all around to see Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor, renowned evolutionary biologist, and a self-branded bulldog of unfaltering atheism, lecture at the International House. Dawkins has risen to pseudo-cult stardom as one part of the “Unholy Trinity” (along with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens), a collection of contemporary writers who have found a nice niche of atheist readers. Dawkins’s most recent book, “The God Delusion,” has sold over a million copies in its hardback incarnation.
A friend and fellow Dawkins devotee suggested arriving an hour and a half before start time to get a good seat. It was true: Dawkins fans had to arrive early to hear him speak. I got a seat forty-five minutes early, and only fifteen minutes later, the main gallery was full. Late arrivals were directed to a side room, where the lecture was pumped in over the audio system. Still others were turned away entirely, at the behest of the almighty fire codes. Some milled about the windows outside, gazing in on the assembled congregation.
The audience consisted mostly of interested and curious University of Chicago types, but two other distinct species appeared as well. First, the Hot Topic “rebels” showed up in full force, with acne-swollen noses, awkward facial hair, and those tastefully flared black pants. Yes sir, they read Nietzsche (or at least the first six pages of “The Portable Nietzsche,” a serviceable “best-of” compilation for all you teenage rebels out there). Now, they had turned to Dawkins to flesh out that clichÃ© of teenage disillusionment. God Bless.
The second, and slightly more predictable, breed was the born-again bloggers. Each had discovered atheism at a particularly meaningful junction in life and now devoted part of his or her retirement to spreading the good word. Resembling a half-breed of Willie Nelson and a Harley biker, these devotees passed out homemade literature advertising their blog/website/discussion-group/demonstration/point-of-view/YouTube documentaries. They talk amongst each other like comrades stuck in the intellectual trenches, one-upping each other with twenty-first-century religious war stories. “Man, I was at this abortion rights protest, you know? And like, there was this church group there…” Each one also took a moment to speak to Dawkins and mumble, in his or her own star-struck way, “I run a little website you see, and….” as the professor politely smiled and placed the card in the handkerchief pocket of his suit.
The lecture was not a gathering for those teetering between the faith and the faithless life, but rather a congregation of the choir. That said, Dawkins preached incredibly well. He was witty and charming. He gestured widely and reservedly, and spoke gravely and whimsically. Dashing between the highbrow and the lowbrow, Dawkins recalled the terrorist attacks of 9/11, begging his audience to “think of a world without religious violence.” Minutes later, he laughed enthusiastically at an Italian fresco of God bearing the caption “Imaginary Friend.” He gripped the podium with both hands outstretched, braced against it. Each sentence was meticulously crafted and delivered with such deliberate punctuation. The crowd hung on every word. They may have lost their faith in God, but they surely haven’t lost their faith in Dawkins.