Richard Dawkins (Sincerely) Reads the Bible for ‘Sheer Literary Pleasure’

In a “By the Book” interview for this weekend’s New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review, Richard Dawkins elaborates on his favorite books, authors, and characters:

Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?

I’ve already mentioned Dan Dennett. I’ll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne — indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book). All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists — and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science. Many of these “Third Culture” thinkers write very well. (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Depending on how naïvely literalistic you are, you might be surprised to find the Bible. The King James Version, of course, and not so much on my shelves as continually off my shelves, because I open it so often: sometimes to quote it, sometimes for sheer literary pleasure — especially Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

It doesn’t surprise me that Dawkins would have a Bible on his shelves. Though I’d be way more interested in knowing which books written by Creationists he keeps handy.

The Atlantic‘s Alexander Nazaryan, meanwhile, criticized another of Dawkins’ answers:

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

Sorry to be boringly predictable, but Shakespeare. Who are you? And how did a humble country boy like you become the greatest genius, and part creator, of our beloved English language. Might you have been even better if you’d studied at Oxford or Cambridge?

Anyone who isn’t gunning for Dawkins understands what he’s getting at. Shakespeare arose from humble beginnings to achieve amazing things and Dawkins asks “what might have been” if Shakespeare had something of a head start in life. Might he have done even more? That’s a rhetorical question, to say the least.

Nazaryan, though, sees it as as a slam on Shakespeare’s upbringing: “[Dawkins] says that William Shakespeare, the West’s most exalted playwright, was not sufficiently educated.”

Oh, please. I’m sorry Dawkins isn’t the asshole you want him to be. Seriously, there must be some sort of secret game being played lately where you win points for taking some line that Dawkins says and then framing it in the worst possible light. If you want to criticize Dawkins, then criticize something he actually believes, not some out-of-context wording that’s negated by everything Dawkins says immediately before and after that.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Art_Vandelay

    After he got sick, Hitchens debated Bill Dembski and he responded to the question of meeting Shakespeare and then went into a beautiful, epic rant about Christianity. He basically said that even if he could meet Shakespeare in the afterlife, after reading his works, meeting the the man himself would probably be a disappointment.

  • LesterBallard

    The only parts of the Bible that I have reread are Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job. That’s not much out of such a big book.

    • Bob Grumman

      I think the Bible is the most over-rated literary work ever–but worth enormous reverence as literature for the same reason the similarly primitive pyramids are as architecture: what it amazingly was for its time.

  • The Captain

    I’m surprised this didn’t come from Salon, they seem to be making a pretty
    concerted effort lately to misrepresent certain atheist to make them out to be assholes.

    Oh wait, Salon would also be three weeks late to the party so they still might jump in.

    • Eliot Parulidae

      Dawkins can be an asshole sometimes, but this isn’t one of those times.

  • TnkAgn

    “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
    ~ Isaac Azimov

  • VorJack

    Wow. The Atlantic comment feed took a whole five comments before someone brought in Shakespeare skepticism.

  • Eliot Parulidae

    I get him. Freedom from belief can certainly enhance the Bible-reading experience if you have literary inclinations. Reading the Bible as a nonbeliever, you aren’t worried about thinking doubleplusgood thoughts as you read, or about reconciling all the contradictions, or about applying the strange and archaic moral code to your own life. Nonbelief can get rid of the brain-clutter and let you look at the Bible as a rich, interesting, and culturally relevant text….so long as you don’t go too far in the other direction (“Ohhh, look at all the creepy lesser-known verses I can quote online to confuse theists! So much ammunition!”)

  • jeffj900

    This is the first time I’ve seen a quote from Richard Dawkins that I thought was really dumb. To suggest Steven Pinker for the Nobel Literature Prize????

    I think Pinker is great, and his books are fascinating. “The Blank Slate” ranks high up on my list of most influential books in my life.

    But there are competing definitions of the word “Literature”. Published papers in physics are part of the scientific literature. But the Nobel Prize is intended for outstanding lifetime achievement in fiction and poetry. To suggest Steven Pinker is to simply misunderstand the nature of the prize. Pinker is not Faulkner, Hemmingway, Samuel Becket, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, or Toni Morrison.

    This one is kind of embarrassing for me, a fan of Dawkins.

    • sminnis

      I think you’re right, but your post made me check to see if it had ever gone to non-fiction writing and I discovered something interesting: Bertrand Russell won it in 1950 for his humanitarian writing.

      • jeffj900

        I looked over the winners and I missed that one. But also there was Jean Paul-Sartre, who I thought only wrote one novel and a perhaps semi-fictional autobiographical narrative. But he also wrote a fictional trilogy. He may also have been chosen because of contributions to literary criticism.

        Perhaps the idea of adding an expanded Literature prize for overall contribution to the intellectual world through writing, to include history, philosophy, criticism, essays, and other non-fiction genres isn’t a bad idea. But I’d hate to see an end to an annual prize devoted solely to fiction and poetry.

        Maybe Dawkins’ idea isn’t as bad as it seemed on first blush.

  • jdm8

    I guess anything can be respun to look very different than originally intended.

  • Bob Grumman

    Dawkins’s implicit slant on formal education is interesting, though. Note that he didn’t ask Shakespeare, as I would have, “Might you have been even better had you avoided your local grammar school as well as Oxford and Cambridge?” Note to any Shakespeare-deniers happening by: I realize there is no hard evidence that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school, but the circumstantial evidence makes it close to impossible for a rational person to doubt that he did.


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