Students filled Bovard Auditorium on Friday night to hear a discussion from prominent scientist Richard Dawkins. The scholar, who received his education at the University of Oxford and UC Berkeley, is an outspoken critic of religion.
The event was hosted by the Alliance for Inquiry and Reason, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, USC Norman Lear Center, USC Office of Religious Life and USC Spectrum.
D.J. Grothe, a prominent scientific writer and speaker, interviewed Dawkins on a variety of topics ranging from Dawkins’ childhood memories to his condemnation of religion. Grothe also read excerpts from Dawkins’ new book, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.
Grothe began the conversation on a personal note by asking whether Dawkins had discovered false memories while writing his memoirs. Dawkins noted that he and his mother had differing accounts of him being stung by a scorpion during his childhood in colonial Kenya.
“I have an extremely clear memory that I was walking across the floor with my bare feet and I saw what I thought was a lizard. How painful, as a biologist, to think that a scorpion was a lizard,” he joked. “My mother’s recollection is that I got off my chair at the dining table, and the scorpion was under the table. Her version, on the face sounds more plausible, but my memory is astoundingly clear, so I don’t know what to make of that.”
Dawkins also reflected on what the process of writing an autobiography is like.
“Critics of the book have complained that this autobiography is all about the author. I can’t tell you what I could do about that. But I do in a way empathize with them because I do feel a bit self-conscious writing about myself,” he said.
Dawkins also discussed his controversial reputation.
“I guess I do get a bad rap in a sense that I am sometimes portrayed as more vitriolic and aggressive and things like that. I’m actually quite a nice person. I don’t approve of vitriol, I don’t approve of profane language. But I don’t mind poking fun at them,” Dawkins said of religious figures.
He noted that he believed in promoting his views when Grothe asked if he hoped to liberate others from their beliefs.
“My priority is finding truth. That’s what I really care passionately about,” Dawkins said. “I believe in education and freeing people from false education that religion can inspire.”
Many students said they appreciated the fact that the Office of Religious Life hosted an event featuring a prominent atheist scholar.
“The Office of Religious Life is not just about a specific religion. I think they’re inviting free thinkers, secular ideas,” said Sonia Gumuchian, a freshman majoring in writing for screen and television.
Nonreligious students felt that the event reflected a greater acceptance of their beliefs.
“I joined Alliance for Inquiry and Reason this year, and we’ve reached out to the Office [of Religious Life],” said Celeste McAlpin-Levitt, a freshman majoring in comparative literature. “They’ve been generous with funding and getting us involved in this event. It’s nice that they’re reaching out to atheists on campus.”
Religious students also said they appreciated hearing a differing perspective.
“I think it’s really interesting to hear a different point of view and figure out what everyone is saying,” said May Yang, a junior majoring in business administration and psychology. “Instead of being defensive, you can be critical about your belief and religion.”
Other students agreed with Yang that part of religion is examining belief systems.
“A point of religion is not to believe something that makes us feel good,” Jeremy Malek, a senior majoring in business administration, said. “I’m a Christian and I think it’s really important to be naturally inquisitive, to know both sides of the story and to know why we believe this.”