Richard Dawkins is one of the world's most recognizable and influential intellectual figures. His books on evolutionary theory and modern science have sold millions of copies, and he is one of the most quotable thinkers in modern science. Of course, he is also one of the most aggressive secularists of the age--and that's what makes him an important focus of Christian thinking.
Now serving as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya where his father was a farmer involved in the Colonial Service. As a young boy, Dawkins moved with his parents to England, where he was educated in that country's elite system of boarding schools and universities. He eventually graduated with a degree in zoology from Balliol College, Oxford, and then earned a masters degree and the doctorate from Oxford University. His rise to public prominence came as he served as a lecturer in zoology at Oxford University from 1970-1990. His 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, became one of the most influential scientific texts of modern times. Dawkins argued that the fundamental unit of natural selection was not the individual but genes. In effect, Dawkins redefined evolutionary theory by suggesting that the "selfish gene" was the basic engine of evolutionary development--explaining how various "survival machines" perpetuate species and evolutionary development. A succession of other best-selling popular books defending evolution gave Dawkins and his ideas even wider influence and greater popularity. By the time he assumed his endowed chair at Oxford University in 1995, Dawkins was one of the most oft-quoted figures in modern science.
What makes Dawkins of particular interest to Christians is his aggressive and undisguised secularism. Dawkins is a committed atheist--an atheist with the zeal to convince those who believe of the error of their ways. As a public figure, Dawkins is almost unchallenged as a proponent of an aggressive secularist agenda. In one sense, he simply says out loud what others are undoubtedly thinking. His aggressiveness and abrasiveness have now prompted some of his fellow defenders of evolution to wonder if he is doing their cause more harm than good.
The September 2005 issue of Discover features an article that raises this very question. In "Darwin's Rottweiler," author Stephen S. Hall suggests that Dawkins is simply "far too fierce."
Given contemporary debates over evolutionary theory and intelligent design, and given the reality that much of this debate is directed towards a public audience, both sides understand that much is at stake in the terms and character of the public debate. This explains why many of Dawkins' colleagues are now concerned about his approach.
In his fascinating article, Hall attempts to present Dawkins in the best possible light. He is introduced as being "unfailingly gracious" in person, "a constrained version of the witty, expansive, passionate, and intellectually provocative persona that animates the pages of his books." Hall also suggests that Dawkins is a gifted writer and wordsmith who gives dedicated attention to "the precise manner in which he builds an argument, organizes an essay, or demolishes the wobbly logic of a rival in debate."
Nevertheless, "There is nothing affected or dainty or quaint about the way Dawkins communicates science." Indeed, "An unabashed atheist and avidly polemical public intellectual, he has employed a scorched-earth vocabulary to take on religion, the evangelical right, Muslim fundamentalism, parochial education, and the faith-based political philosophy of George W. Bush." That's quite a considerable agenda, but no one can doubt that Richard Dawkins gives himself fully to this intellectual combat.
It was Oxford theologian Alister McGrath who identified Dawkins as "Darwin's Rottweiler." The label has stuck because Dawkins plays the part so well.