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Man of melancholy

20 November 2015


“YOU know all these religious blokes . . . are they just born crazy, or do they become crazy?” The question, asked by a child in the audience at the Free Thinking Festival: In conversation with Richard Dawkins (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), provided a neat counterpoint to last week’s report about the behaviour of religious children.

The Templeton Foundation might care to fund a study of whether children brought up on The God Delusion are measurably more obnoxious than groups whose bedtime reading consisted of Stories from the Bible and Tinkerbell and the Easter Bunny Do The Ontological Argument. If Richard Dawkins has done nothing else, he has taught people how to be rude about faith.

And such a nice English gent — at least, that was the impression given in Philip Dodd’s interview with Dawkins. Oxford-educated, he loves cricket, and carries with him a Housmanesque melancholy that comes not so much from the knowledge that golden youth will fade, but that we are all mere vehicles for the continuity of genes that care not for iambic pentameters.

“There’s something odd about you,” Dodd observed; but he failed to get beyond the outwardly genteel persona: the wind-up merchant with a smile. Indeed, when one questioner admitted to being a Quaker, Dawkins offered a form of consolation by declaring the Quakers to be the most acceptable denomination of Christianity.

The subject of last week’s Analysis: Will they always hate us? (Radio 4, Monday of last week) had received a horribly conclusive answer by the end of the week — the Paris attacks telling us that, apparently, some hatred will never cease. David Edmonds’s documentary focused on new forms of negotiation, which draw on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience.

We heard about Contact Theory, which, in Oldham, after the 2011 riots, has been put into action with some success; and about the importance of understanding what each antagonist in a dispute regards as sacred.

Where neuroscience comes in is with the well-known experiment that requires two people to split a £10 note found unexpectedly by one of the participants. In a large proportion of cases, the other participant will refuse to accept anything less than £5, on the principle of fairness, even though there is no obligation for the lucky finder to offer anything at all.

Indeed, when you press the case for uneven distribution, the sense of injustice becomes more acute. Just as we would be offended if somebody offered to buy one of our children, so negotiators can become more hostile when inappropriate recompense is offered in exchange for a principle that is held to be sacred.

In the case of the Northern Ireland negotiations, as George Mitchell recounted, it was all about history: two very different versions of the same story, delivered consecutively by Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Jonathan Powell confirmed this: at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, a 30-minute dialogue with either Paisley or Adams wouldn’t get you beyond the year 1689.

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