Born in Nairobi, Richard Dawkins was educated at the University of Oxford and worked there until his recent retirement. From 1995, he had held the Charles Simonyi Professorship of Public Understanding of Science. He is known for his popularist works on evolution theory, and for his outspoken opposition to religion, particularly to Christianity.
Among Dawkins’ contributions to his field is the development of memetics; indeed, Dawkins coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene. Memetics applies evolutionary principles not to biological organisms but rather to ideas; ideas, like animals, can mutate, and replicate themselves, and compete for survival, and so ideas, like animals, should be expected to evolve. If this is correct, then our intellectual climate will be determined not simply by the evidence yielded by ongoing enquiry, but by which ideas win and lose the fight for survival; the ideas that are best equipped for this fight will survive, irrespective of whether they are true.
Dawkins applies this insight to religion, offering a memetic critique of Christianity: religious belief, particularly Christian belief, is widespread because it stresses faith over reason (making it resistant to refutation), threatens hell (giving it deep psychological impact), and commands its bearers to replicate it (through evangelism). The success of Christianity, on this view, has nothing to do with truth; it is all about the ability of the Christian meme to survive and reproduce.
In a subsequent work, Dawkins takes on the argument from design. The Blind Watchmaker, provocatively titled after William Paley’s analogical design argument which likens the universe to a watch, seeks to provide a naturalistic explanation of the appearance of design in the universe. There Dawkins sets out to explain how the process of natural selection, acting over time, can successfully explain our origins. There is no need, argues Dawkins, to postulate a divine Creator; evolution can explain all.
More recently, Dawkins has strayed from his areas of expertise, writing more broadly (and less well) on philosophy and theology. The chapter of The God Delusion running through philosophical arguments for God’s existence is particularly disappointing. His earlier work, however, remains valuable and impressive.