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Reader’s Guide to “Richard Dawkins Goes to Heaven.”

Third in a series of reader’s guides for my short story collection, “Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, and Mother Teresa Go to Heaven.”  This one is for the Richard Dawkins story primarily, but may be applicable to the others.  For more details, see previous posts.

How Not to Read Imaginative Literature

What follows is an extreme condensation of chapter 14 in Mortimer J. Adler’s How to read a Book.

1.       Do not read imaginative literature as if its goal is to convey knowledge as such. The goal of imaginative literature is to communicate an experience itself- one that the reader can only experience through reading.

2.       Do not read without acknowledging the role of the imagination and the vicarious experience offered.

3.       Do not try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you.  In order to gain from it, readers must allow themselves to be open to the experience.

4.       Don’t criticize fiction by the standards that properly apply to communication of knowledge. The story need not describe the facts of life or society in a manner that is verifiable by experiment or research.

How to Read Imaginative Literature

1.       Classify the work according to its kind

2.       Grasp the whole of the work.  This is tested by whether or not you can state that unity in a single sentence which shows you understand the plot wherein the unity is played out.

3.       You must understand how the parts work together, the crisis, climax, and aftermath of the story.

4.       You must become at home within the imaginary world before you criticize it.

Richard Dawkins Goes to Heaven

1.       What is this story about as a whole?

2.       In what experience is the author allowing the reader to vicariously partake?

3.       Is the author uniformed about Richard Dawkins’ philosophy or personality?

4.       What emotions besides indignation are aroused as you read the story?

5.       Is the author misinformed about the Christian conception  of Angels?

6.       How is the character in this story different from both  of the characters in the other two stories?

7.       How does this character appear to acquire knowledge? What methods of acquiring knowledge doe he dismiss?

8.       Is the angel correct when he tells Dawkins that “the deduction is easy.” If it is easy, why does the experience of losing all good things chill the reader who does not reject it?

9.       Does the author send any of the characters to hell? Is this approach consistent with Christian teaching?

10.   What is the author’s explanation to why the character Dawkins cannot see the logical conclusions to his own statements?

11.   The angel explains that what Dawkins requests (existence apart from God) is not possible.  The doctrine evoked here is of God’s immanence.  How does understanding this doctrine help understand what is happening to Dawkins?

12.   At one point in the story, a Bible reference is cited.  Look it up and compare it with what happens in the story.

13.   At that same point, as Dawkins’ path grows narrow, the statement “Thy will be done” is engraved.  To what work of fiction is this an allusion to? Why does the author repeat it here?

14.   An atheist may detest God for being a tyrant, compelling people to obey and believe.  In this story, Dawkins is not compelled to obey or believe.  Nonetheless, atheists describe what happens to Dawkins as ‘torture.’  Is God a tyrant or not for giving people what they want?  Can one have it both ways?

15.   Which is worse?  The fate that Dawkins receives at the end of this story or a life in eternal servitude to God?  Which one is ‘hell’ to you?  If the latter, what is your objection to the former?



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    • Mike on February 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    None of this changes the fact that this was poorly written, as I explained in another post. It also doesn’t change the fact that it espouses a hurtful philosophy, for which it is to validly to be denounced. Finally, it revels in cruelty. The author is full of hubris, convinced in spite of all reason that he can write.

    P.s. In case you missed it, the use og “hubris” was a bit sarcastic.

    • chaos_engineer on February 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm


    I found this story through Dr. Myers’ review. I thought the meaning was obvious, but it seems like there were at least two other interpretations for the answer to the question: “What happens to the ‘essence’ of Dr. Dawkins?” Now I’m wondering if you had a particular answer in mind, or if you’re leaving it up to the reader.

    The “literal” interpretation is that the story is just a nasty little Dante-style revenge fantasy. Since Dr. Dawkins disagreed with the orthodoxy, his “essence” undergoes eternal torment, after carefully being stripped of any memory of why it’s being tormented or that anything other than torment exists.

    The “rationalist” interpretation is that the story is a more humane revenge fantasy. The “essence” is dismantled completely; there’s nothing left to be tormented. Dawkins has no reason to complain since oblivion is what he was expecting anyway.

    I think I was the only person who took the “universalist” interpretation: The “essence” of Richard Dawkins is everything that’s good about him, so that goes back to God and only his weaknesses and his limitations are left behind. We’re tricked into losing sight of him at the end of the story, but if we read between the lines, we see that he winds up in Heaven; he just enters through a different gate than Mother Theresa.

    (Which makes sense, because they want different things. Mother Theresa finds release from the burden of being who she is, and Richard Dawkins finds release from the burden of being less than what he can be.)

    Anyway, can you give us some insight on how you meant the ending to be interpreted? (I know there’s a temptation to give a non-answer like “Dawkins’ ‘essence’ gets what it deserves.” So thanks in advance for not doing that!)

    • Anthony on February 23, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Hi Chaos, I’m about tapped out for the night. I’ll try to get to this tomorrow. Please be patient. Thanks.

    • Marconi Darwin on February 24, 2011 at 12:01 am


    A short story has a reader’s guide as to how to read it correctly?

    To top that, you call it literature?

    • Joe on February 24, 2011 at 9:12 am

    For those who have read the stories, please compare the character of Richard Dawkins to the character of the priest in the Mother Theresa story. The two characters espouse widely different viewpoints about religion and God, etc. But, in the end, neither character’s viewpoint was enough to save them.

    • Jeron on February 24, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I appreciate the ‘universalist’ interpretation, chaos_engineer; I had not myself come up with that interpretation. Though I personally doubt that is the intended meaning of the story, it does come closest to what I perceive to be the nature of God.

    (To Anthony : yes, I have now read your ‘Dawkins goes to heaven’ though neither of the other two. Since there seems little in the way of accomodation for my locale, I arranged a reading via skype from someone who did have it (It is not very long, after all.))

    • Anthony on February 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Hi Chaos and Jeron,

    The idea that the story is some sort of vengeful torture is one that I saw bandied about but is way off the mark. Not that I’m surprised it was read this way by hot headed atheists, but then, I wasn’t the one that brought to the attention of the atheistic community. The other part, that Dawkins is getting what he deserves for not accepting ‘orthodoxy’ very seriously misses the point. We must remember that in the context of this story, there is no ‘orthodoxy’ to believe. The facts are self-evident to the man suddenly finding themselves standing before God being called to give an account. Dawkins does not receive his fate for failing to believe anything. He receives it because he insists on justifying himself and his past disbelief.

    However, as illustrated in the Mother Teresa story, this habit of justifying ourselves even in the face of indisputable evidence, is a common aspect of the human condition. Note how in the Mother T story the first person being called to account is a Christian theologian. His first instinct, too, is to defend himself.

    According to Christianity, no honest and thorough review of any of our lives will produce a person who can escape conviction. Our best bet- our only bet- is to throw ourselves at the mercy of the judge. And of course, these stories imagine that what I just said was the case ‘according to Christianity’ turns out to be exactly true.

    I found it interesting that many of the atheists responding to the story, including PZ, regarded this as torture and in the same breath preferred it to eternal life on God’s terms. That is, they would rather be ‘tortured’ as Dawkins was here because surrender to God was a torture far worse.

    And I think that makes my point pretty well, actually.

    Now, I don’t for a minute wish to suggest on the view of this story that Dawkins made it into ‘heaven’ just in a different way. The stuff about God’s immanence was important, and it is a largely forgotten and underemphasized doctrine in orthodox Christianity. Here is the problem: if a relationship with God is to be non-coerced, then there has to be a way in which we sentient beings can choose not to be in that relationship. However, God is immanent in all that is. How then could there ever be any sense in which we exist, but outside of God’s presence (as the Bible passage provided in the story describes)?

    This story means to explore what that might conceptually look like.

    However, I think you were on to something, chaos, when you said this:

    “The “essence” of Richard Dawkins is everything that’s good about him, so that goes back to God and only his weaknesses and his limitations are left behind.”

    Yes, I think that’s about right. The problem is in thinking that whatever was good in Dawkins was ever outside of God in the first place, in order to ‘go back’ to him. God is immanent in all (and transcendent relative to us, at the same time!). That means, as the passage provided by the angel indicates, that the good things that made up the person Dawkins, and each one of us, are part and parcel manifestations of God. When they are withdrawn, they do not ‘go back’ to God. It was impossible for him to never have them.

    That’s why I can’t go along with your idea that Dawkins still manages to get to heaven, even if I can see what you mean in proposing it. That which was the specific, discrete, entity called Dawkins still persists.

    To help you understand what is meant by immanence, let us take the atheistic world view for granted for a minute. Who are we on such a view? Richard Dawkins would be first in line to say that we just reduce to a particular arrangement of atom that manifest into some kind of form that we identify with. So the atheists believe in immanence, too, only it is the universe that is immanent in us.

    When we die- nay, even as we live- our atoms disperse into the universe, and our identify is absorbed by the universe, which is not added to or subtracted in the event.

    So, now let us ask ourselves, could a person say, “I want to exist as a discrete entity, but I don’t want any part of this nasty universe!” ? The thing can’t be done. The thing is not possible. The moment you strip out the universe from our essence, there is nothing discrete to recognize. This is analogous to what happens to Dawkins in the story, only Dawkins wishes to be a discrete entity apart from any hint of God. The thing cannot be done. But here is the difference- according to Christianity, who we are does not reduce to the atoms around us. We are known by God: this is, in the end, the sole ground of our being.

    “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” Matt 7:23 (and this passage is a firm warning to ‘religious’ people!)

    But the universe knows nothing, so it is not possible for our ‘personality’ to persist when our atoms are dispersed. Nor is it possible to persist with all our ‘good parts’ when God ceases to ‘know’ us. That means, I reckon, that we will persist- but with only the ‘parts’ that are left. How this works in the final scheme of things, I don’t know, but do know that the Scriptures are not shy in communicating a dire warning that we are in great danger- and I believe there is good evidence for taking that warning seriously.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your patience.

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