Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins dine across the divide: ‘The problem is he’s not swayed by evidence but by feeling’

In our celebrity Dining across the divide special, the cleric meets the atheist biologist. Can they find any understanding on the value of faith?

Richard C, 60, East Sussex

A portrait of Rev Richard Coles

Occupation Cleric, broadcaster, writer and Communard (retired)

Voting record Always Labour. “I was a party member for a while. I rejoined to vote for Keir; I rather like Keir”

Amuse bouche Richard skydives. On his first tandem freefall, jumping from a plane at 10,000ft, he asked the instructor what was the worst thing that could happen. “He said: ‘Fuck it up completely and kill us both!’”

Richard D, 81, Oxford

A portrait of Richard Dawkins

Occupation Evolutionary biologist, author, atheist

Voting record Lib Dem. “To begin with it was because I liked the Oxford MP Evan Harris, one of the few scientists in parliament, and very intelligent. In recent elections I have just been passionately anti-Brexit”

Amuse bouche Richard plays the EWI (pronounced ee-wee), which stands for electronic wind instrument. “It looks like a clarinet, but can sound like anything that has been programmed into it – trumpet, tuba, cello, accordion, panpipes”

For starters

RC I grew up in a world of Christian values; I was a chorister as a kid.

RD I was too.

RC I was singing the music of the Anglican choral tradition.

RD As was I.

RC But I was an atheist from the age of eight, unshakably certain that the universe was a material phenomenon.

RD That is unusual in an eight-year-old. What led you to that?

RC My grandfather’s death. I remember hearing people say well-intentioned phrases about him having gone to a better place, but I couldn’t get past the idea of him decomposing in a grave – it just seemed to me that was what was going on.

RD Do you think he is in a better place now?

RC Yes, as well as decomposing. Once I got to the other side of accepting faith then all sorts of possibilities opened up. The idea that we can endure in some way after the death of our material selves – I find that captivating.

RD Captivating, but is it realistic? The brain has come into existence as a result of millions of years of evolution, presumably acquiring what we think of as consciousness. Why would you think that something that has come into being through evolution goes on when the brain decays?

Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins sitting at a table at the Colony Grill in London

The big beef

RC At the end of my 20s, HIV took out about a third of my circle. I wanted to connect with that feeling from when I was a kid of being in chapel and loving the music.

RD Your conversion to Christianity came about because of HIV deaths?

RC That’s what got me through the door: the turmoil and devastation and thinking: where do I go with this?

RD You needed somewhere to go and the material world didn’t provide the consolation you needed, so you became a believer.

RC I suppose I did get consolation, but much more than that it challenged me fundamentally about the world. It was so extraordinarily rich and surprising and counterintuitive. And I started to read the Bible seriously.

RD Apart from the resurrection, which I presume you believe in, what about miracles like water into wine, walking on water …?

RC Highly unlikely scenarios, and in my own experience I have never come across something inexplicably supernatural. But accepting the incarnation is the big one. If God does that, God could do anything; that’s the key for me.

RD I can appreciate the message in the same way I can appreciate a novel where I don’t believe in the characters but nevertheless can empathise with them and love them. I don’t understand why you take the gospels seriously because scholars don’t.

RC Plenty of scholars do. The gospels are very complicated, there are all sorts of things going on in them – some of it is eyewitness account, memory, oral tradition; some of it is theological. It’s very challenging sometimes, but it’s worth it because of the fruits, because of the wonderful stuff that continues to captivate me and motivate me.

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RD Is the wonderful stuff an aesthetic thing?

RC Some of it, but it’s more about the way it makes people feel fully alive, what it does to people and for people, and I’m sure a Muslim or a Jew or an atheist would be able to give you examples of that according to their own light.

RD I get that every day, from music, and the work that I do in science, from the beautiful world we live in. Part of that beauty is the fact that it is explicable, that what looks overwhelmingly like the artifice of a master creator you can actually explain, starting from simply beginning without the need for intervention from design.

RC We live in a world where Darwin seems to provide such a powerful and elegant and persuasive account of the origins of life. I don’t find anything in that that I would have to surrender in order to make a commitment.

RD You’re the kind of vicar who is much harder to argue with because that’s a reasonable point.

Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins sitting at a table at the Colony Grill in London

Sharing plate

RC I’m fascinated by Mendel, who was in both camps, I guess, in that he was a theologian and an abbot. He exercised pastoral responsibility in his community, but he was also an extraordinarily significant person in the development of our understanding of biology. Did you know Janáček played the organ at his funeral?

RD I did not. Have you visited his monastery?

RC I have not.

RD I have. The library contains his copy of On the Origin of Species with underlined passages. It’s pretty clear he read it. It also has a remarkable collection of English schoolboy fiction – Percy F Westerman and Biggles.

Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins sitting at a table at the Colony Grill in London

For afters

RD When I did Desert Island Discs one of the things I chose was Mache Dich, Mein Herze from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Sue Lawley, who was doing it at the time, couldn’t understand. It’s just sublime music.

RC I suppose I want to alight on “sublime” Richard.

RD I don’t know what the dictionary definition is; you’re probably one up on me there. Bach was a genius. When there was some talk about what to send out into space as a sort of advertisement for humanity, one scientist, I forget who, suggested the complete works of Bach, but then said, “but that would be boasting”.

RC Indeed. And on every manuscript I believe Bach wrote “for the greater glory of God”.

Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins sitting at a table at the Colony Grill in London


RC I think there is this idea in our public discourse that the force of your opinion and the force of your feeling and the passionate adherence to a belief is what validates it, and I don’t think that’s true. I’d much rather talk something through, look at inconsistencies and incongruences.

RD What is difficult arguing with Richard is he is not swayed by factual evidence; it is feeling that matters. Feelings are important, but they don’t tell us what is true.

Rev Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins sitting at a table at the Colony Grill in London

• The Rev Richard Coles’ Murder Before Evensong is published by Orionat £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply. Richard and Richard ate at the Colony Grill, London.

Want to meet someone from across the divide? Find out how to take part

• This article was amended on 5 August 2022. Due to an editing error, Richard Dawkins’ question about whether Richard Coles believes in miracles was partly misquoted in an earlier version.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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