Dawkins was dying.
The tiny tumour that started as a maverick strand of DNA deep in the brain was now pressing on his optic nerve, and nothing more could be seen out of his right eye. The headaches and the scans came too late. To excise the cancer would be to risk destroying that beautiful mind. The darkness was gathering.
They had moved his bed into the library. From his pillows he could still just see his own titles, familiar bands of colour dominating the shelves next to the work that inspired them, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. There was the book that made him a household name - The Selfish Gene, edition after edition in a Babel of languages. There was The Blind Watchmaker. There was The God Delusion. The laptop lay untouched now on a desk only visited by his carer’s duster. There were still words gathering in his mind but the effort to grasp a pen made his fingers shake, and whispered dictation was unintelligible, misunderstood.
So this was it. Time for oblivion. Just a walking shadow - a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. The familiar phrase worming through his head riled him, rattled his ego even as he faced the bleak truth that he had fed to millions; his life’s candle might be snuffed out, but his defiant stand would continue on websites, in print, documentaries, lectures, tributes and generations educated in the total rejection of God. He would be heard.
Someone came into the room; time for a sip of water? A bed-bath? Medication? Time was blurring.
He didn’t recognise the voice and he could barely make out the shape of the man at the foot of his bed. The room brightened a little, the light playing on the beard of his visitor. Surely he knew him?
‘Don’t you recognise me, Richard?’
‘I’m sorry. My eyes are so bad now.’
It was odd; he could always hear somebody coming - steps in the passage, the slight creak of the library door as it opened and closed and momentary voices from other rooms. This man had arrived in silence, yet his voice was clear.
‘I’m an old friend, Richard! Look again. Can you see me now?’
The shock of recognition was like a thunderbolt in the brain. He was staring at the face of Charles Darwin, who smiled back at him. Oh, no. Oh, no. Hallucinating now. He knew this could happen as the cancer spread. He reached for his buzzer.
‘This is not a dream, Richard, not an illusion called up from your subconscious. My visit has a purpose. First I have to congratulate you on an extraordinary body of work, for which the scientific world has rightly honoured you; secondly, however, and most urgently, I need to show you where you have gone so badly wrong. My very presence here testifies to that. Not only do you personally believe that human identity is extinguished at physical death, but with messianic zeal you have brain-washed a generation to agree with you. This is not merely a mistake but a dangerous untruth that threatens the spiritual health of thousands, maybe millions of people.’
How could this be happening? What sick joke was being conjured by his dying mind? He buzzed again, but there was still no response.
‘I refuse to accept this. At least I have a shred of rationality left to dismiss this absurd hallucination. Go away, you ridiculous vision!’
‘Sadly, Richard, I cannot. I am doing God’s work here.’
‘There is no God.’
‘God is alive and well despite your many public protestations, and without God you wouldn’t exist.’
‘Nonsense. And you yourself rejected God; all this is humbug.’
‘Dear me, Professor Dawkins! You have been my admirer all these years and now you call me a humbug! What a sorry state of affairs! Never mind. At least you are talking to me now.’
The face on the pillow reddened with rage.
‘You are not real!’
‘Take my hand, Clinton Richard. I want to show you something.’
Why did he reach out and clutch the imaginary fingers? They were warm, and the palm was warm, and the grasp was firm, and the smiling eyes of his dead mentor held his own, and he could see ... he could see!
‘I only railed at God when my daughter died. I wanted to throw away a God who could cruelly rob me of the child I cherished. But deep in my heart I never, ever doubted that only a mighty Consciousness could conceive the world we know, and guide the remarkable process of evolution to whose study you and I have devoted our lives. You have misunderstood me. And your pride has prevented you from opening up to greater truths than either of us imagined. Look where this has led you.’
He could see. Not the room that he knew, but patterns of light and dark. Dark spines on the library shelves, his own books barely discernible in a shadow that was almost tangible. Darwin’s classic standing brighter nearby. In a far corner, only visited by Dawkins when in vitriolic mood, a single light blazed like a captured star; it was his one copy of the Christian Bible. Darwin shone, but Richard’s own hand was grey - his body was grey, the bed was grey, the air was grey, the vague forms of people approaching from every direction were grey and the arms that stretched out to wrench him from the grasp of his one friend were grey, and he screamed.
‘6.9 out of 7, Richard. That was how you measured your atheism. You may be too late. You will be going to the place where all the Godless go, the dark misery of your own undying mind. You have become as blind as your own imagined Watchmaker, and there will be no light for you forever now. Unless you turn round.’
‘Deathbed repentance? What hypocrisy!’
‘Not so. We live and die many, many times. Most of us make serious mistakes; but there is always a chance to repair them and turn our back on the darkness. 0.1 out of 7, Richard; that was the measure you gave of acknowledging God. That is now your one spark of hope. If you realise you are a soul, and that soul is desperate to escape its self-made misery, then now is the time to admit the truth, accept that you were wrong, and ask to be led back into spiritual Light.’
Richard was weeping. Every verbal battle he thought he had won flashed through his mind in a mad slide-show - academics, archbishops, astrologers, apologists for every faith in the world. Hundreds of eyes met his, reproaching him. Then came the children. One by one in an endless line, each one a light which he snuffed out with a laugh. The globe of the Earth filled his vision, its cities, towns, hamlets and camps bright with life - until his face staring from countless screens pronounced ‘There is no God.’ And all the light was gone.
‘You see what damage you have done.’
‘But God can mend it.’
‘You think so? He is real now?’
‘I never saw it this way.’
‘0.1 has found his voice.’
‘0.1 is being forced to find his voice.’
‘God gives us total freedom to do good or make a mess of our lives. To choose Him or reject Him. There is only one person who can repair all this terrible damage, and that, Richard, is you.’
‘How do I do that when I’m dying with a tumour in my brain?’
‘There is always help.’
‘I have always been here; and there are other friends. Friends who can heal you. But only if you ask.’
‘Now you want me to believe in miracles?’
‘If that is how you see the intervention of a loving God, yes.’
‘Then what am I meant to do?’
‘What you have always done - return to the studios, the cameras, the massive exposure of the Web. And tell all those misled people you were wrong. Tell them you saw me and have understood. Tell them that Love has made and maintains this wonderful universe, and speaks to us in uncounted symbols and tongues. People need to be told by men of stature that good science is helping humanity to grow, but to reject or ignore the living Source is to undo all that good work, to risk the spiritual death of the civilised world.’
‘They won’t believe me. They will call me a madman.’
‘Maybe. And the cost to your self-esteem will be high. But this is a vital sacrifice that I now need you to make. Ask, Richard.’
The door of the library opened; the Professor’s wife stared in astonishment and disbelief as her husband whispered ‘Heal me’ and stood for the first time in months amid an inexplicable gathering glory of brilliant light.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
( This story is a fantasy I wrote for a Llandudno Writers' Club competition. Let me stress that while the imagined circumstances serve to make a strong philosophical point, I absolutely do not wish such a physical calamity on the Professor - I wish only his well-being and eventual enlightenment!)
* * *