Richard Dawkins ascended the steps of the Last Chance Bar And Grill, his regular watering hole when he was in need of a nightcap. He’d been sleeping badly for weeks now and he found the alcohol helped a little.The problem was the dream. It was invariably the same dream down to the smallest detail, an observation that he found disturbingly improbable. It began with his body suspended in a floating, translucent bubble somewhere in outer space, a bit like that cosmic fetus scene in the finale of “2001 A Space Odyssey”, only in the dream he definitely wasn’t a fetus because he could see he was wearing one of his favorite bespoke suits, Saville Row, naturally.
So there he was in his smartly tailored suit, teetering on the crumbling edge of star-pocked outer space in his translucent bubble, gazing into a vast, inky, light-denying blankness. If that was not weird enough, there was the creepy sensation to contend with. Somehow he was aware that an incalculably vast entity lay within this abyss. Richard Dawkins, high priest of theothanatology, feared deep in his bowels that the abyss might feel disposed to gaze right back into his soul and who knows, perhaps even shout something wildly unscientific like “Boo!” or “Surprise, Surprise!” Of course this was an idea so preposterous that Richard simply could not respect himself in the morning recalling the whole thing in the cold light of day.
No point denying it, there was an element of the metaphysical or, quelle horreur, even the spiritual about the dream. Of course he knew this whole abyss malarkey was just plain paranoid and entirely consistent with what an overwrought imagination might come up with in the late hours after a punishing media schedule of God-baiting for fun and profit. But, for the first time in the Dawkins distinguished career, a strongly worded appeal to logic and common sense was not helping any. Every night almost without fail the lid of a box inside his brain would spring open and out would pop the dream.
Richard Dawkins, great white God-hunter, took a stool at the bar and ordered his usual martini not shaken, not even stirred, but permitted to commingle according to the laws of nature and the chaos patterns of random chance. Richard was nothing if not consistent, even down to the cocktail. He kept to himself, as was his wont in private life, not wishing to be drawn into a pointless exchange with any of those numbered amongst the ranks of the ignorant or the devout or still worse, on a bad night, the devoutly ignorant. He was therefore none too pleased to hear the words, “Mind if I join you?” spoken by a man who didn’t even wait for a reply before sitting down at the next stool.
Richard studied his martini, all the while hoping the fellow next to him would take the hint and sod off. But the man proved to be thick-skinned and seemingly determined to strike up a conversation. Richard, half-listening, picked up the words “nice” and bar” and “complimentary” and “pretzels.” Eventually Richard gave the man a cursory glance. And that’s when it happened. Somewhere deep, deep beyond his guts, within his bones and on into the twisted pairs of polymers bound by bonds of hydrogen that formed his DNA strands, Richard viscerally responded to the facial configuration of this man. The abyss was gazing into him.
“I know you,” Richard said, after struggling to lower and then raise the floor of his oral cavity in order that he could force air down the trachea into his lungs. “I know you, don’t I?”
The man nodded. “That you do, my friend.”
Even the voice sounded eerily familiar to Richard. He tried to mentally calibrate the geographical region, social class and education status of the man, hoping to nail him down to a place, a name, perhaps a university, anything rather than the singularity of this deeply disturbing recognition.
“Yes, Richard, you might say we are old acquaintances. We have looked into each others’… souls, for lack of a better word, on many occasions and always found the other wanting.”
Richard went into fight or flight mode which was really no choice of mode at all for a feisty, combative personality type like Richard. The Dawkins way was to fix bayonets and charge; he knew no other.
“Now look here,” he said, “I have no idea what you are talking about. But, I must say, you do look awfully familiar.”
The man swept back a flourish of patrician grey forelock that Richard suddenly realized was identical to the one hanging rather limply from his own forehead.
Richard emitted an involuntary sound like a rapidly deflating airbed.
“You…you look like me,” he said, finally. “ It’s amazing how much you look like me. You could be my twin.”
“I could,” the man concurred, “or closer than that. Much closer. In fact, you might say you’re sort of a carbon copy of me, don’t you think?”
The man smiled. It was a bleak smile, rather haughty and devoid of warmth; Richard recognized that smile – it was his own. The man’s spectacles caught the light; Richard recognized those spectacles – they too were his own or, at any rate, exactly like the ones perched on his own nose. Like for like. A mirror image.
Richard didn’t say anything after that. Not because he was in any way physically incapacitated, as in a speechless sort of a way, but due entirely to the fact that he had no frame of logical reference for what was going on here. And so he said nothing, staring at his drink in a futile attempt to shrink the world down to something knowable and controllable, something that obeyed the constants underpinning the stability of this universe as he knew it or, more accurately, wanted it to be.
People simply did not look, sound and even dress identically to other people. Well, Elvis impersonators made a damn good try at it, obviously, but even the very best of them could hardly match the original Elvis in quite the perfection with which this fellow reproduced Richard Dawkins. The resemblance went beyond uncanny. In short, the individual beside him was a living rebuke to everything Richard held dear – that is, if this occupant of the neighboring stool actually existed outside of Richard’s mind of course. And so it was that Richard began to countenance the possibility that he, Richard Dawkins, atheist pin-up boy of self-pleasuring nerdy types throughout the western world, might be over the top, La-La Land bonkers or as close to it as to make no difference.
His new companion helped himself to another of the complimentary pretzels. “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion,” he said, “but I just thought it was about time you and I talked; you know, really talked.”
The man paused with the pretzel halfway to his mouth.
“Are you all right, Richard? You look ill.”
“Not ill,” Richard mumbled, “just mad, perhaps.”
“Then let me assist you to understand. There’s a perfectly logical explanation, you’ll be glad to hear. Fear not, it’s all very scientific. You know what a replicator is, don’t you?”
Richard drained his glass in one swallow half-hoping it might help. It didn’t. The man went back to his pretzel, munching and talking at the same time. “You ought to know, of course. All about replicators, I mean. You came up with it, after all. Handy little theory, too: all sorts of applications.”
Richard rose abruptly from his stool, having resolved to get as far away from this man as he could in the shortest possible time.
“No, wait Richard. Don’t go. In any case where would you go?”
Richard’s brain was all for going; was, in fact, screaming out ‘let’s go!’ but his legs sagged and buckled beneath him, causing him to sit heavily back on the stool. ‘Too many martinis,’ Richard thought, although he knew in his roiling gut that it wasn’t merely the alcohol. If anything was to blame it had to be this shape-shifting demon devouring pretzels before him. The fellow had to be confronted, Richard concluded. Know thy enemy. He had to be challenged and somehow exorcised.
“Who or what are you?” Richard asked.
“Let’s not talk about me,” the man said, “ let’s talk about you. Why don’t we start with replicators. Because that’s what you are, you know, a replicator.”
“I am?” Richard said.
“Yes. And there are rather a lot of you out and about in the multi-verse.”
“Of course. Billions of copies, in fact, spanning many billions of years in universe after universe. It’s all rather splendid and scarcely believable, is it not? Even I can’t quite come to grips with it sometimes.”
“Several billion…of me?”
“Essentially, yes. Pieces of coded information, strands of DNA, the raison d’etre of which is to gaily rattle off copy after copy of itself ad infinitum with the odd inexact mutation along the way. All perfectly natural and evolutionary, just as a fellow like yourself would like it to be.”
The man leaned towards Richard, so close that Richard could smell his aftershave, the identical aftershave, inevitably, that Richard himself happened to be wearing.
“And of course you know who I am, don’t you, Richard?”
“Absolutely no idea,” Richard said. “I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced.”
“Why, Richard, I’m your Maker. Note, that’s with a capital ‘M’. I do insist on a modicum of respect.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your Maker. Your Creator. To put it crudely, I made you. In my own image. A chip off the old block, as they say. You are a kind of copy of me, a facsimile really, albeit a profoundly flawed one. Billions of years, all working towards this moment; a meeting in a bar on a speck of grit at a spatiotemporal coordinate that you persist in calling reality, as if there were only one.”
Richard felt a wave of atavistic rage not unmixed with something else he found disquieting – pure mammalian fear. And so, like any chest-thumping evolutionary success story that finds its territory and status decisively compromised, he attacked.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Look, do you have any idea who you’re talking to? I don’t think you do. Because if you did, you would not be wasting my time with drivel. I’m a scientist.”
“Of course you are,” the man said soothingly.
“That’s right,” Richard continued, “everything I believe in is predicated upon evidence-based, scientific fact. I’ve met a lot of your kind over the years. Now, I strongly suggest you clear off and leave me alone. You may look and sound like me superficially – oh all right then, you may look and sound like me uncannily – but that is where the similarity most decisively ends. And you are certainly not my maker with or without the capital ‘M”.”
“I thought as much,” the man said, “I knew this wasn’t going to go down too well.”
“You’re absolutely right there,” Richard said. “Very bloody prescient of you. It has not gone down well with me at all. And bear in mind that I’m an internationally renowned evolutionary biologist and you, whoever the devil you may be, are not.”
Hardly his finest hour in point-scoring rhetoric, Richard realized, but he was tired, God damn it; tired and scared which tends to happen when one sees things that cannot possibly be there.
The man shook his head sorrowfully. “Ah Richard, but that’s the whole point right there, isn’t it? If only you had stayed with what you know; stayed within the boundaries of the evolutionary biological field rather than throwing yourself into the realm of the metaphysical with that idiot’s guide to popular atheism you wrote on a whim. That’s why I’m here, you know.”
“Because of the book. And all the lecture tours. Mocking people, undermining their comforting beliefs. Acting as if you have all the answers when you obviously don’t. I don’t blame you for doubting, Richard, but there’s really no need to throw your intellectual weight around, smashing icons, tearing down temples, kicking over altars. You’re a bully, Richard. Crusading against the religious crusaders is just replacing one form of narrow-minded fundamentalism with another. It must stop. It really must stop.”
Richard drained the last drop from his glass and signaled the bar man for another.
“You can’t deny me, Richard.”
“Oh yes, I jolly well can. There. See, I just did it again. Consider yourself denied.”
“It’s not that simple, Richard. You’ve been waiting for me to turn up. You dream about it every night.”
The bar tender arrived with another martini. Richard willed his hand reaching for the glass to stop shaking, entirely without success. He closed his eyes tightly. He pinched the skin on the back of his hand as hard as he could. He stole a furtive glance at the man on the stool. He was still there. And he continued to look unbelievably and implausibly identical to Richard. A biological twin he never knew he had? A clone somehow extracted and developed from his DNA? A drug-induced hallucination? There had to be an explanation.
“I haven’t been feeling well lately,” Richard confided to no one in particular. “I think I need a longish rest.”
“You have been pushing it a bit with the punishing media schedule,” the man agreed. “And the jet lag has been pure murder. Far too many speaking engagements. That’s what killed Charles Dickens, you know.”
“Mad as a hatter,” Richard said. “I’m going bonkers. You can’t be a perfect copy of me. That just doesn’t make sense. Ergo – I’m seeing things. ”
“Not so,” the man said, “ I exist. Here I am. I’m perfectly explicable, too. ”
“Yes, of course you are, and there are fairies at the bottom of my garden as well, right?”
“Richard, you know as well as I do that there are far more mysterious phenomena at the bottom of your garden and, indeed, the rest of the universe than plain old boring fairies. For a start there’s the fairy dust all around us that you scientists call dark matter.”
“What has dark matter got to do with fairies, for heaven’s sake?”
“Bear with me. My point is dark matter makes up eighty five percent of matter in the universe and you still have no clue what it actually is, do you? You might as well call it fairy dust and be done with it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“And then there’s the eleven dimensions postulated by the quantum science boffins. What a rollercoaster ride that would be if you could see it! And let’s not forget the neuroscience experiments that have proved what you call reality is not objective at all and can be affected by the observer. Enough to make fairies at the bottom of your garden bog standard ordinary by comparison, don’t you think? There’s no end to it, Richard. There are wonders out there beyond counting and beyond contemplation. And guess what? I’m one of them.”
Richard scowled into his martini. “I may not be firing on all cylinders right now, but that doesn’t make you anything more than a delusion. Or, at best, a superstition dressed up in flimsy, uncorroborated theories. I’ve refuted any possibility of your existence for the best part of my career and done a damn good job of it too, I think. No, as far as I’m concerned, I buried you once and for all some years ago.”
The man looked disappointed. “Really? You think so? Oh please, Richard, let us not dig up that tired old stuff.”
“What tired old stuff?”
“Come, you know very well what I mean. The jig is up. You’ve flushed me out of my black hole. Well done. You came looking for me and, well, here I am.”
“Au contraire,” Richard said fiercely, “no you aren’t. Here. Or anywhere. I will concede that you are a perfect likeness of me down to the clothes and the spectacles, which is of course ridiculous. A Freudian psychiatrist would find that more than a little significant. Something to do with the id, ego and superego conducting a spot of mental fisticuffs, I should think.”
The man rolled his eyes in exactly the same way Richard would have done if confronted by, say, a narrow-minded fundamentalist.
“Pray tell, why shouldn’t I appear to you in this particular physical embodiment? I suppose you rather expected me to front up in something you could really sink your satirical teeth into like, say, full biblical regalia.”
“Well, that certainly would have simplified things,” Richard agreed. “At least then there’d be no question I was certifiably nuts.”
“Seriously Richard, I do wish you would stop conceptualizing this theistic nemesis of yours in terms of some white-bearded, flowing-robed Old Testament father figure.”
“Tell that to the Christians,” Richard said.
“The biblical version, it’s just not me anymore,” the man continued. “It’s just not anybody. Obviously, it is an anachronism; obviously it is an antique two thousand-year-old way of approaching an understanding of God. And obviously the truth is a whole lot messier and chaotic and essentially unknowable by the puny limitations of a human brain, yes even one as impressive as yours.”
And verily Richard waxed wroth at this, shaking in his righteous fury and there was also a good deal gnashing of teeth. “I can assure you, I did not invent the image or notion of a paternalistic, Old Testament God. Lamentably, there are vast numbers of gullible people who literally believe in such a deity.”
“Fair enough,” the man said, swinging around on his stool so that his grey-flannelled bony knees touched Richard’s grey-flannelled bony knees. “But you pander to it, don’t you? You’re happy enough to contextualize the debate around this quaintly archaic vision of theism, aren’t you, you old rogue? I’m onto you, Richard. You’ve made yourself into something of a deity by attacking other deities; and now you’ve become that which you profess to abhor, the figurehead of a cult with worshipful acolytes, all of them clutching signed copies of the sacred texts you churn out. They congregate in their thousands to hear you speak. You’ve become a media god.”
“Rubbish,” Richard said, “I don’t seek out controversy. I simply debate religious belief on any ground you might care to choose and in any context.”
“Of course you do,” the man said. “A nice little earner you’ve carved out for yourself too, with this godless niche. Books, television, celebrity lecture tours.”
Richard flinched. “Money has nothing to do with it. The issue is the insidiousness of ignorance and blind faith. But what’s the point? I’m arguing with myself here. The only possible explanation is I’m crackers. I appear to be engaged in conversation with someone made in my own image, which is scarcely plausible.”
“Look at it from my point of view,” the man appealed. “Consider the possibility it’s the other way round, you are a version of me; made in my own image, as it were.”
“No. That is impossible,” Richard said, gazing about him with a look of wild surmise, “and this is impossible. Yes, there’s no other possible conclusion; I’m afraid I’ve mislaid my marbles.”
“Not necessarily,” the man said, placing a totally unwelcome hand on Richard’s shoulder. “Let me help you out here. Your default setting for the concept of God is a one-word anachronism that conjures up redundant images of a culturally irrelevant deistic figure. Richard? What are you doing?”
Richard lowered the side of his head down ever so gently onto the bar.
“I’m just going to lie down and wait. Hopefully, you’ll go away, perhaps in a puff of magical smoke, but that’s o.k. I don’t care. Just as long as you go away.”
“Nonsense,” the man said, impatiently. “I’m simply asking you to subvert the lazy cultural assumptions induced by your response to the word God and imagine instead a somewhat sexier, updated image that sits more comfortably with scientific speculation. How about an incalculably vast alien intelligence which has evolved over the passage of time taken by a hundred million universes to live and die in the multi-verse currently being postulated by string theory science?”
Richard abruptly raised his head. “Evolved? Did you say evolved? If I was not barking mad and you were not a hallucination I would pick you up on that and point out that an entity which evolved as you said would have to be no God at all, but a sentient creature in all probability composed out of organic matter.”
The man raised a finger. “Hold on there; I never said I was THE God, did I? I’ve only ever claimed to be A God. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I did evolve from organic matter antecedents, a form I outgrew billions of years ago before the Great Uploading and the Universal Connectedness Of All Things.”
“Sounds sort of Buddhist,” Richard said.
God shrugged. “Really? Well, you know, there’s a little bit of truth in all the major and minor messiahs. I prefer to think of it as more like a kind of ultimate Internet broadband connectivity. But that’s just me.”
Richard rubbed his pounding forehead. “Clearly I am becoming more of a dribbling lunatic by the minute and you are sounding less like God, which I suppose could be a hopeful sign that, with appropriate medical treatment in a clinic, I may well recover my marbles.”
It was the man’s turn to look affronted. “Now look here, I am omnipotent and eternal, how much more like God can a God get and still not be called a deity? I fit the job description and I must insist you recognize my credentials. In the case of your particular universe, I planted the seed. I am the Progenitor or Impregnator or, if you like, I am the Lord, thy God.””
“How very interesting,” Richard chipped in without, it must be said, sounding very interested. “So if God made me, who made God?”
God looked as unhappy as a God could look without atomizing worlds in the blink of an omnipotent eye. “Not even I know the complete answer to that.”
“What? Oh come now! What kind of a God are you anyway?”
God straightened his Cambridge tie and pulled back his shoulder-padded shoulders, making him appear a good deal taller. “I am the hugely successful product of billions upon billions of years of development in a string of universes resulting in the evolutionary climax that is Me, a being/entity that evolved from mortal life to flourish beyond time and space constraints, capable of acts of creation, all-powerful and divine. Look at Me, dread Me, I am the fruit born of evolutionary theory; I am the entirely logical outcome of eons of evolutionary biology. And it was good.”
“No it wasn’t,” Richard said feelingly. “It was bloody disastrous. I’ve lost it. Totally crackers.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” God advised, not without sympathy. “It’s a lot to take in. And you weren’t to know. Look, let me buy you a drink.”
God ordered two martinis, not shaken or stirred. They drank in silence.
Finally Richard turned to God. “Question for you. How do you know I am not God, as in the Lord Thy God and Creator? “
“You heard me. You admit you’re not omniscient because you have no idea who made you. Well, why can’t it be me?”
“But that’s utter codswallop!”
“Is it? No more codswallopy than your codswallop.”
Richard realized he was enjoying himself. Or else he was going mad. Either way, it was rather fun. “All right,” he said, “so I am a replicator in the strict evolutionary genetic sense of the word. But I put it to you that I am at the beginning of the production line rather than the end, the alpha to your omega rather than the other way round as you suggest.”
“How in God’s name did you arrive at that ridiculous conclusion?” God asked with what Richard had to concede was perfectly reasonable skepticism.
“Well, it’s all thanks to you,” Richard said. “The fact that you have turned up, made in my own image as it were, confirms my faith in my destiny. It has been my life’s work to bury God and I am aware that the corollary of this is that I must replace him too. I am equipped to do that. I am first amongst non-believers; no one would disagree with that. I am Richard Dawkins, destroyer of deities, an icon worshipped by millions of atheists; I put to the sword false gods wherever I find them and replace mythology with the canon of my own belief system. Isn’t that what deists accuse us of? Of replacing worship of God with worship of the Self? Sounds pretty God-like to me. If it waddles like God and quacks like God, then excuse me for arriving at the obvious conclusion…”
“God is a duck? ”
“Don’t be facetious. You know very well what I meant. In a rationalist, strictly utilitarian and secular sense, one might say that I’ve been evolving into a God.”
“Uh oh,” God said, “ You really are going loopy.”
“Ha!” said Richard, “who’s the loopy one here? All the world is mad except for me and thee, and if I’m going to have to doubt the sanity of one of us, well then, it’s going to have to be thee. And anyway, you said it yourself. You anointed me.”
“Yes, you said I was a media God, remember?”
“Yes,” God said, reluctantly, “I suppose I did. But I was joking.”
“You should know better,” Richard admonished. “Religion is no joking matter.”
The bartender approached at this juncture and asked Richard to keep his voice down as he was disturbing some of the other patrons. Although it was dark in the bar, Richard could make out the stares and glares. He realized he had been talking much more loudly than he normally did. It was the excitement.
“Me?” Richard said, “what about him? He’s making as much noise as me isn’t he?”
“Who?” the bartender asked.
Richard jerked a thumb tersely at God. “Him.”
The bartender regarded Richard quizzically for a couple of seconds. “You know what I think? I think you’ve had too many martinis. Just keep the noise down or else I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Richard turned to God after the bartender left.
“He couldn’t see you, could he?”
“I chose not to reveal myself.”
“That’s because you’re not really there.”
“Don’t deny me, Richard. I am The Lord Thy God.”
“Bollocks! On the contrary, I am your Creator! Kneel before me and tremble, for I am sore displeased.”
“I don’t care how sore you are, I refuse to believe in a universe that has Richard Dawkins in the centre of it, lording it over the rest of us!”
Richard stabbed an accusing finger at God. “Oh ye of little faith!”
The bartender returned. “Right, that’s it. You have to leave immediately or else I’m going to have our security guys escort you off the premises.”
Richard stubbornly folded his arms. “I’m not leaving until He admits He doesn’t exist.”
“Who?” asked the bartender.
“Him,” Richard said, “Oh, never mind. You can’t see him anyway.”
God shook his head sadly. “There are none so blind as those who cannot see.”
“Oh do shut up,” Richard said.
Two heavily built and obviously secular bouncers arrived at this point and frog-marched a loudly protesting Richard out of the Last Chance Bar And Grill and deposited him violently into the gutter.
Richard rose to his feet shakily, thinking to himself what an absolute bugger of a thing it was that no prophet is accepted in his hometown, not even an atheist one. Furthermore it was going to take a miracle to locate and flag down a taxi at this time of night. And then, mirabile dictu, a taxi materialized out of the dirty, grey wetness of the night and pulled up alongside him. Richard was about to gratefully get in when the cab driver lowered the car window. Richard found himself staring into the face of his perfect mirror image. It was He. God.
“Sorry, Richard, I’m afraid you can’t come in. You’re not going My way.”
“I can change,” Richard pleaded.
“No you can’t. You just need a lift rather badly right at this moment. That’s not the same thing.”
The taxi roared off and Richard was alone again, teetering on the crumbling edge of star-pocked outer space gazing into the inky, light-denying emptiness of what he could only describe with understandable reluctance as an abyss.
Author’s Note: The Richard Dawkins mentioned in this story is not the Richard Dawkins who inhabits this particular spatiotemporal coordinate of the universe, but another Richard Dawkins entirely, one of the infinitely replicating Richard Dawkins spawning across the endlessly unfolding multi-verse.