My favourite spot for a walk is alongside a steep ravine above the Congo River, whose frothy rapids writhe and hiss hundreds of feet below. As I strolled beside this stunning prospect, one bright and blue-skied morning, I heard a pitiful human voice crying for help:
“Help me! O God in heaven help me please!”
Peering over the precipice, I saw a man hanging from a sagging branch about two feet below the edge. Clasping my hands on some sturdy roots, I allowed my feet to drop down beside him and take a firm grip of his safari jacket. Whimpering with fear, he plucked up the courage to let go of the branch and take hold of my ankles. With a robust heave, I pulled up my knees and hauled him to safety.
For a while he did nothing but lie on the ground sobbing with head in hands. Presently he uncovered his face, and I instantly recognised him as no less a man than Professor Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary theorist. He must have wandered from his guide during a safari trek and stumbled over the edge of the gorge. The bewildering beauty of the African wilderness has been known to lure prominent humans into ill-advised adventures. After he had settled down a little, I tried to reassure him:
“There’s a good fellow, we’ll soon have you back at the base camp.”
He looked at me with the face of an awestruck child beholding a storybook hero.
“Were you sent by God?” he said, his voice faltering with emotion.
This question, which must rank as the most unexpected utterance ever to have come from the lips of Professor Dawkins, left me momentarily dumbfounded. I glanced up above my forehead to see whether a halo was visible, but saw only air. After gaping like a crocodile waiting for a snack, I eventually found my voice:
“Good heavens, no! Whatever gave you that idea? God and I haven’t been on speaking terms since the remake of Planet of the Apes. I wanted Him to strike the director with lightning, but He stubbornly refused to answer my prayers. My name is Gorilla Bananas. It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Professor Dawkins – how do you do?”
I extended my hand, which the eminent ethologist accepted rather gingerly. “You know who I am?” he asked in apparent incredulity.
“Of course I do,” I replied stoutly. “We may be hundreds of miles from what you call ‘civilisation’, but there’s a satellite dish at the safari encampment. And don’t forget the BBC World Service, which I’ve tuned to on many occasions to hear you speak. There can’t be many discerning individuals on the face of the Earth who have not heard of Richard Dawkins: biologist, rationalist, humanist……….and atheist.”
This last allusion of mine caused him to blush and bite his lip. He then began to address me, slowly and uncomfortably:
“Mr Bananas. I will forever be in you debt for the service you have done me today…”
“That’s quite all right, old boy…..” I muttered, holding up my hand.
“No, let me finish please,” continued Dawkins. “I don’t want to impose on your goodwill, but I have a further favour to ask of you. In my heightened emotional state, you may have noticed me refer to a certain supernatural entity.”
“To God, you mean?” I interjected.
“Yes,” said Dawkins, unwilling to speak the word. “In times of abnormal stress, we humans often say and do things that are quite irrational; things which do not reflect our deepest convictions. As one who is familiar with my career, you must know that I frequently engage in debates in which I argue from a rationalist perspective. If what I have said in your presence were to become public knowledge – sentiments which in no way mirror my considered judgements – my credibility would be forever destroyed as a commentator on matters of genuine social importance. Do you follow what I am saying, Mr Bananas?”
I scratched my head. “It rather sounds as if you want me to keep my mouth shut to avoid causing you embarrassment,” I replied.
“Well, I wouldn’t quite put it like that…” stammered Dawkins reddening.
“Of course, I have no desire to see you embarrassed,” I interrupted hastily. “Much of the work you have done makes you a natural ally of the hairy apes. Let me think about your request, Dawkins. We’ll meet at the safari camp before you leave and I’ll tell you what I’ve decided.”
So Dawkins and I met up a few days later, he with his suitcases packed, I with my fur neatly groomed. After finding a quiet place to discuss the ramifications of our recent tryst, I spoke first:
“Dawkins,” I declared. “I am ready to do as you ask, on one condition.”
“And what might that be?” he inquired.
“Let me start by saying that I esteem you greatly as a biologist,” I said. “In this field, your voice carries weight and you are rightly listened to with respect. But you have also acquired a peculiar habit of getting into arguments about religion. Such debates belong to the discipline of social anthropology, a calling outside your area of expertise. What do you hope to achieve by perpetually nagging away on this topic?”
“I want people to give up their superstitions and see the world as a scientist does,” answered Dawkins emphatically. “I want them to abandon religion and look for truth in reason and empirical investigation.”
“In short, you want them to be like you,” I concluded. “The problem, Dawkins, is that most humans aren’t like that. Do you really suppose that people will turn to science just because they stop worshipping God? It’s far more likely that they’ll start worshipping an even bigger arse. Look what happened in Russia: the state practically declared war on God and what good did it do them? Everyone started venerating a lot of vicious buggers with beards and moustaches and the entire nation went to the dogs. Frankly, Dawkins, your reasoning on this matter is unsound.”
The eminent professor clenched his teeth and looked me in the eye: “So what is your condition for holding your peace about the details of our encounter then?”
“I should have thought it’s clear enough. You must stop all this fruitless chatter about God and religion. Stick to biology and evolution, which are your strong suits. And lay off the Catholics as well. They’ve got enough to worry about with all the frock-wearing and pederasty in the priesthood.”
The distinguished man of science took a deep sigh and allowed himself a thin smile. “Since you have the power to discredit me entirely, I have no choice other than to accept your condition. Good Day, Mr Bananas, and thank you once again for saving my life.”
So Professor Richard Dawkins returned to Oxford, and for a while he kept to the bargain we had struck. In the immediate aftermath of his brush with doom, he avoided religious controversies and maintained an informal truce with God. But I regret that he has recently returned to his old tricks in a documentary screened on British TV. Perhaps he thinks I am no longer keeping tabs on his activities. In the circumstances, he has left me no alternative but to publish a full account of what transpired on that fateful afternoon above the ever-flowing waters of the Congo.
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