In the beginning, there was Elvis.
Across the ocean, the young man who would grow up to be the scientist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins looked in a shop window and saw an Elvis Presley album cover that changed his world.
He had gone through a stage of early religious belief, when he accepted and then rejected conventional faith in the Church of England.
"I was a child, and most children who are brought up in religious schools take to it for a while at least, and I was no exception to that. I was confirmed at the age of 13 into the Church of England. I attended confirmation classes; I guess I was too young to see through them," he recalled Monday on The Daily Circuit.
"After I'd seen through Christianity ... I was still influenced by the elegance of the living world, what appeared to be intelligent design. The living world does create a very powerful illusion of intelligent design. I was persuaded by that.
"And that was reinforced when I discovered that my great hero, Elvis Presley, had done a religious album, called 'Peace in the Valley.' 'I believe for every time a baby cries,' or whatever it is, 'my faith is reinforced.' He didn't put it that way.
"Elvis was kind of a minor god to me and my companions. And so when I discovered that he was religious, it felt like a call from heaven. This is Elvis, personally calling me!"
The song Dawkins was quoting, "I Believe," has lyrics that do indeed sound like a case for intelligent design:
Every time I hear newborn baby cry
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why
But his Elvis-inspired faith didn't last long. It "came to an end when I realized that the Darwinian explanation for the apparent design of life is extremely satisfying, extremely powerful, really works and really does explain," he said. "And so that, finally, was the nail in the coffin of my religiosity."
In hindsight, Dawkins said, Presley's Christian outlook should not have been a surprise. "I realize he was brought up in a not particularly well educated, Southern home," he said. "How could he not be religious? It was rather naive to think that he would be anything else."
Dawkins said that he still appreciates the King James Bible as literature, but that he doubts many of the people who claim to follow its teachings know what those teachings are.
"I can't help feeling if they were familiar with the Bible, they would be a bit less religious. There are some fairly horrific bits in it. I actually admire it from a literary point of view, in the King James translation at least," he said.
He called the widespread ignorance of the Bible unfortunate, "not just because it would be likely to turn them against their religion, but also because it does lie at the root of so much of our English literary culture. So many phrases, so many proverbial phrases, so many turns of phrase, so many idioms do come straight from the Bible. You can't really appreciate literature, or indeed the English language, if you can't take those allusions."
But it is not essential as a moral code, he said.
"Many people think you need religion in order to be moral. And they just repeat that mantra without having looked at the sort of morals that there are in the Bible.
"Many people in America think that we ought to live by the Ten Commandments and do live by the Ten Commandments. They've never read the Ten Commandments. They don't know what the Ten Commandments are. People who say that usually know one of the Ten Commandments, which is 'Thou shalt not kill.' They have no idea of 'Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy,' no idea of 'Thou shalt not make any graven image,' no idea of 'There shall be no other god before me.' These are the first of the Ten Commandments.
"'Thou shalt not kill' is pretty obvious, really ... It's absurd to say that you need a tablet that says, 'Thou shalt not kill,' in order to realize that it's not a very good idea to kill."
Dawkins recounts the Elvis story in the first volume of his projected two-part memoir about his life in science.
The first book, "An Appetite for Wonder," chronicles the scientist's life until 1976 and the publication of his influential book "The Selfish Gene."
From the NPR review:
Dawkins recalls with great enthusiasm some of his initial experiments at Oxford, looking into things like the evolutionary antecedents of human language, behavioral patterns of chicks when deprived of natural sunlight, and the decision-making processes of flies. No revolutionary results emerged from these various studies. But Dawkins sees all of them as exercises in discovering new methods of thinking about animal behavior, and his attention to detail is a joy to read.