Let There Be Rock: The Strange Poetics of Richard Dawkins’ Rock Opera

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It is perhaps one of the more immediately striking partnerships in the history of music. On one side we have Tuomas Holopainen, pianist and lyricist for Finland’s most successful symphonic heavy-metal band Nightwish. On the other, Professor Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow of New College Oxford. Dawkins contributes vocals—nothing more than a reading of some of his works—to the closing track for the latest Nightwish album: a five part, twenty-four minute epic entitled “The Greatest Show on Earth” that tells the story of 4.6 million years of human evolution.

Simultaneously heavy (the Scandinavian taste for drum breakdowns and guitar shredding is on full display) and aspiring to the beatific with the London Symphony Orchestra credited alongside the band, to describe it as ambitious risks underselling it. Since the band’s very beginning they’ve possessed a taste for the bombastic – couple this with slick, modern pop-production and the end result is a post-progressive heavy metal song as written by Wagner and Holst.

For a band fascinated with mythology (Tolkien receives steady reference) and hosting a large Christian following, particularly in the USA, a concept album centred upon evolution and featuring the work of Dawkins has attracted a furious backlash—at least amongst its devoted coterie of fans.

While the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful is liable to be a success, it is Dawkins’ involvement that provokes my interest here. In an interview last month for The Times,  Holopainen explains they sought out the contrarian atheist for his ability to “make things understandable, and to make science poetic and spiritual.” One might expect such a statement to draw a snort of derision from the rationalistic Dawkins, but his response is instead an enthusiastic affirmation. Asked blankly whether science was a spiritual experience, Dawkins responds: “It should be.”

The poetic and the spiritual are two realms which one would expect to find Dawkins equally dismissive. Yet if anything, the song reveals a clear fondness for the poetic in its descriptions of science. “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes” Dawkins intones.

Dawkins follows this with his own opinion on the purpose of life: “Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?”

Unwittingly or not, Dawkins is drawing upon Isaiah 40 – that man is at best a transitory, fragile and fleeting creature and yet capable of something far greater than this limited and flawed nature would suggest. As the song’s operatic vocals add: “Aeons pass, writing the tale of us all…a day-to-day new opening for the greatest show on Earth.”

The closing section of the song is paean of sorts to the primal ooze from which we came to which we will return: ‘”We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” The incalculable number of people who have never seen the world we inhabit make us the “privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds.” The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away as the non-materialist might say.

It would seem that Richard Dawkins has discovered in his work with Nightwish the necessity of both the non-literal and the hermeneutical and even the possibility of the transcendent. While I’m not going to go quite so far as to claim this represents some kind of Damascene spiritual awakening in Dawkins, it is encouraging to think that perhaps this turn to the poetic might reduce the frequency with which Dawkins, philosophers, theologians, and even literary critics talk past one another. All too often Dawkins has written off whole fields that deal with the malleability of language and essentialist conceptions of the self, while those who work in such fields have despaired of ever getting him to acknowledge what it is they are trying to achieve.

While Nightwish fans might see this concept album of evolution as a departure from their usual, more theologically acceptable affair, Dawkins affirmation of the poetic and spiritual possibility inherent in this material world might be enough to win the band fans in a few unlikely new places.



  • Jon Greenaway is a PhD student at the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Before commencing his PhD he gained his BA in English studies and a Masters degree in ‘The Gothic Imagination’ from Stirling University. He has published papers on a range of topics including Trauma in the 19th century novel and the works of Jacques Derrida in relation to modern American TV. His research interests include critical theory, the Gothic, monster theory and the intersection between systematic theology and wider culture.

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