SCIENCE
09/27/2013 04:15 pm ET

Richard Dawkins Writes 'Science Fiction,' Former Pope Says

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Richard Dawkins is used to criticism, but it's not every day the award-winning scientist is slammed by the pope he once called a "leering old villain in a frock."

Dawkins, an internationally acclaimed evolutionary biologist and author, is well known for his critical treatment of religion. And, it was recently revealed that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took a jab at one of Dawkins' best known (and hotly debated) books, The Selfish Gene, as part of a letter written to atheist mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi.

Excerpts of the 11-page letter, which discussed a variety of topics, were reprinted by Italy's La Repubblica newspaper Tuesday with the permission of the former pope, Reuters notes. The message included passages slamming Dawkins' 1976 book on the theory of natural selection as "science fiction."

"There is, moreover, science fiction in a big way just even within the theory of evolution," Benedict wrote. "'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction."

Vatican Insider, Italian newspaper La Stampa's English-language site, notes that Benedict's letter was in response to a book by Odifreddi that was particularly critical of Catholicism, as well as religion in general. Odifreddi had called theology science fiction -- a remark that led Benedict to retort that "science fiction is present in many sciences," according to Vatican Insider.

In a blog published by The Telegraph, historian Tim Stanley notes that Benedict's decision to "[take] a swipe at Richard Dawkins is revealing. Perhaps he, too, is tired of the old man. Truly, he can test the patience of a saint."

Meanwhile, Guardian blogger Andrew Brown writes that Dawkins' book, which has inspired spirited debate for decades, is "a very fine piece of pop science writing indeed."

"What sells is not the stuff about science, but the stuff about human beings," Brown writes. "'Science fiction' may not be the right term for the book but it does capture the sense in which its hold on the imagination depends on the parts that aren't science but dazzling metaphor."

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