Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion

October 16, 2006

Richard Dawkins, considered one of the world’s most influential scientists, is the first holder of the Charles Simonyi professorship of the public understanding of science at Oxford University and the recipient of a number of awards for his writings and for his science, including the International Cosmos Prize, the Kistler Prize, and the Shakespeare Prize. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society. In a recent poll in the United Kingdom, he was named Britain’s leading public intellectual. He is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Devil’s Chaplain, and The Ancestor’s Tale. The New York Times Book Review has hailed him as a writer who “understands the issues so clearly that he forces his reader to understand them too.”

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Dawkins talks about his new best-selling book, The God Delusion, addressing challenges from his critics to his assertion that it is very unlikely that there is a God, and that religion is a form of child abuse, among other topics. He also addresses the question of whether science and religion are really at war.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, October 16th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 11 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at some of the big questions facing us in society and we try to look at them through the lens of the scientific outlook. We focused mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We look at these three areas by drawing on CeaseFire’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, Richard Dawkins, I want to talk about a couple of things real quick. I’d like to welcome new campus groups that have affiliated with us since the last show at Brock University at the Ecole Second there, a 10 Bruel University in Toronto at Questa College in San Luis Obispo, California. So welcome to the new campus groups. And if you’d like to work with us to advance science and reason at your school, go to Campus Inquirer dot org and sign up. Also before the discussion I had with Richard Dawkins. I’d like to appeal to the listeners of Point of Inquiry to subscribe to the two flagship magazines out of the Center for Inquiry, Free Inquiry Magazine and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. You can receive a sample copy of either magazine by going to our Web site Point of inquiry, or you’ll notice some updates to the site. If you go check it out. And I think you’ll enjoy these magazines. Richard Dawkins writes regularly for them. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett on and on the really the leading lights of the day contribute to these two publications. So please do get involved with the Center for Inquiry by subscribing to the magazine. Subscribing helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. Now a quick word from our sponsor. And then finally, the interview with Richard Dawkins. 

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It is a great pleasure for me to have back on the show. Professor Richard Dawkins, he’s the first holder of the Charles Simoni Professorship of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and the recipient of a number of awards for his writings and for his science, including the International Cosmos Prize, the Kistler Prize and the Shakespeare Prize. He’s also a fellow of the Royal Society. In a recent poll in the United Kingdom, he was named Britain’s leading public intellectual. He’s the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, bestsellers such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker on Weaving the Rainbow, The Devil’s Chaplain and the Ancestors Tale. He’s joining us today on point of inquiry to discuss his new book, The God Delusion. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Richard. 

Well, thank you very much. Point of inquiry. Such a wonderful show. It’s a real pleasure to be back. 

Well, thank you for saying that. Richard, your book is just out and already like a worldwide bestseller. It’s been number one on Amazon UK and the Canadian out of all books, in all categories and in the top two or three in the U.S. and it’s moving up. It’s currently on The New York Times best sellers list for hardcovers at number eight. A lot of people are going to read this book, The God Delusion, to start off the discussion. Let me ask you, you are a professor of the public understanding of science. What business do you have writing a book that treads on religion’s turf? Why would a professor of science public understanding of science even as acclaimed and influential as you are? Well, why would you write a book about religion? You’re not professor of the public understanding of religion. 

I don’t think religion really has a tough I don’t think that there actually is a proper subject there. What I do think is that the claims that religion makes are actually scientific claims. That may sound a rather odd thing to say because it’s a thing that a lot of scientists would deny. But if you think about it, the claim that the universe contains and all was made by a supernatural intelligence is a scientific claim in the sense that it’s a very different kind of universe that has such a being in it than one which hasn’t. So I think in one way, it’s the biggest scientific claim that one could ever make. I think it’s a false claim that a God exists. And I think the scientists have every right to discuss that claim. 

And in my view, to dismiss it on that points about this book, you’re jumping into the culture wars more than any of your other books. Issues like stem cell research, cloning, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, all the other culture war issues. Well, atheistic science generally has one point of view on all these big questions, and devout religious believers have the opposite view. Why are you jumping into the culture wars? You intimated an answer just now, but aren’t scientists supposed to be above the fray of all this culture? 

Warring scientists obviously can’t be above the fray when the issue is something like stem cell research because it directly threatens what they do in my own field of evolutionary biology. We are even more starkly threatened in the education field by those who would try to subvert scientific education right across the American education system by trying to introduce so-called intelligent design, which is another name for creationism into education. Scientists have really got to get themselves involved in the culture wars. It’s vital that they should. 

Before we get into talking about some of the specifics of your book, let me ask you, who were you writing this book for? For atheists or for believers? Do you really think that your book is going to talk people out of their belief in God, or are you writing it already for the skeptics and in the humanist, the atheists and agnostics all over the world who kind of see you as their champion? 

I am under no illusions that I will succeed in changing the minds of dyed in the wool faith heads. That would be much too much to hope. I am, to some extent, preaching to the choir. I mean that there’s a sort of element of, I don’t know, I suppose rallying the true filth almost about writing for atheists, for the main people. I’m writing for other huge numbers of people in the middle who vaguely think of themselves as religious, but probably haven’t thought about it very much because they’ve got better things to do. And if their religious beliefs are really properly challenged, as I try to do, then they will think about the member, realize that they’re founded on nothing. And I think that there is a huge number of people sort of on the fence. I don’t mean dithering. I just mean that they’ve got better things to do. They never been that interested in religion, but they vaguely thought, oh, well, I was brought up Protestant or Catholic or Jewish or whatever it is. And so that’s what I am. 

But when they actually think about it, as I hope they will while they read this book and after reading it, then they realize that in fact, they’re not Christians or Jews are Muslims or whatever it is that if they think. For a bit, they realize that it’s all a lot of nonsense and those are the people that I really hope will read the book and will be changed by it changed how activist, anti religious like you? 

Well, giving up belief in the supernatural where there’s no evidence for it, giving up, believing anything. There’s no evidence for it, for that matter. Cultivating a skeptical frame of mind in some cases, perhaps becoming activist. Because I think that in this modern world, especially in America and especially in the Islamic world, there really is a need for some kind of activism, peaceful activism, but activism. 

I want to let our listeners know that you can get a discounted copy of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Richard, let’s talk about some of the specifics of the book itself. It was a great read, eloquent literary, almost like your other writings. It’s not just hard science or hard rhetoric, but it’s beautiful flowing language. Maybe I should stop with the kudo’s. I won’t sound unbiased in the interview. Let’s talk about some of the claims in the book. Lots of people believe in God because of personal experience of the divine. They know that they felt the presence of God. They pray and they weep when they do so because of this personal relationship that they have with something they think is the creator of the universe. What do you say to someone who knows that they felt the love of God in their lives or who has experienced that love such that they’ve overcome great adversities or obstacles and they credit their faith for overcoming all those problems? 

Well, it is a very persuasive argument to those who have experienced it. 

It’s not very persuasive to anybody who knows anything about psychology and the power of the brain to create illusions and even hallucinations. Many of us have experienced some such hallucination or illusion. There are many people in asylums who think that Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin. 

The reason we didn’t take them seriously is that they’re on their own. The thing about people who think that God talks to them is that they are part of a very large company and therefore we tend to take it more seriously. I don’t think there’s any justification for taking it more seriously than people who think that Napoleon, the brain is a very, very powerful organ for making things out, for inventing things, for simulating them. If you look at the way the brain ordinarily works, when we think we’re looking out at the world and think we’re looking at a sort of faithful cinematic representation of the scenes in front of us or the sounds that are coming in through our auditory nerves, that’s not really what’s going on. The brain is simulating the brain is doing the equivalent of a computer simulation of the world, making solid Three-Dimensional Objects out of two dimensional drawings, for example, making the flowery sound of a trumpet out of what are actually sine waves, which, if you separated them out, would just sound like a kind of mixture of sine wave. The brain simulates reality. And we also experience this at night when we dream, and the brain then simulates the vivid illusions of reality. The brain is astonishingly good at simulation. It’s not at the slightest bit surprising that people think they hear the voice of God sometimes even think they see a vision of God. That’s exactly what you would expect, knowing the powers of simulation of the software inside our skulls. 

So you’re saying belief in God that fervent, that very real feeling of belief in God is just an illusion of the brain, a delusion? 

Well, I think when you ask me specifically about the sensation that some people have a personal experience of God. Right. And yes, I suspect that it is a delusion that says no very good evidence to think that it isn’t. But that’s not the only reason. Like people believe in God. They often believe in God for some reason, which is often called the argument from design. 

You attack belief in God in all its forms, monotheism, polytheism, even the kind of belief in God where no one is blowing up buildings or bombing abortion clinics. But even if belief in God is an illusion, a delusion, canted at least sometimes be good for you can’t believe in God, work for people. Doesn’t it help people live better lives, feel better about their lot in life? This is a little what I asked you earlier. Who are you to rip the rug out from under people or tell someone that their most cherished convictions are a bunch of nonsense? 

I would not wish to go to somebodies hospital bed, somebody who’s dying and who look forward to living after that death. I wouldn’t go up to that person and deliberately disabuse them of that in just the same way as I wouldn’t if somebody had been told by that doctor that they’re fine. And I know that actually that dying of cancer. If that doctor has decided not to tell them, then I’m not going to go and disabuse them. I don’t want to go around spoiling people’s illusions wantonly. I do care about what’s true. Nobody has to read my book if they want to know what I think is true. They can read my book if they’re afraid of the truth. They don’t have to read any book. So I don’t want to go out of my way to cause people distress. On the other hand, I suspect that once one has to say had the rug pulled out. But I mean, once you have kicked the rug from under you and given up these illusions. If you do it perhaps in the prime of life, when you’ve got a lot ahead of you, you will find that your life is much more fulfilled, much fuller. 

You will find that you you face the world squarely, courageously, and life will become all the sweeter because it’s finite, because you know exactly why you’re there, what the universe is all about. Exactly. 

But as far as signs of your age allows you to do, that’s a very courageous position. It’s a very noble position. It’s a very wonderful position to be in a position of living the truth rather than living a comforting lie. 

But you hear from religious people, especially the kind who have their own shows on TV, that if you don’t believe in God, it’s necessarily true that your life is hopeless. You have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. If there is no God, there’s no right or wrong, no purpose. You might as well just blow your brains out. 

Well, there are two things that one is, is it worth getting out of bed in the morning? The other thing is, is there any right and wrong for getting out of bed in the morning? I hope I’ve just dealt with all the atheists that I know when suddenly there’s no more tendency for them to have futile and meaningless lives than the theists that I am. I know. And I think there’s no objective evidence that atheists lead less fulfilled lives. I suspect that the country is the case. Certainly, I get fulfillment from all sorts of things like science, like music, like human love, family, love, poetry, literature, love of nature, sunsets, sunrises, all these things we can enjoy. We perhaps enjoy them all. The more we save with them all, the more because we know that finite there are very, very good reasons for getting up in the morning. And I actually used that phrase in my book, I’m Leaving the Rainbow and tried to expound it. 

The other question, whether there is no right or wrong, that’s actually rather a grotesque suggestion when you actually look at the right and wrong that scripture recommends. It is truly horrible, the sorts of things that are recommended, the kinds of role models that are off to follow, not least the God of the Old Testament himself, who, as I said in the book, is probably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. There is no justification in the view that as a matter of fact, we do get our morals from scripture. If we did, we’d still be stoning adulteresses to death and stoning people for breaking the Sabbath and for erecting graven images and things like that. As a matter of fact, we don’t do it on morality, the things that we do. The ethics of social mores have all greatly moved on since biblical times. When you talk to a theologian and say how really horrible the morals of the Old Testament are, that theologian is likely to reply. Yes, yes, of course they’re horrible, but we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve moved on since then. And that’s, of course, my whole point. We have moved on since then. You can find nice verses in the Bible. 

You can pick and choose the nice verses and reject the nasty verses. But there has to be some criterion for picking and choosing. And what that criterion is. I don’t know where it comes from, but wherever it comes from, it’s available to the non-religious as well as the religious. The one place it most certainly does not come from is scripture or religion itself. It comes from a kind of liberal consensus, from debates in Congress, from legal decisions, from journalism, from dinner party conversations. All these things add up to a steadily shifting side Geist. And that’s nothing to do with religion. 

And it’s not just from the body politic, but ethicists, secular ethicists can be informed. 

This discussion, what I should have said, that the academic discipline of secular moral philosophy in the tradition of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill up to Peter saying that today is the the way that academics discuss morals on the basis of non-religious secular principles of morality. 

Richard, you argue not only against the classical proofs of God’s existence, the ontological argument, the argument from beauty, the argument from personal experience about which we were speaking a little earlier. You treat all the traditional arguments that philosophers and theologians have used to try to prove God’s existence. But you also argue that there’s almost certainly no God. How can you be so certain that there’s no God? 

Well, I did say almost the argument is it’s in Chapter four of the book, which I think has that title. And it’s a kind of reversal of the favorite argument of the creationists. 

The favorite argument of the creation is so as they call themselves nowadays, intelligent design theorists, is that things in the living world and in the property, in other parts of the world are too improbable to have just happened. So something like a bacterial flagellum or an eye or a heart is much too complicated, which is another way of saying much to statistically improbable to have just happened. If you take the bits of an eye or the bits of a heart and shake them around at random, you will not get something that sees or something that pumps. So that’s the argument from improbability. And what the creationist says from that is because it’s too improbable to have just happened. Therefore, it must have been designed. What they overlook is that the designer himself would have to be even more improbable than that which he is alleged to have designed. 

That what he is alleged to have created. So that the argument from improbability. 

The argument for God in the foot. Now, the only known solution to the problem of how we explain in probability is some kind of incremental step by step explanation which works out from primeval simplicity up to later complexity, which means improbability. That’s what Darwinian natural selection does. It’s an example of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls a crane as opposed to a skyhook. A crane is an explanation that really does explanatory work, as Darwin’s theory of natural selection does. It starts with the primeval simplicity and step by step by step by step. It climbs Mount Improbable, to quote the title of one of my books. The point is that every step of the way is a little bit improbable. That’s mutation, but is not all that improbable. And when you accumulate these steps, one after the other in Cascade, the end result at the top of Mount Improbable is something like an eye or a hemoglobin molecule or a heart or a wing, which is far too improbable to have come about by sheer luck, but not too improbable to have been gradually reached by the slow, cumulative process of natural selection. So. Darwinian natural selection is the only known answer to the riddle of improbability. 

Chance is not an answer, but nor is a designer an answer. Designers, of course, are the correct explanation for why cars and planes and computers and all human artifacts come about. But, of course, the designers of those things, the designers of the computers and the cars and the planes are themselves the products of a real KREIN Darwinian natural selection. 

The only riddle. The only answer to the riddle of improbability is a crane of some sort. Darwinian natural selection is the best crane we know. It won’t do for explaining the improbability of the cosmos and the laws of physics. And presumably we’re going to need some other sort of crane for that which physicists have yet to come up with. But the one thing we can say is that no matter what the explanation is, it certainly can’t be a designer because a designer would have to be even more improbable than that which it is invoked to explain. It is an absolute non explanation that doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But it puts God at the same level of improbability as an eye or a bacterial flagellum. Which other favorite examples of the creationists. 

So that’s why you argue there’s almost certainly no God. Have you ever thought that you could be wrong about it, that God actually exists and that you’ve made a huge mistake of picking a fight with the all powerful creator of the universe? 

Well, obviously, as I said, it is not absolutely certain. There is a certain very low probability that such a being exists. 

By the way, I should say, I very strongly suspect that there are beings in the universe who are so far superior to us that they would be treated as gods by all, simply should ever meet them. I’m thinking of aliens from outer space and we probably will never meet. But because the universe is so vast, I think it’s likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe and probably some forms of life have evolved to the sort of level of technology and science and and art, etc. that we might hope to reach in many thousand years time. After all, with our technology, with computers and radios and mobile phones and supersonic planes, we would seem like gods to a medieval peasant. And I believe that we stand as medieval peasants to other beings in the universe. They would be godlike, but they didn’t just happen. Those godlike beings elsewhere in the universe must have come into existence by some sort of cumulative crane, probably a version, perhaps a very different version of natural selection itself. 

Why do you think religion persists, despite all these arguments that you’ve marshaled and others have marshaled against that belief? Why? Why do people still doggedly believe in God when you say there’s absolutely no reason to believe in God and very much good reason to not believe in God? 

Well, I would like to think that it’s just lack of paying attention to it. I mean, our educational system, both in Britain and America, doesn’t actually cover this sort of thing very much. Virtually all children in my society and in yours are brought up in some sort of religious tradition and they’re not encouraged to think skeptically about it. 

My great hope is that if people will read my book and lots of other books along the same lines and then think about it, they will come to what seems to me to be the obvious conclusion. And such letters as I’ve been receiving are very encouraging in that direction. I’m constantly getting letters from people saying thank you for releasing me from the tyranny of my childhood religious indoctrination or some. 

Some of them say thank you for articulating what I’ve long wanted to say, but never felt able to or never dared to. I get lots and lots of letters of that sort. Some say I am an atheist, but I dad admit it to my wife, my husband, my parents. And I’m hoping that my book and other books like Sam Harris’s and many others will encourage such people. 

That’s one of the really compelling parts of your book. And when you talk about education and argue against dead or or for a different kind of education, to encourage people to question these kinds of beliefs, you go so far as to argue that religion is responsible for child abuse, that education, childhood education, when it indoctrinates people and religion is a kind of child abuse. 

Well, let let me be clear that I need to make it clear, because there’s been such a lot about sexual child abuse by priests in the press. So that’s not what I’m talking about. And actually, my treatment in the book of the sexual child abuse by priests is rather favorable to them. I think they’ve had a rather poor deal in the press. And I think that people have rather dumped on especially Roman Catholic priest. I know there is a lot of sexual child abuse has gone on, but I suspect that they’ve been picked on rather more than they deserve some of it’s hysteria. Yes. And and false memory syndrome sometimes. I actually whipped up by unscrupulous psychotherapists of various kinds. So I want to get that out of the way first. Having said that, I recall the time when I was speaking to an audience in in Dublin and somebody asked me that at that time there had been a lot in the Irish papers about Catholic priests in Ireland sexually abusing children. And I said the deplorable, though that was I didn’t think it was any worse than the abuse of children, which is inherent in bringing them up Catholic in the first place. And to my great surprise, because I said the remark rather off the cuff on the spur of the moment, I got a strong round of applause from that Irish audience. And that made me think and then I. I recount this in the book. I got a letter from an American woman known in her 40s who told two stories of child abuse. She’d been brought up Catholic. She’d been sexually abused by her priest at the age of seven. And at about the same age. Little friend of hers had died and gone to hell. As she thought at the time. What she was taught by her church was that because this other child was a Protestant, she had gone to hell. And my correspondent said that of these two examples of child abuse, the physical one by the priest in his car was as nothing compared to the mental child abuse of being told that her dear friend who had died was in hell because she was a Protestant. It is possible for. Mental abuse to be much worse than physical abuse. She got over the physical abuse very swiftly. And I think that so long as physical abuse is relatively mild, that probably is normally the case. But the mental abuse took her a great deal of time to get over. He probably didn’t fully get over it until she finally saw the light and gave up Catholicism altogether. Now, I think that teaching children about hell and sin and the devil and all sorts of other things that are part and parcel of various religions is a form of mental child abuse, which is probably more psychologically damaging than at least some physical child abuse. 

OK, so it is a hard teaching of some religions to consign anyone who is not in their religion to hell or eternal torment, but parents who believe that don’t they have a right to teach their children their beliefs about the universe, especially when they believe that teaching those beliefs to their children saves their children’s immortal souls or helps them live a moral life. 

It’s a very difficult question, isn’t it, how much we should respect rights of children as against rights of parents? Do children have a right to be protected from their parents in certain respects? Now society suddenly takes upon itself the responsibility to protect children from physical abuse by parents. In many societies, parents are no longer allowed to punish that children by hitting them. And I think that’s a very good thing. And obviously, parents are not allowed to sexually abuse their children and not are not allowed to knock their teeth out. There are all sorts of things that parents are not allowed to do. So it’s a difficult line to draw. One place where it’s difficult is those religious sects which don’t allow, say, blood transfusions, where the life of a child may be in danger because it’s parents, for religious reasons, refuse to allow the child a blood transfusion. You might say it’s one thing for an adult to refuse a blood transfusion. And maybe doctors need to respect the right of such an adult not to have a blood transfusion. But does the parent have the right to impose their religious beliefs on the child to the point where the child dies? And I think that most people would say that the parent does not have the right, that here society must step in. So it’s a somewhat moot point where you draw the line about children’s rights versus parents rights. And perhaps I tend to draw the line rather more on the child side than some people would. I do think that society should protect children from quite a lot of mental abuse as well as physical abuse. And I suspect that teaching children about really frightening hell fire is a form of mental abuse from which children should be protected by the state from their parents. 

Switching gears away from education. One of your major beefs with religion, with belief in God, is that it is bad for society, not just in the educational arena, but that it leads to violence. But doesn’t just bad religion, early development doesn’t. Good religion lead to good things. Belief in a peaceful and loving God lead people to be more peaceful and more loving, educated in reasonable religious people are not blowing up buildings in the name of God, even though they do believe in God. 

Well, that’s absolutely true. And it’s only a small minority who are motivated by their religion to violence. That used to be not the case at the time of the Crusades. Lots and lots of people were motivated by religion to violence. And there are parts of the Islamic world today where that is true. 

But in most parts of the world, the great majority of religious people are peaceful and non-threatening and nonviolent. What I would say is a point which Sam Harris makes very forcefully in, I think, both the end of faith and letter to a Christian nation. Is that the. Nonviolent middle of the road, religious teaching, for example, on the virtues of faith, the virtues of believing things just because you believe them, because you believe them without evidence. Although that is not in itself a violent doctrine. It paves the way for violence. It makes the world safe for violence in the sense that if somebody has been brought up to believe that faith is absolute, that their God requires them to do certain things, and that the belief does not have to be justified, it positively shouldn’t be justified. It is just plain faith. Those people become jihadists. Those people become violent executioners of abortion doctors. Those people carry out in the flesh the violence, which is implicit perhaps in the doctrines which they were taught as children by moderate, reasonable religious teachers. It doesn’t take very many to make dangerous minority. And I think a good case can be made that. 

Teaching people that blind faith is a virtue. Teaching people such things as that God’s will is the most important thing that is teaching people that infidels and apostates deserve to die. Which, by the way, all Muslims are taught that only a tiny minority of them think it should be put into practice. Doctrines like that are dangerous because they encourage the minority to put into practice what the majority only theoretically learn. 

Richard, one of the points that you seem to be getting at in the book is that maybe we are too tolerant of religion. But isn’t tolerance a central value of America? Aren’t we supposed to live and let live? Even religious tolerance, the freedom of belief is enshrined in the Constitution. Aren’t you going against these American values by arguing that people should not believe these central beliefs? 

Well, I very, very strongly hope not. I very strongly believe in that central value of the American constitution. And it is a British value as well, although we don’t have a written constitution. So, no, don’t let anyone knock the idea of tolerance. I think that what we do have to be a little bit careful about, though, is not to bend over backwards, too far to privilege certain kinds of belief rather than others. There are limits that society seems to draw to what you’re allowed to say for fear of giving offense to people. Now, if I disagree with your political views, if, say, you are a right wing Republican and I’m a left wing Democrat, everybody would expect that we would have a good, robust argument and we wouldn’t pull our punches and we would not put our discussion for fear of offending each other. But religion seems to be given a kind of special privilege status. And you’d better not offend my religion. You wouldn’t offend my views on politics, my views on economics, my my views on hunting or anything you liked like that. But don’t offend my religion otherwise. That really is troubled in the whole of society, is worried that somehow you have broken a taboo. You’ve been intolerant. It isn’t intolerant to say of a socialist. If you happen to be a right wing conservative that you disagree with, with socialism, you think it’s a lot of rubbish. But if you say that about somebodies religion, it sounds like intolerance. So I’m not in favor of intolerance. But what I’m against is a double standard that allows religion a kind of built-In immunity on the grounds of so-called offense. Which other points of view are not granted? 

Richard, I have a question about strategy. Some people, even some other atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, while some people argue that you are too uncompromising, some scientists even say this. Most atheist and secular people, humanists, they’re a lot less vocal about their skepticism than you are some maybe for lack of courage, others out of like a decided strategy. They argue it’s better for the cause, the cause of Athie ism, the cause of secularism, to not rock the boat so much, to only go after the extremists and not the religious liberals who might agree with secular people on most of the issues, except for that one issue about God’s existence. Do you think here’s the question. Do you think a book like The God Delusion? Do you think it just adds a lot of heat to the discussion, but not much? Light isn’t telling people their most cherished beliefs are bunk. Isn’t that rather divisive? 

Well, that’s a very good point, and it’s one that I worry about a lot. As you say, a great many scientists are worried about rocking the boat. 

And it has been put to me that I am a gift to the creationists. For example, in the wars over the teaching of evolution, in many respects, the tactically wise political thing to do is to bury the hatchet with the sensible quotes middle of the road. Religious people who agree about evolution. They understand about science. They agree that the world is old. I agree that we are cousins of monkeys and kangaroos and bacteria. The only thing they disagree with us about is that they believe in God. And the tactically prudent position. Many scientists think is to go along with such people and to say we have no quarrel with your belief in God. That’s a private matter. Nothing to do with science. Separate majesté area. The really important thing is that we agree about science. We agree that evolution is true. We agree that creationism shouldn’t be taught in the public schools, etc. And I can see a very strong argument for that. If you think that the battle over creation and evolution is the big war that we’re fighting, if, on the other hand, you think that that battle is only a skirmish in a larger war of realist naturalists against super naturalists, then the evolution issue is just a skirmish. And to compromise, to appease on that particular issue, rather than to go for the big issue, which is, is there a God? A tool is not an honest thing to do. I respect those of my colleagues who make that compromise. I can see politically why they do it. And occasionally in interviews, I’ve even done it myself. I’ve even, for example, vigorously defended bishops and archbishops and popes because of their staunch defense of evolution and science against the cavemen of creationism. But when it finally comes down to it, when push comes to shove, for me, the really big question is, is there a God at all? And I can’t find it in me to compromise on what I see as the big question for the sake of a tactical battle over education in the American public schools. Mm hmm. 

Kind of along these same lines. Point of Inquiry is a science show science podcast. But we especially look at the implications of science for the big questions about which we’ve been speaking today. Some scientists say that science and religion are not at war. They’ve argued that was called the warfare hypothesis does not hold that theory of science and religion being at war, that it’s not valid because science and religion are what’s called non overlapping magisterium. I just want to hear you on this point that that argument is the argument that, you know, science tells us one thing about the universe and religion tells us another thing equally true. But they don’t overlap. They don’t butt heads. What do you think about that? 

That’s the expression of the politically expedient view that I’ve just been mentioning. I think it’s absolute bunk. I think it’s nonsense. I think, as I said before, that science and religion really are opposed because it’s absolutely got to be the case that a universe with a God is a different kind of universe without one. As a sort of slightly facetious hypothetical example, take miracles and imagine that forensic archeologists found DNA evidence to show that Jesus didn’t have a biological father was born of a virgin. Suppose that that evidence was published in the journal Nature or Science. Can you imagine a theologian in the world who would say, no, no. Separate majesté area scientific evidence has nothing to do with religion. They’re completely separate. We have to discount that. Of course they wouldn’t. If there was any scientific evidence in favor of religion, then it would be trumpeted to the skies. Then non overlapping majesty area doctrine that you’ve talked about is appealing to religious people only because there is no scientific evidence in favor of religion. I think it’s a cop out. I think it’s cowardly at best. It’s politically expedient. 

One more question along those lines before we finish up. If science and religion are not compatible, if the warfare hypothesis is true and they are at war and the belief in God is just a delusion and you’re right about all of this, what’s to be done about all the religious believers in the world? Is it just going to be a battle to the death, science versus religion and the best man wins? 

Well, I hope nothing is ever a battle to the death. I hope it will be done in the form of civilized arguments using evidence. And it’s not an argument that I would expect to win in terms of a Democratic vote. By the way, I’m afraid that would be much too optimistic. 

I would also like to add one more thing is that when we were talking about this, such a sensible middle of the road religious people, there’s a great spectrum of those. Of course, there are those who believe in evolution but still believe in the doctrines of some particular religions, such as Christianity. They believe in the redemption by the crucifixion, the resurrection and so on, which are sort of miraculous beliefs. But there are others who are often physicists or other scientists who don’t have any truck with that sort of thing, but nevertheless do believe in some sort of intelligence, some sort of vast cosmic intelligence at the basis of the whole of the universe. I do have a lot more respect for them. For one thing, they’re a lot brighter than I am and I’d die. One has to respect that. But I would be prepared to argue with them. But I do think that that’s very different. From belief in some particular religion with with miracles and with prayer and with forgiveness of sins and all the things that go with, say, Christianity or Islam or Judaism, and it’s awfully easy to listen to. A physicist was making a very, very sophisticated case for a deep spirit at the base of the universe and think, oh, well, he’s just talking about Christianity. No, he is not talking about Christianity. He’s talking about something far grander, far more profound, something that perhaps physicists of a thousand years time may give a naturalistic explanation to. I think it’s very pernicious to confuse that sort of spirituality, which sort of sounds vaguely religious with the particular beliefs that we associate with named religions of history and persisting into today. 

Richard, I really appreciate the discussion, let me end by asking if people read your book. They decide that God does not exist. They want to escape religion. What can they do? What can people do when they’re persuaded by your arguments? 

Well, they can talk to their friends. They can have nice, lively discussions. They can have lively arguments with those who haven’t made that decision. If they have problems with their families, then they can talk reasonably and nicely and maybe they’ll convert their families to. I probably is huntings terribly Pollyanna ish and and naive about that. They can write their own books. They can join humanist secularist societies. They can get on with living the only life they’ll ever live and enjoying it and trying to bring light and hope to the rest of the world. 

Thank you very much for being on point of inquiry, Richard. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry. His music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show include Debbie Goddard and Sara Jordan. I’m your host, D.J.. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.