Richard Dawkins: LIVE at the Reason for Change Conference

June 22, 2015

This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes Richard Dawkins for a special episode recorded before a live audience at the Center for Inquiry’s Reason for Change conference in Buffalo, New York on June 13, 2015. Dawkins is easily one of the world’s most influential and controversial scientists; a pioneer in evolutionary biology, science communication, and the public visibility of atheists. He is the author of several bestselling books including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and Unweaving the Rainbow, and he is founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Dawkins is joined by Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps, discusses how he found his love for science and evolution, the importance of secular values, and how we can inspire people to appreciate and embrace science. It’s not all serious and lofty, of course, as Dawkins cops to being “pretty condescending and bossy,” and displays his remarkable proficiency with an outlandish American accent.

Dawkins, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from CFI at this conference, brings the audience to its feet with his wit and insight.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 22nd, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry Tapes, live at the Reason for Change conference in Buffalo, New York. It’s it’s something of a hoary old broadcasting cliche to say that my guest needs no introduction. But this week’s guest needs no introduction. 

Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most influential scientists, writers, thinkers from his groundbreaking work as an evolutionary biologist to his role as Oxford University’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science, to his current incarnation as, I suppose, the global face of Athie ism and the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He has no need for this very introduction, which I increasingly seem to be delivering nonetheless. So without further ado, Richard Dawkins. 

I’m interested to start, Richard, with what motivated you early on, whether you were inspired to be a practicing scientist primarily, or whether you inspired early on by communicating science. What did you think you wanted to do? 

I rather drifted into science at school. I think I just followed in my father’s footsteps, which is rather a dollar reason for doing anything, and it’s something that we should discourage, by the way, nobody should follow in their parent’s footsteps. 

That’s one of the that’s really the only reason religion exists. Is that too many people follow in their parents footsteps. 

My, my my father read botany at Oxford, and he was a real naturalist, and he loves wildflowers and birds and things. And I didn’t take after him in that respect, but I took after him in that I went into the science stream at school and kind of drifted into Oxford to read zoology. I originally applied to read biochemistry. Thank goodness they turned me down for that. They said, we’ll take you, but not if you come to read biochemistry. The reason for that was that the man making the decision was the tutor in biochemistry and he didn’t want to have to do to me. And so he said, we’ll take you if you read zoology, which meant he had nothing to do with me. And it was one of the best decisions I didn’t take, but that somebody took on my behalf because the biology suited me down to the ground because it it involved. 

Almost philosophical discussion. 

It involved, you know, Roxette, we have the system of the weekly essay where you you you spend the entire week writing an essay for a tutor and then you have a half an hour alone with the tutor discussing the essay. 

And the essays were very often questions of controversy, questions that require thought where you would be driven into the library, where you would have to read up all the original research literature on a subject and then write an essay about it. And they were often controversial subjects where you had to weigh up the evidence pro and con and come to your own judgment. And that suited me down to the ground. It didn’t matter that I had never been a birdwatcher. 

Or a bug hunter or a flower collector like my father. It was the philosophical aspects of science that that. 

Intrigue me. 

But I didn’t really discover that until I left school and went to Oxford. 

When you say it was the philosophical aspects that intrigued you. You have in the later stages of your life basically become a philosopher. I mean, your recent books are essentially about metaphysics and an Athie ism in the nature of the cosmos, the nature of what is true. Your first book, which brought you to prominence prominence, was The Selfish Gene, which was much more of a scientific piece. Is that an arc that’s manifested itself across your life? 

Not really, no. I think all my books have been implicitly anti religious. The God Delusion was the first one that was explicitly anti religious, and that was really a matter of the timing seemed to be right. I actually wanted to write it in the late 1990s. And my literary agent, my aggressive New York literary agent, John Brockman, said, no, you can’t write a book attacking religion. It won’t sell in America. And I think it was sort of. Six years of George W. Bush changed his mind. 

And so so he encouraged me to write The God Delusion. So I’m not sure that was really an arc. 

I think it was just as I’ve described, one of my my favorite books of yours is on Weaving the Rainbow. I’m so pleased. Good. Really? Yes. Why? 

Well, it’s it’s the book. It’s my only book about poetry, it’s my only book about literature, about the relationship between science and art. 

For people who who aren’t familiar with it, it’s it’s a pushback against against critics of science who feel that a naturalistic world view is devoid of love, of beauty, a beauty. That’s right. 

I mean, the raft of Yes, majesty, the the title on Weaving the Rainbow comes from Keats who complained that Newton had spoiled the poetry of the Rainbow by explaining it. And so, in a way, the whole book is and is an attempt to rebut that, to rebut the idea that when you’ve explained something, you’ve reduced its poetic value. 

Richard Feynman said something similar when he said that when anybody looks at a flower, they can admire the beauty of the red color and everything about it. But when a scientist looks at the flower, he gets an extra kick out of it because he understands that it was meant by natural selection to attract bees. He’s actually wrong about that. Cosby’s can’t he read. It would be more likely to be attracting hummingbirds. Yeah. If you see red flowers, especially red tubular flowers, they’re probably hummingbird flowers. But the principle of what Feynman was saying is, of course, right. 

And who says Richard Dawkins is a patent? The. Is there a problem then with that, with the way that we communicate science and the way that we teach science? Because when I was reading your work and when I was reading Carl Sagan in my teens and I was being excited by it, I was a bad science student. I wasn’t excited by science in high school because it was it was drilled into me by rote. And I wonder whether that we need a kind of a reevaluation or a rethinking of the way that we impart the beauty of science so that more of that cosmological majesty is embedded in in the way that we teach it. 

You have put it in the way I would put it, which is not all that fashionable among many science teachers. You talked about the beauty and the majesty. You mentioned Carl Sagan. To me, that’s the way to teach science. You teach science in the Carl Sagan way rather than in the. This is how you light a Bunsen burner way. I think there is a kind of doctrine among science teachers that it’s got to be practical. You’ve got to have a hands on all the time. And no doubt that is an important part of it. But don’t let’s lose the poetry. Don’t let’s lose the the majesty of understanding the universe, not just the cosmic universe, but also the microscopic universe of life. These are. Things that would would grab a schoolboy, as you were and I think would grab a lot of other people who do who do not get grabbed by getting test tubes and heating them up over a Bunsen burner. Some. Some do. And that’s also that’s also good. An analogy might be music where you can appreciate music and even become an expert in music without ever having to play in a musical instrument. And if we all of us had to learn five finger exercises on the piano or the violin or something like that, that might well turn us off music because it’s hard work. 

But you can be an even or rather expert musicologist and you could certainly enjoy music without ever playing an instrument. It’s the same with science. You don’t actually have to do science in order to appreciate and enjoy science. 

Of course, it’s not only children to whom we teach science. People who work in the media like myself are constantly confronted with the obligation to communicate science to a broader public. That may not be that literate about what we’re talking about. I’m thinking about pseudo science and thinking about anti vaccine people. We can get onto creationism and so on in a moment. But just just in terms of all the bad pseudo science that’s out there, how do you think One Butts pushes back against that without coming across as condescending and bossy? 

Well, I’m pretty condescending and bossy, and I was hoping you wouldn’t catch that that was embedded in the question. But. 

There’s a paradox here, because Michael Shermer is not the only one to tell something like the following story. He was on a stage debunking a spiritualist who was purporting to communicate with the dead. And he successfully unmasked this charlatan. I don’t know if it was in the same way as James Randi did with the man, Popoff whom and Randi expose the fact that he had an earpiece like George Bush in in the election. 

And he was receiving messages from his wife, who was going among the crowd, pumping them for information. And so Popoff said things like, who is Albert? 

Albert of 23 Nasturtium Avenue. 

And of course, he got it all absolutely right because his wife was speaking into the into the earpiece and that everybody thought he was communicating with the dead. Well, Michael Shermer did a similar thing. And afterwards, he was attacked by members of the audience, not because they didn’t agree that he had exposed the charlatan, but they were annoyed because he had disillusioned them. They wanted to be deceived. They were annoyed that Michael had undeceived them. So that means we’re up against. I mean, I thought naively the most obvious thing to do in answer to your question is just to expose these things, actually to show that not only is there no evidence for homoeopathy, but there could be no evidence for homoeopathy, for example. 

But that might not work because people actually want to be deceived, they actually want to. So I don’t know how you deal with it, isn’t it? 

Yeah. So you can’t deal with those people, presumably, right? I mean, these these are people at the extreme who is who are simply they’re just relishing their own deception. But there’s probably a larger group of people who are in between. Who. Who. Who are willing to be won over. Yes. But who are not quite rigorous and as rational as we might hope that people are. And, you know, how do you win them? 

I mean, that’s a very important point. And it’s one that I have in mind all the time. You’re not trying to convince the idiot you’re actually addressing what you’re talking about me. 

What you’re doing is trying to convince the hundreds of people who are listening in from from the side. I think he’s talking about me and. 

I sort of thought this rather vigorously when I was at a conference. It wasn’t this conference, but it was a similar one. And somebody gave a talk. Which was entitled. Don’t Be a Dick. And he began by what seemed to be an absolutely sort of showstopping argument. He said, How many of you in the audience, if I were to tell you that your your an idiot would change your mind? So, of course, nobody said they would. But the real question would be how many people in the audience if I told you that that idiot at the back was an idiot, would change your mind? I obviously I’d have to tell you why, obviously. And I would do that. But he had simply missed the point that you’re not trying to convince the real fundamentalist. You’re trying to convince the people on the fence. Probably haven’t thought about it very much. I’m perfectly willing to be convinced either way that they are out there. The audience we’re trying to reach. 

This brings me, of course, to creationism and to to the tactical question of how to engage with creationists. I was interviewing Bill Nye recently and of course I have. You were opposed to the to the originally to the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, who of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. 

I believe you tweeted after the debate. I was against Bill Neiers decision to debate. I now realize Ken Ham is wonderfully embarrassing for Christians and should be given maximum exposure. 

So, again, I guess the question is under what parameters does one engage? Yeah. What I mean, when does one. It’s right that he should be given maximum exposure. 

Unfortunately, he was also given maximum money because it was staged by him and he he took the proceeds. And so that remains is a very good reason for not doing that. The main reason for not debating with people like him is that it. And it gives them a platform and it gives them a kind of respectability which they wouldn’t otherwise have. I was persuaded of this by Steve Gould when I arrived, an American, I’d been invited to have a debate with a creationist. And I phoned Steve Gould up to ask his advice. And he said, don’t do it. Because they’ve won the moment you accept the invitation. You don’t need to actually win the debate itself. It’s enough that they can mount a platform with a real scientist and sit in a chair of the same size and giving an illusion that there’s a real debate going on, that there’s something to debate about, that there’s some disagreement here. So I’ve consistently refused to have debates with creationists. I don’t mind if creation is stand up and want to argue with me. That’s fine, because that doesn’t give this illusion of of equality, of the status of the two arguments I quoted before, the reply of Robert May, distinguished Australian scientist. 

And Josh, you’ll have to forgive my Australian accent. When asked to hit Bob is a very, very distinguished scientist, he’s president of the Ross Society in his time. 

And the British government’s chief scientific adviser, when he was asked to. When he’s asked to have a debate with a creationist, he says that would look great on your CV, not so good on mine. 

I’ve never dared to use that myself, but it’s kind of captures the spirit of what I’m saying. As for whether it’s completely hopeless to change the mind of a creationist, it isn’t. But again, they’ve got to be open minded and some of them are. 

There was a young man came to Oxford from a Bible college in Washington state, and he was a young Earth creationist and open mindedly. He attended my course of lectures on evolution. And at the end of the last lecture, he came down to the front and banged his fist on the table and said, gee, this evolution, it really makes sense. The fact is, he’d never been exposed to it before. It wasn’t that he’d he’d been exposed to it and rejected it. He was simply ignorant. And ignorance is no crime. We’re all ignorant of most of the things that there are to be known, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I once wrote in The New York Times that anybody who pretends to be a young Earth creationist, I forget exactly how I put it, is either ignorant, stupid or insane. And that was taken as a very extreme remark. But of course, it’s not extreme at all. It’s a simple matter of fact. And mostly it’s ignorance. And as I say, ignorance is no crime, and it’s up to us as scientists to try to do something about that. 

Ignorance is no crime. But when the ignorant have children and insist on passing on the ignorance that they are crime. Yes. 


I mean, you’ve said in the past that that could be considered a form of child abuse. 

Well, what I’ve said was that teaching children about hell should be called a form of child abuse. It’s probably going a bit far to say that any kind of religious education is child abuse. I wouldn’t say that. I think a borderline case might be labeling children with the religion of their parents, tying a label around their neck, which says, in effect, because your parents are Catholic, therefore your Catholic, even though you’re only two years old or whatever you are, you’re much too young to have made up your mind about the theology of the transubstantiation. Yet you have the label Catholic tied around your neck. I desperately want everybody to raise consciousness about this. Don’t ever, ever let anybody get away with talking about a Catholic child or a Muslim child or a Protestant child. There is no such thing as a child of Catholic parents. There’s a child to Muslim parents, etc.. Don’t ever let anybody get away with talking about a Catholic child or a Muslim child. 

And if they need convincing of that, you couldn’t you couldn’t say, would you ever talk about a postmodernists child? 

A Keynesian child, a monetarists child, an existentialist child. 

A logical positive is child. 

You laugh, but the whole of our society, including we, the non-religious, are perfectly happy to talk about Catholic children and Muslim children. We we buy into the convention that that’s the way we talk about children. And we also listen to dire demographic projections that say things like by the year 2050, half the French population will be Muslim or something of that sort. That’s entirely based on the presumption that babies born to Muslim parents will be Muslim. Now, that may be true, as a matter of fact. And we’ve got a fight on our hands to stop it being true. The biggest fight I think we have is to break the automatic cycle, the automatic assumption that religion is culturally transmitted like jeans down the generations, that if only we could break that, then we’d be home and dry. 

It’s a very difficult thing to do. 

Presumably, the way one breaks that is is relevant to what were talking about earlier, about winning over the middle. Right. There are certain fundamentalists who you’re just unlikely to win over. We need to appeal to to the to the people who are winnable, the religious people who are winnable. And what I hear you talk about the travesty of talking about a Christian child. I can hear moderate Christians saying, well, I mean, that the child is Catholic because that because that’s the spark of the transcendent. We interpret that as being through the prism of the culture of Catholicism. Judaism doesn’t necessarily mean you believe everything in the Talmud. It just means that you’re a Jew. What say you to that? 

I mean, there is there is that and an enormous numbers of people do that, people who are actually not religious themselves, but they just think, oh, we might as well get the child baptized. I mean, why not? We did it happen to us and would please the grandparents and all that kind of thing. And I think that’s pernicious. I would like to see people simply raise their consciousness to what they are actually doing. When you bring up a child in a religion which you may not believe in yourself, but you just sort of vaguely think it better have some sort of they might as well do have the same religion as as we as we’ve got. I would like to raise consciousness. Don’t ever let us be dictatorial about it. I mean, not not wanting to be bossy about this at all. I want to raise consciousness in the same sort of way as feminists been so successful in raising consciousness to make people think twice before they these people in the middle of the road, which is what you’re talking about, these middle of the road, people just go along with the family tradition, because if the middle of the road as go along with a family tradition, then it makes life so much harder for us who are trying to break the cycle. 

We’ve all had moments of transcendence and moments of of awe and moments of something that feels like we’re more than just material matter. And the vast majority of people in the world interpret those moments through the scaffolding of their religious myths, I suppose. And part of the criticism that has been leveled in the past decade or so against you and Sam Harris and and Hitchens has been that that the stridency of the Athie ism sort of robs people of the sort of that sense of transcendence, whatever that is, and that they need the scaffolding of religion to have a context for those kinds of almost spiritual moments. And there’s something of a movement now to sort of bring in mindfulness and sort of secular Buddhism. And, you know, even Sam Harris, his latest book, Waking Up, is about trying to find the spark of divinity in a secular world view. Do you think that’s a positive thing or is that a distraction? 

I yield to no one in my spirit to feeling in the way you’re talking about. I wouldn’t use the word spiritual because it’s apt to be mistaken for supernatural, and I’m passionately against it. Regarding it as anything like supernatural. But I’m quite sure that I get the same feeling of almost mystical feeling when I contemplate the Milky Way. When I look look at electron micrograph, when I contemplate the complexity of the human brain, when I come complete the enormity of geological time. Words like spiritual are okay as long as they’re not mistaken for supernatural. The idea of anything supernatural is just simply incoherent. There’s nothing supernatural. There may be things which we don’t yet understand. Call it superhuman, but not but not supernatural. So I think if you read my books, you will find that there’s. Probably more in the way of these sort of sense of wonder you’re talking about than there is in many religious books. But I just take my stand against any kind of supernaturalism. Very happy to believe that there’s enough. An awful lot. We don’t yet understand and may never understand. But that’s not the same as supernatural. Supernatural is an incoherent concept. It’s an invasion of the responsibility to try to understand. 

As ISIS has arisen in recent years, how have you sort of thought about that in the context of of your fight against religion throughout time? Is it vindicated or do you what do you think religious people think that they’re thinking? 

Well, I think ISIS is a terrible lesson for what religious faith is capable of doing, and that, of course, is very, very different from saying that all religious people are like ISIS. Of course they’re not. Nor are all Muslims like I like ISIS. But it surely isn’t is an arguable case that religious faith being belief that is not backed up by evidence, but is justified despite the lack of evidence and is even given extra justification if there is no evidence. Doubting Thomas was the least favored of the apostles because he was the one who showed a proper skeptical spirit. The other disciples were the other apostles were regarded as virtuous because they didn’t need evidence. Faith without evidence is regarded as a virtue. Now, if you instill that into children, who is tending to children? The attitude. That if you that this is what you believe, you are a Muslim. This is what you believe. This is what the Holy Koran says, including the verses that say you should kill infidels and kill apostates and things. Then a minority of them are going to do exactly that when they grow up and handle their first Kalashnikov’s. Most of them don’t do that. But the ones that do are very hard to persuade. Out of it, because that they’ve been told that persuasion, that evidence is not relevant. They’ve been told that the only thing that matters is faith. So I think that faith is very, very dangerous. 


Educating children to believe that faith is a virtue is a deeply wicked thing to do. It’s very different from educating children in the in comparative religion. I’m all for that. I agree with Dan Dennett. One of the best things we can do educationally is to teach children about the great variety of of religions. 

It’s one of the best ways of getting them to rid themselves of the scourge of religion. But what’s really, really wicked is to teach children, this is your religion. This is what you believe. Don’t ask for evidence. 

It’s virtuous not to have any evidence not to need any any evidence. Just believe it. And if you tell a child that sufficiently early, at least a minority of those children are going to grow up and become. Followers of ISIS. So I believe that faith is a menace. And one of the great evils in the world. Sure. 

On the question of teaching comparative religion, in fact, many of the Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States who support the teaching of Christianity in schools are the ones who are the most opposed to the teaching of comparative religions. 

But for that reason, yeah, just just on on that, there was somebody I think it was either a priest or a politician wrote a letter to an English paper saying, what’s all this about teaching comparative religion? If you teach children comparative religion, they won’t learn that their religion is the correct one. 

So just staying on the question of Islam for a moment and taking it as a given that the vast, vast majority of Muslims do not condone anything that ISIS is doing. And a good and decent people, let’s nonetheless talk about how we might respond, because I think there’s a bit of a crisis, especially in Europe, around the conversation about Islam. Liberals and progressives find it very difficult to speak openly and frankly about the crisis at the fringes of that faith, for fear of being tarnished as as bigots, of finding themselves in the same grouping as fascists, for example. And I worry that that then creates a vacuum in which people who are worried about it, ordinary low information voters, as they’re called, are more likely to go to far right or fascist parties because nobody on the left is actually speaking honestly. 

Yeah, it that’s a big, big risk. And it’s true that the liberal left in both America and Britain is in a way betraying its own principles, for example, betraying its natural tendency towards feminism, because the terror of being thought racist or Islamophobic leads them to excuse the gross, appalling misogyny of not only ISIS, but actually of the Islamic texts, which they all subscribe to. 

So there is a a real betrayal by Western liberals. 

Of that of their own fundamental principles. And as you say, because there’s a vacuum on the left, people in the middle are apt to be drawn towards the bigots on the right. 

Which is a real shame. The other thing I think we need to say is that poll data on ordinary, decent Muslim voters shows that. 

A higher percentage than we would wish are actually in favor of the violent minority. They don’t actually do any violence, but they wouldn’t condemn it. I forget what the figure is, but there’s a very high percentage of Muslims in various countries who approve of the 9/11 hijackings for it, for example. It’s very disturbing. And ditto for the Salman Rushdie the Salman Rushdie fatwa. I mean, that was very, very widely supported by ordinary Muslims and by, you know, so-called decent Western liberals. 

Did we not learn a lesson from that? Given what’s happened with Charlie Hebdo and now the PEN awards? 

No, I do. Well, I wish we had, but but I mean, as you know, the the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo was was boycotted by quite a lot of major literary figures in this country. Bending over backwards because they’re terrified of being thought to be Islamophobic. 

What’s the answer? 

Stick to your decent liberal principles and don’t compromise them. 

On the question of consciousness. I’d like to get a few thoughts, because I know that you’re a supporter of the Great Ape Project, which is the movement to extend some moral and legal rights to all great apes. How do you think about the interests of sentiment, creatures in general and in the way that we currently treat them? Do you think that doesn’t evolution? There’s a sort of a vanguard of evolving thought on it. 

Morality is deeply speciesist. We erect a wall around homosapiens as though homosapiens is not just different from all other species, but simply on another plane. I mean, just simply in a different, qualitatively different thing. Which is, of course, a rather uneven Luciane review. 

It is a. 

Matter of historical accident that the intermediates linking us to chimpanzees are extinct. 

They happen to be extinct. They might not be. It’s possible at any time that we might discover the living population of intermediates. 

I’m not saying it’s sex. It’s actually highly unlikely. But the fact that it is possible means that there is no deep fundamental principle that separates humans from chimpanzees. There existed a chain of intermediates such that we could mate with in a fertile way, this intermediate who could make that intermediate? Who could mate with that intermediate. Who might be the common ancestor with chimpanzees, who could mate with that intermediate, who could make with that intermediate, who could mate with a modern chimpanzee or producing fertile offspring or technically members of the same species in that in that definition? It is the merest accident that the intermediates are dead. The intermediates are extinct as. As I said. So if if the intermediates were not were not extinct, then in order to maintain our present species as morality, we’d have to have courts of law like those in apartheid South Africa to see whether a particular individual passes for white. Does this individual pass for human? I don’t think anybody wants that. Now, it’s a it’s a it’s a convenience that the intermediates are extinct. And so we can actually work it, speciesist morality. It does work. We can erect this barrier. But it should at least give us pause to reflect that it is a historical accident that the intermediates happen to be extinct now. Evolutionary closeness to us is, in any case, not the only criterion you might wish to apply. You might wish to ask. Are they capable of feeling pain in the same way as we are? Are they capable of feeling fear? Are they capable of feeling grief? And it’s very hard to know the answer to that. Technically speaking, none of us knows that anybody else feels pain in the same ways we do or fear in the same way as we do. We just guess that they probably are. We could. We could be. I could be a solipsist. You know, solipsist is somebody who believes that I’m the only conscious person around. And all. All of you are just figments of my dream or something of that sort. Bertrand Russell once received a letter from a lady said, Dear Lord Russell, I am so pleased to hear that you’re a solipsist. There are so few of us around these days. So it’s it’s difficult to know whether chimpanzees or indeed dogs or cattle or pigs or whales experience things in the same way as as we do. 

Can they feel pain like we do? 

Well, what pain for pain is presumably an evolutionary adaptation. To warn you not to do that again, if you do something and experience pain as a result, you learn never to do that again. That’s what it’s for. That’s what it’s about. It remains a puzzle to me why it has to be so damn painful. Theoretically, you think it would work if a little red flag popped up in the brain, which says don’t do that again. And it may be something like that would be too easy to rebel against or something of that sort. But now let’s carry the thought a little bit further and say, given that that’s what the pain is for, is there any reason to suppose that an intelligent species like us. Is any better? It feels pain any more strongly than an allergy and an unintelligence species. You think about it like that, you might think it’s almost the reverse that an intelligent species should need less pain in order to take the warning. Don’t do that again. And unintelligence species might actually need a greater amount of pain. So. We could be completely wrong if we assume that the ability to feel pain goes with intelligence. Probably got a better case to say that fear goes with intelligence when a cow is about to be slaughtered. It may have a less ability than a human would to know what’s what’s happening to it. I wouldn’t guarantee that. So. 

Well, let let me quote Jeremy Bentham, who said something like, the question is not. Can they think, can they reason, but can they suffer? And as an evolutionist, I can see no reason to suppose that they can suffer. In less than than we can. Maybe that’s the case. But I don’t know. 

Let’s wrap up the conversation about consciousness by going quite out there. Forgive me for a moment because I’m a science nerd about this stuff, but I’m Elon Musk. And Stephen Hawking has been quoted recently as saying that artificial intelligence may pose the greatest threat to humanity greater than nuclear weapons, that we may be at the brink of creating computers that are that are so capable of replicating themselves into ever smarter machines that they will become self-aware then even that the division between biological intelligence and artificial intelligence will sort of bleed into one another. Ray Kurzweil, idea of the singularity. Do you give any credence to the idea that that a machine could be aware of itself in the way that we are? 

I suppose I’m committed to the view that it’s got to be possible because I don’t think that there’s anything immaterial about our brains. So, yes, I think it is possible. I don’t know whether I fear it as much as they do, would it obviously be a bad thing if our intelligence migrated into from carbon based life into silicon based life? I don’t know it. I don’t have a very strong moral view about that. You think. 

You think it’s possible. You think if I could replicate all of the data that’s currently going on in my head and that I know in silicon form that that thing, would you like me that that that’s a mean whether you could actually upload your entire brain contents? 

That’s a more difficult question. I mean, I think what what Elon Musk is worried about is, is artificial intelligence evolving in its own right? I don’t think he’s talking about. 

Yeah, there are two sort of parallel concerns. Yeah. Yeah. 

Now, whether you could actually upload yourself. That’s. Much more science fiction, me and philosophically, very interesting, it gives rise to. Interesting philosophical thought experiments which have been explored by philosophers like Derek Parfit and and Daniel Dennett. 

To great effect. 

In a moment, we’ll take some questions. So if I if people do want to go up to the microphones, then please feel free. We’ll be. We’ll be ruthlessly strict on on time. But feel free to start. Start queuing now if you wish to. Broadly, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future? We live we live in an era when when rich Western countries are becoming increasingly secular. But large swathes of the world are deranged by religious delusion. Which way do you feel it’s likely to go? 

I suppose that time intellectually pessimistic, but personally, I it doesn’t keep me awake at night. I mean, I. Other things keep me awake at night. But I don’t actually fret about the future of the world in in a in a personal way. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is so pessimistic as to think as to give us only a 50 percent chance of lasting through the present century. And maybe he’s right. I mean, I think one of the one of the worries there is weapons of really mass destruction getting into the hands of religious fanatics, such as you’ve just been referring to weapons of mass destruction here. The two are in the hands of large. 

Responsible governments, however much, may disagree with their ideology, they’re sort of responsible enough not to unleash a war unprovoked. But if you if it falls into the hands of people who actually think it’s their religious duty to die as martyrs. That could be a very pessimistic outlook. 

On that cheery note. Let’s take some some questions and forgive me, a brief plug as well, if you’re a fan of point of inquiry. I am also launching another podcast of my own called We the People Live, which will be a bunch of interesting people sitting around and drinking cocktails and talking about the news. So you can find that at WTOP Live dot com. You go there and sign up on iTunes. Would you like to ask? Professor Dawkins, the question. 

Dr. Dawkins’, it seems to me that the resources of us and the resources of religion or other forces that go against CFI are outweighed like we have less. Would you consider being the leader in at least part of what CFI stands for? Would you consider that we could use something that would have resource on the Internet, for example, that could give us information that’s current? That’s very quick. As your books are fantastic, but it takes a bit of time for the books to address like, say, the Case for Christ, this book that comes out and someone’s arguing with me at a table and I can pick up my phone and I need a resource to quickly battle the crazy. Pardon the expression things that come up in the conversation. And it seems to me that I’m weighed in. It seems to me that our knowledge of ability to get the knowledge is not as quick as it could be. You have the connections and the resources to create a Wikipedia kind of model that could let me at a table fight such people. 

So you’re saying it takes too long to read a book. 

So what you want is a kind of what what what what you want is a kind of Google that specialized to count on. 


Something I can count on. I suppose it’s an app, probably, isn’t it? So it’s a Richard it’s it’s a Richard Dawkins. That way you can just click on Siri and say, why is cross bullshit? 

And then you’ll your voice will just come out of it. Here are the five reasons why Christ is. But why not? I mean, yes, of a version of Siri, which is particularly highly specialized for this. 

For this topic. For this kind of problem. Yeah. Let’s do it right. 

Thank you. Let me also just say we’re going to have a lot of people who want to ask questions of Professor Dawkins. 

So what I’m going to do is basically you get about three minutes. And that includes Richard Dawkins answer. So if you want to talk for three minutes, you can. But then I’m not in. Let him out. So if you talk if you ask a 30 second question, then you get to do an infinite reply. You got whatever. 

This one’s quick. One of the themes that we’ve been talking about is sort of public education as a regurgitation of facts that students don’t have these critical thinking skills in colleges and universities. So I would love to know what you think about the current state of education and the future, like tips like I’m a college teacher. So what what are sort of tips to encourage critical thinking? 

Well, obviously, I would love to encourage critical thinking, and I would hope that that would be done at every stage in school life. I’ve visited lots of schools and some of them I’ve been very impressed with others. I’ve been very unimpressed by some of you may have seen me on television talking to a school in Britain where you might have been extremely unimpressed by the critical thinking skills of the children. But I visited schools in in America where I’ve been deeply impressed, but not all of them unsure. I think I think it should be taught. I think that you have to teach teachers as well. And one of the problems in my own field in evolution is that I think I’m right in saying that middle school teachers, especially of science, are not very well equipped to teach science. I’ve met many of them don’t have degrees in science. And so when they’re actually attacked. By the children or by the parents for teaching evolution, they don’t have the ammunition to defend themselves because they don’t know much about it. One of the things that Richard Dawkins Foundation is doing is trying to run courses for middle school teachers to equip them to to teach evolution and to and to meet challenges that they may get from that from their classes. 

I was wondering what you thought of the I the idea that the human brain sort of during evolution evolved some type of need for a religious belief as a way of clan unification, and that we really have to come up with some ways of fighting that natural tendency of human beings to form these clan structures and which is which has been one of the reasons why human beings have actually been so successful on the planet. 

Well, the tendency to form clans, it may very well be an aspect of human nature. I’m not sure it’s got much to do with religion. It might have something to do with religion, but that’s that’s not obvious. So. 

It may well have been a biological advantage to do it in our evolutionary past, and it may be that this is one of the things that we should leave behind, the tendency to form intense in group loyalties and to dislike or despise outgroups, which one sees, oh, in things like soccer hooliganism, Glasgow Rangers in Glasgow, Celtic were actually in that particular case. It is tied up with religion because Glasgow sell tickets. Traditionally Catholic and Glasgow Rangers is traditionally Protestant. But mostly it’s just loyalty to the to the to the soccer team. And so I think it is one of the bad things about human nature, this tendency to form in group loyalties which are so overriding. 

Just a quick follow up on that. In The God Delusion, you talk about some some reasons why there might be evolutionary tendencies that are not explicitly religious, but that are nonetheless beneficial and that play into religion’s hands. Do you want to just briefly talk? 

I very strongly feel that when I’m asked what’s the biological advantage of religion? What I say is I’m not sure there is a biological advantage to religion, but there’s a biological advantage of certain psychological predispositions which play into religion, which give rise to religion under the right cultural circumstances. And I’m thinking of things like a tendency to obey orders, a tendency to believe what your parents tell you. The tendency to believe what the tribal elders tell you. What you can easily see that for a child that would have an advantage because a child is vulnerable to being eaten, to falling over cliffs and things like that. And so there isn’t time for the child to avoid danger by some sort of critical thinking means he’s got to make a snap decision based upon what his parents have told it. And so the rule of thumb in the brain believe what your parents tell you and believe what your grandparents tell you, believe what the tribal elders tell you is probably a pretty good rule of thumb. But then, of course, that plays into religion because the child brain has no way of distinguishing between good rules. Sorry, good, good, good advice from parents like don’t swim with crocodiles and bad advice from parents like pray five times a day facing east. But there’s no way of distinguishing those, so the brain is open to parasitized ation by pernicious advice from previous generations. And children are vulnerable to that because it’s good for brains to believe what the parents tell them in general. 

And just to note, no one else should come up and ask a question yet. Those lines already very long. So we’ll try to get to all of the people who are currently there. But, yeah, go for it. 

You’re often considered one of the vanguards of the so-called New Atheists, which is often referred to as, like you, Hitchens, Harris. It’s a group that trends older and obviously like getting older every day. 

I was wondering as far as the as far as the passing of the torch goes or something. 

Who are voices that you respect or trust the movement to be in good hands of among the youngest generation of atheists? 

Well, Sam must be still Owen in his 40s. And do you think. So that’s that’s good. 

My my mother is still alive at 98 and my father died at 95. So maybe I’m good for a little bit longer. Another Australian friend was asked why the churches are so full of old people, and he said cramming for the final. Well, I go to a lot of conferences and immensely encouraged by the enthusiasm of young people that I meet in book signing queues and things like that. 

It’s one of the most one of the best experiences of my life actually is, is the enthusiasm that I get from prefer from everybody to signing. But it’s especially heartwarming for young from young people, because this is this is the future. And I think there are actually lots of them. I can’t really think of any particular names that I’d like to to single out, but I’m quite sure they’re coming along. 

I’ve always been convinced you’re right about the selfish gene for three billion years. The selfish genes reproduction has driven evolution through trial and error. And whatever happened, this question is prompted by the question about whether artificial intelligence will begin to reproduce itself and evolve. And in that case, where is the selfish gene there? But more importantly, we are now at a state where science can change the gene. And that has never been the case before, where we can artificially change the genes and influence evolution in a way that we couldn’t. One hundred fifty, ten years ago. 

That’s true. And we’ve been able to do to influence the selection part of the evolutionary process for centuries, for millennia, actually producing dogs from wolves and producing corncobs and roses and cabbages and cows and things. 

But the mutation part. You’re right. We’ve only been able to influence that in the last decade or so. And that could become really big in the future. And we asked. It could end of end of answer, really? Yeah. It’s it’s much more difficult to do. It’s quite difficult to actually know what are what you’re doing. But I would have thought that in the future this is going to become increasingly important. Whether it actually is done with humans is another matter. We think about it. We could have influenced humans by artificial selection and the way we’ve influenced dogs. And we haven’t done that. I mean, we’re pretty much as nature left us. We could have produced humans that are as different from from us as Pekinese is now from wolves. And that hasn’t happened. So maybe what for whatever reason, that habit hasn’t happened. Maybe the same will apply to a mutation as well. 

Now that I’m 100 percent open with my E.S. Athie ism and outspoken about it as well. I have found that people have labor labeled me as new atheist or militant atheist. And I was wondering if you could, first off comment on these labels and also current on the divide between atheists and other atheists calling each other that. 

Yes. It’s almost part of the word, isn’t it? Is almost the word militant has almost become part of the word atheist. You never hear of a of a militant archbishop or anything like that. 

I do. 

I mean, I don’t think that the so-called new atheists are indifferent. If you read Bertrand Russell, why I’m not a Christian, there’s there’s nothing different in what he said from what what we’re saying now. It’s a it’s exactly the same same argument and very, very well expressed in his case. And by the same standards, you could call him a militant. I prefer not to say where militant. I prefer to say we’re rational. We we set out our arguments. Clearly, there are people who find clarity threatening. There are people who if you if they hear somebody speaking clearly and coherently, without hesitation, without stumbling, but expressing thoughts clearly, without deviation, hesitation, et cetera. That sounds threatening and. It shouldn’t. But I think that it that it may we’re not actually very strident. I mean, not we’re not really very aggressive where we’re just setting out the arguments, using words. 

We don’t use guns or bombs or anything like that. That’s militant. 

Usually when I have three minutes and a microphone to talk about religion, it’s in city hall and I live in the South. So I hope you’re a little bit kinder to me. Doesn’t always go so well. Something I’ve noticed even just tonight and also in your writing, in the writing of colleagues is kind of an easy slip to associate faith of religious people as kind of an antithesis to reason and skepticism, which I mean, I know that you personally and other people you work with write about moderate religious people quite a bit. Never specifically address them too much tonight. But I just wonder from a lot of the, I think, very deep intellectual inquiry regarding things like both reason and science, but also political discourse, that there are some questions that probably want more merit than others. I wonder, in your opinion, what are some of the opinions out there that we shouldn’t just dismiss immediately as kind of the buffoonery of religious nuts? And it’s something that at least warrants some sort of important discussion. 

Yes. I mean, I think there are some arguments that are less absurd than others. I mean, clearly, the if you’re arguing with a bishop, you will get a much more sensible sort of argument than if you’re arguing with a fundamentalist creationist. That’s certainly true. I don’t find the arguments of so-called sophisticated theologians very coherent or very persuasive. If you ask me what’s the most? 

Convincing argument for the existence of some kind of deity, some kind of creative deity. I think it would probably be the fine tuning argument of cosmology, the find, the art, the idea that the laws of physics are fine tuned in a way that if any of them were slightly different or cut, the physical constants was slightly different. The universe, as we know it, wouldn’t come into existence and we would not be here. I hasten to say, and I really do mean, Hason, that I am not persuaded by that because I’ve been caught before. When I said something like the most plausible. Argument I can think of is this, is this. And suddenly I’m bracketed, I’m branded as believing in it in the worst examples when I was asked on television or and on on a film by a man called Ben Stein. Could I think of any. Any way in which life on this planet could be intelligently designed, so I gave you the honest answer, I said the only way I could. I think this could come about and I don’t actually believe this. The only way it could come about would be if life on this planet was seeded by an alien intelligence from outer space. 

Were you mad? 

Richard Dawkins believes in Little Green Man. 

So I have to be careful and saying that although the fine tuning argument is the least implausible argument I’ve come across. I don’t find it plausible. I don’t find it convincing. But that’s probably the best one around. 

Considering our intolerances or the least differences among us, I have never assumed that. The links to our primate ancestors was an accident. I think that it’s very possible that the intelligence ones among us solve that. There was some competition there and we deliberately got rid of them. We’re trying to get Kelly each other off in our cultures. Now, just over the tiniest differences, could it be possible that it was no accident, that they are these missing links? 

Oh, yes, I think that’s more than likely. I mean, I don’t think we know. I don’t. I’m not sure there’s any archeological patent logical evidence for that. But it’s certainly a disturbingly plausible. Thank you. 

We’re going to take two more from here and two more from there. I’m sorry if that if that cuts you out, but we’ll we’ll be out of time shortly. 

Assuming life exists on some Earth like it, extra planets, what are your views on that life? Possibly developing non DNA or non already based? 

Well, that’s very interesting, given the number of planets that are out there, the number of stars that are out there, which by current estimates is ten to twenty two. It does seem statistically very likely that there is life elsewhere. 

Not absolutely certain, because it if there was only one life form anywhere in the universe, then that life form has to be here. 

And therefore, on the sort of anthropic grounds, we shouldn’t necessarily be that surprised. It is conceivable, although that what that would mean is that the origin of life on this planet was quite staggeringly improbable event. Life could be very rare. In the universe, it could be so rare that say there’s only, say, a billion lifeforms. 

Out there. 

Reflect that a billion is a tiny, tiny number compared to tend to the 22. If there are a billion lifeforms out there, they would probably be so spaced out that it’s highly unlikely that anyone would ever meet any other one. So we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve never been visited. I’m quite interested in the speculation about what what life out there might be like. And you’ve asked the question. Might it be DNA based life? Is there any other way for life to be? I would certainly stick my neck out to the extent of saying it’s going to be Darwinian life. But I put my shirt on that. And I think that in turn means that it’s pretty much got to be have a digital genetics. As we’ve got high fidelity, digital genetics, I doubt if that has to mean DNA. But it will mean something a bit like DNA. It’s arguable that it has to be carbon based chemists such as Harry Kroto have said that there’s nothing else other than carbon, no other elements than carbon can do the job that carbon does. I think it’s arguable that it’s got to be protein based protein is the kind of molecule that does the executive functions of life on our planet. And it’s hard to imagine anything else doing that. 

So may be life on other planets will be not all that dissimilar to life here. 

As for more detailed questions like what they have eyes on ears and things. Once again. Lt is such a wonderful way of. Getting information because it travels in straight lines and forms, images that it’s highly likely that on any planet where there is light and presume with that have to be because it have to be a sun star. I would be likely to evolve. You can do that kind of game. So it could be that life on other planets, what might be actually not all that different from life on this planet? 

Hi again, Dr. Dobson. Doug Dawkins not not the overdubs. 

I’m with a group called Pro-life Humanists, and we’re a group of atheists who advocate for fetal rights and against abortion. And as I’m sure you know, Christopher Hitchens also identified in a number of his writings and talks as being pro-life. And he’s arguing that the fetus has a right in his court. And he also said that he had a number of quarrels with his fellow materialists on that topic. And I’m just wondering whether you and Christopher Hitchens ever had this discussion, whether you guys talked about abortion and what the nature of that conversation might have been like. 

A good rule in life was never argue with Christopher Hitchens. 

So I didn’t, but but I think he was wrong in this case. I think that to talk about. 

So I just to just to clarify it, was he pro-life in a legal sense? So was he talking ethically? 

Well, according to the videos that he hit, he said that the fetus should be considered to be a candidate. 

I’m pretty sure that he was still pro-choice in a legal sense. But he he had some ethical concerns about completely dismissing the rights of an unborn child. But I just want to make that clarification. 

In case anyone missing, I think I think that he’s he was wrong in that in that it is the same species. This point I was making earlier to talk about an embryo having human rights is to dignify human rights above the rights of other beings. Now, I would like to give rights to sentiment beings. And an early human embryo is not a cent in being an adult pig is. 

And therefore, you need to weigh up the rights of a human embryo against the rights of a pig embryo, which would be almost identical because there’d been almost no difference between them and more, especially the rights of an adult pig on adult chimpanzee or an adult whale. And it seems to me there’s absolutely no question about it, that that that that human embryo cannot feel pain, cannot feel fear, or even if it can feel pain, it won’t feel pain any more than a pig embryo and certainly far less than an adult pig. 

And therefore, I don’t think it’s right to elevate the idea of human rights as being special if by that you include a human embryo. 

As an evangelical Christian, I learned something. So we’re good. Well, one of the aspects of Christianity is that you’re saved by the grace of God, not your own doing. And this is embedded in Islam, too. So both of these religions, according to their traditional teaching, basically God not only gives the gift of grace and salvation, but also the people who are damn our damn cause this God wishes it. Now, this is true that this God wishes to burn millions of people. And how isn’t this God an evil monster that’s far worse than evil that our ad of Hitler. Yes. 

My question has to do with free will. Sam Harris’s come out with his book that expresses the opinion that free will is an illusion and that we would be much better off if we recognized that it was and dealt with that reality. Dan Dennett and other compatibles think that that’s a wrong way to go and that it would result in people behaving irresponsibly and sense of fatalism. Do you have an opinion on this? 

I always hate the free will question. I’m inclined to give the answer that Christopher Hitchens gave when asked, Do you believe in free will? I have no choice. I don’t know where I stand on the debate over compatible ism. I think as a materialist, it’s very hard to escape the view that everything that happens and that includes our own thoughts and our own decisions are predetermined by molecular events. In the brain and before that by earlier events. And so I find it very hard not to be a determinist. I find it very hard to be any sort of duelist. As far as I can make out. 

What Dan Dennett is saying is, yes, he’s a determined is, too, but it doesn’t matter. 

Now, I can’t speak for dad, and I really I really can’t I’m I’m going to but going to give up on this one. I am deeply disconcerted by the thought that the decisions that I take are predetermined because they feel so powerfully as though I’m making the decision. I think Dan would say, well, that’s of course, you feel that because you’ve been naturally selected, your brain has been naturally selected to have the illusion that you’re an agent that are that you’re taking decisions yourself. But I can’t really see an escape from the view that everything we do, including our decisions, is actually. Predetermined. You have to set aside quantum indeterminacy, which which which is sort of there, but irrelevant to this discussion. 

Congratulations, sir. You have pretty much stumped Richard Dawkins first. I’ve seen it. Thank you so much to everyone for coming. The podcast is there is a point of inquiry. Follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. 

My other upcoming podcast is We the People Alive. You can find it at WTOP Live. And please thank the wonderful Richard Dawkins. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.