Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The atheist as fundamentalist

(Reproduced in full from the Toronto Star. I think Dawkins comes off much better than he has at other times. Perhaps he was finally wise enough to get a PR coach.)
The atheist as fundamentalist
Q&A | Richard Dawkins on why religious faith tends to create more evil people than, say, Stalinism
Oct. 29, 2006. 01:00 AM

Richard Dawkins is the enfant terrible of atheism, a scientist whose best-selling first book, The Selfish Gene, argued a genetic basis for Darwin's theory of evolution, and who went on to challenge theories of creationism that have gained traction in the last decade. Currently a professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, he has just completed a documentary series on the role of religion in modern history.

Here he talks about his latest book, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), which makes the case that the existence of a supreme being is supremely improbable, and that religious belief is not only wrong but deadly.

Did you use the title of your book to provoke people?

It's not the intention of the title. The whole book is meant to change people's minds. It's not intended just to provoke, though. I really want people to think and to come to a different conclusion from the one they had previously. I hope there is a good middle ground of people who vaguely think of themselves as religious but haven't given it much thought. I'm hoping that I can provoke them into thinking.

But isn't the problem really with the extremists, not the middle-of-the-roaders?

You will never change the mind of a real dyed-in-the-wool faithhead. But there are plenty of people who vaguely think they are religious but just need a bit of stimulation to think for themselves. They are important because we need their numerical strength.

In the United States, for instance, it is impossible for an atheist to get elected to public office. If you think about it, there are hundreds of members of Congress, and some are drawn from the intellectual elite. It is almost impossible that such a large sample of those intellectuals are all religious. Most of them are lying to get elected. But if my middle-of-the-roaders come off the fence, it will no longer be true that politicians have to invoke God in all their speeches in order to get the votes.

You've been called "Darwin's Rottweiler." Do you like being labelled a militant atheist?

Rottweilers are very sweet and charming dogs, you know. It's true I do feel the need to convert people. I care about what's true, and I think it's rather sad if people have to go through life believing in a falsehood.

How do you answer critics who say your book ignores the evils of anti-religious ideologies such as Stalinism?

It's a misunderstanding. I never simply list evil deeds by evil people. There are evil deeds done by the non-religious as well as the religious.

But that's not really the point. The point is whether religious faith is more likely to make people evil — and I suspect it is.

Of course, not every religious person does bad things. But I think if you are brought up to think there is something called faith that cannot be questioned, and that it is bad manners to question, then that paves the way for a few extremists to feel justified in doing their terrible acts.

Very few religious people do those things, but they make the world safe for those who do by extolling the virtues of faith and bringing children up to believe that blind faith is a virtue.

Do you see religious extremism on the rise generally, or is it merely confined to a vocal minority?

If you take the longer view of history, going back to the Middle Ages or Biblical times, it was even worse. If you take the shorter view, over my lifetime I do see religious extremism on the rise.

But I don't think it is a permanent effect. It's a zigzagging curve that goes up and down. It happens to be going up and down in the United States at the moment, for example. That is perhaps because of President George W. Bush coming to power.

How can you combat such extremism?

I do it to the best of my own powers, using the media, writing books, talking to people, et cetera.

And there are faintly encouraging signs. Both my book and Sam Harris's book, Letter to a Christian Nation — which is every bit as outspokenly anti-religious as mine — are high in the bestseller list at the moment, and that would not have been foreseen six years ago. Maybe there is the beginning of a shift in opinion.

Is there a countervailing upswing in interest in science?

I'd like to think so. It's the raison d'être of my career, and it's my duty to work as though that were the case.

It may be different in other countries, but in Britain, if you actually look at the statistics on young people choosing to read scientific subjects at university, on the contrary, there is a tendency the other way. I'd like to think that's also a blip.

You don't give any ground to religion. But what about those people in dreadful situations who simply turn to it for comfort?

That's a difficult one, because if you find something comforting that doesn't make it true. But even if it's not true, is that a justification for it? I think it's like saying, "Would you rather have a doctor tell you the truth about what you've got if it's serious, or would you prefer him to hide it from you?"

Nobody is forcing anyone to read my book. But I'm writing for the kind of person who would rather the doctor told them the truth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its interesting how the author's premise is that religion is generally the source of all evil. While science saves mankind. Who invented gun powder and will the Nobel Prize purge him of his invention and nuclear weapons are another example. There are other times when science has been used for evil means. There is plenty of blame to go around. While I can understand that there has to be a secular side to humanity, it was Catholicism that showed that everyone has worth - not just the king. We are all created in God's image. There is danger that science will become a religion - deciding who has worth - I'll hedge my bets and stay "Delusioned"

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If its recommended by Penn and Teller - does it really have to be a good read?

1:59 PM  

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