Full Transcript of Brian Lehrer Interviewing Richard Dawkins Wednesday, April 25, 2007Posted by henry000 in Brian Lehrer, evolution, faith, God, radio interview, radio talk show, rationality, religion, Richard Dawkins, science, transcript, WNYC.
Lehrer: Brian Lehrer, WNYC. We have something new on our webpage, by the way, it’s our online video-picks. Every week we will choose five videos from the web, which I anchor in our Picks Video. This week they include a clip of Karl Rove when he was an unknown colleague student, working for the Nixon campaign. And for others, check out our online Video Picks at WNYC.org, click on Brian Lehrer Show.
Lehrer: My guest now has been described as Darwin’s Rottweiler – a scientist and an atheist, he’s come to the conclusion that religious belief is not only irrational, but harmful – a case he makes in his latest book The God Delusion, which was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. He is a renowned zoologist, evolutionary biologist, and best selling author and he teaches at Oxford University where he is the professor of The Public Understanding of Science. Richard Dawkins, welcome back to WNYC.
Dawkins: Thank you.
Lehrer: He is in New York today, by the way, to accept the Lewis Thomas Price at Rockefeller University. Maybe some of you, er, as I did, read Lewis Thomas’ essays on science which certainly contributed to the public understanding, so congratulations on that price, Dr. Dawkins.
Lehrer: I see you are not wearing your Atheists for Jesus t-shirt (Dawkins laughs) today. You have such a shirt?
Dawkins: I do have such a shirt. I wrote an article in the magazine Free Inquiry called Atheists for Jesus, and then somebody presented me with a t-shirt which I occasionally enjoy wearing.
Lehrer: What’s the basic Atheists for Jesus argument?
Dawkins: Jesus was a very good man; if Jesus had been alive today, and if he had known what we know, he would be an atheist.
Lehrer: And do you think religion, in itself, is fundamentally harmful?
Dawkins: Well I don’t want to stress that too much. I mean in your introduction you rather implied that that was the main point of The God Delusion. The main point of The God Delusion is that God doesn’t exist – it’s a matter of scientific truth. However after having established that in the first half of the book, the second half of the book does then go on and point out some of the bad things that do flow, from widespread faith.
Lehrer: Well let’s go to the first half of the book. Why are you so sure that God doesn’t exist?
Dawkins: I am not quite sure. I, I, um, have a seven-point scale, ranging from totally-sure-that-God-exist which is number one, to totally-sure-that-God-doesn’t-exist which is number seven, and fifty-fifty is right in the middle in number four. Um, I am about a number six-point-eight, um, meaning that I cannot disprove the existence of God, but in the same sense as I cannot disprove the existence of fairies. So my agnosticism is the same as my agnosticism about the existence of fairies. I will be very, very surprised if there was any sort of God.
Lehrer: Why wouldn’t the scientific position be a four on the scale of seven, the pure agnostic position that says, since there is no way to prove, and no way to disprove, the existence of God, this is just a realm out of my comprehension…
Dawkins: Well alot of scientists do say that, but now apply that to fairies again, I mean you cannot disprove fairies, but no scientist has a kind of fifty-fifty, was gonna make a fifty-fifty bet on fairies. If we are good scientists, we will say, “Well I cannot actually disprove fairies; but I don’t think the odds are fifty-fifty, I think the odds are ninety-nine percent against.”
Lehrer: So how did you get to six-point-eight?
Dawkins: Well, er, I, firstly, the, the onus would be on the believer to show that there is some positive evidence, because it’s not just on God and fairies, there’s an infinite number of things that you could believe in that you can’t disprove, so there has to be some sort of positive reason. If you look at the positive reasons for some kind of supernatural being, um, most of them are completely valueless. The only one that is seriously considered today, is the so -called argument-from-design. If you look around the world…
Lehrer: Intelligent Design…
Dawkins: …especially the living world…
Dawkins: …it has to be designed.
Lehrer: That is just so amazing…
Dawkins: It is just so amazing…
Lehrer: It fits together so well and it’s so complex, that how could this not have come from someone’s imagining.
Dawkins: Exactly. Well, the answer to that, firstly, is that until Darwin came, that might have been a reasonable position. After Darwin, we now know that there is an alternative, it’s more economical, a more plausible alternative, and all the evidence point to it being correct…
Lehrer: But wait, why do those two have to be mutually exclusive? There is something called, what it is, Darwinist theism, which says that it could’ve been a God that set all this in motion at the time of Big Bang, or however it all began, and so Darwin and God are not incompatible.
Dawkins: There is a strand of thought that says that; that God somehow set the evolutionary process in motion, or started it off and sat back and watched or even guided it through certain difficult parts. It’s such an amazingly uneconomical way of looking at that. That’s not the way science works. You don’t put forward a highly comprehensive, elegant, beautiful theory that explains everything, and then say, “Oh, by the way, God is there too”. I mean it is completely superfluous – you don’t need it – not only do you not need it, but it’s an addition, of something very, very complicated, and improbable,
Lehrer: You don’t need…
Dawkins: … in its own right.
Lehrer: Right. You don’t need it, because it’s not the job of science to go there, it is the job of science to explain how natural laws work. But then… isn’t it kind of… again, not provable, not disprovable, irrelevant to science, to say, “Well, this could’ve been started by a theistic, you know, ur, moment”, or not?
Dawkins: When you think about what the evolution theory is for us, it is explaining the existence of organised complexity. It is explaining the existence of brains, and eyes, and legs and wings, and all these things which would otherwise baffle us. Now consider what God is like from this point of view. God would be another amazingly complicated, statistically improbable entity. And so by suddenly postulating that God has started it all off, you are undoing all your good efforts, in using science to explain the existence organised complexity. You are saying we’ve got a theory to explain organised complexity, we are going to start things off with even more organised complexity.
Lehrer: So what came before the beginning of time?
Dawkins: That’s what physicists are working on, but whatever else it was, it wouldn’t been complex, it would’ve been something simple. And physicists are now working on that, they haven’t yet come up with an answer. But already they can say that whatever else the answer is, it certainly won’t help to postulate a highly complicated intelligence, which is the kind of thing that comes into the universe late, at the end of a long process of evolution.
Lehrer: Do you think that science could ever explain infinity, the beginning of time, the reaches of space?
Dawkins: I am not a physicists, and you have to talk to a physicist about that. I don’t know whether science will ever explain some of these deep problems, but what I am sure of, is that if humanity ever does understand these deep problems, like infinity, like the origin of all things, the origin of physics, it would be science that explains it. It most certainly would not be theology.
Lehrer: The God Delusion is the name of the book, by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. I say we can take your phone calls for him, and it’s a good thing I’d say that because eight out of our ten lines are already full. So for the other two, it is 212-433-WNYC. 433-9692, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s put on your headphone, Dr. Dawkins, and we will take phone calls right now. From George in Hoboken. Hi George, you are on WNYC.
George: Hi, how are you?
Lehrer: OK, thank you.
George: Um, I guess my comment and question is something as follows: while quite an admirer of Dr. Dawkins, I think, the impression I got in reading his book, was it sets up a bit of a straw-man, that his conception of God is kind of like the old man with long white beard sitting in a rocking chair…
Lehrer: As opposed to?
George: Excuse me?
Lehrer: As opposed to?
George: Well as opposed to the more nuanced conceptions. I mean you might see a connectivity throughout the universe, you might see an intelligence embedded and you might find that it gives you some sort of transcendence to your existence.
Lehrer: OK, so does it matter what kind of God?
Dawkins: The old man with a long white beard is a great bore. I explicitly disavowed that in the book. I say I anticipate that people are going to say that “you are talking about an old man with beard” and I explicitly say “No, I am not talking about an old man with beard.” The problem with old man with beard is that he makes people think that they can get out of answering the criticisms by saying “Oh, you are only talking about an old man with a beard.” And that is a disguise for the fact that what you believe in is not a whole lot less absurd. We are talking about any kind of supernatural creator, which as I’ve said before, is superfluous. I most certainly am not talking about an old man with a beard, and I am fully accept that you are not either.
Lehrer: What made you feel – and thank you for your call George – what made you feel that now is the moment to write this book? Was there a moment? Was it 9/11, the Intelligent Design movement, the ban on stem cell research? Anything in particular?
Dawkins: Well all of those probably helped. I did propose writing the book to my literary agent about six year ago or seven years ago. He was dead against it, he said you couldn’t sell a book against God.
Lehrer: How is it doing?
Dawkins: It is doing very well. And he changed his mind after six years. I am not sure what he thought had changed, but I should think it might’ve been six years of Bush, it might’ve been 9/11, it might’ve been stem cell, all those things you suggested.
Lehrer: Are you trying to shock your readers into thought, rather than hand-holding them? The examples you use, some of them like equating parents who send their children off to religious instruction with child abusers seem to be so provocative…
Dawkins: No, yes that’s not quite right actually. I use the phrase child-abuse not for religious education, but for religious labelling. I think that actually labelling a child as a Catholic child, or a Protestant child, or a Muslim child – that I think is child-abuse. But I don’t think religious instruction is child-abuse, far from it. I actually am in favour in instructing children in comparative religion, because religion is such an immense part of our world, you can’t begin to understand history without it; you can’t understand literature without it…
Lehrer: That would be an intellectual pursue rather than religious training, learning about different religions.
Dawkins: Exactly, yeah exactly.
Lehrer: But if you are a Jewish or Christian or Muslim family living in a community of, you know, people within your religion, to raise a child in the religion, and identify them as such, until they are old enough to decide otherwise – that’s comparable to child-abuse to you?
Dawkins: Well, it’s a difficult one. In most forms it is mild enough that it doesn’t really matter that much. I often use a comparison, you would never dream calling a child a Marxist child, or secular humanist child, or monetarist child; um, so we are already quite used to the idea that children are too young to know where they stand on political or economical matters. Religion does seem to be the one exception; it is not clear to me why we should allow it to be the one exception. So, um, I think what’s right is to tell a child there are all these religions and these people believe this, those people believe that, and they’re historically important and so on. What is wrong is to say “You are a Catholic child.” And therefore because Catholics believe this, you believe this. That I think is wicked.
Lehrer: Steven in Greenpoint, you are on WNYC with Richard Dawkins. Hello Steven.
Steven: Hello, very nice to… very good conversation. I am not completely religious, and I can understand where religion comes from. I just personally think that the worship of God is probably the most personal, most private thing a human being can practice. I just need to know why it is so important people need to believe there is a god, a generalised god? I will take my answer off the air.
Lehrer: Thank you for your call.
Dawkins: Yes, I don’t know why there does seem to be a need for it. It’s not a universal need, I mean not everybody seem to have that need. I suppose part of it is a need for understanding. We crave explanation for our own existence, the existence of the universe. And that, religion has historically attempted to provide; it provided the wrong answers, now we have the right answers, or we’re getting there. So science takes over from religion there. Another of a thing religion provides is some sort of comfort consolation, if you are afraid of death, or if you are bereaved, or if you long for some justice which you are not getting in this world you hope will in the next, so that could be another reason why people need it. But it is very important to say that because you need something, that doesn’t make it true. I mean we all need consolation. And I could say that I need… suppose I was dying of cancer, I could say I need to believe I haven’t got cancer, but if I have got cancer, I am afraid needing to believe I haven’t is not going to help – what matters is what’s true.
Lehrer: Well as an evolutionary biologist, looking at how religious the world is, do you think there is some Darwinian advantage for religious people?
Dawkins: That is a very interesting question. My own suspicion is that the answer is probably strictly no. But the true answer is probably that there has been an evolutionary advantage to a psychological disposition; maybe a constellation of psychological dispositions which in other context have Darwinian survival value, but which manifest themselves as religion under right cultural context.
Lehrer: What might one of those other things be?
Dawkins: Well one of those other things might be the need for children to believe what the parents tell them. And that could be an immensely valuable survival advantage in a Darwinian sense, because the child is immensely vulnerable; parents have wisdom they can impart for how to survive in a dangerous world.
Lehrer: History tell us that first children do, second children don’t, right?
Dawkins: Well, yes, that’s an interesting point, I think you are quoting the work of Frank Sulloway, a historian…
Dawkins: Um, well that’s an interesting point, but that is a subtlety. The more general point is that a child survives better if it believes what its parents tell it. And so the rule of thumb built into the child’s brain is believe what your parents tell you. But doesn’t provide automatically, obviously doesn’t provide a way of distinguishing, that which is good to believe, and that which is bad to believe. And so any kind of nonsense your parents choose to impart, will be believed, and will be passed on to the next generation, the grand children, the great grand children, and so on.
Lehrer: 93.9 AMA 20, WNYC.org. Brian Lehrer with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, best known for his book The Selfish Gene; his latest book is The God Delusion, published by Houghton Mifflin, and he teaches Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Ernie in Manhattan, you are on WNYC, hello.
Ernie: Hi. As an atheist who believes people have a finite mind and an infinite universe, I have a question for Dr. Dawkins. How do you feel about the discrimination against atheists in this country, where a politician who said he didn’t believe in God couldn’t be elected dog catcher. And is this not related to the fact that people say almost virtually that religion and morality are virtually identical when morality was actually learnt by mankind many years ago as doing greatest good for the great number…
Lehrer: Alright, so there are couple of questions in there really, I think one of them is about discrimination against atheists in the political sector and elsewhere.
Dawkins: First of all I understand the discrimination is not official, I don’t think there are laws or statue book in any state that say an atheist can’t hold public office. The discrimination comes in the electability; in certain way it’s up to the electorate. If the electorate doesn’t want to elect people who have red hair, it is up to them; they are free to vote down people who have red hair. So the task that atheists have is present a better public image to explain that actually atheists are perfectly reasonable people; they’re nice people, they’re nice people, or they can be just as much as anybody else. They don’t have two horns and a tail; they are not fundamentally immoral. It is amazing the number of misconceptions people have, and that comes on to the second part of the question. There are people who think you cannot be moral if you are atheist. I was on a radio talk show last year, in which somebody came on and said that if he didn’t believe in God, he would promptly go out and murder his neighbour. So I said “Are you serious, you’d go out and murder your neighbour?”, “Yes I would.” And so I was able to point out to him, that’s not a very good reason for being moral. If the only reason you don’t murder your neighbour is you are frightened of God, isn’t that a pretty contemptible reason for being moral? Atheists are really moral, they don’t murder their neighbours because they think it is wrong to do so for all sorts of reasons that, as you say, pre-date religion.
Lehrer: So let’s talk about language. Is there a distinction between being an atheist and a humanist? Because I think I see the word “humanist” been used much more frequently these days; is that just running around, er, running away from an unpopular word?
Dawkins: There are various unkind things one could say about running away from an unpopular word, and there are various school of thoughts. Some people think that atheists should abandon that word because it has acquired so many negative connotations; others feel that what we have to do is to give positive connotations. An atheist is just somebody who holds a different philosophical positions – in quite a sophisticated way from what many other people do. As we said in the beginning nobody really knows whether there are gods or not, and it’s reasonable to hold the view that there aren’t; it doesn’t automatically make you evil. The word “humanist” has a more positive spin, it implies, er, it’s a positive view of life – we are humans, we have only one life – that’s where the atheist comes in, we are not gonna to have another one; it is up to us to make of life what we can, we try to do the best for the whole of humanity. I prefer to generalise that and say the whole of um, sentient animals as well; we don’t want to um…
Lehrer: Yeah it sounds a bit “species-ists”…
Dawkins: Yeah it sounds a bit “species-ists” and that’s one of the problems with it. But, um, I think that to call yourself a humanist is a pretty good thing to call yourself; I think the great majority of humanists actually are atheists, but they prefer to emphasise a positive attitude rather than what sounds rather negative.
Lehrer: Here is an email that asks “Has the reaction to the book been very different in Great Britain and Europe than in the USA? What about Canada as opposed to the USA? Any place where the author is been surprised by the reaction one way or the other?”.
Dawkins: Well that’s interesting. I can’t really speak for Europe at the moment because non-English translations haven’t yet, er, I think the only one so far is Dutch. But in Britain it has been very well received, it’s on the Sunday Times best sellers list and has been for many months – which is sort of the equivalent to New York Times best seller list, which is being on in this country for many months too. It is being very well received; it is also being very much not well received, as you would imagine, among some religious circles. On my book tour of America I was very agreeably surprised by the positive reception it got over and over again – and this is not just in the so-called Blue States – this is in other places say in Virginia and Kansas as well. I was getting terrific ovations from my presentations, and I think this no great credit to me; I think what’s going on is there is a huge, um, undercurrent, of non-believing feeling in America which has felt repressed, suppressed, almost persecuted, and have somebody who comes, goes around saying the things they had always wanted to say – many people said this to me explicitly over and over again in the book signing queues, many people say “Thank you for saying what I always wanted to say but didn’t feel I could.”.
Lehrer: Here is another email that says “This guy must be loads of fun to have over the holidays.” What do you do with Christmas…
Dawkins: I take it by “holidays” you mean Christmas. I’ve always been amused by the American euphemism for Christmas in insisting calling it “holidays”. This is nothing to do with, um…
Lehrer: You are proving her point…
Dawkins: … with respecting the feelings for atheist, this is to do with respecting the feelings of Jews. I am perfectly happy to celebrate Christmas or whatever you call it; it is becoming a cultural thing, I am all for culture, I am all for following one’s cultural roots whether they are Jewish or Christians or whatever they are. Christmas has long since ceased to be a religious festival anyway.
Lehrer: Richard in Manhattan, you are on WNYC with Richard Dawkins, hello.
Richard: Hello Mr. Dawkins and Brian. Mr. Dawkins, I take it you subscribe to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe?
Dawkins: I am not a physicists but in that particular case I have to go along with the consensus of physicists, which is yes.
Richard: OK. Though you give full credence to biological evolution and dismiss what is called creationism. The Big Bang is in concept a kind of creation, and that much closer to a concept of a creator – if not a anthropomorphic one. Second, is not atheism the most absurd intellectual vanity, in that atheist can’t certainly predict what would happen in the next five minutes of life on earth; and can’t see through a closed door to see what is on the other side. But the atheist would argue with confidence that there is no God.
Dawkins: Well I take it you were not listening the early part of the program…
Richard: I was.
Dawkins: Well there is no sense in which the Big Bang could be said to be close to the idea of a creator for reasons that I’ve already given…
Richard: But it’s a creation.
Dawkins: It’s not a creation by an intelligence, it is something we don’t understand. It’s a coming-into-existence which physicists are now working on…
Lehrer: Is your position, as certain as you are, and the fact that it cannot be disproved, a kind of faith in itself?
Dawkins: No no no, I was just coming to that, this thing about arrogance and confidence. I am not confident, I am not confident, it is religious people who are confident. I don’t know, I am waiting for science to find out what the truth is, but the religious person, he absolutely knows. He knows there is a trinity; he knows that Jesus was born of a virgin; all these things which there is not a slightest shred of evidence…
Lehrer: You sound pretty confident, you said you are six point eight on the scale of seven that there is no God…
Dawkins: I have the same confidence as I do with fairies; I take it our caller is pretty confident that there are no fairies. I have that level of confidence.
Lehrer: We have another caller…
Dawkins: … above all I am waiting to find out, I am curious to find out…
Lehrer: Here is a caller who wants to react to the fairies analogy. Blanca from Crestwood, you are on WNYC.
Blanca: Hi, good morning, how are you?
Lehrer: Good. Real quick cos we are running out of time.
Blanca: Yes. My question was, he uses fairies as the model, you know, to kind of illustrate how the belief in God is something you can’t prove or disprove, and the same with fairies. But religion has been something that has been around in every culture, you know…
Lehrer: Unlike the belief in fairies.
Dawkins: Well, there are lots of different religion hats. There is Zeus, Thor and Woten, there is Mithras, there is all kind of different religions, they are all different. Why do you favour one religion rather than another? If you’d been born in Ancient Greece you’d be presumably worshipping Zeus.
Lehrer: Why last thing, and Blanca thank you. We have a minute left. Do you consider yourself spiritual? Because you privilege the rational mind, yet at the same time you are clearly moved, I know from your writings, by arts and poetry; you use alot of metaphor in your own writing… er, you know, it is a not the work of a dry, analytical mind. Does the word “spiritual” mean something to you?
Dawkins: In that sense I am very spiritual. In one of my earlier books Unweaving the Rainbow is all about that. My view is that human spirituality in the sense of poetry and wonder, is far better served, by science and by rationality, than it is by religion, which is poky and parochial, and small-minded by comparison.
Lehrer: You going on O’Reilly’s tonight, I understand.
Lehrer: It’s going to be a little different from this.
Dawkins: I am looking forward to it.
Lehrer: Have you done that before?
Dawkins: No I haven’t.
Lehrer: You wrote that up at Times about renaming atheists, the Brights.
Dawkins: That was one… I was quite curious about whether that would work. The analogy is with homosexuals renaming themselves gays…
Lehrer: Taking back queer and words of that kind…
Dawkins: Yes that’s right. And I don’t really care much one way or another, I am quite interested to see whether a new coining can flourish in the memosphere, but I don’t really mind one way or the other.
Lehrer: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, published by Houghton Mifflin, thanks so much for coming in.
Dawkins: Thank you very much.