by Sheena McDonald
The Vision Thing, 15 August 1994.
Channel 4 (U.K.)
Channel 4 in the UK ran a half-hour series of interviews in 1994 called The Vision Thing. Various people with different beliefs were interviewed by Sheena McDonald, a respected TV journalist. The only atheist viewpoint was put by Richard Dawkins on 15 August 1994.
Note that throughout the interview Sheena McDonald had a half-smile on her face as if to say "Well, these are strange opinions but I suppose I'll have to give them a hearing". She was though, as always, scrupulously fair.
At the time of the interview Richard Dawkins was reader in zoology at the University of Oxford. He is now Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He currently has three of the top ten best selling science books in Britain.
Imagine no religion! Even non-believers recognize the shock value of John Lennon's lyric. A godless universe is still a shocking idea in most parts of the world. But one English zoologist crusades for his vision of a world of truth, a world without religion, which he says is the enemy of truth, a world which understands the true meaning of life. He's called himself a scientific zealot. In London I met Richard Dawkins.
McDonald: Richard Dawkins, you have a vision of the world -- this world free of lies, not the little lies that we protect ourselves with, but what you would see as the big lie, which is that God or some omnipotent creator made and oversees the world. Now, a lot of people are looking for meaning in the world, a lot of them find it through faith. So what's attractive about your godless world, what's beautiful -- why would anyone want to live in your world?
Dawkins: The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear. It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we're here. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand.
McDonald: Right, well, let's maximize this opportunity. Paint the world, describe the opportunity that too many of use -- you will probably say most of us -- are not exploiting to appreciate the world and to understand the world.
Dawkins: Well, suppose you look at an animal such as a human or a hedgehog or a bat, and you really want to understand how it works. The scientific way of understanding how it works would be to treat it rather as an engineer would treat a machine. So if an engineer was handed this television camera that engineer would get a screwdriver out, take it to bits, perhaps try to work out a circuit diagram and try to work out what this thing did, what it was good for, how it works, would explain the functioning of the whole machine in terms of the bits, in terms of the parts.
Then the engineer would probably want to know how it came to be where it was, what's the history of it -- was it put together in a factory? Was it sort of suddenly just gelled together spontaneously? Now those are the sorts of questions that a scientist would ask about a bat or a hedgehog or a human, and we've got a long way to go, but a great deal of progress has been made. We really do understand a lot about how we and rats and pigeons work.
I've spoken only of the mechanism of a living thing. There's a whole other set of questions about the history of living things, because each living thing comes into the world through being born or hatched, so you have to ask, where did it get its structure from? It got it largely from its genes. Where do the genes come from? From the parents, the grand-parents, the great-grand parents. You go on back through the history, back through countless generations of history, through fish ancestors, through worm-like ancestors, through protozoa-like ancestors, to bacteria-like ancestors.
McDonald: But the end point of this process would simply be an understanding of the physical world.
Dawkins: What else is there?
McDonald: But to accept your vision, one has to reject what many people hold very dear and close, which is faith. Now, why is faith, why is religious faith incompatible with your vision?
Dawkins: Well, faith as I understand it -- you wouldn't bother to use the word faith unless it was being contrasted with some other means of knowing something. So faith to me means knowing something just because you know it's true, rather than because you have seen any evidence that it's true.
McDonald: But if I say I believe in God, you cannot disprove the existence of God.
Dawkins: No, and the virtue of using evidence is precisely that we can come to an agreement about it. But if you listen to two people who are arguing about something, and they each of them have passionate faith that they're right, but they believe different things -- they belong to different religions, different faiths, there is nothing they can do to settle their disagreement short of shooting each other, which is what they very often actually do.
McDonald: If religion is an obstacle to understanding what you're saying, why is it getting it wrong?
Dawkins: A creator who created the universe or set up the laws of physics so that life would evolve or who actually supervised the evolution of life, or anything like that, would have to be some sort of super-intelligence, some sort of mega-mind. That mega-mind would have had to be present right at the start of the universe. The whole message of evolution is that complexity and intelligence and all the things that would go with being a creative force come late, they come as a consequence of hundreds of millions of years of natural selection. There was no intelligence early on in the universe. Intelligence arose, it's arisen here, maybe it's arisen on lots of other places in the universe. Maybe somewhere in some other galaxy there is a super-intelligence so colossal that from our point of view it would be a god. But it cannot have been the sort of God that we need to explain the origin of the universe, because it cannot have been there that early.
McDonald: So religion is peddling a fundamental untruth.
Dawkins: Well, I think it is yes.
McDonald: And there is no possibility of there being something beyond our knowing, beyond your ability as a scientist, zoologist, to [...]
Dawkins: No, that's quite different. I think there's every possibility that there might be something beyond our knowing. All I've said is that I don't think there is any intelligence or any creativity or any purposiveness before the first few hundred million years that the universe has been in existence. So I don't think it's helpful to equate that which we don't understand with God in any sense that is already understood in the existing religions.
The gods that are already understood in existing religions are all thoroughly documented. They do things like forgive sins and impregnate virgins, and they do all sorts of rather ordinary, mundane, human kinds of things. That has nothing whatever to do with the high-flown profound difficulties that science may yet face in understanding the deep problems of the universe.
McDonald: Now a lot of people find great comfort from religion. Not everybody is as you are -- well-favored, handsome, wealthy, with a good job, happy family life. I mean, your life is good -- not everybody's life is good, and religion brings them comfort.
Dawkins: There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting -- it might be more comforting, for all I know. But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true.
McDonald: You have rejected religion, and you have written about and posited your own answers to the fundamental questions of life, which are -- very crudely, that we and hedgehogs and bats and trees and geckos are driven by genetic and non-genetic replicators. Now instantly I want to know, what does that mean?
Dawkins: Replicators are things that have copies of themselves made. It's a very, very powerful -- its' hard to realize what a powerful thing it was when the first self-replicating entity came into the world. Nowadays the most important self-replicating entities we know are DNA molecules; the original ones probably weren't DNA molecules, but they did something similar. Once you've got self-replicating entities -- things that make copies of themselves -- you get a population of them.
McDonald: In that very raw description that makes us -- what makes us us? We're no more than collections of inherited genes each fighting to make its way by the survival of the fittest.
Dawkins: Yes, if you ask me as a poet to say, how do I react to the idea of being a vehicle for DNA? It doesn't sound very romantic, does it? It doesn't sound the sort of vision of life that a poet would have; and I'm quite happy, quite ready to admit that when I'm not thinking about science I'm thinking in a very different way.
It is a very helpful insight to say we are vehicles for our DNA, we are hosts for DNA parasites which are our genes. Those are insights which help us to understand an aspect of life. But it's emotive to say, that's all there is to it, we might as well give up going to Shakespeare plays and give up listening to music and things, because that's got nothing to do with it. That's an entirely different subject.
McDonald: Let's talk about listening to music and going to Shakespeare plays. Now, you coined a word to describe all these various activities which are not genetically driven, and that word is 'meme' and again this is a replicating process.
Dawkins: Yes, there are cultural entities which replicate in something like the same way as DNA does. The spread of the habit of wearing a baseball hat backwards is something that has spread around the Western world like an epidemic. It's like a smallpox epidemic. You could actually do epidemiology on the reverse baseball hat. It rises to a peak, plateaus and I sincerely hope it will die down soon.
McDonald: What about voting Labour?
Dawkins: Well, you can make -- one can take more serious things like that. In a way, I'd rather not get into that, because I think there are better reasons for voting Labour than just slavish imitation of what other people do. Wearing a reverse baseball hat -- as far as I know, there is no good reason for that.
One does it because one sees one's friends do or, and one thinks it looks cool, and that's all. So that really is like a measles epidemic, it really does spread from brain to brain like a virus.
McDonald: So voting intentions you wouldn't put into that bracket. What about religious practices?
Dawkins: Well, that's a better example. It doesn't spread, on the whole, in a horizontal way, like a measles epidemic. It spreads in a vertical way down the generations. But that kind of thing, I think, spreads down the generations because children at a certain age are very vulnerable to suggestion.
They tend to believe what they're told, and there are very good reasons for that. It is easy to see in a Darwinian explanation why children should be equipped with brains that believe what adults tell them. After all, they have to learn a language, and learn a lot else from adults. Why wouldn't they believe it if they're told that they have to pray in a certain way? But in particular -- let's just rephrase that -- if they're told that not only do they have to behave in such a way, but when they grow up it is their duty to pass on the same message to their children.
Now, once you've got that little recipe, that really is a recipe for passing on and on down the generations. It doesn't matter how silly the original instruction is, if you tell it with sufficient conviction to sufficiently young and gullible children such that when they grow up they will pass it on to their children, then it will pass on and it will pass on and it will spread and that could be sufficient explanation.
McDonald: But religion is a very successful meme. I mean, in your own structures the genes that survive -- the ones with the most selfish and successful genes presumably have some merit. Now if religion is a meme which has survived over thousands and thousands of years, is it not possible that there is some intrinsic merit in that?
Dawkins: Yes, there is merit in it. If you ask the question, why does any replicating entity survive over the years and the generations, it is because it has merit. But merit to a replicator just means that it's good at replicating.
The rabies virus has considerable merit, and the AIDS virus has enormous merit. These things spread very successfully, and natural selection has built into them extremely effective methods of spreading. In the case of the rabies virus it causes its victims to foam at the mouth, and the virus is actually spread in saliva. It causes them to bite and to become aggressive, so they tend to bite other animals, and the saliva gets into them and it gets passed on. This is a very, very successful virus. It has very considerable merit.
In a way the whole message of the meme and gene idea is that merit is defined as goodness at getting itself spread around, goodness at self-replication. That's of course very different from merit as we humans might judge it.
McDonald: You've chosen an analogy there for religion which a lot of them would find rather hurtful -- that it's like an AIDS virus, like a rabies virus.
Dawkins: I think it's a very good analogy. I'm sorry if it's hurtful. I'm trying to explain why these things spread; and I think it's like a chain letter. It is the same kind of stick and carrot. It's not, probably, deliberately thought out.
I could write on a piece of paper "Make two copies of this paper and pass them to friends". I could give it to you. You would read it and make two copies and pass them, and they would make 2 copies and it becomes 4 copies, 8, 16 copies. Pretty soon the whole world would be knee-deep in paper. But of course there has to be some sort of inducement, so I would have to add something like this "If you do not make 2 copies of this bit of paper and pass it on, you will have bad luck, or you will go to hell, or some dreadful misfortune will befall you".
I think if we start with a chain letter and then say, well, the chain letter principle is too simple in itself, but if we then sort of build upon the chain letter principle and look upon more and more sophisticated inducements to pass on the message, we shall have a successful explanation.
McDonald: But that's all it can be, I mean, sophisticated inducements or threats. I was only bothered that a successful meme may invoke something which has not yet been found in your universe by your methods.
Dawkins: The sophisticated inducements can include the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. I mean, they're pretty good stuff. They're very sophisticated and very, very beautiful -- stained glass windows, Chartres Cathedral, they work and no wonder they work. I mean they're beautifully done, beautifully crafted.
But I think what you're asking is, does the success of religion down the centuries imply that there must be some truth in its claims? I don't think that is necessary at all, because I think there are plenty of other good explanations which do a better job.
McDonald: Does it exasperate you that people find more pleasure and inspiration in Chartres or Beethoven or indeed great mosques than they do in the anatomy of a lizard?
Dawkins: No, not at all. I mean, I think that great artistic experiences -- I don't want to downplay them in any way. I think they are very, very great experiences, and scientific understanding is on a par with them.
McDonald: And yet, these great artistic achievements have been impelled by untruths.
Dawkins: Just think how much greater they would have been if they had been impelled by truth.
McDonald: But can the anatomy of a lizard provoke a great choral symphony?
Dawkins: By calling it the anatomy of a lizard, you, as it were, play for laughs. But if you put it another way -- let's say, does geological time or does the evolution of life on earth, could that be the inspiration for a great symphony? Well, of course, it could. It would be hard to imagine a more colossal inspiration for a great piece of music or poetry than 2,000 million years of slow, gradual evolutionary change.
McDonald: But ultimately, there's no point beyond the personal celebration of each life, as far as you're able to. We hope that we're not born into a famine queue in central Africa. But that's not sufficient for people. Maybe they want [...]
Dawkins: Look, it may not be [...]
McDonald: But tough, you say [...]
Dawkins:Tough, yes. I don't want to sound callous. I mean, even if I have nothing to offer, that doesn't matter, because that still doesn't mean that what anybody else has to offer therefore has to be true.
McDonald: Indeed, but you care about it.
Dawkins: Yes, I do want to offer something. I just wanted to give as a preamble the point that there may be a vacuum which is left. If religion goes, there may well be a vacuum in important ways in people's psychology, in people's happiness, and I don't claim to be able to fill that vacuum, and that is not what I want to claim to be able to do. I want to find out what's true.
Now, as for what I might have to offer, I've tried to convey the excitement, the exhilaration of getting as complete a picture of the world and the universe in which you live as possible. You have the power to make a pretty good model of the universe in which you live. It's going to be temporary, you're going to die, but it would be the best way you could spend your time in the universe, to understand why you're there and place as accurate model of the universe as you can inside your head. That's what I would like to encourage people to try to do. I think it's an immensely fulfilling thing to do.
McDonald: And that will be a better world?
Dawkins: It will certainly be a truer world. I mean, people would have a truer view of the world. I think it would probably be a better world. I think people would be less ready to fight each other because so much of the motivation for fighting would have been removed. I think it would be a better world. It would be a better world in the sense that people would be more fulfilled in having a proper understanding of the world instead of a superstitious understanding.
McDonald: So here we are, in your truer world -- except we're not, because for the reasons of juvenile gullibility you suggested the religion meme will continue to replicate itself around the world. For ever will it, or will we ever come to your world?
Dawkins: I suspect for a very long time. I don't know about for ever, whatever for ever is. I mean, I think religion has got an awful long time to go yet, certainly in some parts of the world. I find that a rather depressing prospect, but it is probably true.
McDonald: Isn't that to an extent because you've said yourself, what you have to say may not fill the vacuum which would be left if religion were discarded?
Dawkins: I feel no vacuum. I mean, I feel very happy, very fulfilled. I love my life and I love all sorts of aspects of it which have nothing to do with my science. So I don't have a vacuum. I don't feel cold and bleak. I don't think the world is a cold and bleak place. I think the world is a lovely and a friendly place and I enjoy being in it.
McDonald: Do you think about death?
Dawkins: Yes. I mean, it's something which is going to happen to all of us and [...]
McDonald: How do you prepare for death in a world where there isn't a god?
Dawkins: You prepare for it by facing up to the truth, which is that life is what we have and so we had better live our life to the full while we have it, because there is nothing after it. We are very lucky accidents or at least each one of us is -- if we hadn't been here, someone else would have been. I take all this to reinforce my view that I am fantastically lucky to be here and so are you, and we ought to use our brief time in the sunlight to maximum effect by trying to understand things and get as full a vision of the world and life as our brains allow us to, which is pretty full.
McDonald: And that is the first duty, right, responsibility, pleasure of man and woman. Christians would say "love God, love your neighbor". You would say "try to understand".
Dawkins: Well, I wouldn't wish to downplay love your neighbor. It would be rather sad if we didn't do that. But, having agreed that we should love our neighbor and all the other things that are embraced by that wee phrase, I think that, yes, understand, understand is a pretty good commandment.
(End of interview)
Sheena McDonald's wrap-up:
Richard Dawkins celebrates life before death with infectious enthusiasm. He rejects life after death with -- for many -- uncomfortable enthusiasm. In doing so he shows the courage of a true zealot, to go on preaching in the face of continuing resistance to a godless universe. It remains to be seen whether the Dawkins meme, his vision of truth, will replicate with the success that the prophets, priests, popes and gurus have enjoyed.
Is Science a Religion?
by Richard Dawkins
The 1996 Humanist of the Year asked this question in a speech accepting the honor from the American Humanist Association.
It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.
Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion. And who, looking at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous? One of the stories told to the young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest way to heaven -- and not just heaven but a special part of heaven where they will receive their special reward of 72 virgin brides. It occurs to me that our best hope may be to provide a kind of "spiritual arms control": send in specially trained theologians to deescalate the going rate in virgins.
Given the dangers of faith -- and considering the accomplishments of reason and observation in the activity called science -- I find it ironic that, whenever I lecture publicly, there always seems to be someone who comes forward and says, "Of course, your science is just a religion like ours. Fundamentally, science just comes down to faith, doesn't it?"
Well, science is not religion and it doesn't just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion's virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.
One reason I receive the comment about science being a religion is because I believe in the fact of evolution. I even believe in it with passionate conviction. To some, this may superficially look like faith. But the evidence that makes me believe in evolution is not only overwhelmingly strong; it is freely available to anyone who takes the trouble to read up on it. Anyone can study the same evidence that I have and presumably come to the same conclusion. But if you have a belief that is based solely on faith, I can't examine your reasons. You can retreat behind the private wall of faith where I can't reach you.
Now in practice, of course, individual scientists do sometimes slip back into the vice of faith, and a few may believe so single-mindedly in a favorite theory that they occasionally falsify evidence. However, the fact that this sometimes happens doesn't alter the principle that, when they do so, they do it with shame and not with pride. The method of science is so designed that it usually finds them out in the end.
Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around -- because science would completely collapse if it weren't for a scrupulous adherence to honesty in the reporting of evidence. (As James Randi has pointed out, this is one reason why scientists are so often fooled by paranormal tricksters and why the debunking role is better played by professional conjurors; scientists just don't anticipate deliberate dishonesty as well.) There are other professions (no need to mention lawyers specifically) in which falsifying evidence or at least twisting it is precisely what people are paid for and get brownie points for doing.
Science, then, is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith. But, as I pointed out, science does have some of religion's virtues. Religion may aspire to provide its followers with various benefits -- among them explanation, consolation, and uplift. Science, too, has something to offer in these areas.
Humans have a great hunger for explanation. It may be one of the main reasons why humanity so universally has religion, since religions do aspire to provide explanations. We come to our individual consciousness in a mysterious universe and long to understand it. Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science; it's just bad science. Don't fall for the argument that religion and science operate on separate dimensions and are concerned with quite separate sorts of questions. Religions have historically always attempted to answer the questions that properly belong to science. Thus religions should not be allowed now to retreat away from the ground upon which they have traditionally attempted to fight. They do offer both a cosmology and a biology; however, in both cases it is false.
Consolation is harder for science to provide. Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion with their loved ones in the hereafter. Those wronged on this earth cannot, on a scientific view, anticipate a sweet comeuppance for their tormentors in a life to come. It could be argued that, if the idea of an afterlife is an illusion (as I believe it is), the consolation it offers is hollow. But that's not necessarily so; a false belief can be just as comforting as a true one, provided the believer never discovers its falsity. But if consolation comes that cheap, science can weigh in with other cheap palliatives, such as pain-killing drugs, whose comfort may or may not be illusory, but they do work.
Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe -- almost worship -- this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn't diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.
Now, as I say, when it is put to me that science or some particular part of science, like evolutionary theory, is just a religion like any other, I usually deny it with indignation. But I've begun to wonder whether perhaps that's the wrong tactic. Perhaps the right tactic is to accept the charge gratefully and demand equal time for science in religious education classes. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that an excellent case could be made for this. So I want to talk a little bit about religious education and the place that science might play in it.
I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.
Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.
What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question -- without even noticing how bizarre it is -- that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?
Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.
Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I've already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world's religions.
For example, how could children in religious education classes fail to be inspired if we could get across to them some inkling of the age of the universe? Suppose that, at the moment of Christ's death, the news of it had started traveling at the maximum possible speed around the universe outwards from the earth. How far would the terrible tidings have traveled by now? Following the theory of special relativity, the answer is that the news could not, under any circumstances whatever, have reached more that one-fiftieth of the way across one galaxy -- not one-thousandth of the way to our nearest neighboring galaxy in the 100-million-galaxy-strong universe. The universe at large couldn't possibly be anything other than indifferent to Christ, his birth, his passion, and his death. Even such momentous news as the origin of life on Earth could have traveled only across our little local cluster of galaxies. Yet so ancient was that event on our earthly time-scale that, if you span its age with your open arms, the whole of human history, the whole of human culture, would fall in the dust from your fingertip at a single stroke of a nail file.
The argument from design, an important part of the history of religion, wouldn't be ignored in my religious education classes, needless to say. The children would look at the spellbinding wonders of the living kingdoms and would consider Darwinism alongside the creationist alternatives and make up their own minds. I think the children would have no difficulty in making up their minds the right way if presented with the evidence. What worries me is not the question of equal time but that, as far as I can see, children in the United Kingdom and the United States are essentially given no time with evolution yet are taught creationism (whether at school, in church, or at home).
It would also be interesting to teach more than one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn't leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.
So much for Genesis; now let's move on to the prophets. Halley's Comet will return without fail in the year 2062. Biblical or Delphic prophecies don't begin to aspire to such accuracy; astrologers and Nostradamians dare not commit themselves to factual prognostications but, rather, disguise their charlatanry in a smokescreen of vagueness. When comets have appeared in the past, they've often been taken as portents of disaster. Astrology has played an important part in various religious traditions, including Hinduism. The three wise men I mentioned earlier were said to have been led to the cradle of Jesus by a star. We might ask the children by what physical route do they imagine the alleged stellar influence on human affairs could travel.
Incidentally, there was a shocking program on the BBC radio around Christmas 1995 featuring an astronomer, a bishop, and a journalist who were sent off on an assignment to retrace the steps of the three wise men. Well, you could understand the participation of the bishop and the journalist (who happened to be a religious writer), but the astronomer was a supposedly respectable astronomy writer, and yet she went along with this! All along the route, she talked about the portents of when Saturn and Jupiter were in the ascendant up Uranus or whatever it was. She doesn't actually believe in astrology, but one of the problems is that our culture has been taught to become tolerant of it, vaguely amused by it -- so much so that even scientific people who don't believe in astrology sort of think it's a bit of harmless fun. I take astrology very seriously indeed: I think it's deeply pernicious because it undermines rationality, and I should like to see campaigns against it.
When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don't think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy. Do the children think there are absolute standards of right and wrong? And if so, where do they come from? Can you make up good working principles of right and wrong, like "do as you would be done by" and "the greatest good for the greatest number" (whatever that is supposed to mean)? It's a rewarding question, whatever your personal morality, to ask as an evolutionist where morals come from; by what route has the human brain gained its tendency to have ethics and morals, a feeling of right and wrong?
Should we value human life above all other life? Is there a rigid wall to be built around the species Homo sapiens, or should we talk about whether there are other species which are entitled to our humanistic sympathies? Should we, for example, follow the right-to-life lobby, which is wholly preoccupied with human life, and value the life of a human fetus with the faculties of a worm over the life of a thinking and feeling chimpanzee? What is the basis of this fence that we erect around Homo sapiens -- even around a small piece of fetal tissue? (Not a very sound evolutionary idea when you think about it.) When, in our evolutionary descent from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, did the fence suddenly rear itself up?
Well, moving on, then, from morals to last things, to eschatology, we know from the second law of thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They -- and we -- can never be more then temporary, local buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.
We know that the universe is expanding and will probably expand forever, although it's possible it may contract again. We know that, whatever happens to the universe, the sun will engulf the earth in about 60 million centuries from now.
Time itself began at a certain moment, and time may end at a certain moment -- or it may not. Time may come locally to an end in miniature crunches called black holes. The laws of the universe seem to be true all over the universe. Why is this? Might the laws change in these crunches? To be really speculative, time could begin again with new laws of physics, new physical constants. And it has even been suggested that there could be many universes, each one isolated so completely that, for it, the others don't exist. Then again, there might be a Darwinian selection among universes.
So science could give a good account of itself in religious education. But it wouldn't be enough. I believe that some familiarity with the King James version of the Bible is important for anyone wanting to understand the allusions that appear in English literature. Together with the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible gets 58 pages in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Only Shakespeare has more. I do think that not having any kind of biblical education is unfortunate if children want to read English literature and understand the provenance of phrases like "through a glass darkly," "all flesh is as grass," "the race is not to the swift," "crying in the wilderness," "reaping the whirlwind," "amid the alien corn," "Eyeless in Gaza," "Job's comforters," and "the widow's mite."
I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge -- and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist -- is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them.
But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
Richard Dawkins is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His books include The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, and, most recently, Climbing Mount Improbable. This article is adapted from his speech in acceptance of the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association.
The above article was first published in the January/February
1997 issue of The Humanist (Vol. 57, No. 1).
©Copyright 1996, 1997 by Richard Dawkins