Richard Dawkins: “I’m a sucker for nice religious leaders”

The atheist author and evolutionary biologist on Islam, the Pope and Jewish Nobel Prize winners

Topics: Richard Dawkins, Atheism, Religion, Biology, Science, pope, Islam,

In the midst of another media tour to promote his memoir, “An Appetite for Wonder,” polemical author, evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins spoke to the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner in an interview published today, expounding upon some of the comments that recently got him into trouble. Dawkins, who does not mince words, nor does he soften them, maintains his feud with Islamic countries, but reveals that he has a soft spot for “nice religious leaders” like the current pope.

Dawkins on his controversial tweet about Muslim scholars that said, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

RD: That was unfortunate. I should have compared religion with religion and compared Islam not with Trinity College but with Jews, because the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

Dawkins on Jewish Nobel Prize winners:

RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?

RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.

IC: So then what?

RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews. And especially if you don’t count peace prizes, which I think don’t count actually …

IC: Kissinger won one of those. C’mon.

RD: Exactly. Most of the ones that have gone to Muslims have been peace prizes, and the [number of Muslims] who have gotten them for scientific work is exceedingly low. But in Jews, it is exceedingly high. That is a point that needs to be discussed. I don’t have the answer to it. I am intrigued by it. I didn’t even know this extraordinary effect until it was pointed out to me by the [former] chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks.

IC: He must have been anxious to share this fact.

RD: Yeah. He shared it with due modesty, but I thought it was astounding, and I am puzzled about it.



Dawkins on the singular ideology of Muslim countries:

IC: You have gotten involved in a lot of controversies on Twitter about faith. One thing I have noticed is that you often use the argument that religion is something that we choose, unlike, say, race or sexual orientation. I wonder what the word “choose” means if you go to, say, a poor, religious, Muslim country.

RD: You don’t really get much choice.

IC: In two senses: One is that you cannot go on the street and shout that you are an atheist, the other is that you are never given the intellectual framework for calling your faith into question.

RD: That is true. I suppose I would like to give them the intellectual framework. I would like to find a way in which people in Saudi Arabia could learn that they can be something other than a Muslim. Some people may not realize this. Of course, there is the problem that you can get in trouble or get stoned.

Dawkins on the pope:

IC: I was wondering what you think of the current Pope. What’s your emotional reaction to religious figures who don’t seem so doctrinaire or who reach out to people who are less religious?

RD: I’m a sucker for nice religious leaders. I fall for it every time. But that doesn’t mean that I accept their arguments. Pope Francis seems to be a much nicer man than Pope Benedict, but I’m not sure that his views on things that really matter are all that different. Whereas Benedict was perhaps a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Francis is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Chotiner described Dawkins, who gave a characteristically prickly, matter-of-fact interview, as “someone who shouts people down.” “I don’t shout people down,” Dawkins replied. “I argue people down, perhaps.”

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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