Letters

Readers share their opinions on Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin and Salon's radical reenvisioning of the Sistine Chapel.


Salon Staff
May 3, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

[Read "The Atheist," by Gordy Slack.]

Thank you for the excellent interview with Richard Dawkins. Emperor Religion may be currently physically robust in the U.S. and the Muslim-dominated countries, but it has always been intellectually feeble and without foundation: The emperor has no clothes. I hope Mr. Dawkins is correct that the current upswing of American religious mania will be only a passing phase in the long run, because if it continues on its current trajectory, I fear it will sow the seeds of our own destruction.

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The destructive power of our species has grown too extensive for us to give continued credence to ancient myths. We can't destroy this planet, but we can destroy the means of the Earth's natural environment to support our great masses. And however much destruction we cause, the planet will get along fine without us just as it did for the billions of years before anything even resembling a human trod upon the African savannah. The majority of our fellow species on this planet will, in fact, get along far better without us.

Praying to God will prove no more useful than calling for help from Superman or Underdog. Jesus will never return to transport his faithful flock to another reality where they can sing psalms for eternity while looking on smugly at the torments suffered by the nonbelievers, not even if they wait another two billion years or until humankind joins the dodo in extinction and no matter how many copies of Left Behind books are sold.

The only hope for our future is to finally outgrow our tendencies toward religious or ideological zealotry; to restrain our tendencies toward xenophobia, violence and voraciousness; to learn to moderate our appetites, cooperate to build saner, more equitable societies and protect what remains of the wilderness that ultimately sustains us all.

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-- Fred Hill

Kudos for this excellent interview. Dawkins and his peers provide an invaluable balance to the superstition and fundamentalism prevalent in the U.S. today. The magnificence of the universal organism of which we are such a minuscule part is, indeed, awesome to experience. Dawkins is right in his belief that fundamentalist religion denigrates and cheapens that experience. America will recover from this voyage into the dim recesses of fundamentalism, because the awe and reverence most of us experience in our lives, immersed in this universe and its fractally complex process of becoming, cannot be dampened or impeded by those too afraid, lazy or propagandized to appreciate it.

-- Robert Kendrick Goode

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Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly a brilliant biologist. I read "The Selfish Gene" in college and was impressed, right up to the point where he started overextending his sophisticated understanding of evolution to explain everything about human society in a series of simplistic metaphors. I enjoy reading about Dawkins the biologist. I find Dawkins the atheist trite and boring. And Dawkins as a political commentator is an idiot.

For example, in his compulsion to explain any and all human failings in terms of religious belief, Dawkins must ignore the history of the last century. To his mind, the war in Yugoslavia was fought by religious fanatics over "religion." Never mind that Slobodan Milosevic is an atheist ex-communist party boss. Never mind that Bosnian Muslims are famously the least devout in the Muslim world. Never mind that no point of the struggle featured a theological debate about the merits of Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy vs. Islam. And of course the fact that the enlightened secular Europeans Dawkins recommends to us sat by and watched the slaughter unfold hardly recommends their atheism as enlightened.

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Dawkins ignores the simple fact that the 20th century's wars were fought over nationalism, race and other secular ideologies and that the resulting casualties far outnumbered all the wars fought in the name of God.

Dawkins would also have us ignore the environmental record of the militantly atheist communist states. Russia, China and Central Asia are scarred with industrial experiments and ecological disaster areas with no remediation in sight.

Dawkins seems to believe that deistic belief is the only class of belief that can be used to abuse people. He ignores the impact social Darwinism had in this country and in Nazi Germany. Did scientists participate in the Holocaust? Absolutely. Who came up with the idea of crossbreeding Gypsy women with dogs? Who invented Zyklon B? Why would you euthanize the mentally deficient or sterilize criminals if not for the scientific advancement of a race? Was the nuclear bomb we dropped on Hiroshima the product of religious fanaticism?

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Yes, religious belief can be a route to ignorance, bigotry and superstition. As Dawkins so singularly illustrates, it is not the only one.

-- Pete Sweeney

Salon has done a great service in publishing Gordy Slacks terse, well-structured, pointed interview with Richard Dawkins. The article is replete with good sense (i.e., the uncommon part of common sense).

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However, your editors have done a disservice in the needlessly provocative way the article was packaged. Dawkins' views as expressed in the article are far more temperate than one would be led to believe looking at the illustration of Adam giving the finger to God. It would have been more representative of the article simply to show God missing from Michelangelos fresco. Similarly, the headline and teasers were calculated to shock more than inform. It's great for people who've already "seen the light" of scientific reason to read about Dawkins' measured point of view. But what's really needed is for reasonable people who are religiously minded to read about it, too. Your window dressing is likely to drive such readers away.

-- Patrick Klinck

I agree with Richard Dawkins on basically everything. But was that picture really necessary? Adam flipping off God at the moment of his creation? I mean, it's cute and all, but it is so juvenile I was embarrassed to even see it. What were you thinking?

-- Aaron Batty

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It's wonderful to see Dawkins in such high form. And the artwork accompanying the article still has me chuckling. It has been promoted to my desktop wallpaper.

Non-believers are one of the last groups that it's OK to discriminate against in American society. When logic and reason are out of fashion, I have no interest in being fashionable. Bravo to Salon for publishing a non-prejudicial article on what may be the most important issue of all time.

If articles like this keep coming out of Salon, I'm going to have to subscribe.

-- Jeff Wagg

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I enjoy Dawkins; I read with fascination his first book. But he's no less an absolutist than the religious zealots he rightly ridicules. He loves facts, but only the facts that support his absolutist philosophical and scientific conclusions. It may very well happen that the facts Dawkins favors are undermined some day by the discovery of new information, and then the delusion shall have been his all along.

A little humility, please.

-- Ed Adams

Richard Dawkins seems to know exactly what religion is; according to him, as we can see from his objection to calling a child Christian or Muslim when it doesn't know what it thinks about anything, religion is a set of propositions to which one lends one's assent as statements with truth-value.

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What Dawkins doesn't realize is that he is unwittingly reproducing a medieval Catholic view of religion. Religions can just as easily be seen not as collections of propositions to which we can assent or dissent (i.e., "God is a supernatural being who created the world," "God split the red sea in 1000 BCE"), but as traditions of interpretation and communication about the world that believing communities take as their orientation for life. Dawkins should read the work of the "sophisticated theologians" he refers to, instead of condescending to pretend that his own worldview is somehow free of presuppositions.

-- Sam Brody

For someone so well educated, Richard Dawkins comes off as extremely ignorant. To call cultural customs "useless ideas" and "a waste of time" is offensive, to say the least. Cultural history gives human life texture and richness. It creates a great deal of value for many "right-thinking" people. Such comments make his ideas stink of a holier-than-thou white man sensibility.

Many people's lives are enriched by religious observances. Not every person who believes in God is dogmatic and closed-minded. Considering how upset he seems to be about the violence religious intolerance creates, he might try displaying a little tolerance himself.

-- Amy Siegman

How is it that I am a Christian and yet I agree with almost everything Richard Dawkins says? Perhaps it is because, like many other critics of religion I come across, Dawkins is in reality talking about fundamentalism, not religion.

Dawkins himself admits that opposition to evolution comes not from "educated theologians" but from a "retarded, primitive version of religion." But he goes on to refer to those who "just know your holy book is the God-written truth" and people who are "brought up to believe in faith and private revelation [who] cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds." He calls this religion, but it doesn't describe the religious people I am close to. Sounds like fundamentalism to me. Likewise his descriptions of Islamic and Christian extremists should not presume to include everyone who practices those religions.

Dawkins is right to point out that there is no evidence for the existence of God. That, of course, is why belief in God is called faith, a hope of things unseen. As for Dawkins' insistence that there should be no belief without evidence: Surely that would eliminate a good deal from life. How do know we are loved? Oh sure, some people are nice to us, but what evidence is there that they are indeed sincere? There is a reason the metaphysical poets like John Donne wrestled with what was beyond physical evidence.

As for the transcendental emotions evoked by a scientific worldview, that does indeed sound to some of us like, well, like God. Dawkins seems to share an assumption with fundamentalists, that God must be thought of as some Other, some Big Guy in the Sky. But I don't sense that Dawkins considers the possibility of God as the Ground of All Being who subsumes natural selection and everything else, and contains it.

That's why I find myself nodding my head at much of what Dawkins says about the beauty of evolution. Where I part company with him is when he insists that this life is our only one, and we are better off for that. Perhaps he's correct. But it strikes me that he is an extremely fortunate individual, with an interesting and rewarding career, money, fame, and, I would bet, a pretty decent personal life as well. So it's easy for him to say. But 99 percent of humanity, dealing with poverty, disease, abuse or personal tragedy, know only too well that there is a flaw running through this life and this creation. If this is it, why not just get high or something? We can blame God and turn away from the sorrows of the world, or we can hope this is not the end, and that we will someday find ourselves in one of those other dimensions physicists talk about. Talk about transcendence.

-- Denise Giardina

Like most folks, I find the notion of an afterlife most appealing. Unfortunately, I am unable to suspend my intellect long enough to become a believer. I found Richard Dawkins' arguments to be some of the most rational and intellectually honest I have read on the subject. He will, of course, continue to be condemned by "people of faith," but I'd like him to know that there are still those of us in the world who admire truth based on the evidence -- not some "revealed" truth of someone's favorite god. I've always remembered some lines from the film "Inherit the Wind": "The Bible is a book. It is a good book. But it is not the only book."

-- Joe Uremovich

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this wonderful interview! As a closeted atheist, working in an environment rife with movie posters for "The Passion of the Christ," this article was like a ray of light in a dark cell. I have been repeatedly told in my life that atheists are one step above devil-worshippers, that we have no moral compass because it is impossible to have morals without religion. I was raised by atheist parents, and left to make my own decisions about religion (I choose to be an atheist on my own -- my parents would have supported me had I chosen to adopt a religion). Last time I checked, I'm not a thief/rapist/serial killer. The past five years in America have been hell for me. This wonderful interview helped very much to put things into perspective, to help me feel not so alone, and to let me know that if things go completely down the toilet in the U.S., I can always run screaming for the U.K.

Once again, thank you!

-- Name withheld by request

I disagree completely with Richard Dawkins (and with many religious types) that belief in God presupposes an abandonment of reason. Darwin, Newton and Galileo believed in God while advancing scientific thought, and on the other hand, many Muslim thinkers like Avicenna also used reason to advance their theology. Avicenna wrote 1000 years ago about mysticism (that is, subjective religious intuition), and about God as the first cause, building upon Greek philosophy to advance his theology. Any God worth His or Her salt should have a creed that can stand up to honest reasoning and scientific scrutiny.

Are Avicenna's mystical ideas a rebuke of modern science? Not at all, unless you insist upon reading religious scriptures literally. Jesus, for one, explicitly warned against reading his parables this way. So in answer to the born-agains of the nation, no, the world wasn't literally created in six days, Jethro. The science behind evolution is convincing and conclusive.

However, just as I accept the reasonable proofs offered for evolution, I require equal proof to reject the First Cause, not just an outburst from a cranky scientist who's impatient (though I am too) with all the proselytizing, violence and environmental destruction that are done in the name of religion.

Dawkins characterizes belief in God as "a delusion ... that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence." I agree that belief in God is not usually based on measurable evidence. But to take the case of the "teapot orbiting Mars," which Dawkins characterizes as being as ridiculous as the idea of God: Telescopes could pick up such a floating teapot -- that is, could measure its physical existence -- and since they never have, the Martian teapot is demonstrably absurd. But to exist, a teapot must be visible; this test doesn't make room for an intangible and invisible God.

Dawkins seems to allow that life sprang from a unifying origin, a First Cause, yet finds the idea of a unifying intelligence driving it to be absurd, or as improbable as a unicorn. Why? He doesn't say. Our psyches contain subconscious impulses, and we don't always perceive the source of those impulses. Are we so sure that they don't issue from such a God, who unifies us inwardly, from a profound, psychic location, remote from any measuring device? You're the scientist; advance our thinking. Approach this question with rigor, test, offer me grounds, before you force me to accept a conclusion. Dawkins proposes that we reject the idea of God, one of the most important philosophical questions of the ages, based only on his feeling that it sounds silly. And haven't there been scientific studies showing that prayer helps people in convalescence?

I think that the atheistic scientists may have exactly the same problems that the religious zealots do: They can't think of any religious teachings as only half-true, they must either be completely and literally true or completely and literally false (then the Romans didn't really conquer Judea? And Pontius Pilate wasn't really the provincial governor?). That, and both camps would rather pronounce themselves God, in their certainty of their correctness, than allow for uncomfortably open-ended reasoning to take its course.

-- Andrew Horn

Do people like Richard Dawkins (and, on the humanities side, Christopher Hitchens) not realize that they are engaging in bigotry when they state that those of us with religious beliefs and values are somehow stupid? I would never call Richard Dawkins stupid because he lacks the imagination to realize that "there are some things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in [his] philosophy."

Atheists have always amused me because they say there is no empirical evidence of God. It's amusing because archaeology and classical history has been providing evidence to back up not only the New Testament but some parts of the Old Testament of the Bible for well over two centuries. The first time anyone heard of a Pharaoh named Ramses the Second was in the Book of Exodus. Now we know there actually was such a Pharaoh. Study of ancient Rome has taught us that the Proconsul of Judea was named Pontius Pilate and that his administration ran during the early part of the 1st century A.D. But Christians knew of Pontius Pilate long before this lost Roman politician was rediscovered by empirically minded historians.

I feel badly for Mr. Dawkins, for I suspect that somewhere in corners of his mind he'd rather not explore there is a numbing fear that however much he may not believe in God, God believes in him.

And is very angry.

-- Rob Anderson

Thank you for interviewing the scientist Richard Dawkins, who unflinchingly calls religion what it really is: a disease. It's about time we stopped humoring the religious with political correctness and began to speak the truth. We have to fight from the high intellectual ground. The religious are enemies of the Enlightenment and will indeed send our civilization spiraling toward a new dark age. From wanting to teach creation myths as "science" to censoring what we see in our science museums, these people will pollute, degrade and impair the young minds of our future scientists and engineers. Freedom to believe as one chooses is a good thing, except when those at the bottom of the intellectual food chain somehow come in to too much power. It's time for the defenders of science to come out with irrefutable arguments blazing, lest we see our schools someday teaching Christianity instead of science.

-- Brian Hinson

Regarding atheist and author Richard Dawkins: Is it possible for one person to win a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize, and a Grammy all in the same year? Because the music of "You can't statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you're still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing" is far, far better than anything Beyonci ever put out.

-- Oliver Griswold


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