The flying spaghetti monster

Why are we here on earth? To Richard Dawkins, that's a remarkably stupid question. In a heated interview, the famous biologist insists that religion is evil and God might as well be a children's fantasy.

Published October 13, 2006 12:15PM (EDT)

In the roiling debate between science and religion, it would be hard to exaggerate the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins. The British scientist is religion's chief prosecutor -- "Darwin's rottweiler," as one magazine called him -- and quite likely the world's most famous atheist. Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, "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."

Not surprisingly, these kinds of comments have made Dawkins a lightning rod in the debate over evolution. While he's a hero to those who can't stomach superstition or irrationality, his efforts to link Darwinism to atheism have upset the scientists and philosophers, like Francis Collins and Michael Ruse, who are trying to bridge the gap between science and religion. Yet, surprisingly, some intelligent design advocates have actually welcomed Dawkins' attacks. William Dembski, for instance, says his inflammatory rhetoric helps the I.D. cause by making evolution sound un-Christian.

Dawkins' outspoken atheism is a relatively recent turn in his public career. He first made his name 30 years ago with his groundbreaking book "The Selfish Gene," which reshaped the field of evolutionary biology by arguing that evolution played out at the level of the gene itself, not the individual animal. Dawkins now holds a chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Thanks to his tremendous talent for clear and graceful writing, he's done more to popularize evolutionary biology than any other scientist, with the possible exception of Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins has a gift for explaining science through brilliant metaphors. Phrases like "the selfish gene" and "the blind watchmaker" didn't only crystallize certain scientific ideas; they entered the English vernacular. And his concept of "memes" -- ideas themselves evolving like genes -- spawned a new way of thinking about cultural evolution.

Dawkins' latest book turns to his more recent passions. In "The God Delusion," Dawkins fulminates against religious moderates as well as fundamentalists. He argues that the existence of God is itself a scientific conjecture, one that doesn't hold up to the evidence. And he dismisses the entire discipline of theology: "I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all."

I spoke with Dawkins by phone in Oxford shortly before he launched his American book tour. We talked about the dangers of unquestioned faith, the politics of the evolution debate, and why atheists are among the most intelligent people in the world.

You've written about going to church as a boy. When did you become an atheist?

I started getting doubts when I was about 9 and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right. And which one I happened to be brought up in was an arbitrary accident. I then sort of went back to religion around the age of 12, and then finally left it at the age of 15 or 16.

Did God and religion just not make sense intellectually? Is that why you turned against religion?

Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.

Why do you call yourself an atheist? Why not an agnostic?

Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

When you're talking about God, are you really talking about the God of the Bible -- Yahweh of the Old Testament?

Well, as it happens, I am because I have an eye to the audience who's likely to be reading my book. Nobody believes in Thor and Apollo anymore so I don't bother to address the book to them. So, in practice, it's addressed to believers in the Abrahamic God.

In your book, you say atheists are widely reviled, especially in the United States: "the status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago." Doesn't it all depend on where you live? I know various cities and academic communities in the U.S. where it would be a lot harder to be an evangelical Christian than an atheist.

Yes, I should have qualified that. As you rightly said, it is highly respectable to be an atheist in Britain and most of Europe. In America too -- of course I should have acknowledged, and I apologize to my American friends -- large parts of America, just about 50 percent of the United States of America, is intelligent and atheistic. Although the figures won't necessarily show that.

It's interesting that you link those two words -- intelligent and atheistic. Are you saying the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist?

There's a fair bit of evidence in favor of that equation, yes.

That sounds like an elitist argument. Do you want to cite that evidence?

It's certainly elitist. What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around. As for citing the evidence, a number of studies have been done. The one meta-analysis of this that I know of was published in Mensa Magazine. It looked at 43 studies on the relationship between educational level or IQ and religion. And in 39 out of 43 -- that's all but four -- there is a correlation between IQ/education and atheism. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Or the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

You are quite upfront about your goal with this book. You are hoping that "religious readers who open it will be atheists by the time they put it down." Do you really think that will happen?

No, I describe that as presumptuous. It's an ambition. I was hoping, in the best of all possible worlds, that would be the consequence of reading my book. I'm too realistic to think that it's going to happen in very many cases.

What is so bad about religion?

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

My sense is that you don't just think religion is dishonest. There's something evil about it as well.

Well, yes. I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York -- all in the name of faith.

But don't you need to distinguish between religious extremists who kill people and moderate, peaceful religious believers?

You certainly need to distinguish them. They are very different. However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith. Now, the faith of these moderate people is in itself harmless. But the idea that faith needs to be respected is instilled into children sitting in rows in their madrasahs in the Muslim world. And they are told these things not by extremists but by decent, moderate teachers and mullahs. But when they grow up, a small minority of them remember what they were told. They remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue. And it only takes a minority to believe what it says in the holy book -- the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran, whatever it is. If you believe it's literally true, then there's scarcely any limit to the evil things you might do.

And yet most moderate religious people are appalled by the apocalyptic thinking of religious extremists.

Of course they're appalled. They're very decent, nice people. But they have no right to be appalled because, in a sense, they brought it on the world by teaching people, especially children, the virtues of unquestioned faith.

Are you saying if parents belong to a particular church, they should not teach their children about that religion?

I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true -- like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.

But isn't much of parenting about teaching values to children? Just as a family of vegetarians will teach their children about the evils of killing animals and eating meat, can't parents who believe in God teach their children the values of a religious upbringing?

Children ask questions. And when a child says, "Why is it wrong to do so and so?" you can perfectly well answer that by saying, "Well, how would you like it if somebody else did that to you?" That's a way of imparting to a child the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by." The world would fall apart if everybody stole things from everybody else, so it's a bad thing to steal. If a child says, "Why can't I eat meat?" then you can say, "Your mother and I believe that it's wrong to eat meat for this, that and the other reason. We are vegetarians. You can decide when you're older whether you want to be a vegetarian or not. But for the moment, you're living in this house, so the food we give you is not meat." That I could see. I think it's child abuse not to let the child have the free choice of knowing there are other people who believe something quite different and the child could make its own choice.

Now, there are an awful lot of people who call themselves religious -- or some people prefer to use the word "spiritual" -- even though they don't go to church. They aren't part of any organized religion. They don't believe in a personal God. Some don't even like the word "God" because there's so much baggage attached to that word. But they still have some powerful feeling that there is a transcendent reality. And they often engage in some spiritual practice in their own lives. Would you call these people "religious"?

That's a difficult question. I probably would call them religious. It depends on exactly what they do believe. The first chapter of "The God Delusion" talks about Einstein, who often used the word "God." Einstein clearly was an atheist in the sense that he didn't believe in any sort of personal God. He used the word "God" as a metaphoric name for that which we don't yet understand, for the deep mysteries at the foundation of the universe.

But I think most people would call Einstein a deist. He suggested that God may have created the laws of nature, the laws of physics, to get the universe started.

Some people have maintained that position. My judgment, reading what Einstein said, is that he was not a deist. He certainly believed in some sort of deep mystery, as do I. And it is possible to use the word "religious" to describe such a person. On that basis, one could even say that I am a religious person or Carl Sagan was a religious person. But for me, the divide comes with whether you believe there is some kind of a supernatural, personal being. And I think deists, as well as theists, believe that. By that criterion, I don't think Einstein was a deist. He certainly wasn't a theist, although the language he used might lead you to think he was. I think it's misleading to use a word like "God" in the way Einstein did. I'm sorry that Einstein did. I think he was asking for trouble, and he certainly was misunderstood.

Your definition of religious belief seems to involve a personal being. I think a lot of people would disagree. They may consider themselves strongly religious, but they would regard the whole idea of a personal God to be an outdated notion of what religion is.

Well, then I would want to know what they did mean by it. I would take my stand on whether the god or the being -- whatever we're talking about -- is complicated and improbable and has those attributes of a person -- intelligence, creativity, something of that sort. If you believe that the universe was created by a designing intelligence, whether you call that personal or not, that seems to me to be a good definition of God. That's what I don't believe in. And that's what Einstein did not believe in.

Once you get past the biblical literalists, I think most people assume that science and religion are actually quite compatible. Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that they were "non-overlapping magisteria": Science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the observable universe, and religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value. But you're very critical of this argument, right?

Yes, I think religious belief is a scientific belief, in the sense that it makes claims about the universe which are essentially scientific claims. If you believe the universe was created and inhabited by a supreme being, that would be a very different kind of universe from the sort of universe that wasn't created and does not house a creative intelligence. That is a scientific difference. Miracles. If you believe in miracles, that is clearly a scientific claim, and scientific methods would be used to evaluate any miracle that somebody claimed evidence for.

Suppose, hypothetically, that forensic archaeologists, in an unlikely series of events, gained evidence -- perhaps from some discovered DNA -- which showed that Jesus did not really have an earthly father, that he really was born of a virgin. Can you imagine any theologian taking refuge behind Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria and saying, "Nope, DNA evidence is completely irrelevant. Wrong magisterium. Science and religion have nothing to do with each other. They just peacefully coexist." Of course they wouldn't say that. If any such evidence were discovered, the DNA evidence would be trumpeted to the skies.

What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions?

I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion -- supernatural religion -- would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

But it seems to me the big "why" questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?

It's not a question that deserves an answer.

Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.

If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

I don't understand that. Doesn't every person wonder about that? Isn't that a core question, what are we doing in this world? Doesn't everyone struggle with that?

There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't -- even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer -- what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?

At one point in your book, you say you don't like confrontation. That will surprise a lot of people because you have become the lightning rod in the science and religion wars. Why do you think you evoke such powerful reactions?

Well, I don't relish confrontation for its own sake. I don't spoil for a fight. I'd much rather have an amicable discussion. But I am a professional academic, and professional academics are used to arguing about all sorts of things. And we argue in a robust way, bringing forth evidence where we can and using our skills of argument to use that evidence. So I may come across as passionate. But that doesn't mean I go out of my way to have confrontations in an aggressive way. I don't.

I have to ask you about a letter that I've come across from the intelligent design advocate William Dembski. He thanked you for your outspoken atheism. His letter to you said, "I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent design movement. So, please, keep at it!" What do you make of that?

Yeah, I get that quite a lot. It is a very difficult political dilemma that we face. In the United States of America at the moment, there's a big battle going on, educationally, over teaching evolution in public schools. Science is definitely under attack. And evolution is in the front-line trench of that battle. So a science defense lobby has sprung up, which in practice largely means an evolution defense lobby. Now, it is true that if you want to win a court case in the United States where it's specifically on the narrow issue of should evolution be taught in the public schools, if somebody like me is called as a witness and the lawyer for the other side says, "Professor Dawkins, is it true that you were led to atheism through the study of Darwinian evolution?" I would have to answer, "Yes." That of course plays into their hands because any jury is likely to have been brought up to believe that atheists are the devil incarnate. And therefore, if Darwin leads to atheism, then obviously we've got to throw out Darwinism. Well, that is exactly what Dembski is getting at. He claims to like the things that I say because I am playing into his hands by allowing people like him to make the equation between Darwinism and atheism.

But it's not just Dembski. I've heard this from various scientists -- hardcore evolutionists -- who wish you would tone down your rhetoric, quite frankly.

That is absolutely true.

They say this hurts the cause of teaching evolution. It just gives fire to the creationists.

Exactly right. And they could be right, in a political sense. It depends on whether you think the real war is over the teaching of evolution, as they do, or whether, as I do, think the real war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, between science and religion. If you think the war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, then the war over the teaching of evolution is just one skirmish, just one battle, in the war. So what the scientists you've been talking to are asking me to do is to shut my mouth. Because for the sake of what I see as the war, I'm in danger of losing this particular battle. And that's a worthwhile political point for them to make.

Well, I think a lot of these scientists really do accept Stephen Jay Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria. These are hardcore evolutionists, but they say religion is an entirely different realm. So you, with your inflammatory rhetoric, just muddy the waters and make life more difficult for them.

That is exactly what they say. And I believe that actually is the political reason for Steve Gould to put forward the non-overlapping magisteria in the first place. I think it's nonsense. And I'll continue to say that I think it's nonsense. But I can easily see, politically, why he said that and why other scientists follow it. The politics is very straightforward. The science lobby, which is very important in the United States, wants those sensible religious people -- the theologians, the bishops, the clergymen who believe in evolution -- on their side. And the way to get those sensible religious people on your side is to say there is no conflict between science and religion. We all believe in evolution, whether we're religious or not. Therefore, because we need to get the mainstream orthodox religious people on our side, we've got to concede to them their fundamental belief in God, thereby -- in my view -- losing the war in order to win the battle for evolution. If you're prepared to compromise the war for the sake of the battle, then it's a sensible political strategy.

Throughout the ages, one has resorted to that kind of political compromise. And maybe it would be a good thing for me to do as well. But as it happens, I think the war is more important. I actually do care about the existence of a supreme being. And therefore, I don't think I should say something which I believe to be false, which is that the question of whether God exists is a non-scientific question, and science and religion have no contact with each other, so we can all get along cozily and keep out those lunatic creationists.

Let's stay with the battle over evolution for a moment. Why do you think Darwinian evolution leads logically to atheism?

Well, I'm not sure it's a logical thing. I call it consciousness raising. I think the most powerful reason for believing in a supreme being is the argument for design. Living things in particular look complicated, look beautiful, look elegant, look as though they've been designed. We are all accustomed to thinking that if something looks designed, it is designed. Therefore, it's really no wonder that before Darwin came along, just about everybody was a theist. Darwin blew that argument out of the water. We now have a much more elegant and parsimonious explanation for the existence of life.

So the big reason for believing in God used to be the argument for biological design. Darwin destroyed that argument. He didn't destroy the parallel argument from cosmology: Where did the universe come from? Where did the laws of physics come from? But he raised our consciousness to the power of science to explain things. And he made it unsafe for anyone in the future to resort automatically and uncritically to a designer just because they don't immediately have an explanation for something. So when people say, "I can't see how the universe could have come into being without God," be very careful because you've had your fingers burned before over biology. That's the consciousness-raising sense in which, I think, Darwinism leads to atheism.

I want to turn to what you would call "the real war" -- the war between supernaturalism and naturalism. A lot of religious people call you a reductionist and a materialist. They say you want to boil everything down to what can be measured and experimentally tested. "If you can't measure it, if you can't test it, it's not real."

The words "reductionist" and "materialist" are loaded. They have a negative connotation to many people. I'm a reductionist and a materialist in a much grander sense. When we try to explain the workings of something really complicated, like a human brain, we can be reductionist in the sense that we believe that the brain's behavior is to be explained by neurons and the behavior of neurons is to be explained by molecules within the neurons, etc. Similarly, computers. They're made of integrated circuits. They're nothing but a whole lot of ones and naughts shuffling about. That's reductive in the sense that it seems to leave a lot unexplained. There is nothing else in computers apart from integrated circuits and resistors and transistors. Nevertheless, it's a highly sophisticated explanation for understanding how the computer does the remarkably complicated things it does. So don't use the word "reductive" in a sort of reducing sense. And ditto with "materialist."

But this seems to discount personal experience. It discounts the mystical experiences that people talk about -- that oneness with something larger. Are some of these things just beyond the explanatory power of science?

As I've said, the brain is highly complicated. And one thing it does is construct remarkable software illusions and hallucinations. Every night of our lives, we dream and our brain concocts visions which are, at least until we wake up, highly convincing. Most of us have had experiences which are verging on hallucination. It shows the power of the brain to knock up illusions. If you're sufficiently susceptible and sufficiently indoctrinated in the folklore of a particular religion, it's not in the least surprising that people would hallucinate visions and still small voices. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it happened to me.

It seems to me this is actually one of the key questions in the whole religion and science debate. What do you do with consciousness? I mean, do you really think the mind is totally reducible to neural networks and the electro-chemical surges in the brain? Or might there be something else that goes beyond the physical mechanics of the brain?

Well, once again, let's not use the word "reducible" in a negative way. The sheer number of neurons in the brain, and the complication of the connections between the neurons, is such that one doesn't want to use the word "reducible" in any kind of negative way. Consciousness is the biggest puzzle facing biology, neurobiology, computational studies and evolutionary biology. It is a very, very big problem. I don't know the answer. Nobody knows the answer. I think one day they probably will know the answer. But even if science doesn't know the answer, I return to the question, what on earth makes you think that religion will? Just because science so far has failed to explain something, such as consciousness, to say it follows that the facile, pathetic explanations which religion has produced somehow by default must win the argument is really quite ridiculous. Nobody has an explanation for consciousness. That should be a spur to work harder and try to understand it. Not to give up and just say, "Oh well, it must be a soul." That doesn't mean anything. It doesn't explain anything. You've said absolutely nothing when you've said that.

A lot of what we're talking about comes down to whether science has certain limits. The basic religious critique of your position is that science can only explain so much. And that's where mystery comes in. That's where consciousness comes in.

There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on, we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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