Richard Dawkins: Can we live in a world without religion?
We speak to Richard Dawkins, the leading voice on evolution and atheism, about how he lost his faith and found a new community with science.
Richard Dawkins is considered one of the top British intellectuals of the 21st Century. He’s known for his opinions on atheism and his books on evolution. In his most recent book, Outgrowing God, he talks about his own experience with religion, and how science offers us a far more convincing and concrete view of the world we live in.
We sat down with Richard to discuss his views on faith, flat-earthers and Facebook.
Let us know what you think of the episode with a review or a comment wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
- Is religion compatible with science? – John Lennox
- Does data discriminate against women? – Caroline Criado Perez
- What does a world with an ageing population look like? – Sarah Harper
- Are Generation Z our only hope for the future? – John Higgs
- Is racism creeping into science? – Angela Saini
- How can we save our planet? – Sir David Attenborough
Thirteen years ago you published The God Delusion. What were you hoping to achieve with your new book, Outgrowing God?
I actually wanted it to be a children’s book, but the publishers weren’t keen so they pushed up the age scale of it. I think of it as a book for young people, but I would hope that anybody could read it.
I’ve been aware that some people have asked for an easier version of The God Delusion. It isn’t that. I think it’s a bit easier, the language is a bit easier, but it doesn’t really overlap much. It’s not The God Delusion-lite – the chapters are about different things. Though I hope it is light.
Why do you think we want to believe in the spiritual?
A lot of it, I think, is people just don’t know better. In many cases, they simply don’t understand evolution. They think it’s the theory of chance. If you think it’s a theory of chance, then obviously it [evolution] can’t work. Only a fool would think you could put together the eye by chance.
I suppose there’s a strong allure to religion. People want to believe; perhaps they’re frightened of dying or perhaps they want to be united with their loved ones after they die and so on.
There’s a motivation towards religion from that point of view, and therefore people are eager, in a way, to be seduced by the ‘design by watchmaker’ argument.
The watchmaker analogy is one you’ve argued against before. Can you explain it for us?
It originates from William Paley [an English clergyman and philosopher, born in 1743].
He says that if you were walking along and you found a stone, the stone doesn’t require explanation – it’s much like any other stone. But if you find a watch and you open it up, you’ll see all the cogwheels and the screws and the springs. Obviously, someone had to make it. It had to have a designer, a watchmaker. Paley said, reasonably enough for his time, that living things must have a watchmaker as well. There must be a divine designer.
That was a difficult argument to refute, and when Charles Darwin was an undergraduate, he fell for it. He thought it was wonderful. But of course, we now know that later on Darwin provided the total refutation of it. I think it always was rather a bad argument, but nevertheless, in the 18th Century nobody thought of an alternative. So they stuck with it.
How did Darwinism refute the watchmaker analogy?
Well, living watches – things like eyes and hearts and kidneys – are put together by the slow, gradual, step-by-step process of natural selection. It’s a very, very different process from the way a watch is made.
A watch is designed on a drawing board, and put together by an intelligent watchmaker, all in one go. Whereas living things are put together over millions of years – or even billions of years if you start from the beginning – by a process which achieves remarkably watch-like results.
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Results that look exactly as though they have been designed, but not quite, because in some respects, it’s bad design. It’s design that you wouldn’t do if you were a human watchmaker. Things like the eye, for example, with the retina being backwards.
That’s what you get when you get design by natural selection. You get bad design, because it has its history written all over it.
We seem to be seeing a rise in the number of people who are ‘anti-experts’, rejecting things like vaccines, the moon landings and climate change. Why do you think that is?
It’s mysterious, because the evidence for the Moon landing is utterly overwhelming. We’ve even got flat-Earthers on the rise at the moment. The evidence for the Earth being round is so utterly incontrovertible – you have to wonder, what’s going on here?
I suppose one explanation for flat-Earthism is a kind of fellowship. People who perhaps have been a bit of a misfit in their life find a group of people who are also misfits, and they like to club together, and the internet provides the club room where you can meet people who have dotty ideas like you.
With the anti-vaxxers … there is widespread hostility to big pharmaceutical companies, and with some good reason actually. It would be easy enough, if you are heavily committed to criticising Big Pharma, to think that being an anti-vaxxer is a part of that. What we want is for people to think critically and clearly about each individual case and not lump things together if they’re not really lumpable.
BiographyRichard Dawkins is a renowned evolutionary biologist and science writer who was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1941. He studied zoology at the University of Oxford, and went on to achieve master’s and doctorate degrees in the same subject.
Richard rose to prominence after the publication of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. Since then he has written more than a dozen science books, on top of numerous articles and journal papers, and was Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University from 1995 to 2008. He famously appeared as a devil in an episode of The Simpsons.
The community that you talk about, the sort that flat-earthers form. It’s almost similar to religion…
I think it is. Not in every respect. It’s not supernatural. So, once again, we mustn’t lump things together too much, but there’s a certain amount in common where it’s worth making the comparison.
For that reason – because it’s such a community – could we never live in a world without religion?
If it’s really true that people need the sort of fellowship that religion gives them, then it should be possible to find it in different ways, and I think a love of science goes a long way; you can join other people with that.
Or you can just say, well, truth actually matters. And truth is more important than fellowship, than belonging to a community of like-minded people.
I think a lot of people immediately jump into a feeling of ‘how does that square with my group? My people? My club?’ If we’re left-wing, we think that everything’s got to fit in with that; if we’re right-wing, everything’s got to fit in with that.
I would hope that people could learn to judge each truth-claim on its merits and not judge it whether it somehow fits in with their prior prejudices.
A lot of your books aim to start a conversation, don’t they?
Very much so, yes. They do.
With Outgrowing God, were you hoping to provide people with a knowledge that allows them to step outside of their comfort zone of religion?
Yes. Well, if it’s a comfort zone, then I don’t apologise for destroying it if I do destroy it. I mean, I do actually think truth is ultimately the most important thing.
Having said that, I definitely think that you can find a much better comfort zone than religion. I don’t just mean destroying comfort zones for its own sake. I hope that science will provide a much better comfort zone.
It’s such a privilege to live in the 21st Century when we do know so much. There’s a lot we don’t know. But, compared to our ancestors, we are hugely privileged to know how old the Universe is. To know where we come from. To know we’re a product of evolution. To know about the chemical elements that we’re made of.
It’s just a wonderful, wonderful privilege, and I think it’s such a shame to deny children that privilege, which I fear is what so much of religion does.
So, the real reason why I’m opposed to religion is that it stunts the understanding by children, and by anybody really, of the wonderful world, the wonderful Universe in which we live.
Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins is out now (£14.99, Bantam Press)
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.