Former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford (until 2008) and Honorary Vice-President of Humanists UK, born 1941. His published works include The Selfish Gene , Unweaving the Rainbow , Climbing Mount Improbable, The Devil’s Chaplain and The God Delusion.
“I care passionately about the truth because it’s a beautiful thing and enables us to live a better life.”
A supporter of the Darwin Day campaign to honour Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins is Honorary Chair of the BHA Darwin Day lecture series, which he has chaired since the second lecture in 2004. He also chaired a session of the 2001 Humanist Philosophers’ Conference “Is Nothing Sacred?” (buy the book based on the conference here) and extracts from his The Alabama Insert appear in the Humanist Philosophers’ “Countering Creationism“. He was one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and also sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. In July 2009 he joined other eminent scientists and educators in calling for vital changes to the proposed science curriculum for primary schools in England in a letter to Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. He is also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association.
Richard Dawkins is well respected by humanists for his brilliant and accessible writing on science and evolution and for his consistent and courageous defence of truth, science and scientific method against superstition and unreason. He has said, “I care passionately about the truth because it’s a beautiful thing and enables us to live a better life.” (Daily Mail, November 1996). In The God Delusion (Sept 2006, buy it here), he presents a typically hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types, denouncing its faulty logic and the suffering it causes. In March 2007 he was named “Reader’s Digest Author of the Year” for the The God Delusion. “It is immensely gratifying to me that The God Delusion seems to have struck a chord with so many people across the country who cast their vote in its favour,” he said. In May 2007 the USA magazine Time included him in its 100 most influential people of the year, and an August 2007 survey of MPs’ summer reading habits found The God Delusion a must-read for Labour MPs (see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2204223.ece).
Though he has been criticised by opponents as a dogmatically anti-religious “bleak materialist”, his books belie that description and reveal his awe and wonder at the beauty and intricacies of the natural world:
“Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun,” he wrote in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998, buy it here), “to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked – as I am surprisingly often – why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”
He has also consistently opposed the existence and expansion of faith schools, arguing that it is an abuse of children’s rights to label them as Muslim, Christian, atheist etc until they have had the opportunity to think about these things and choose for themselves, or to submit them to the anti-scientific ideas of creationists, for example, in an article in the TES (Feb 23 2001) and “Creationism is Bad Science and Bad Theology” in The Times, co-authored with the then Bishop of Oxford. He was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who in March 2002 signed a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, deploring the teaching of Creationism in schools.
If you buy any of his books at Amazon.co.uk through this link a small commission will go to Humanists UK.
– “Richard Dawkins slaps creationists into the primordial soup”, The Times, July 19, 2008
– read about his August 2008 TV series on Charles Darwin and listen to a podcast at
– the official Richard Dawkins website and his Foundation for Reason and Science at www.richarddawkins.net
– The World of Richard Dawkins, an excellent “unofficial” collection of Dawkins’ writings and articles, recommended by Dawkins himself
– Richard Dawkins on Humanism etc on YouTube
– his section on the CD-ROM Living without God
– his historic “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4
– “Who’s afraid of the Frankenstein wolf?”
– Richard Dawkins talking on Meet the Author
– the first ever Richard Dawkins award
– His 1992 Voltaire Lecture “Viruses of the Mind”.
– the 2002 interview below.
Richard Dawkins talking to Humanist News in Autumn 2002
What early influences led you to study science and to the perspective you have on religion?
My father read botany at Oxford, and had a scientific attitude, which rubbed off on me. I more or less drifted into the biological stream in the 6th form, but was more interested in the philosophical aspects of science, in particular evolution. What was important about evolution was that it explained our existence and everything about our existence, and I suppose you could say that that impinges upon the same territory that religion does.My negativity towards religion began when I was quite a young child, but I finally lost my religious beliefs at the age of about sixteen, once I understood the full power of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for all of living complexity.
At the 2001 Humanist Philosophers’ Group conference you said you believed we should be less tolerant of religion – could you expand upon that?
This was in a special context – the aftermath of the September 11 atrocity – when there was a great outpouring of religious feeling both from Muslims and Christians, and we had endured, on television, the sight of everybody in the United States gathering together under God. What I was suggesting was that we should stop being so automatically respectful to religion, just because it is religion. I think we should be tolerant of anybody’s views so long as they stick to argument and don’t start saying it with violent action – then I think we should be intolerant – but I also think that we should argue and discuss our differences. What I was objecting to was the peculiarly privileged position that religion seems to hold, that you’re free to attack someone’s political views but if you attack somebody’s religious views that is taboo. What I think I actually said was let’s be less respectful, or less automatically respectful, of somebody’s view just because it’s a religious view, let’s treat somebody’s religious views exactly the same way we treat their political views. If somebody says they’re a Communist or a high Tory, and we wish to attack the fact that they’re a high Tory or a Communist we don’t feel any inhibition against doing so. But we do feel inhibition against attacking their religious views, and we shouldn’t.
What do you think of the argument that religion is one of the most complex and impressive cultural forms to have evolved. Do you see any sort of evolutionary payoff that that explains religion has survived so long?
Well it is certainly complex, and if complexity impresses you it is also impressive. But it doesn’t have to impress you in any other respect. As for whether it has some kind of evolutionary benefit, that’s an interesting question. A Darwinian faced with something which is ubiquitous in a species naturally starts to wonder, what is the Darwinian survival value of that thing , and so the fact that religion is universal in all cultures – not in all individuals but in all cultures – should lead us to ask that question. And I think there’s got to be, in some sense, an evolutionary advantage – although not necessarily to religion itself. We need to rephrase that question, as we often need to rephrase questions about Darwinian survival value. The question should be, “What is the Darwinian survival value of having the kind of brain which manifests itself in religion under some circumstances?” – under some cultural circumstances, in this case. A helpful analogy is moths flying into candle flames. It’s tempting to ask what is the survival value of suicidal behaviour in moths, but that’s the wrong question. Instead what we should ask is, “What’s the survival value of having the kind of brain which, when there are candles about, causes moths to fly into them?” Now in the wild state, when the moth’s brain was being naturally selected for, there weren’t any candles, and if you saw a bright light in the middle of the night it pretty well had to be a celestial object. It could be a firefly or something like that, but it was most likely to be the moon or a star, or, in a day-flying insect, the sun. At optical infinity, when light rays are travelling in parallel, those rays provide an excellent compass. And it’s well known that insects use light rays as a compass. They maintain a fixed angle, let’s say 30 degrees, to a source of light. Well, if you maintain a 30 degree angle to the moon’s rays, that’s fine, you go in a straight line. But if you maintain a 30 degree angle to a candle’s rays, you’ll describe a neat logarithmic spiral straight into the candle and burn. So, now we have rephrased the question. The question is not, “What is the survival value of killing yourself, if you’re a moth?” the question has become, “What’s the survival value of maintaining a fixed angle relative to light rays?” And now we’ve got a sensible answer. In the case of the candle it’s just a mistake.Well now, what’s the equivalent of the candle flame explanation in the case of religion. I think it might be the following.
Children need to believe everything their parents tell them. On average, the rule of thumb, believe what your parents tell you, is a good rule of thumb for a child, because in a world in which wild humans lived, children could not afford to learn for themselves what to do, and what not to do. You can’t learn from experience not to bathe in the river because there might be crocodiles, you have to believe your parents who say it’s dangerous to bathe in the river. You can’t be programmed in advance with all necessary knowledge, but the rule of thumb is programming in advance that is designed to cope with whatever knowledge, whatever information, whatever statements your parents give you. And that kind of programming is automatically vulnerable to parasitic information, to mental viruses.So a brain which is designed to believe statements like “Don’t bathe in the river because of the crocodiles!” can’t help believing information like “Sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon to appease the gods.” How can the child tell the difference between those two? Bathing in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles, if you don’t sacrifice a goat the gods will get you. It’s the equivalent to the moth and the candle flame argument. Given that children have that kind of brain, it’s almost inevitable that they will pick up some false information along with the true information. And once that false information has been picked up and believed, there’s no reason it can’t be passed on to the next generation and therefore the next and the next, and so what you would expect to find, and do find, is that beliefs like “sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon” are passed down from generation to generation. The beliefs themselves are always different in different areas, as you would also expect. It is entirely arbitrary what that information is, the point is you believe it because you’ve been told it by strong authority, and you pass it onto your children with equally strong authority, and so on.
What do you consider to be the most dangerous thing about religion?
Well, it teaches people to believe very strongly in things for which there is no evidence – on grounds of authority, or internal revelation, or just plain faith, just plain stubborn belief because we believe it. Such strong beliefs, not being evidence-based, inevitably can be different and contradictory to the beliefs of other people, which can lead to lethal conflict, as we see all the time, and are seeing at the moment. Religion teaches you to be satisfied with non-explanations for things as though they were explanations and, in some cases even, that belief without evidence is a positive virtue. It stifles the sort of investigative approach to the world which I think is an unequivocally good thing and which has led to most of the progress which humanity has made. I think that religion is actively subversive of genuine education, that it actually is inimical to true education.
You have said that there is something of value in a non-religious notion of the “sacred” – could you say more on this?
Yes, I think that defining “sacred” in the very broad sense of “being awed by the universe” is very positive for the scientific investigative approach to the universe. I told a story about Schumaker. Schumaker was a great geologist who had wanted to be an astronaut and go to the Moon but who, for reasons of health, couldn’t go. Instead, he spent his life training astronauts and conducting geological research on the specimens they brought back, and he gave the Schumaker-Levy comet its name. When he died, his former pupil Carolyn Porco, also a planetary physicist, lobbied NASA to send Schumaker’s ashes to the Moon, which they did, with a plaque which she had written with a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“And, when he shall die ,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
They are lovely lines, spoken by Juliet of Romeo. Well, that’s a nice example of secular spirituality, and it was just the same feeling that motivated me when two very dear colleagues died during the last couple of years. I gave eulogies at their funerals where I tried to evoke something of the spirit of these men. In both cases I came close to tears myself. It’s a kind of sentimental regard for a dead person, but it is a very real emotion; and the fact that I don’t believe the dead person exists anymore, or is in a position to hear my words, does not detract from it. I’m not only doing it for the relatives and friends. I’m not quite sure why I’m doing it – perhaps partly for myself. I feel a sense of the sacred, of that kind, although I certainly don’t believe that the spirit of those men is still alive in any sense except in their works, their books, and the memories of those of us who remember them.I do actually rather strongly resent the tendency of some religious people to think that because you’ re an atheist, therefore you can’t have emotions or you can’t cry over a dead person. The capacity to enjoy poetry, to enjoy music, to be moved to tears by both, has nothing whatever to do with religious belief. I frequently weep reading poetry, especially when listening to my wife because she reads it very beautifully. This is something human, which I can’t say all of us have, but many of us have, whether or not we are religious.
I occasionally receive letters from people on this kind of thing, and now I send them the opening pages from Unweaving the Rainbow, which begins, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they ‘ re never going to be born.” It goes on from there to say how fantastically lucky we are to be here at all, and the fact that we’re only going to be here for a few decades doesn’t in any way detract. The string of lucky accidents which leads to you and me being here is so gigantic that we should stop whingeing about the fact that it’s temporary, and get on with enjoying it while we can, and help other people to enjoy it as well.
Your writing has focused on making science accessible to the general public, but many of your ideas have met with hostility, particularly the views you expressed in The Selfish Gene. To what extent do you feel your views have been misrepresented?
There are people who have read The Selfish Gene by title only. In extreme cases they think that I’m advocating selfishness, and in less extreme cases they think, which is also wrong, that I am saying that we are as a matter of fact selfish. But what I am saying is that genes are selfish, which is a different matter. Genes obviously aren’t selfish in the sense of being conscious little beings, they’re just molecules so they can’t be selfish in a conscious sense. The special sense in which they are selfish implies that they will not necessarily make us selfish in the course of looking after their own welfare in the Darwinian sense. They can equally well make us altruistic, in fact one of the main purposes of The Selfish Gene is to explain altruistic behaviour in individuals, in terms of “selfish” behaviour in genes.I do think the ‘nature/nurture’ debate is a bit of a red herring. From a Darwinian point of view we have a fundamental explanation for everything in life in terms of selfish genes, but they can produce altruistic behaviour either through nature or learning, because learning is ultimately under the control of genes anyway. So the behaviour that you actually see an animal doing may well be learned, but it’s still properly interpreted in Darwinian terms as serving the ultimate selfish needs of genes. I wouldn’t get into nature or nurture at all. What I would get into is whether human altruism is forever confined to the sort of “selfishness in disguise” which Darwinism can explain, and whether it’s learned or innate. The two main ways in which Darwinism can explain individual altruism is through kin effects and reciprocation effects. But both of those could be regarded as a kind of selfishness in disguise.
When we switch from thinking like a Darwinian to thinking like an introspective psychologist, and say to ourselves, “When I as an individual, subjectively, see somebody, some creature, suffering, and feel really upset about it and want to go and stop them suffering, put an arm round them, console them, what’s going on there?” In a way it’s just another aspect of the general mystery of subjective consciousness. For example, we understand at a Darwinian level why we feel pain; pain is useful because you learn not to repeat the things that happened before the pain. But that doesn’t explain why it has to be so damned painful. why it has to feel, subjectively, so awful. And similarly I feel as a Darwinian a bit mystified by my own subjective…well… niceness. I think we’re too nice.I think perhaps we’ve got to do our Darwinism in a more sophisticated way, just as we did with the moth and the candle flame. We can make a start at doing that – and this is still on a very naive level – by saying kin selection and reciprocation are good Darwinian explanations: the mathematics works, everything works. You have to think back, just as with the moths before candles were invented, to a time before we had culture, before we had the big societies and big cities we’ve got now. How did we live?Well we lived in small villages and roving bands, like baboons. Now in those small bands or villages, everybody you meet is likely to be a cousin, or closer, and everybody that you meet you are likely to meet again and again throughout your life. Both are perfect recipes for altruism of both kinds – kinship and reciprocation. Natural selection does not build into nervous systems a cognitive understanding of why they do the things they do. What it builds in is a “rule of thumb”. The rule of thumb that would be built in, in a species that lives in small villages and small bands, is “Be nice to everybody you know!” or, rather, “Be nice to everybody that you meet!” because everybody that you meet is, in that situation, kin or somebody you’re going to meet again. Now what happens when, just as we picked up the moths and put them in a modern world where there are candles instead of just stars and the Moon, we pick up humans and put them in a modern world where we no longer live in villages or small roving bands but in huge cities? The rule of thumb goes on, and the rule of thumb is, you remember, be nice to everybody that you meet. Everybody you meet now is no longer kin, everybody you meet is no longer somebody that you are going to meet again, it’s millions of people. But the rule of thumb continues to operate. So what natural selection has equipped us with is a kind of emotional rule of thumb, which is to feel pity towards somebody who is suffering. That worked originally because somebody who was suffering would be a relative, or somebody who could pay you back with a good turn later. But the emotion of pity hangs on, even in a modern world where from a Darwinian point of view it’s inappropriate.
In the same way we have sexual desires for good Darwinian reasons, even though now we have contraceptives which mean that from a Darwinian point of view copulating is completely pointless and a waste of time. But we still have strong lusts, because it’s the lust and the emotions that go with the lust, which were built into our brains at a time in which they would have had beneficial Darwinian consequences; and now that they no longer do we still have the desires and the emotional superstructure of love that goes with them.
And I think you could say the same of altruism, when we feel this overwhelming sense of pity towards someone suffering, or vicarious pleasure in somebody else’s pleasure even though they’re not our own relative or someone we even know. You give money to Oxfam for the same kind of reason you feel sexual desire even though you are using a contraceptive.
There’s some fascinating work on bees, and in some species of bee the probability of being admitted by the sentinels is directly proportional to the coefficient of relatedness, which is remarkable. We can use a similar explanation to account for xenophobia (racism), and the hatred of others whether they are of a different colour or indeed a different religion – another of the evils of religion is that it acts as a badge that identifies what is “other” as opposed to what is “us”.If you look at what’s going on in Northern Ireland, for example, one gets into trouble if one says that the conflict in Northern Ireland is about religion, people argue, “No, it’s not religion, it’s all about politics, it’s all about economic deprivation and the unfairness of things” and of course it is, but if you ask how do they know who’s “us” and who’s “them”, how do they know who’s the one who’s been oppressing them economically over centuries, how do they identify that WE have been oppressed by THEM over the centuries, it turns out that religion is the only label. If they were different in colour as in South Africa , or if they were different in language as in Belgium, then that would be the badge. But in Northern Ireland they’re the same colour,they speak the same language. Religion is the main candidate for a badge to identify us versus them.
As an evolutionist I would say the same about where our moral senses come from as I’ve just said about altruism. But I’m not sure that science has much to say about deciding what’s right and what’s wrong in particular cases, and I don’t think religion ought to have anything to say about it either although of course it does. I think that there is no doubt that any one society at any one time in history has had a fairly tightly circumscribed range of things that are regarded as moral. Today, most people would agree that slavery’s wrong, oppression of women is wrong, oppression of anybody because of their colour is wrong, stealing is wrong, murder is wrong. Many of those things would not have been true in earlier centuries, though you would have found plenty of people who thought slavery wasn’t wrong, plenty of people who automatically thought women should be oppressed, plenty of people who thought that killing was virtuous and proved your manhood. And no doubt you’ll find that today in different societies.So there’s great potential variation in the width of the envelope that humans regard as moral, if you take humans in all places and in all times. But if you take any particular society, like modern Britain or, I expect, modern Afghanistan, you’ll find that although the ideas on what’s moral may be different between the different places, it’s relatively narrow within these places, which suggests that some social force has been at work homogenising the moral views of a particular society in a particular place in a particular time. You could ask, “Is that religion?” but I think that if it were religion we’d expect to find some strong correlation between that moral consensus and, for example, what’s written down in holy books, and we don’t. I mean that if you take the holy books literally we should all be stoning adulterers to death and that kind of thing, but we don’t. Holy books don’t move on, but the consensus I’m talking about does move on.So we’re left asking the question, what is that consensus about? It’s not about religion so what is it about? And I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. It’s about the debates that people have in Parliament, it’s about lawyers arguing cases in court and precedents being set; gradually, as the centuries go by, the verdicts that courts come to move in a systematic direction towards becoming more liberal. Homosexuality used to be illegal and it no longer is. There are lots of other things like that. So there’s a kind of secular process going on in society which gradually moves morality on.
Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about human nature?
Well, sometimes optimistic and sometimes pessimistic. I mean I feel very optimistic when I talk to educated intelligent people, and baffled when I see scenes on television of people dancing around in the streets burning flags. I think that there’s enormous variation but we need to find a way – and I suppose the way would have to be education in a broad sense – of increasing the number of people who fall into the intelligent educated category and not into the savage ignorant category.And just dinner table conversation has something to do with it, just the ordinary conversations of people like you and me when we meet. Nowadays we take certain things for granted, which our great grandfathers would not have taken for granted, or would have taken differently. In mid-Victorian times it would have been taken for granted for example that black people were inferior to white people. Everybody thought that. Nowadays very few people think that. So I think this is a genuinely interesting question. I don’t have a fully framed answer to what makes our morality but I’m pretty sure it’s not religion. At present Parliament’s trying to decide whether to allow cloning of human embryos, and whether we want to live in the sort of society where human embryos are cloned. I have no doubt at all that in centuries to come it will be taken for granted, but just at the moment we are at the stage where a mysterious consensus is developing because of people having these conversations. And what lurks behind this is a desire to shape the kind of world, the kind of society, in which we live.
What are your hopes and concerns for the future?
I hope that education, particularly rational education and scientific education, advances and spreads through the world and through each society in each country, but not at the expense of literary and artistic education, far from it, I’m all for that as well. I would like to see, unequivocally, a decline in the influence of religion, I think it is a great evil. I think it makes for an enormous amount of unhappiness, and the world would unquestionably be a better place without it. I’m not optimistic that that will happen in the short term; however if you look at the statistics, in educated parts of the world such as Western Europe and even in America which as we know is enormously more religious than Western Europe, nevertheless the trend even in America is towards more and more people becoming non-religious. If you look within the social strata in any of those countries you’ll find that more educated people are more likely to be non-religious, which seems to me to be a revealing thing as well as a good sign. So I suppose I’m cautiously optimistic but I think it will take a long time.
Although we’ve concentrated on things I’m interested in that apply to religion and surrounding subjects, my main work and interest is science, and my books are all about science, and science is my first love, and I sort of regard religion as an annoying distraction that one has to pay attention to because it is so enormously influential. But I look forward to a time when we don’t have to bother with it any more and can concentrate on doing something more worthwhile which in my case is science, in other people’s cases is literature or music or gardening or whatever else it might be.
- Viruses of the Mind (12 Nov 2007, PDF 218 Kb)