JOE PALCA, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca, in for Ira Flatow.

To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine a world with no religion. Would it be a better place? Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins thinks so. In his new book, Dawkins lays out the case for atheism and against religion.

Of course, without religion there would be no Crusades, no Salem witch hunts, no Jihadists, no televangelists, and frankly Dawkins says that's a good thing. His book argues against the existence of God, and he writes if this book works for you, you will be an atheist when you put it down.

Well, this is - if this doesn't get people fired up, I'm not sure which topic we do on SCIENCE FRIDAY is. But I think that Dr. Dawkins has thrown down the gauntlet here, and I have a feeling some people will be happy to try to pick it up. But in any case, you're welcome to do so. The number is - maybe I didn't use the right expression, but I'm sure I'll get corrected - 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK, and if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site, www - however many - sciencefriday.com where you'll find links to our topic.

And now let me introduce my guest. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. He is currently the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the author of many books, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. His new book is The God Delusion. He joins me from BBC Studios in Oxford, and welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Dawkins.

Dr. RICHARD DAWKINS (Oxford University): Thank you very much.

PALCA: It's very kind to have you here. Now, okay, you wrote this book with the hope that people picking it up - religious people picking it up will be atheists when they put it down. First of all, what do you think the chances are of that?

Dr. DAWKINS: That's a fairly ambitious hope, some might say almost ridiculously so. I know that I'm not going to change the minds of died in the wool faith heads, and to some extent, I may be preaching to the choir to those atheists who do read it.

I do think, though, that there probably is a large middle ground of people who have always sort of been vaguely religious because they were brought up that way but probably haven't given it much thought, probably because they've got better things to do. And maybe some of them reading my book will be moved to think again, think hard, think it through, and maybe come to the conclusion that in fact the religion in which they were brought up is a lot of nonsense.

PALCA: Now as I read the book, it seemed to me that a lot of the arguments were not necessarily arguments that had to be made by a scientist. I mean a sociologist could look at many of the points you make about the various, as you call them, negative aspects of religion and come to the same conclusion, not to say that a sociologist is not a scientist, I should hasten to add. But why are you as a evolutionary biologist particularly interested in taking up this topic?

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, that's a very good point, and a sociologist could indeed make the points in that part of the book, which is sort of the second half, where I discuss some of the negative aspects of religion. However, the first half of the book is dominated by an argument against the existence of God, against the existence of a supernatural creator. That I regard as a scientific argument, and I don't think a sociologist would be the ideal person to make that argument.

I do think that the existence of God is essentially a scientific question in the sense that a universe that contains a God would be a very different kind of universe, scientifically speaking, from a universe that does not contain a God. That I think is a scientific issue. It's not an issue that science can prove one way or the other, but it is an issue that I believe science can give a probability to.

PALCA: Right. I think - I have to mention that in the last - we've been talking also on this program about the physics Nobel Prize, which was given out this year to two American scientists who were looking at the background radiation from the cosmic - from the Big Bang. And of course that's one of those places where you start to talk about the very origins of everything, and God often tends to come up.

And in your book, you were talking about Einstein and his description of God, and I wonder if you can talk about the difference between the kind of a God that Einstein was talking about and the kind of a God that you're trying to disprove the existence of.

Dr. DAWKINS: Yes, Einstein was indeed very fond of using the word God. He used it a lot. He was not, however, a theist in the sense that he did not believe in a personal God. He was extremely clear about that. Einstein was using the word God as a kind of name for that which we don't yet understand, the deep mystery which lies at the base of the universe. It was his kind of poetic, slightly jocular way of referring to the deep problems of physics which remain to be solved. Unfortunately, Einstein chose to use the word God, and an awful lot of people have misunderstood that to mean that Einstein was a theist. He certainly was not a theist.

PALCA: But I think I have to get a little closer meaning - theist meaning someone who believes that there's some greater -

Dr. DAWKINS: Yes, yes, a personal God who does such things as listens to your prayers, forgives your sins, reads your thoughts, takes an interest in human affairs. A deist is someone who believes that there is a God, but that God is purely - invented the laws of physics at the origin of the universe, invented the laws and constants of physics, set the universe going, retired and did nothing more.

Einstein, in my view, wasn't even a deist, although some people might claim that he was. He certainly was not a theist. He was adamant about that. He did not believe in a personal God who takes a personal interest in human affairs.

PALCA: So is there - are there people that are considered atheists but not adeists? Or is there such a word even?

Dr. DAWKINS: Yeah, now what would that mean?

PALCA: Yeah.

Dr. DAWKINS: I think that an atheist would also be an - no, I suppose - yeah, I don't think - I've never heard the word adeist used.

PALCA: No, of course not. I don't think -

Dr. DAWKINS: I think that the word atheist usually tends to mean somebody who doesn't believe in any kind of God, even the deist God.

PALCA: Now you talk about - quite a lot about the - it's interesting - the persecution of atheists as people who are somewhat have to hide behind their - hide their beliefs away from public sight. Why do you think that - well, first of all, do you think - how much do you really think that's true? Or were you erecting that as a straw man? And if so why if so, why is it true?

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, it's not true in my country. It's not true, I suspect, in most parts of Europe. I don't live in America, and so I'm really relying upon reports from America from my American friends, from many correspondents in America.

I have had a lot of letters from American atheists who say to me something like thank you for writing your article in whatever journal it was. You've expressed exactly my thoughts. I wish I dared express them myself, but I don't dare because I would be - I'd lose my wife or my job or my parents would disown me. It's really quite shocking the number of letters to that effect that I have received.

PALCA: Yes, I was amazed as you were writing, some of the stories that you received. Well, okay, so is there - I mean is there a middle ground, because that is something that I, at least in my introduction to you, suggested that you were not in favor of a meeting of the minds, but maybe you can say that for yourself.

Dr. DAWKINS: This is where it gets really interesting, because the majority of my scientific colleagues, who by the way are atheists, nevertheless do respect the middle ground and go out of their way to try to, in a sense, woo the middle ground, that's to say, sensible decent, religiously sophisticated believers who are not creationists - they believe in evolution, so I mean they've got some kind of education - but they do believe in God, and they might believe that God perhaps started evolution off and then let it run or perhaps designed the genetic code in such a way that evolution would be likely to occur.

Now that middle ground is a sort of contested area for the political lobbyists in the American education wars, because there is a war going on between those who are trying to teach creationism in American public schools and those who think that evolution is the only theory that should be taught in science classes about where life comes from.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DAWKINS: Now in those education wars, those science education wars, the middle ground, the people who believe in evolution, are wooed by, in a sense, both sides. And there is a strong evolution lobby, a strong science lobby, many of whose individual luminaries are themselves atheist, but they bend over backwards to be nice to what I call the sensible middle of the road theists who also believe in evolution, because they want to isolate the creationists. And I think that's a - I can well see that that is a very tactically, politically savvy thing to do.

It isn't my way, and I've come in for a lot of criticism from some of my scientific colleagues because of that, because they feel that I'm rocking the boat and, as it were, giving aid and comfort to the creationists. And I think in a way they might have a point because I have heard that some creationists love to quote people like me because it lends weight to their claim that if you are an evolutionist that means that you have to be an atheist.

So this is a matter of American politics. I'm not deeply involved in American politics. I'm concerned with what's true. For me the evolution/creation war is really just a battle. It's a skirmish in a larger war between supernaturalism and naturalism, and I don't think that I'm prepared to compromise on what I think is true in order to win a tactical battle in a skirmish in what I see as a larger war.

PALCA: Okay. I would take the entire discussion, but I feel like I promised our listeners that they could have a chance, and so let's hear from some of them. And we'll go first to Corky in Dunsmore, Ohio. Corky, welcome to the program.

CORKY (Caller): Oh, it's just the first time I've talked to your show though I listen to it often.

PALCA: Great.

CORKY: I wanted to ask, in a challenging sort of way, why if he's appealing to moderate believers to see that their religion is poppycock, so to speak, why that necessarily makes them an atheist rather than someone who believes that organized religion is nonsense and a lot of politics and personal power rather than about any kind of supernatural.

PALCA: Interesting question, Corky. Let's hear what Dr. Dawkins has to say, and we only have about a minute before the break.

Dr. DAWKINS: Right, I do have a lot of sympathy with that. I am passionate about what's true, and I do actually believe that there's a very strong reason to think that there is no God. On the other hand, if you're a sensible, religious person who believes in God but absolutely hates organized religion and particularly organized religion in power politics, then I'm on your side.

PALCA: Well, we do have to take a short break, but we're talking to Dr. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, and we'll have more about truth and religion when we come back. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca.

We're talking this hour about science and religion with my guest Richard Dawkins. He's an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and author of The God Delusion.

And, well, I know that you describe in the book some of the great debates you've had, and I think you might have had a debate with the person I want to hear from right now. This is actually - I've got a clip of tape from an interview Ira Flatow did with Francis Collins a couple of weeks ago where Francis - I mean, Ira was trying to get Francis Collins to expand on the topic of whether or not - it sort of comes out of this last question we had - whether or not an atheist, or even somebody who doesn't particularly believe in religion, can still have faith. And here's what Francis Collins said.

Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (National Human Genome Research Institute): I think they probably are required to have more faith than many people who believe in God because they have to have faith in their own intellect's ability to know so much that they can exclude the possibility of God categorically, which seems to me the greatest statement of faith, or perhaps hubris and arrogance, that one could imagine. So, yes, faith, but in what?

But as I look about myself in the culture we live in and the world we live in, a world without the kind of noble intentions that arise many times out of people's hearts in the consequence of their faith, a world that misses out on a Mother Teresa or an Oskar Schindler, a world where science has to go on in a completely materialist way, does not sound like the kind of world of wonderful humanity and nobility of humankind that I hope will be evolving over the many decades to come.

PALCA: So I wanted to get your reaction to what Francis Collins had to say, Richard Dawkins.

Dr. DAWKINS: There were two quite separate points there.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DAWKINS: The first one interests me more, the one about an atheist needs even more faith than a theist because an atheist has to exclude positively faith, categorically exclude it.

I think that's such a misguided thing to say. I mean, presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Thor, Apollo, Zeus, unicorns, fairies at the bottom of the garden, the flying spaghetti monster. There are any number of things that he doesn't believe in. And would he say that he has to have faith that there is no such thing as a flying spaghetti monster? I mean that's really essentially all that he said.

Why single out God among that great litany of things that many people throughout the ages may or may not have believed in? Why single out God as being something that you have to have hubris and arrogant positive faith in order not to believe? There are a million things Francis Collins doesn't believe in. I don't believe in them either. I just add one more thing, which is the entity that he calls God.

PALCA: Right. And going on to the second point, about the - losing out on some of the - well, I know you have a slightly different opinion of Mother Teresa.

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, I mean the nobility of certain human characters - I wouldn't mention Mother Teresa in that breath. I don't think that she was a very admirable person. However, I do think that Martin Luther King was extremely admirable. I think Mahatma Gandhi was extremely admirable. I think that Jesus was extremely admirable. All these and many other admirable and good people were religious.

Of course there are plenty of individual good people who are religious. Plenty of individual atheists who are good people. Plenty of religious people who are bad. Plenty of atheists who are bad. It doesn't really get you anywhere to compile a list of good and bad religious people and atheists.

The question you want to ask is is there any general reason why you should expect that religion or atheism would be more likely to make you good or bad, and that's a very different question. It's not a question that can be answered by sort of counting heads.

PALCA: Okay, let's go back and invite our callers to join this conversation, and we'll start again with Brent in Kansas City, Missouri. Brent, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BRENT (Caller): Hello. My question is - I am not a theist, and I don't like to categorize myself as an atheist per se, but I (unintelligible) because a lot of my friends that are atheist, it almost seems as that's become their religion, that atheism is now something that they tout as a belief system. And I almost - that's why I don't really know how to categorize myself. I mean there could be, you know, the flying spaghetti monster, anything. I don't know. I don't care, really. I mean what is your view of that. I mean, has atheism become a religion unto itself?

Dr. DAWKINS: Yeah, I see what you're saying, and I think it is worry. I don't think, as a matter of fact, it has become a religion. I'm a little surprised you say you don't care, because I would have thought that that issue - and you and I agree that there is no God - but on the other hand, if there was one, it would be a tremendously important fact about life and the universe, would it not? I mean I can't imagine that you would look upon the world in quite the same way if you thought there was a God as you do now when you think that there isn't.

BRENT: Well -

Dr. DAWKINS: So I don't think it's something - sorry, yes, go ahead.

BRENT: Well, if there were a God, there would be no way for me to have any - you know, if there were a God, I don't believe that he spoke to, you know, anybody - if anyone claimed to be a prophet today, you know, they'd be considered another David Koresch, so I mean -

Dr. DAWKINS: Yeah, I think that's right.

BRENT: - so how do you believe the dogma of anything so that - I mean I don't mean that I don't care in a apathetic way. I just - if there is a God, great. You know, if there's not, it doesn't affect my existence on this planet -

PALCA: Okay.

BRENT: - on how I'm going to behave, how I'm going to -

PALCA: Okay, Brent, let's hear what Dr. Dawkins has to say in the (unintelligible)

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, I think we pretty much agree. I mean I think we agree that there is no God, and I think we perhaps disagree a little bit on whether we think it makes any difference to us, and perhaps that's more of a - more like disagreeing about the kind of music we like.

PALCA: I actually was going to take that in a slightly different direction. What would happen if the atheism became ascendant? And here we are in our biology class in high school, and the teacher says, Johnny, how do you - what do you think about biology? And Johnny says it was God that created everything. And so now Johnny has to sit in the corner with the dunce cap on his head because he's obviously out of touch and out of tune and not with the program, as it were, because science has shown us that everything can evolve. Does there - is there a danger of a totalitarian behavior in the other direction?

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, I suppose there is, but I mean, if Johnny said that he believes that the world was flat and not round, I suppose he would sit in the corner with the dunce's cap on. I don't think you'd want to call that totalitarian. I mean the evidence for the fact of evolution is just about as strong as the evolution that the world is round and not flat. So I mean, I don't want to victimize any child for what they believe, but I do think that children should be exposed to the evidence that is available, and as it happens, the evidence for evolution is massive and utterly convincing to anybody who's studied it objectively.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call then from Ariana in Anchorage, Alaska. Ariana, welcome to the program.

ARIANA: Hi.

PALCA: Hi.

ARIANA: In my school there's some of the children's parents don't let their kids go to science class if the teacher teaches extensively in evolution, and I'm wondering if you have a comment on that.

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, I better restrain myself. I think it's a form of mental child abuse by the parents on the children. I think that parents don't own their children, and there are limits to the rights that parents have over their children's minds. I think it - to really echo something I said in answer to the last question - it would be equivalent to parents not allowing their children to go to geography class because the geography teacher taught that the world was round, and so I do think it's a very bad thing. I think that there are limits to the freedom that parents ought to be allowed to have to brainwash their children.

PALCA: Ariana, thank you for that call.

ARIANA: You're welcome.

PALCA: Very interesting. Yes, well - all right, let's take another call now from Patrick in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, I guess that is. Patrick, welcome to the program.

PATRICK (Caller): Thank you so much for taking my call. Dr. Dawkins, I think you're brilliant. My question is if you're aware of the popularity of YouTube clips of your show The Root of All Evil and specifically the teapot atheist clips, and if you could perhaps explain that. I'm a reformed agnostic. I'm now firmly an atheist because partially of your books and your video. Thank you.

PALCA: Wow.

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, thank you. Thank you for that.

PALCA: You didn't pay him in advance, did you?

Dr. DAWKINS: I was vaguely aware that that television program called Root of All Evil - which I should stress, by the way, was not my title. I don't think religion is the root of all evil. I think it's the root of quite a lot of evil, but it's not a very catchy title, and I lost my fight with Channel Four. I tried to fight against that title.

You asked about the teapot story. The teapot story was one that was invented by the great philosopher Bertram Russell to counter the point that people very often make when they say well, you can't disprove God. And I actually mentioned this earlier in connection with Francis Collins. You cannot disprove God.

And so some people take that to mean that therefore the likelihood of God's existing is about equal to the likelihood that he doesn't exist, the kind of 50/50. You can't prove it. Either way you can't prove he does exist. You can't prove that he does - and certainly you can't prove he does and you can't prove that he doesn't. So it's like tossing a coin.

I don't think it is like tossing a coin. And Bertram Russell's teapot story illustrates that. He said, suppose I were to tell you that there is a large china teapot in orbit around the sun which you can't see with telescopes because it's too small.

You cannot disprove the teapot. But that doesn't mean that you should regard the likelihood of the teapot existing as equal to the likelihood that it doesn't exist.

Nobody in their right mind believes that there is a large china teapot orbiting the sun. There's no positive reason why they should believe it. And exactly the same is true of God. That seemed to me to be an absolute, knock down reply to the statement well, you can't disprove God. Therefore you might as well believe him as likely as not.

PALCA: So I guess the flying spaghetti monster is just sort of a modern incarnation of that argument.

Dr. DAWKINS: Exactly. It's a modern incarnation of Russell's teapot.

PALCA: Right. And just for people who don't know, the flying spaghetti monster was, I guess, started - I mean, maybe it's serious, but I guess it was started as a lark against people who thought that there was a God controlling the universe.

Dr. DAWKINS: Yes. I presume it was started for the same reason as Russell's teapot. And there are a lot of people who claim to have been touched by his noodly appendage.

PALCA: Right. And I have to say I learned from your book that there's now a reform movement of this. I should have checked there first.

Dr. DAWKINS: A reform movement - a reform flying spaghetti monster movement, which is in conflict with the orthodox spaghetti monster movement, yes.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DAWKINS: A great schism.

PALCA: Let's - thank you for the American pronunciation, by the way. Let's take one more call. Todd in Smithville, Missouri. Welcome to the program.

TODD (Caller): Thank you. Dr. Dawkins, I look forward to getting your book and reading it. I'm always fascinated by these discussions. I personally am at least a theist and probably deist. I'm a man of great faith, but certainly have a disenchantment with organized religion as it is now.

But I was thinking more from an anthropological standpoint that early civilization, before they knew about a God, created their own religion out of an innate human need to create understanding about the world about them, because I cynically believe that everybody believes what makes them most comfortable. And so I'm looking for answers, do we as human beings have an innate need to just create these things?

Dr. DAWKINS: Well, that looks very plausible to me. And you're perfectly right that anthropologists have described religious beliefs from tribes all around the world. They vary in detail, but they have a lot of general things in common.

Your idea that people believe what they find comfortable, well, I'm afraid it's all too plausible. I don't - I can't really empathize with it because I can't understand why anybody would think that just because something is comforting that makes it true. And there are all sorts of things that I would like to be true. But unfortunately it's just tough. They're not.

And so I don't really understand why people take that line, though I think you're probably right that they do. I'm a little curious why, in view of what you've just said, you are yourself a believer.

PALCA: I'm afraid he's no longer on the line.

Dr. DAWKINS: Oh, okay. Fine.

PALCA: We'll ask him the next time. But in the mean time, I'll invite others to call. We're speaking with Richard Dawkins, professor at Oxford University and the author of a new book, The God Delusion. I'm Joe Palca. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is I think what happens a lot of the time in this question of is there something that's the invisible hand behind things is there are so many - and I'm going to use this word purposefully - miraculous things that happen in biology, whether it's, you know, getting potassium ions to flow through a membrane wall when the sodium ions are excluded and the sodium ions are smaller, or whether it's something far more sophisticated or that you can go from a fertilized egg to an entire human being without a significant enough number of mistakes to have our arms attached to our heads or something like that.

And so the word I would say is miraculous. And I think what happens is people have a hard time accepting the fact that such a remarkable thing can happen not by chance, as you point out, but through a selection process that would have eventually gotten to this point.

And my thesis - and you can knock it down if you like - is that people have a really hard time understanding extremely big numbers, because what this - all the things that led to these events are small occurrences, lower probability occurrences, but they could occur.

And when you start talking about things that could occur, if you're talking on the scope of billions of years, then you begin to think that things could occur, that could occur, do occur.

Dr. DAWKINS: Well that's a lot of interesting stuff there. That's very interesting. I think the argument that even very, very improbable things, given enough billions of years if they could occur they will, that's an argument which I would use not actually for the details of biological organization, like potassium and sodium ions and things.

I would use that for possibly the origin of life, the events in the primeval soup that led to the first self-replicating molecule. I have made a case that that could have been a genuinely very, very, very improbable event, possibly the sort of event so improbable that it occurs only, say, one in a billion planets. And there are so many billions of planets in the universe that it has to have happened on some of them. And here we are sitting on one of them so it had to be ours.

Now that's an argument I'd use for the origin of life. I would not use that argument for the so-called miraculous things that you'd perceive in the details of life, things like eyes and hemoglobin molecules and sodium pumps in nerves and things of that sort, because natural selection is actually - Darwinian natural selection is not of that character. It's not one of those things where it's very, very, very improbable but there'd be enough billions of years for it to happen.

It's not actually all that improbable. Each step of evolution is not particularly improbable. What is improbable is the accumulated result of many, many, many steps in evolution added together in cascade.

When you look at something really remarkably, beautifully, apparently designed, what you've called miraculous I think is an unfortunate word. Something like a nerve cell, that is the end product of a very large number of cumulative steps of evolution giving rise to what seems to be a very improbable result.

PALCA: Dr. Dawkins, I committed the unforgivable sin of asking a very complicated question without enough time. But I'll have to quickly thank you and encourage people if they want to learn more about your opinions to get your book, The God Delusion. Thanks for joining us today. We'll be right back. Stay with us.

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