Evolutionary biologist and professor Richard Dawkins was a guest on Al Jazeera's "The Stream" program this week to discuss whether or not religion and science are compatible and, among other things, whether or not "atheism is a religion." (The video is embedded below.)
Before opening the program up to questions from online users, Al Jazeera noted that a writer has suggested that worldwide, atheists will outnumber believers by the year 2038. In the United States, however, a Gallup poll indicated that 9 out of 10 Americans still believe in God. 46 percent of Americans accept creationism.
Creationism does not comport with the factual evidence supporting evolution, which prompted Al Jazeera to ask whether science and religion are mutually exclusive. He does not agree the issue is "religion against science," but that the issue is actually "creationism against science." "There are many religious people who are perfectly happy with evolution," he said, citing the fact that the Catholic Church and its pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others have accepted evolution. Evolution has been scientifically proven and is not subject to debate, he added, noting that what is "up for grabs" is the existence of a god.
Dawkins is very popular with atheists, but considers himself to be agnostic because "you could never actually prove the non-existence of anything." However, he says he's about as close to an atheist as one could get because he's an atheist in the same sense that one can be an a-fairy-ist. He thinks that the reason people hold atheists in such low disregard is because of ignorance.
Is Atheism a Religion?
A number of people following the interview opined that atheism is a religion. Twitter user Quasim Rashid tweeted, "Yes, atheism is a religion. Atheists follow a personal code of life, belief & morality & believe blind chance is the creator."
Related Interest: Vote in our poll, "Is atheism a religion?"
Responding to a question from a viewer, Dawkins noted that science and some religions do change. Science, by its nature, always changes in its quest for truth. It does not change when facts are established, such as the earth being a sphere that is not the center of the universe. As to the unknown, Dawkins thinks that in 500 years, science may be very different in thrilling and exciting ways not envisioned by today's scientists. "You can go too far about this thing that you'll never be sure of anything in science. There are things you can be sure of, and I would add that evolution is one of them."
A Twitter user opined that religion and science can co-exist, but that "the important thing is respect and tolerance."
Overcoming Superstition in Impoverished Countries.
A man named James from Uganda asked, "Mine is a question about religion and poverty and rationality. Research suggests that there is a correlation between things like insecurity, poverty, poor standards of living, lack of proper education, lack of proper health care, income inequality and other such socio-economic indicators […] people who live in desperate conditions will always be susceptible to irrational beliefs that promise to address their problems. Now in a country like Uganda, where I live, looking at these indicators, we do poorly, and this might explain why religiosity and other forms of superstition persist even when science has come a long way in providing explanations for lots of things that people attribute to be supernatural, such as sickness and poverty. So my question is, what are your thoughts on how one might go about telling a person not to go to a witch doctor or a miracle healing crusade when he's illiterate, uneducated, impoverished, with there being no clinic in sight for hundreds of kilometers? I ask this because it almost seems that for rationality to flourish, it requires that societies or individuals in societies be relatively well-off, first, and not so desperate."
"That's a fascinating question," Dawkins replied, "and you're completely right, particularly the research of Gregory Paul shows exactly what you've said, which is that conditions of great poverty, lack of welfare, tend to foster religion. That shows itself in not just countries of the world, it shows itself in states within the United States. If we look at the states within the United States, the ones that suffer the most poverty and the least social welfare tend to be the most religious. So your question is, what do we do about it? What do we do about it in a poor country such as Uganda — How do we persuade people to go to a doctor rather than to a witch doctor. I have only one answer, which is to reason with people. I have respect for people. I have the feeling that if only people were exposed to the evidence, the evidence that modern medicine works and witch doctors don't work, that evidence is very powerful. And I suspect that if we only could get the evidence to people, and talk to them about it, that they will realize that it's actually true. I can't offer any better solution than that. "
Haroon Moghul, a research fellow with the New America Foundation, found the notion that religion correlates with a lack of education condescending, noting that in the United States, which is a wealthy society, newspapers regularly publish astrology columns because people are obsessed with astrology. He thought that fascination with magic, astrology, and so forth are constants in human nature and do not have anything to do with exclusive socio-economic indicators.
"The evidence is contrary to what you suggest," Dawkins replied. "Even within the United States, as I've just said, those states that have the most poverty and the least social welfare are the states that have the highest religiosity. And I think it's a counsel of despair when you say that there's nothing we can do about irrationality. If you look at the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway; if you look at Holland, if you look at England, you'll find that the levels of religiosity are hugely lower than in the United States and in the Islamic world. So I think that there is hope and I am pressing for us to move on this front."
Is There Anything Good About Religion?
Al Jazeera asked whether Professor Dawkins thought there was anything good about religion. "There are plenty of good things about individual religious people. Plenty of good people have been religious […] but I don't think that religion itself predisposes to goodness. I think religion predisposes to blind faith, to faith in something other than something that is supported by evidence, and that is a dangerous thing. It can lead to goodness, but it also can lead to terrible evil like suicide bombers who believe passionately and sincerely that they are righteous and good when they blow up a building."
One of the show's hosts then argued that without religion, we would have a cold society, just living on science and facts alone, noting that many people look to religion for emotional connection and morals. Dawkins resonded that we would still have art, music, literature, philosophy, nature and human love. These things are not dependent on religion. "The only thing that would go are superstitious beliefs in supernatural things, and since there's no evidence that supernatural things exist or do anything or ever have done anything, wouldn't we be better off without them?"
Should Atheists Be On a Mission to De-Convert People?
A Reddit user asked, "Should an atheist try purposefully to deconvert [sic] people and if so, how can one square this with the common criticism of Christians that they force their religion on others? If not, how does an atheist go about creating or helping create a secular society in a county like many in the middle east where the majority are religious and intolerant?"
A co-host of the show implied that Dawkins' children's book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, is an attempt to indoctrinate children into atheism.
Dawkins wants to encourage people to think for themselves. "I don't want to say, 'You must believe x.' That's what religious indoctrination does. I never say that. What I want to say is, 'Think it out for yourself. Here is the evidence. Here's the reasoning process. Here's the logical process. Think it out for yourself.' I believe that if you do that, if you look at the evidence and think logically about it, you will come to the atheistic conclusion. But I'm not going to indoctrinate anybody in atheism. Far from it."
As to his children's book, Dawkins explained, "My children's book is all about science. There is very little atheism in it — there's no atheism in it. It's all about science and it is an attempt to show that the reality of science is not only true, but it's also thrilling and exciting and far more exciting, far more thrilling, far more aesthetically exciting, than any myth, including Biblical or Koranic myths."
Jesse Galef of the Secular Students Alliance asked what would be inappropriate ways to address religious belief. Hectoring, indoctrination, and telling people what they must believe are inappropriate, Dawkins answered. He said that people should be encouraged to think critically.
Extremism and Education.
Iranian-born human rights activist Maryam Namazie also joined the program. "One of the problems of people having access to rationality and science and so on and so forth is that very often, religion is opposed to it and when it comes to people having access to information and free expression, particularly in this day and age with regards to Islam, we find that any sort of criticism and dissent is deemed to be Islamaphobic, racist, and I also compare this to a form of secular fatwa where it's used to silence criticism and dissent and rational thinking. […] A lot of us who are atheist, ex-Muslim, who come from various countries in the East and north Africa are faced with here in the west, when we try to discuss rationality, science and atheism."
Namazie is one of Dawkins' heroes for her work. "There are active forces of oppression," he acknowledged, "which are oppressing people in the name of religion, especially oppressing women and you are one of the main people fighting against that, especially in England but in the Islamic world, generally. This, I think, is wicked. I think that a religion that finds it necessary to use force, to use the threat of force, which they do, can't really have very much confidence in how right it is. Because if it were really right, then the rightness should shine forth without the need for threats, without the need for force […] I find it very hard to have any respect for a religion that has so little confidence in the truth of its beliefs that it feels reduced to using threats in order to propagate those beliefs."
Haroon Moghul thought such a sweeping characterization of Islam is irresponsible and dangerous. "The forms of religion that we've seen in the Muslim world, fundamentalism, extremism, they're by no means defensible, but they are direct responses to state-enforced secularization and atheism," he countered. "In Turkey, Iran, there were mandated dress codes that pushed society towards secularization and it was a push back from religion, and there's been this back and forth in the Muslim world for almost 100 years now. It's very hard to say that this is a product of religion, per se. It's a product of very complicated social situations and very complicated history, and you can't just say this is religion. That doesn't explain, for example, why in Turkey in the 1920s you dressed a certain way, a religious way, you could be put to death. So these are far more complicated than religion and science or religion and reason, as if the two are opposite."
"These things are very complicated," Dawkins acknowledged. "I wouldn't wish to be over-simple. I think it's rather an extraordinary suggestion that the rise of — or the wickedness — of Islamic fundamentalism is a push back from secularism. […] If you took that to its logical conclusion, we'd all shut up and stop talking any sense for fear of provoking other people to talk even worse nonsense than they already do. […] I would also say that moderate, sort of decent religion, harmless religion, religion that doesn't threaten anybody, does in a way make the world safe for extremism because moderate religion does teach children that faith is a virtue. If children are taught […] that faith is a virtue, that it's a virtue to believe things without evidence and without reason, then a minority of people who are taught that are going to get it into their heads that their faith requires them to, say, become martyrs and that wouldn't happen if children were not taught that faith — blind faith, faith without evidence, believing things without evidence — that this is a virtue. Once you teach children that that's a virtue, and most children will accept that in a moderate way and will grow up to be perfectly decent, nice citizens, but a minority will take it really seriously. A minority will really follow through with their beliefs to their logical conclusion and we don't want people following their beliefs to their logical conclusion because that way, violence lies."
In the public schools, children should be taught to think critically and to question, Dawkins asserts. "A child should never say, 'Oh, an adult told me x, therefore x must be true.' The child should say, 'Wait a minute, what is the evidence for that? Or is that the kind of thing that we probably know because of evidence? Or, is that the kind of thing that we only think we know because it's been handed down by tradition or in a holy book?' Because if it's tradition or a holy book or revelation, then we have no reason whatever to accept that it's true. What the child should be taught to ask is what's the evidence, why does it follow, is it plausible?" (Editor's Note – Of related interest, the Texas Republican Party, in its 2012 platform, is opposed to teaching “critical thinking skills and similar programs” in public schools, suggesting that they “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”)
Responding to a question by one of Al Jazeerah's co-hosts concerning education, Dawkins acknowledged that our minds should be open to explore the things we don't know, but that the way to do so is through methods of science. "Because we readily admit that there are many things that we don't yet know, what is an utter falsehood is to say that because we don't yet know the answer, therefore, religion does. That's totally illogical. There are plenty of things we don't know but if science doesn't know it, religion doesn't know it either. There is absolutely no reason to think that just because science doesn't know something, some prophet a thousand years, two thousand years, three thousand years ago therefore does know it. They had much less opportunity to know anything than we do today."
He acknowledged that science has been wrong and will be proved wrong through better science. Religion or superstition will not disprove science, only better science will do so.
Religious Freedom in a Secular Society.
Maryam Namazie joined in the discussion again to suggest that a secular society is the best way to safeguard people's right to religion and also science. Religion could be freely practiced but would not be a part of the judicial system or control public education. Dawkins agreed, noting, "It is very important to understand that secular does not mean atheistic. There are plenty of strong secularists who are religious, whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever it is. So we want secularism, we want religion to be permitted to flourish, but not to impose itself on others — on children or anybody else — it should be a private matter and should not be something that is imposed from outside on people. Secularism means that."
Are Religious People Gullible and Naive?
Dawkins was asked whether he believes the billions of religious people worldwide are gullible and naive. "No," he replied. "I would say in most cases — Let's single out people who believe that the world is young, that the world is less than 10,000 years old. They are ignorant. I am not saying they are gullible or naive or stupid, they are ignorant. It is my job as a scientist and the job of other scientists to dispel that ignorance and do something about it. It's no crime to be ignorant. We're all ignorant of plenty of things, but this is a rather important thing to be ignorant of. If you are ignorant about something, you should not lay down the law about it. I am extremely ignorant of baseball, but I don't go around preaching my ignorance of baseball. I say, well I don't know about that, don't ask me about it. It's not my subject. People who don't know about life or who don't know about biology, don't know about history, should not go around saying evolution is false because they don't know what they are talking about. They should keep quiet and talk about what they do know what they are talking about."
Where Does Morality Come From?
A young woman from London asked Professor Dawkins where morality, such as not murdering others, came from, whether it came from physics or from God. "I cannot believe you are suggesting that if you did not believe in God, you would think it was okay to go out and murder people," Dawkins responded heatedly. "Do you seriously think that we need religion in order to agree that murder is a bad thing? Do you seriously think that, I don't know, that before Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and said 'Thou shalt not kill,' that people said, 'Oh, right, thou shalt not kill. How surprising! We didn't know that before. In the future, we shall not kill.' Of course that's not how it happened. We have perfectly good reasons for saying we don't like to live in the sort of society where people kill each other at will, and if they do it, we lock them up and be thinking in any case that it's a bad thing. There's absolutely no evidence that atheists are less moral than religious people."
Dawkins explained that religious or supernatural belief may have been part of human evolution due to the survival strategy of assigning agency to things (i.e., prehistoric man hearing rustling in the long grass might believe that the sound was coming from a predatory animal). "If you are predisposed to assume agency, then you tend to assume agency in all sorts of things — in thunder, in lightening, in rivers, in waves, and that leads to primitive religions. One can make a very good historical, evolutionary, or anthropological case about why religions develop."