Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett - SUBTITLE

Uploaded by nagoldocs on 01.08.2012

One of the things weíve all met is the accusation that we are strident or arrogant, or vitriolic,
or shrill. What do we think about that?
Hah! Yeah, well Iím amused by it, because I went out of my way in my book to address
reasonable religious people. And I test-flew the draft with groups of students who were
deeply religious. And indeed, the first draft incurred some real anguish. And so I made
adjustments and made adjustments. And it didnít do any good in the end because I still got
hammered for being for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realise that itís a no-win
situation. Itís a mugís game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree
with them critically without being rude.
Without being rude.
You know, they sort of play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity, and faced with
a choice of, well, am I gonna be rude or am I going to articulate this criticism? I mean,
am I going to articulate it, or am I just gonna button my lip?
Right, well, thatís what it is to trespass a taboo. I think weíre all encountering the
fact that that religion is held off the table of rational criticism in some kind of formal
way even by, weíre discovering, our fellow secularists and our fellow atheists. You know,
just leave people to their own superstition, even if itís abject and causing harm, and
donít look too closely at it.
Now that was, of course, the point of the title of my book is there is this spell and
we gotta break it. But if the charge of offensiveness in general is to be allowed in public discourse,
then, without self-pity, I think we should say that we, too, can be offended and insulted.
I mean, Iím not just in disagreement when someone like Tariq Ramadan, accepted now at
the high tables of Oxford University as a spokesman, says the most heíll demand, when
it comes to the stoning of women, is a moratorium on it. I find that profoundly Ö much more
than annoying.
Right, yeah, but I think Ö
Insulting, not only insulting, but actually threatening.
But youíre not offended. I donít see you taking things personally. Youíre alarmed
by the liabilities of certain ways of thinking, as is in Ramadanís case.
Yes. But he would say, or people like him would say that if I doubt the historicity
of the prophet Muhammad, Iíve injured them in their deepest feelings.
Well I am, in fact. I think all people ought to be offended, at least in their deepest
integrity by, say, the religious proposition that without a supernatural, celestial dictatorship,
we wouldnít know right from wrong. That we only live by Ö
But are you really offended by that? Doesnít it just seem wrong with you?
No. I say only, Sam, that if the offensiveness charge is to be allowed in general, and arbitrated
by the media, then I think weíre entitled to claim that much, without being self-pitying,
or representing ourselves as an oppressed minority, which I think is an opposite danger,
I will admit. Iíd like to add also that that I agree with Daniel that there is no way in
which the charge against us can be completely avoided, because what we say does offend the
core, very core, of any serious religious person, (inaudible). We deny the divinity
of Jesus, for example, that maybe will be terrifically shocked and possibly hurt. Itís
just too bad.
Iím fascinated by the contrast between the amount of offence thatís taken by religion
and the amount of offense that people take against anything else, like artistic taste.
Your taste in music, your taste in art, your politics. You could be not exactly as rude
as youíd like, but you could be far, far more rude about such things. And Iíd quite
like to try to quantify that, to actively research about it, actually test people with
statements about their favourite football team, or their favourite piece of music or
something, and see how far you can go, before they take offense, compared to Ö well, is
there anything else, apart from say, how ugly your face is, that gives such Ö
Or your husbandís or wifeís, or girlfriendís or partnerís faces.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yes.
Well itís interesting that you say that, because I regularly debate with a terrible
man called John Donahue, of the Catholic Defence League, and he actually is righteously upset
by certain transient modern art, which tend to draw attention to themselves by blasphemy.
For example Serranoís ëìPiss Christî, or the elephant dung on the Virgin, and so
on. And indeed, I think think itís quite important that we share,
with Sophocles and other pre-monotheists, a revulsion to desecration or to profanity,
that we donít want to see churches desecrated Ö
No, indeed not.
or religious icons trashed, and so forth. We share an admiration for at least some of
the aesthetic achievements of religion.
Right. I think this whole notion of Ö I think our criticism actually more barbed than that,
in the sense that weíre not Ö we are offending people, but we are also telling them that
theyíre wrong to be offended. I mean, physicists arenít offended when their view of physics
is disproved or challenged. I mean, this is just not the way rational minds operate when
theyíre really trying to get at whatís true in the world. And religions purport to be
representing reality. And yet thereís this peevish, tribal, and ultimately dangerous,
reflexive response to having these ideas challenged. I think weíre pointing to the total liability
of that fact.
Well, and too, thereís no polite way to say to somebody Ö
Youíve wasted your life! (laughter)
do you realise youíve wasted your life? Do you realise that youíve just devoted all
your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something which is just a myth? Or have
you ever considered ñ even if you say have you even considered the possibility that maybe
youíve wasted your life on this? Thereís no inoffensive way of saying that. But we
do have to say it, because they should jolly well consider it. Same as we do about our
own lives.
Oh, absolutely.
Dan Barkerís making a collection of clergymen whoíve lost their faith but donít dare say
so, because itís their only living. Itís the only thing they know what to do.
Yeah, Iíve heard from one of them, at least.
Have you? Yes.
I used to have this when I was young, ongoing arguments with members of the Communist Party.
They sort of knew that it was all up with the Soviet Union. Many of them have suffered
a lot, and sacrificed a great deal, and struggled, you know, manfully to keep what they thought
was the great ideal life. Their mainspring had broken, but they couldnít give it up,
because it would involve a similar concession. But certainly, I mean, if anyone said to me,
ìhow could you say that to them about the Soviet Union? Didnít you know you were going
to really make them cry and hurt their feelings?î I wouldíve said donít be ridiculous! Donít
be absurd! But I find it in many cases almost an exactly analogous argument.
When people tell me Iím being rude and vicious and terribly aggressive in the way that I
say Ö well if I were saying these things about the pharmaceutical industry or the oil
interests, would it be rude? Would it be off-limits? No.
ëCourse it wouldnít.
Well, I want religion to be treated just the way we treat the pharmaceuticals and the oil
industry. Iím not against pharmaceutical companies. I am against some of the things
they do. But I just want to put religions on the same page with them.
Including denying them tax exemption.
Or in the English case, state subsidy.
Iím curious how religion acquired this charm status that it has, compared to any of these
other things. And somehow weíve all bought into it whether weíre religious or not. Some
historical process has lead to this immunisation of religion against, well, this hyper-offense
taking that religion is allowed to take.
And whatís particular amusing to me finally ñ at first it infuriated me, but now Iím
amused ñ is theyíve managed to enlist legions of non-religious people who take offense on
their behalf.
And how!
In fact, the most vicious reviews of my book have been by people who are not themselves
religious, but theyíre terribly afraid of hurting the feelings of the people that are
religious. And they chastise me worse than anybody who is deeply religious.
Exactly my experience. Exactly my experience.
So one of you pointed out how condescending that view is. Itís like the idea of penitentiaries
I mean, other people need them, you know, that we must keep these people safely in their
Well. I think thereís one answer to that question which may illuminate a difference,
or at least the difference that I have, I think, maybe with all three of you. Thereís
something about Ö I mean, I still use words like ìspiritualî and ìmysticalî without
furrowing my brow too much and, I admit, to the consternation of many atheists. I think
there is a range of experience that is rare, and that is only talked about without obvious
qualms in religious discourse. And because itís only talked about in religious discourse,
it is just riddled with superstition. And itís used to cash out various metaphysical
schemes which it canít reasonably do. But clearly people have extraordinary experiences.
Whether they have them on LSD, or they have them because they were alone in a cave for
a year, or they have them because just happen to have the neurology that is particularly
labile that allows for it, but people have self-transcending experiences. And people
have the best day of their life where everything seemed , you know, they seemed at one with
nature. And for that, because religion seems to be the only game in town in talking about
those experiences and dignifying them, thatís one reason why I think it seems to be taboo
to criticise it, because you are talking about the most important moments in peopleís lives
and trashing them, at least from their view.
Well, I donít have to agree with you, Sam, in order to say that itís a very good thing
youíre saying that sort of thing, because it shows that, as you say, religion is not
the only game in town when it comes to being spiritual. Itís like itís a good idea to
have somebody from the political right who is an atheist, because otherwise thereís
a confusion of values which doesnít help us. And itís much better to have this diversity
in other areas. But I think I sort of do agree with you. But even if I didnít, I think it
was valuable to have that.
If one could make one change, and only one, nine would be to distinguish the numinous
from the supernatural.
You had a marvelous quotation from Francis Collins, the genome pioneer, who said, while
mountaineering one day, he was so overcome by the landscape, and then went down on his
knees and accepted Jesus Christ. A complete non sequitur.
(general agreement)
Itís never even been suggested that Jesus Christ created that landscape
Right. A frozen waterfall in three Ö
Three parts Ö
parts which would remind of the Trinity.
Well, absolutely. Weíre all triune in one way or another, Weíre programmed for that.
Thatís very clear. There wouldnít ever have been a four-headed God.
Right (laughs)
You know that from experience. But that would be an enormous distinction to make. And I
think it would clear up a lot of peopleís confusion that what we have in our emotions
are the surplus value of our personalities, the bits that arenít particularly useful
for our evolution, well, that we canít prove are, but that do belong to us all the same
ñ donít belong to the supernatural and are not to be conscripted or annexed by any priesthood.
Yes, itís a sad fact that people, in a sense, wonít trust their own valuing of their numinous
experiences. They think it isnít really as good as it seems, unless itís from God, and
some kind of a proof of religion. No, itís just as wonderful as it seems. Itís just
as important. It is the best moment in your life. And itís the moment when you forget
yourself and become better than you ever thought you could be in some way. And see, in all
humbleness, the wonderfulness of nature. Thatís it! And thatís wonderful. But, it doesnít
add anything to say, golly, that has to have been given to me by somebody even more wonderful.
Itís been hijacked, hasnít it, by the Ö?
But itís also, Iím afraid, I think itís a deformity or a shortcoming in the human
personality, frankly, because religion keeps stressing how humble it is, and how meek it
is, and how accepting, almost to the point of self-abnegationist. But actually it makes
extraordinarily arrogant claims for these moments, it says that I suddenly realise that
the universe is all about me.
Yeah, yeah.
And I felt terrifically humble about it. Come on! You know, we can laugh people out of that,
I believe.
Also, and I think we should, and indeed must Ö
I am so tired of the ìif only Professor Dennett had the humility to blah, blah, blahî
And humility, humility Ö and this from people of breathtaking arrogance. And I think Ö
We shove one aside, saying Ö just donít mind me, Iím on an errand for God!
Yeah, right.
How modest is that?
This is the point I think we should return to, this notion of the arrogance of science.
Because there is no discourse which enforces humility more rigorously. Scientists, in my
experience, are the first people to say they donít know. I mean if you get a scientist
to start talking off his area of specialisation, he immediately starts ñ he or she ñ hedging
his bet, saying, you know, Iím not sure but Iím sure thereís someone in the room who
knows more about this than me Ö and, of course, so, you know, all the dataís not in. This
is the mode of discourse in which we are most candid about the scope of our ignorance.
Well actually a lot of academics come up with that kind of false modesty, but I do know
what you mean.
Well, yeah, yes it is.
Manyís the historian who says, ìno, I yield Öî (inaudible)
No, but any academic should do that, any Ö
Yes, they should.
The thing about religious people is that they recite the Nicene Creed every week, which
says precisely what they believe. There are three gods, not one. The virgin Mary, Jesus
died Ö went to the Ö what was it? Ö down for three days, and then came up again?
In precise detail, and yet, they have the gall to accuse us of being overconfident and
of not knowing what it is to doubt.
And I donít think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question, which I think scientists
ask themselves all the time: ìwhat if Iím wrong?î. ìWhat if Iím wrong?î I mean,
itís just not part of their repertoire.
Actually, would you mind if I disagree with you about that?
A lot of talk that makes religious people hard to Ö not hard to beat, but hard to argue
with, is precisely that theyíll say that theyíre in a permanent crisis of faith. There
is indeed a prayer, ìLord I believe, help thou my unbelief.î Graham Greene says the
great thing about being a Catholic was that it was a challenge to his unbelief. A lot
of people live by keeping two sets of books. In fact, itís my impression that a majority
of the people I know who call themselves believers, or people of faith, do that all the time.
I wouldnít say it was schizophrenia, that would be rude. But theyíre quite aware of
the implausibility of what they say. They donít act on it when they go to the doctor,
or when they travel, or anything of this kind. But in some sense they couldnít be without
it. But theyíre quite respectful of the idea of doubt. In fact they try and build it in
when they can.
Well, thatís interesting then. And so when they are reciting ìthe Creedî, with its
sort of apparent conviction, is this a kind of mantra which is forcing themselves to overcome
doubt, by saying yes, I do believe, I do believe, I do believe! because really, I donít.
And of course, like their secular counterparts, theyíre glad other people believe it. Itís
an affirmation they wouldnít want other people not to be making.
Well, also, thereís this curious bootstrapping move which I tried to point out in this recent
On Faith piece. This idea that you start with the premise that ìbelief without evidence
is especially nobleî. I mean, this is the doctrine of faith. This is the parable of
Doubting Thomas. And so you start with that, and then you add this notion which has come
to me through various debates that fact that people can believe without evidence is itself
a subtle form of evidence. I mean, weíre kind of wired to Ö Actually Francis Collins,
you mentioned, brings this up in this book. The fact that we have this intuition of god
is itself some subtle form of evidence. And itís this kind of kindling phenomenon where
once you say, ìitís good to start without evidence Öî the fact that you can, is a
subtle form of evidence. And then, the demand for any more evidence is itself a kind of
corruption of the intellect, or a temptation, or something to be guarded against. And you
get a kind of perpetual motion machine of self deception, where you can get this thing
up and running.
But like the idea that it canít be demonstrated, because then thereíd be nothing to be faithful
Right, thatís the point of faith.
If everyone has seen the resurrection, and if we all knew that weíve been saved by it,
well, then we would be living in an unalterable system of belief. And it would have to be
policed, and it would actually be Ö those of us who donít believe in it are very glad
itís not true, because we think it would be horrible, those who do believe it donít
want it to be absolutely proven so there canít be any doubt about it, because then thereís
no wrestling with conscience, there are no dark nights of the soul.
Somebody Ö it was a review of one of our books, I donít remember which, but it was
exactly that point. That just what a crass expectation on the part of atheists that there
should be total evidence for this. I mean, there would be much less magic if everyone
was compelled to believe by too much evidence. Actually, this is Francis Collins. Iím sorry.
This is Francis Collins.
Well, a friend of mine Canon Fenton of Oxford, actually, said that if the Church validated
the Holy Shroud of Turin, he personally would leave the ranks. Because if they were doing
things like that, he didnít want any part of it.
I didnít expect when I started off for my book tour to be as lucky as I was. I mean,
Jerry Falwell died in my first week on the road. That was amazing.
Yes, that was amazing luck!
I didnít expect Mother Teresa to come out as an atheist.
(general laughter)
But, reading her letters, which I now have, itís rather interesting. She writes, ìI
canít bring myself to believe any of thisî. She tells all her confessors, all her superiors,
ìI canít hear a voice. I canít feel the presence, even in the mass, even in the sacramentsî.
No small thing. And they write back to her saying, ìthatís good. Thatís great. Youíre
suffering Ö it gives you a share in the crucifixion. It makes you part of Calvary.î You canít
beat an argument like that. The less you believe it, the more your demonstration of faith.
The more you prove itís true.
Yes, and the struggle, the dark night of the soul, is the proof in itself. So, we just
have to realise that these really are nonoverlapping magisteria. We canít hope to argue with a
mentality of this kind.
Well, no, actually, I disagree there Ö
No, but we can do just what youíre doing now, and that is, we can say, ìlook at this
interesting bag of tricks thatíve evolvedî ìNotice that they are circular Ö that theyíre
self-sustaining Ö that they donít have any Ö that they could be about anything.î And
then you donít argue with them, you simply point out that these are not valid ways of
thinking about anything. Because you could use the very same tricks to sustain something
which was manifestly fraudulent. And in fact, what fascinates me is that a lot of the tricks
are Ö they have their counterparts with con artists. They use the very same forms of non-argument,
the very same non sequiturs, and they make, for instance, a virtue out of trust. And as
soon as you start exhibiting any suspicion of the con man who is about Ö gets all hurt
on you, plays the hurt feelings card, and reminds you how wonderful taking it on faith
is. I mean, there arenít any new tricks, these tricks have evolved over thousands of
And you could add the production of bogus special effects as well, which was one of
the things that completely convicts religion of being fraudulent, the belief in the miraculous.
The same people will say well Einstein felt a spiritual force in the universe, when he
said, ìthe whole point about it is, there are no miracles, there are no changes in the
natural order. Thatís the miraculous thing.î Theyíre completely cynical about claiming
him in almost the same breath. Every religious person feels the same criticism of other peopleís
faith that we do, as atheists. I mean, they reject the pseudo miracles and the pseudo
claims to certainty of others, and they see the confidence tricks in other peopleís faith,
and they see it rather readily. You know, every Christian knows the Koran canít be
the perfect word of the creator of the universe, and anyone who thinks it is, hasnít read
it closely enough and itís just in this hermetically-sealed discourse that isnít really being self-critical.
And I think we make a very strong case when we point that out, and point out also that
whatever people are experiencing, in church or in prayer, no matter how positive, the
fact that Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and Christians are all experiencing it, proves
that it canít be matter of the divinity of Jesus, or the unique sanctity of the Koran,
or because Ö
ëCause thereís seventeen different ways of getting there, yeah.
By the way, on that, a tiny point. I hope not a digression, itís useful bearing that
in mind, too, when you get, as I did this morning on ABC News, the question ìwell,
wouldnít you say religion did some good in the world, and there were good people?î You
donít go that argument, and by the way, thereís no reason why one shouldnít, you say ìwell,
yes, I have indeed heard it said that Hamas provides social services in Gazaî, And Iíve
even heard it said that Farrakhanís group gets young, black men in prison off drugs.
I donít know if itís true, Iím willing to accept it might be but it doesnít alter
the fact that the one is a militarised, terrorist organisation with a fanatical anti-Semitic
ideology, and the second is a racist, crackpot cult. And I have no doubt that Scientology
gets people off drugs, too. But my insistence always with these people is if you will claim
it for one, you must accept it for them all.
And the other move you can make there Ö
ëCause if you donít itís flat-out dishonest.
You can invent an ideology, which by your mere invention in that moment, is obviously
untrue, which would be quite useful if propagated, to billions. I mean, you can say this is my
new religion: teach people to demand that your children study science and math and economics,
and all of our terrestrial disciplines, to the best of their abilities, and if they donít
persist in those efforts, theyíll be tortured after death by seventeen demons (laughter).
This would be extremely useful, and maybe far more useful than Islam, propagated to
billions, and yet what are the chances that the seventeen demons exist? Zero.
Thereís a slipperiness too, isnít there, about one way of speaking to sophisticated
intellectuals and theologians and another way of speaking to congregations and above
all, children. And I think weíve, all of us, been accused of going after the easy targets
of the Jerry Falwells of this world and ignoring the sophisticated professors of theology and,
I mean, I donít know what you feel about that but one of the things that I feel is
that the sophisticated professors of theology will say one thing to each other and to intellectuals
generally but will say something totally different to a congregation. Theyíll talk about miracles,
theyíll talk about Ö
Well they wonít talk to a congregation Ö
Well, archbishops will Ö
Yes, but when sophisticated theologians try to talk to the preachers, the preachers wont
have any of it.
Well thatís true of course.
I mean, you gotta realise that sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. Itís a
very specialised thing and only a few people do it.
Theyíre of negligible influence.
They take in their own laundry and they get all excited about some very arcane details,
and their own religions pay almost no attention to what theyíre saying. A little bit of it
does, of course, filter in but it always gets beefed up again for general consumption, because
what they say in their writings, at least from my experience, is eye-glazing, mind twisting,
very subtle things which have no particular bearing on life.
Oh! No I must insist, I must say a good word here for Professor Allister McGrath who, in
his attack on Richard, said itís not true, as weíve always been told and most people,
most Christians believe that Tertullian said ìcredo quia absurdumî, I believe it because
itís ridiculous, no! It turns out, Iíve checked this now, though, I donít know this
in McGrath that in fact Tertullian said the impossibility of it is the thing that makes
it the most believable. Thatís a well worth distinction, I think, and very useful for
training oneís mind in the fine (inaudible).
If possibility is cause to absurdity Ö
Itís the likelihood, in other words, that it couldíve been made up.
Ö is diminished by the incredibility of it. Who would try and invent something that was
that unbelievable, that is so off the wall?
You make a very good point on those lines.
That actually is, I think, a debate perfectly well worth having.
Thatís a good point.
What I say to these people is this, youíre sending your e-mail or your letter to the
wrong address. Everyone says letís not judge religion by its fundamentalists. Alright.
Take the church of England, two of whose senior leaders recently said that the floods in north
Yorkshire were the result of homosexual behavior, not in north Yorkshire presumably, probably
in London, I think theyíre thinking Ö
Godís aim is a little off!
One of these, the Bishop of Carlisle, is apparently about to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now, this is extraordinary. This is supposed to be the mild and reflective and thoughtful
and rather troubled church making fanatical pronouncements! Well, I want to hear what
Allister McGrath is gonna to write to the Bishop of Carlisle, not to me. Is he going
to say, my Lord Bishop, do you not realise what a complete idiot youíre making of yourself
and of our church? Did he do this? If he did it in private I am not impressed. He has to
say it in public.
The Bishop of Carlisle backtracked.
Why are they telling me that? I will judge the church by the statements of its
bishops, I think Iím allowed to.
Yeah, but the other thing is that never mind about the academic theologians, bishops and
vicars who will attack us for taking scriptures, or for accusing people of taking scriptures
literally, and ìof course we donít believe the Book of Genesis literallyî, and yet they
do preach about what Adam and Eve did as though they did exist, as though thereís somehow
Ö itís a sort of license to talk about things which they know and anybody of any sophistication
knows is fiction. And yet they will treat their congregations, their sheep, as though
they did exist, as though they were factual, and a huge number of those congregations actually
think they did exist.
Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying, as such a topic is introduced, ëthis
is a sort of theoretical fictioní?
Itís not true but itís a very fine metaphor. No, theyíd never Ö theyíre just not going
they kindíve, after the fact imply that thatís what they expect you to know.
Yes but they would never announce Ö
Well thereís another point there. It is that they never admit how they have come to stop
taking it literally because you have all these people criticising us for our crass literalism,
weíre as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists, and yet these moderates donít admit how they
have come to be moderate. What does moderation consist of? It consists of having lost faith
in all of these propositions, or half of them because of the hammer blows of science and
secular politics Ö
of the crass literalism of the critics.
Yeah. Religion has lost its mandate on a thousand questions and moderates tend to argue that
this is somehow a triumph of faith, that faith is somehow self-enlightening, whereas itís
been enlightened from the outside. It has been intruded on by science.
On that point that I was wanting to raise myself, about our own so-called fundamentalism,
thereís a cleric in Southwark, the first person I saw attacking you and I in print
as being just as fundamentalist as those who blew up the London Underground, do you remember
his name?
No, I donít remember his name.
Sorry, I donít remember. Heís a very senior Anglican cleric in the diocese of Southwark.
I went on the BBC with him just entre parentheses Iíll say, when Iíve said, ëhow can you
call your congregation a flock? doesnít that say everything about your religion? that you
think theyíre sheep? He said, ìWell actually I used to be a pastor in New Guinea, where
there arenít any sheepî. Well of course thereíre a lot of places where there arenít
any sheep! Gospelís quite hard to teach, as a result. Weíve found out what the most
important animal to the locals was and I remember very well my local bishop rising to ask the
Divine One to ëbehold these swineí, his new congregation. But this is the man who
deliberately does a thing like that, thatís as cynical as you could wish and as adaptive
as the day is long, and he says that we who doubt it are as fundamentalist as people who
blow up their fellow citizens on the London Underground. Itís unconscionable. Thus, I
donít really mind being accused of ridiculing, or treating with contempt, people like that.
I just frankly have no choice, I have the faculty of humour, and some of it has an edge
to it, Iím not going to repress that, for the sake of politeness of people.
Would you think that it would be good to make a distinction between the professionals and
the amateurs? I share your impatience with the officials of the churches, the people
whose Ö this is their professional life. It seems to me, they know better.
The congregations donít know better because itís maintained that they should not know
better. I do get very anxious about ridiculing the beliefs of the ìflockî, because of the
way in which they have ceded to their leaders. Theyíve delegated authority to their leaders
and they presume their leaders are gonna do it right. So I think in this, you know, who
stands up and says the buck stops here? Well it seems to me itís the preachers themselves,
itís the priests, itís the bishops and we really should hold their feet to the fire.
For instance, just take the issue of creationism. If somebody in a fundamentalist church thinks
that creationism makes sense because their pastor told them, well I can understand that
and excuse that. We all get a lot of what we take to be true from people that we respect
and we view as authorities. We donít check everything out. But whereíd the pastor get
this idea? I donít care where. He or she is responsible because their job is to know
what theyíre talking about in a way that the congregation Ö
You have to be a little bit careful not to sound condescending when we say that, and
in a way itís reflecting the condescension of the preacher.
Yes, because Iíll take things you and Richard say on the human and natural sciences, not
without wanting to check, but Iím often unable to but knowing that you are the sort of gentlemen
who would have checked. If you say, ëthe bishop told me it so I believe ití you make
a fool of yourself it seems to me, and one is entitled to say so. Just as one is entitled
when dealing with an ordinary racist to say that his opinions are revolting, he may know
no better but thatís not gonna save him from my condemnation and nor should it. And I think
exactly itís condescending not to confront people as it were one by one or en masse.
So public opinion is often wrong, mob opinion is almost always wrong.
Well, letís linger on this issue before Ö
Religious opinion is wrong, religious opinion is wrong by definition. We canít avoid this.
And I wanted to intrude the name H L Mencken at this point, now a very justly-celebrated
American writer, not particularly to my taste, much too much of a Nietzschean and what really
was once meant by Social Darwinist at one stage but why did he win the tremendous respect
of so many people in this country in the 20s and 30s? Because he said the people who believe
what the Methodists tell them or what William Jennings Bryan tells them are fools. Theyíre
not being fooled, they are fools. They should Ö
Shame on them for believing me.
Yes. They make themselves undignified and ignorant and, no mincing of words here, and
a grated mixture of wit and evidence and reasoning. It absolutely works; the most successful anti-religious
polemic thereís probably ever been in the modern world. In the twentieth century, anyway.
I think we just touched upon an issue that we should really highlight. This whole notion
of authority, because religious people often argue that science is just a tissue of uncashed
cheques, you know. Weíre all relying on authority, how do you know that the cosmological constant
is whatever it is? You know? So I think you two are well-placed to do this, differentiate
the kind of faith-placing in authority that we practise without fear in science and rationality
generally, and the kind of faith-placing in the preacher or the theologian that we criticise.
Well, what we actually do when we who are not physicists take on trust what physicists
say is we have some evidence to suggest that physicists have looked into the matter, that
theyíve done experiments, that theyíve peer-reviewed their papers, that theyíve criticised each
other, that theyíve been subjected to massive criticism from their peers in seminars and
on lectures and things. And theyíve come through with Ö
And remember the structure thatís there, too. Itís not just that thereís peer-review
but itís very important that itís competitive. For instance, when Fermatís Last Theorem
was proved by Ö
Andrew Wiles.
Andrew Wiles, the reason that those of us who Ö forget it, Iím never going to understand
that proof but the reason that we can be confident that it really is a proof is that Ö
Nobody wanted him to get there first, yeah!
Every other mathematician who was competent in the world was very well motivated to study
To find out, yeah.
And believe me, if they begrudge him that this is a proof, itís a proof! And thereís
nothing like that in Ö
No, because weíre the antithesis of that.
No religious personís ever been able to say what Einstein said, if Iím right,
[DH] the following solar event will occur off the west coast of Africa in Ö,
I forget how many years and months from now, and it did, within a very tiny degree of variation;
thereís never been a prophecy thatís been vindicated like that, or anyone willing to
place their reputation and, as it were, their life on the idea that it would be.
I was once asked at a public meeting ìDonít you think that the mysteriousness of Quantum
Theory is just the same as the mysteriousness of the Trinity or the Transubstantiation?î
And the answer, of course, can be answered in two quotes from Richard Feynman. One, Richard
Feynman said ìif you think you understand Quantum Theory, you donít understand Quantum
Theoryî. He was admitting that itís highly mysterious. But the other thing is that the
predictions of Quantum Theory experimentally are verified to the equivalent of predicting
the width of North America to the width of one human hair. And so, Quantum Theory is
massively supported by accurate predictions. Even if you donít understand the mystery
of the Copenhagen Interpretation, or whatever it is. Whereas the mystery of the Trinity
doesnít even try to make a prediction, let alone an accurate one.
You know, I donít like Ö
It it isnít a mystery, either.
I donít like the use of the word ìmysteryî here. I think, I think thereís been a lot
of consciousness-raising in philosophy about this term, where we have so-called mysterians,
the new mysterians. These are people who like the term ìmysteryî. Noam Chomsky is famously
quoted to say ìThereís two kinds of questions, thereís puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles are
soluble, mysteries arenítî. And first of all, I just donít buy that. I buy that but
I buy the distinction and say íthereís nothing about mystery in science. Thereís puzzles,
thereís deep puzzles, thereís things we donít know, thereís things weíll never
know, but they arenít systematically incomprehensible to human beings. The glorification of the
idea that these things are systematically incomprehensible, I think, has no place in
Which is why I think we should be quite happy to revive traditional terms in our discourse,
such as obscurantism and obfuscation. Which is what they really are. And to point out
that these things can make intelligent people act stupidly. John Cornwell, whoís just written
another attack on yourself, Richard, and who is an old friend of mine, a very brilliant
guy, wrote one of the best studies of the Catholic Church and fascism that thereís
been published. In his review of you, he says ìMr Dawkins Ö Professor Dawkins should just
look at the shelves of books there are on the Trinity.î ìThe libraries full of attempts
to solve this problem before he Öî But none of the books in those religious libraries
solve it either! The whole point is that it remains insoluble and itís used to keep people
feeling baffled and inferior.
But I want to come back to the thing about mystery in physics, because isnít it possible
that our evolved brains Ö because we evolved in what I call middle world, where we never
had to cope with either the very small or the cosmologically very large, we may never
actually have an intuitive feel for whatís going on in quantum mechanics but we can still
test its predictions, we can still actually do the mathematics and do the physics to actually
test the predictions, ícause anybody can read the dials on a Ö
Right, I think what we can see is that what scientists have constructed over the centuries
is a series of tools, mind-tools, thinking tools, mathematical tools, and so forth which
enable us to some degree to overcome the limitations of our evolved brains, our stone age, if you
like, brains, and overcoming those limitations is not always direct. Sometimes you have to
give up something. Yes, youíll just never be able to think intuitively about this but
you can know that, even though you canít think intuitively about it.
Yeah, thatís right.
Thereís this laborious process by which you can make progress and you do have to cede
a certain authority to the process but you can test that and it can carry you from A
to B in the same way. If youíre a quadriplegic, an artificial device can carry you from A
to B. It doesnít mean you can walk from A to B but you can get from A to B.
And the bolder physicists will say ìwell, who cares about intuition? I mean, just look
at the math!î
Yeah, yeah, thatís right, they are comfortable with their Ö living with their prostheses.
Well, the perfect example of that is dimensions beyond three, because we canít visualise
a fourth dimension or a fifth but itís trivial to represent it mathematically, and so we
can move in that dimension.
And now we teach our undergraduates how to manipulate n-dimensional spaces, and to think
about vectors in n-dimensional spaces, and they get used to the fact. They canít quite
imagine Ö what you do is you imagine three of them and, say, you wave your hand a little
bit, and say more of the same, but you you check your intuition by running the maths,
and it works.
But see, itís easy to do some Ö say youíre a psychologist looking at personality, and
you say there are fifteen dimensions of personality, and you could think of them as being fifteen
dimensions in space. And anybody can see that youíre Ö you can imagine moving along any
one of those dimensions with respect to the others, and you donít actually have to visualise
fifteen dimensional space.
No. And you give up that demand, and you realise Ö
Yes, yes.
I can live without that. It would be nice if I could do that but hey, I canít see bacteria
with the naked eye, either. I can live without that but Ö
I think thereís oneÖ
Yeah, I was challenged on that, I was challenged on that on the radio the other day by someone
who appeared to be fairly Ö who said ìI believe in atoms on no evidence, ëcause Iíve
never seen oneî. Not since George Galloway said to me that heíd never seen a barrel
of oil Ö
Right! thatís cute Ö
Yes but you realise that people at this point, theyíre wearing themselves right down to
their uppers, I mean theyíre desperate when they get to this stage. The reason I say it
is because I think it could Ö I donít want us to make our lives easier but it makes the
argument a little more simple.
We are quite willing to say there are many things we donít know. What Haldane, I think
it was, said, you know, the Universe is not just queerer than we understand, itís queerer
than we can understand. We know thereíll be great new discoveries, we know weíll live
to see great things but we know thereís a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Thatís
the whole distinction; the believer has to say not just that there is a god, the deist
position, that there may be a mind at work in the Universe, a proposition we canít disprove,
but they know that, mind, and can interpret it. Theyíre on good terms with it. They get
occasional revelations from it Ö
They have a book that is a verbatim screed.
Ö they get briefings from it. Now any decent argument, any decent intellect, has to begin
by excluding people who claim to know more than they can possibly know. You start off
by saying ìwell, thatís wrong to begin with, now can we get on with it?î, so theismís
gone in the first round.
Itís off the island, itís out of the show.
Thatís a footnote I wanted to add to what Dan was saying. That even if mystery was somehow
something we had to just Ö a bitter pill we have to swallow in the end, we are cognitively
closed to the truth at some level, that still doesnít give any scope to theism.
Absolutely not, because itís just as closed to them as it is to Ö
And also we claim perfect transparency of revelation.
And also they canít be allowed to forget what they used to say when they were strong
enough to get away with it, which is this is really true, in every detail, and if you
donít believe it, weíll kill you.
weíll kill you, yes.
Weíll kill you, and it may take some days to kill you, but we will get the job done,
Yes, weíll kill you slowly.
I mean, they wouldnít have the power they have now, if they hadnít had the power they
had then.
Right. And you know this, what you just said Christopher, actually, I think, strikes terror,
it strikes anxiety, in a lot of religious hearts. Because it just hasnít been brought
home to them that this move of theirs is just off-limits. Itís not the game. You canít
do that. And theyíve been taught all their lives that you can do that ñ this is a legitimate
way of conducting a discussion. And here, suddenly weíre just telling them íIím sorry,
that is not a move in this gameí. In fact it is a disqualifying move.
Right. Itís precisely the move you canít be respected for making.
Adumbrate the move for me a bit, if you would, or for us. Perhaps only for me. Say what you
think that move is.
Somebody plays the faith card.
They say look, I am a Christian and we Christians, we just have to believe this and thatís it.
At which point, I guess the polite way of saying it is well, okay, if thatís true youíll
just have to excuse yourself from the discussion because youíve declared yourself incompetent
to proceed with an open mind. Now Ö
Thatís what I hoped. Thatís what I hoped you were saying.
If you really canít defend your view, then sorry, you canít put it forward. Weíre not
going to let you play the faith card. Now if you want to defend what your holy book
says, in terms that we can appreciate, fine. But because it says it in the holy book, that
just doesnít cut any ice at all. And if you think it does, thatís just arrogant. It is
a bullying move and weíre just not going to accept it.
And itís a move that they donít accept when done in the name of another faith.
But now, in which case, could I ask you something, all three of you who are wiser than I on this
matter, what do we think of Victor Stengerís book that says you can now scientifically
disprove the existence of God? Do you have a view on this?
Which god? I havenít read the book. Which god?
Any kind of Ö
Any. Either a creating one, or a supervising one, and certainly an intervening one. I mean,
I think thatís fairly exhaustive. My view had always been that since we have to live
with uncertainty, only those who are certain leave the room before the discussion can become
adult. Victor Stenger seems to think now weíve got to the stage where we can say with reasonable
confidence, itís disproved. Itís not vindicated or a better explanation proposed [inaudible].
I just thought itíd be an interesting proposition, because it matters a lot to me that our opinions
are congruent with uncertainty.
Right. Well, I think the weak link Ö
And in other words, we doubt.
I was a big fan of his book and actually blurbed it but I think the weakest link is this foundational
claim on the texts. This idea that we know that the bible is the perfect word of an omniscient
deity, and it really is the claim, itís really the gold in their epistemological gold standard.
I mean, it all rests on that, that if the bible is not a magic book, Christianity, in
this case, evaporates. If the Koran is not a magic book, Islam evaporates. And when you
look at the books and ask yourself is there the slightest shred of evidence that this
is the product of omniscience? Is there a single sentence in here that could not have
been uttered by a person for whom a wheelbarrow wouldíve been emergent technology? You have
to say no. I mean, if the bible had an account of DNA and electricity, and other things that
would astonish us then, okay. Our jaws drop, suitably, and we have to have a sensible conversation
about the source of this knowledge.
You know, Dinesh DíSouza makes this statement in his new book. Heís going to be, by the
way, one of the much more literate and well-read and educated of our antagonists Iím going
to be debating soon. He says that in Genesis, which people used to mock, they said ëlet
there be lightí and then only a few staves later you get the sun and the moon and the
How could that be?
Well, according to the Big Bang, that would be right.
Yeah, but thatís pretty pathetic.
The Bang precedes the galaxies. Believe me, I think itís pathetic too, but Ö
Right. Well, I try to demonstrate this cast of mind in, I think, a very long end note
in ëThe End of Faithí, where I say, ìany text can be read". Well, with the eyes of
faith you can make magical (?prescience/impressions) out of any text. So, I literally walked into
a book store, the cookbook aisle of a book store, randomly opened a cookbook, found a
recipe for wok-seared shrimp with ogo relish or something, and then came up with a mystical
interpretation of the recipe. And you can do it! I mean, you can play connect the dots
with any crazy text and find wisdom in it.
Michael Shermer did it with the Bible code.
Right, I havenít seen that, but, yeah.
The hidden messages in the Bible. Very, very good. You can write yesterdayís headlines
from it anytime you like. Yeah.
I have a question for the three of you. Is there any argument for faith, any challenge
to your atheism that has given you pause, that has set you back on your heels where
you felt you didnít have a ready answer, etc?
Actually I canít think of anything.
I mean, I think the closest is the idea that the fundamental constants of the universe
are too good to be true. And that does seem to me to need some kind of explanation. If
itís true. I mean, Victor Stenger doesnít think it is true but many physicists do. I
mean, it certainly doesnít in any way suggest to me creative intelligence because youíre
still left with the problem of explaining where that came from. And a creative intelligence
who is sufficiently creative and intelligent enough to fine-tune the constants of the universe
to give rise to us has, to got to be a lot more fine-tuned himself than Ö
Yeah, why create all the other planets in our solar system dead?
Well, thatís a separate question.
Well say we think he was that good. Bishop Montefiore was very good at this; he was a
former friend of mine. Heíd say that you have to marvel at the conditions of life and
the knife-edge on which they are. And Iíd say well, it is a knife edge. Yes, a lot of
our planet is too hot or too cold.
Right. Riddled with parasites. The other planets are completely too hot or
too cold to support it. And thatís just one solar system, the only one we know about where
there is life. Not much of a designer. And of course you canít get out of the infinite
regress. But Iíve not come across a single persuasive argument of that kind. But I wouldnít
have expected to because, as I realised when I thought one evening, they never come up
with anything new. Well, why would they? Their arguments are very old by definition. And
they were all evolved when we knew very, very little about the natural order. The only argument
that I find at all attractive, and this is for faith you asked as well as for theism,
is what I would, I suppose Iíd call the apotropaic. When people say all praise belongs to God
for this, Heís to be thanked for all this. That is actually a form of modesty. Itís
a superstitious one, thatís why I say apotropaic, but itís avoiding hubris. Itís also for
that reason, obviously pre-monotheistic. But, religion does, or can, help people to avoid
hubris, I think, morally and intellectually and that might be a Ö
But thatís not an argument that itís true.
Oh, for heavenís sake! No. There are and cannot be any such arguments, I think.
Well maybe I should broaden this question.
Well, no, no. Wait a minute! I think Ö
Before you answer Dan, I want Ö
I could give you several discoveries which would shake my faith right to the ground.
No, no! Let me just broaden the question.
Yep, yep.
Not only Ö
Rabbits in the Precambrian?
No, no, no. That wonít work!
Not only in argument for the plausibility of religious belief, but an argument that
suggests that what weíre up to, criticising faith, is a bad thing.
Oh, thatís much easier.
That we shouldnít be, so letís exclude that.
Ah! Okay, yes, by all means.
We shouldnít be doing what weíre doing.
Thatís much easier.
Itís easier to think of a good reason?
Oh, I mean, if somebody could come up with an argument that says that the world is a
better place and everybody believes the falsehood, is there any context though, in your work
or in dialogue with your critics, where you feel that that argument has given you pause?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes! Not so much in ëBreaking The Spellí but when I was working on my book
on free will,, ëFreedom Evolvesí. I kept running into critics who were basically expressing
something very close to a religious few, namely free will is such an important idea, if we
gave up the idea of free will, people would lose their sense of responsibility and we
would have chaos. And, you really donít wanna look too closely, just avert your eyes. Do
not look too closely at this issue of free will and determinism. And I thought about
that explicitly in the environmental impact category. Okay, could I imagine that my irrepressible
curiosity could lead me to articulate something true or false Ö
Thatís dangerous.
which would have such devastating effects on the world, that I should just shut up and
change the subject?
And I think thatís a good question that we all should ask.
Yeah, itís good.
Absolutely! And I spent a lot of time thinking hard about that and I wouldnít have published
either of those two books if I hadnít come to the conclusion that it was not only, as
it were, environmentally safe to proceed this way, but obligatory. But I think you should
ask that question. I do.
Before publishing a book, but not before deciding for yourself do I think that this is true
or not? One should never do what some politically motivated critics do, which is to say this
is so politically obnoxious that it cannot be true, and which is a different Ö
Which is a different thing entirely. No. No.
No, it would be like discovering that you thought that the bell on white and black intelligence
was a correct interpretation of IQ.
Yes, and you could well suppress publication of Ö
You see (inaudible) And now Iíve looked at all this stuff again, Iím absolutely (inaudible)
Ö so you could say, ìnow what am I gonna do?î
Fortunately these questions donít, in fact, present themselves in that way.
Iíll tell you one place where itís presented itself to me, I think it was an op-ed in the
LA times, I could be mistaken, but someone argued that the reason why the Muslim population
in the US is not radicalised the way it is in Western Europe, is largely the result of
the fact that we honour faith so much in our discourse that the community has not become
as insular and as grievance-ridden as it has Ö
As in Western Europe?
in Western Europe. Now, I donít know if this is true, but if it were true that gave me
a momentís pause.
That would be of interest. James Wolfensohn, late of the World Bank, recently the negotiator
on Gaza, says that he firmly believes that he had tremendous influence for good with
the Muslim brotherhood in Hamas, because he was an orthodox Jew. If so, I think it would
be disgusting, I have to say, and he shouldnít have had the job in the first place. Because
we know one absolute thing for certain about that conflict, which is that itís been made
infinitely worse by the (inaudible). If it were only a national and territorial dispute
it wouldíve been solved by now. But his self-satisfaction in saying so, even if it were true, would
turn me even more against him.
There are two issues that converge here. One is the question what do we want to accomplish?,
what do we reasonably think we can accomplish? And then this article of faith that I think
circulates, unfortunately, among people of our viewpoint that you canít argue anyone
out of their beliefs. Itís a completely fatuous exercise, or can we actually win a war of
ideas with people and, I think, certainly judging from my e-mail, we can. I mean, Iím
constantly getting e-mail from people who have lost their faith and in effect been argued
out of it. And the straw that broke that camelís back was either one of our books or some other
process of reasoning, or incompatibility of what they knew to be true and what they were
told by their faith that I think we have to just highlight the fact that itís possible
for people to be shown the contradictions, internal to their faith or the contradiction
between their faith and what weíve come to know to be true about the universe, and the
process can take minutes or months or years but they have to renounce their superstition
in the face of what they now know to be true. I was having an argument with a very sophisticated
biologist whoís a brilliant expositor of evolution, and he still believes in God. And
I said how can you? Whatís this all about? And he said I accept all your rational arguments,
however itís faith. And then he said this very significant phrase to me: ìThereís
a reason that itís called faith!î He said it very decisively, almost aggressively, that
thereís a reason that itís called faith. And that was, to him, the absolute knockdown
clincher. You canít argue with it because itís faith and he said it proudly and defiantly
rather than in any sort of apologetic way.
Oh, you get it all the time in North America from people who say you gotta read William
James and to have had, to be able to judge other peopleís subjective experiences with
something thatís by definition impossible to do.
If itís real to them why canít you respect it? I mean this wouldnít be accepted in any
other field of argument at all. The impression people are under is the critical thing about
them. I had a debate with a very senior Presbyterian in Orange County and I asked him, because
we were talking about biblical literalism, of which he wasnít an exponent, but I said
well what about the graves opening at the time of the crucifixion according to Saint
Matthew? Matthew, Iíd rather say, and everyone getting out of their graves in Jerusalem,
walking around greeting old friends in the city. I was going to ask him, doesnít that
rather cheapen the idea of the resurrection of Jesus? But he mistook my purpose, and wanted
to know if I believed that had happened, that was what he thought. And he said that as an
historian, which he also was, he was inclined to doubt it, but that as a Presbyterian minister,
he thought it was true. Well, alright then. You see, for me it was enough that I got him
to say that. I said in that case, I rest my case. I donít want to say anymore to you
now. Youíve said all I could say.
Yeah, yeah. Well thereís one other chip Iíd like to put on the table here. Thereís this
phenomenon of someone like Francis Collins or the biologist you just mentioned, someone
who obviously has enough of the facts on board, you know, enough of a scientific education
to know better, and still does not know better or professes not to know better, and there
I think we have a cultural problem where. And this was actually brought home to me at
one talk I gave. A physics professor came up to me at the end of the talk and told me
that he had brought one of his graduate students, who was a devout Christian, and who was quite
shaken by my talk, and all I got from this report was that this was the first time his
faith had ever really been explicitly challenged. And so itís true to say that you can go through
the curriculum of becoming a scientist and never have your faith explicitly challenged,
because itís taboo to do so, and now we have engineers who can build nuclear bombs in the
Muslim world, who still think itís plausible metaphysics that you can get to paradise and
get seventy two virgins, and we have people like Francis Collins who think that on Sunday
you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus, because you are in the
presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist.
Or according to our friend, the great Pervez Hoodbhoy, the great Pakistani physicist, there
are people who think you can use the djinns, the devils and harness their power for the
Itís almost tempting to fund such a project.
Haha, yes!
And it seems, and I gather that Ö again, I canít get over him still, that the respected,
Tariq Ramadan of Saint Anthonyís College, Oxford says in his book, Iím told, that he
believes in djinns too. I hope Iím not doing him an injustice, Iíve been told that in
his book, ëIn the Steps of the Prophetí, he says as much, so one is up against things
that are flat-out primitive and superstition.
I think it may be easier than weíre supposing to shake peoplesí faith. Thereís been a
moratorium on this for a long time. Weíre just the beginning of a new wave of explicit
attempts to shake peoplesí faith. And itís bearing fruit, and the obstacles it seems
to me are not that we donít have the facts or the arguments, itís these strategic reasons
for not professing it, not admitting it. Not admitting it to yourself, not admitting it
in public because your family is gonna view it as a betrayal, youíre just embarrassed
to admit that you were taken in by this for so long. It takes, I think, tremendous courage
to just declare that youíve given that all up and if we can find ways to help people
find that courage, and give them some examples of people who have done this and theyíre
doing just fine, they may have lost the affections of a parent or something like that, they may
have hurt some family members, but still I think itís a good thing to encourage and
I donít think we should assume that we canít do this. I think we can.
Yes, itís almost patronising to suggest that we couldnít and to suggest that it shouldnít.
On the other hand, I think we all know people who seem to manage this kind of split brain
feat of, as Sam said, believing one thing on a Sunday and then something totally contradictory
or, incompatible the rest of the week. And thereís nothing I suppose neurologically
wrong with that, I mean there is no reason why one shouldnít have a brain thatís split
in that kind of way Ö
But it is unstable in a certain way but, and Iím sure youíre right, that people do this
and theyíre very good at it, and they do it by deflecting attention from it. Letís
start focusing attention Ö
But how you can live with a contradiction? How you can live with it?
by forgetting that youíre doing this and by not attending to it. I think, what I would
love to do is to invent a memorable catchphrase or term that would rise unbidden in their
minds when they caught themselves doing it, and then they would think oh, this is one
of those cosmic shifts that Dennett and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens are talking about.
Oh! right! and they think this is somehow illicit, just to create a little more awareness
in them of what a strange thing it is that theyíre doing.
Iím afraid to say that I think that cognitive dissonance is probably necessary for everyday
survival. Everyone does it a bit.
You mean tolerating cognitive dissonance?
No, practicing it.
Actually practicing it.
I mean take the case of someone whoís a member of They think that the United
States government is a brutal, militaristic, imperial regime who crushes the poor and invades
other peoplesí countries, but they pay their taxes and, itís very, very rare that they
donít. They send their children to school, they do their stuff, you know, they donít
act all the time as if ten percent of what they believe is true. Partly because it would
be impossible, say, with people in the fifties who were members the John Birch society, who
thought President Eisenhower was a communist. Okay, you get up in the morning, you believe
that. The White House is run by the Kremlin but then you have to go and get the groceries,
and do all that stuff. You still have to go and do it.
Too many commitments, yeah.
But you absolutely wouldnít be challengeable in your belief. Itíd be very, very important
to you, but there would be no way in your life, your real life, of vindicating or practicing
the opinion that you have. And Iím sure the same is true of people who say well I shouldnít
really prefer one child to another or one parent to another but I do, Iím just not
gonna act as if I do.
All kinds of things of this kind.
But what do you think, as educators Ö
Or Senator Craig saying he is not gay. Thinking in his own mind heís absolutely sure heís
not, but he canít manage his life by saying he is or that he isnít. So, a question I
wanted to ask was this: we should ask ourselves what our real objective is. Do we, in fact,
wish to see a world without faith? I think I would have to say that I donít. I donít
either expect to, or wish to, see that.
What do you mean by ëfaithí?
Well I donít think itís possible, because it replicates so fast, faith. As often as
itís cut down, or superseded, or discredited, it replicates, it seems to me, extraordinarily
fast, I think. For Freudian reasons, principally to do with the fear of extinction, or annihilation
So you mean faith in supernatural paradigms?
Yes, the wish. Wish thinking.
Then why would you not wish it?
And then, the other thing is, would I want this argument to come to an end, with all
having conceded that Ö
You wouldnít like to retire and move on to other stuff?
ëHitchens really won that round, now nobody in the world believes in Godí? Now, apart
from being unable to picture this, Iím not completely certain that itís what I want.
I think it is rather to be considered as sort of the foundation of all arguments about epistemology,
philosophy, biology, and so on. Itís the thing you have to always be arguing against,
the other explanation.
Itís an extraordinary thing. I donít understand what youíre Ö I mean, I understand youíre
saying that itíll never work, I donít understand why you wouldnít wish it.
Because, I think, a bit like the argument between, Huxley and Darwin. Sorry, excuse
me, Huxley and Wilberforce, or Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, I want it to go on.
Because itís interesting.
I want our side to get more refined, and theirs to be ever more exposed. But I canít see
it with one hand clapping.
I mean, you donít want it to go on with the Jihadists, I mean, thereís a certain face
of this Ö
No, but I donít have a difference of opinion with the Jihadists.
Well, you do in terms of the legitimacy of their project Ö
No, not really, no, thereís nothing to argue about with that, I mean, there itís a simple
matter of survival. I want them to be extirpated.
Alright, well move it down to the people who are blocking stem cell research.
No, that is a purely primate response with me, the recognising the need to destroy an
enemy in order to assure my own survival. Iíve no interest at all in what they think.
Sounds like youíre (inaudible)
No, I mean, really Ö we havenít still come to your question about Islam, but no interest
at all in what they think. Only interested in refining methods of destroying them.
In other words, youíve simply given up.
A task in which, by the way, one gets very little secular support.
Yes, thatís notable.
Most atheists donít want this fight. The most important one is the one they want to
shirk. Theyíd far rather go off and dump on Billy Graham, ëcause on that they know
that they canít, so thereís no danger.
Well I think that because we find the idea of exterminating these people just abhorrent,
and we think that, besides, it will (inaudible) them.
No, I said ëextirpatingí.
Yes, complete destruction of the Jihadist forces. Extermination, I think, has to be
applied more as a species, or, sort of Ö
No, but Christopher, it sounds as though you like argument. You like having Ö itís almost
the theatre of having an intellectual argument, which would be lost.
Well, Iíd rather say the dialectic actually, Richard. In other words, one learns from arguing
with other people.
Now I think all of us around this table have probably enhanced, or improved, our own capacities
as reasoners.
Yes, but I mean, there are plenty of other things to reason about. Having won the battle
against religion, we can go back to science, or whatever it is we practice. And we can
argue and reason about that, and thereís plenty of arguments, really worthwhile arguments
to be had.
But itíll always be the case that some will attribute their presence here to the laws
of biology, and others will attribute their presence here to a divine plan that has a
scheme for them. And you can tell a lot, in my view, about people, from which view they
take. And, as we all know, only one of those views makes sense. Well how do we know that?
Because we have to contrast it with the opposite one, which is not going to disappear.
Well let me make an analogy here. ëCause you couldíve said the same thing about witchcraft
at some point in recent history. You could say that every culture has had a belief in
witches, a belief in the efficacy of magic spells. Witchcraft is ubiquitous, and weíre
never going to get rid of it, and weíre fools to try. Or we can try only as a matter of
dialectic, but witchcraft is going to be with us. And yet witchcraft has, almost without
exception Ö I mean, you can find certain communities where Ö
Not at all, not at all.
No, I mean real witchcraft, not witchcraft as in its religious Ö
Witchcraft is completely ineradicable; it spreads like weed, often under animist and
Christian religions.
No, no, I donít mean Ö
But not in the western world.
I mean frank witchcraft,
The Washington Post Ö
The witchcraft of the evil eye, and instead of medicine, you have the Ö
You think youíve gotten rid of that?
I think fundamentally weíve gotten rid of that, yes.
But in any case Ö
Not at all.
donít you want to get rid of it?
Not at all. Thereís currently a campaign to get Wiccans registered to be buried in
Arlington Cemetery.
Well, modulo the Wiccans Ö
But Wiccans are to witchcraft as Unitarians are to Ö (laughter)
Right, theyíre not real. What Iím talking about a willingness to kill your neighbour,
because you think that there is some causal mechanism by which they, through their evil
intent, could have destroyed your crops psychically, you know, or cast an evil eye upon your Ö
I mean it comes in ignorance of medical science. I mean, you donít know why people get sick,
and you suspect your neighbour of ill-intent, and then witchcraft fills the void there.
No, I wouldnít say in such a case that one didnít wish to be without it, that weíd
have lost something interesting to argue with.
But, we are effectively Ö I mean, weíre not dealing with the claims of witches intruding
upon medical ñ and donít go to alternative medicine and acupuncture here ñ Iím talking
about real witchcraft, you know, medieval witchcraft.
Well I was about to deal with that very thing, and The Washington Post publishes horoscopes
every day.
Astrology is yet another Ö
Yes, and that is Ö
You think Ö Iím Ö
Astrology is a pale Ö
Astrology is not going to be eradicated, even after I stop reading my horoscope.
Okay, but it doesnít need to be eradicated.
No, but youíre confusing whether itís going to be eradicated and whether you want it to
be eradicated. And it sounds as though you donít want it to be eradicated, because you
want something to argue against, and something to sharpen your wits on.
Yes, I think that is, in fact, what I Ö
But in fact, instead of thinking about eradication, why not think about it the way an evolutionary
epidemiologist would, and say what we want to do is we want to encourage the evolution
of avirulence. We want to get rid of the harmful kinds, and Ö I mean, I donít care about
astrology, I donít think itís harmful enough. I mean it was a little scary when Reagan was
reportedly using astrology to make decisions, but that, I hope anomalous, case aside, I
find the superstition that astrology is important to be relatively harmless. If we could only
do the same thing, if we could only relegate the other enthusiasms to the status of astrology,
Iíd be happy.
Well, look, you donít accept my ñ or you donít like my ñ answer, but I think the
question should be, is going to be, asked of us. It was asked of me today actually,
again on the TV: ìDo you wish no one was going to church this morning in the United
Whatís your answer?
Well, Iíve given mine, Richardís disagreed. Well, the answer I gave this morning was "I
think people would be much better off without false consolation, and I donít want them
trying to inflict their beliefs on me. Theyíd be doing themselves and me a favour if they
gave it up. So, perhaps in that sense, I contradict myself, I mean I wish they would stop it,
but then I would be left with no one to argue with.
(laughs) Well, I just donít Ö!
But, you have many other subjects!
And I certainly didnít say that I thought if theyíd only listen to me, they would stop
going. Okay, so there are two questions here. So that was my very experimental answer, but
Iíd love to hear Ö would you like to say that you look forward to a world where no
one had any faith in the supernatural?
I want to answer this. Whether itís astrology, or religion, or anything else, I want to live
in a world where people think skeptically for themselves, look at evidence. Not because
astrologyís harmful, I guess it probably isnít harmful, but if you go through the
world thinking that itís okay to just believe things because you believe them without evidence,
then youíre missing so much. And itís such a wonderful experience to live in the world,
and understand why youíre living in the world, and understand what makes it work, understand
about the real stars, understand about astronomy, that itís an impoverishing thing to be reduced
to the pettiness of astrology, and I think you can say the same of religion. The universe
is a grand, beautiful, wonderful place, and itís petty and parochial and cheapening to
believe in djinns, and supernatural creators, and supernatural interferers. I think you
could make an aesthetic case that we want to get rid of Ö
Well, fine, I Ö
I could not possibly agree with you more.
But, letís talk about priorities.
If we could just get rid of some of the most pernicious and nauseous excesses, what would
be the triumphs we would go for first? What would really thrill you as an objective reached?
Letís look at Islam, and letís look at Islam as realistically as we can. Is there any,
remote chance of a reformed, reasonable Islam?
Well, isnít the present, savage Islam actually rather recent? Isnít it the Wahabi Ö I mean,
doesnít Ö?
You have to go back quite a ways, I think, to get Ö
Only up to a point. I mean, I think thereís Ö and again none of us are the Ö whether
weíre equipped to do it, weíre not the most persuasive mouthpieces of this criticism.
I mean, I think it takes someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or a Muslim scholar, somebody like
Ibn Warraq to authentically criticise Islam, and have it be heard by people, especially
the secular liberals of the sort who donít trust our take on this, but it seems to me
that you have different historical moments in the history of Islam that are distinct,
one where Islam really has Ö you have some Muslim or you have a Caliphate, or you have
some Muslim country which has a reign of Islam and is unmolested, for whatever period of
time, from the outside, and then Islam can be as totalitarian and happy with itself as
possible, and you donít see the inherent conflict, and the inherent liability of its
creed. I mean, Samuel Huntington said that Islam has bloody borders. Itís at the borders
that weíre noticing this problem and the borders of Islam and modernity, at this moment,
the conflict between Islam and modernity. But yes, you can find instances in the history
of Islam where people werenít running around waging Jihad, because they had successfully
waged Jihad.
But what about women in that world?
Exactly, the suffering of women within those borders.
Yeah, yeah. Even in the best of times.
But thereís obviously some kind of synchronism, and we know quite a lot now. There have been
some wonderful books; Maria Menocalís book on Andalusia, for example, on periods where
Islamic civilisation was relatively at peace with its neighbours, and doing a lot of work
of its own on matters that were not Jihadist. And I saw myself, during the wars in post-Yugoslavia,
that the Bosnian Muslims behaved far better than the Christians, either Catholic or Orthodox,
and were the victims of religious massacre, and not the perpetrators of them, and were
the ones who believed the most in multiculturalism. So it can happen. You could even meet people
who said they were Atheist Muslims, or were Muslim-Atheists, Muslim-Secularists in Ö
In Sarajevo, you could, yeah. Which is a technical impossibility, but the problem is this; whether
we think, as I certainly very firmly do believe, that totalitarianism is innate in all religion,
because it has to want an absolute, unchallengeable, eternal authority.
In all religion.
It must be so. A creator whose will canít Ö our comments on his will are unimportant.
You know, his will is absolute, it cannot be challenged, and applies after weíre dead
as well as before weíre born. That is the origin of totalitarianism. I think Islam states
that in the most alarming way, in that it comes as the third of the monotheisms, and
says nothing further is required.
There have been previous words from God, we admit that, we donít claim to be exclusive,
but we do claim to be final. Thereís no need for any further work on this point.
And we do claim that thereís no distance between theology and Ö
The worst thing in our world, surely the worst thing anyone can say is ëno further enquiry
is neededí.
Oh yeah.
Youíve already got all you need to know. All else is commentary. Itís the most sinister
and dangerous thing, and that is a claim that Islam makes that others donít quite make
in the same way.
Well, let me play devilís advocate for a moment on that Ö
Thereís no refutation of Islam in Christianity or Judaism, but there is in Islam. We accept
all the bad bits of Judaism, we love Abraham and his sacrifice of his son, or willingness
to sacrifice, we love all that, we absolutely esteem the virgin birth, the most nonsensical
bits of Christianity. All thatís great, youíre all welcome to join, but we have the final
word. Thatís deadly. And I think our existence is incompatible with that preaching.
Let me just play devilís advocate for a moment, so at least weíre clear what the position
Iíd rather speak for the devil pro bono myself!
We can all speak for the devil, Iím sure a lot of people think weíre doing just that.
I, for one, think that the fact that something is true is not quite sufficient for spreading
it about, or for trying to discover it. The idea that thereís things we should just not
try to find out is an idea that I take seriously. And, I think that we at least have to examine
the proposition that thereís such a thing as knowing more than is good for us. Now,
if you accept that so far, then, a possibility we have to take seriously, even when we reject
it, we should reject it having taken it seriously, is the Muslim idea that, indeed, the West
has simply gone way too far, that there is knowledge thatís not good for us, itís knowledge
that we were better off without, and the fact that many Muslims would like to turn the clock
back, they canít of course. But, I have a certain sympathy for a Muslim who says ëwell
yeah, the catís out of the bag, itís too late, itís a tragedy, you in the West have
exposed truths to yourselves, and now youíre forcing them on us, that the species would
be better off not knowing.í
Iím absolutely riveted by what you say. Iíd really love an instance in theory or practice,
of something, that you think we could know but could forbid ourselves to know. Because
that is harder for me to imagine, than a world without faith, I must say.
Well, you brought up the bell curve ñ I mean, if there were reliable differences in intelligence
between races, or species, or gender Ö
Yes, but I donít think any of us here do think that thatís the case. I mean, Iím
thinking there must be something, you mustíve thought of something you could believe, but
wish you didnít know.
Oh, I donít think itís hard to dream up things which, if they were true, it might
be better for the human race to go on not knowing them.
But could you concretise it just a little more? Iím completely Ö
I mean, the hypothetical is one thing, but Christopher is asking do you actually Ö have
you ever suppressed something that Ö ?
No, no, I havenít.
No, no.
Can you imagine yourself doing so, by the way? I mean, I canít.
Oh, I can imagine it, I hope it never comes up.
Well, take the synthesising of bioweapons. I mean, should Nature publish the code for
Smallpox, where anyone within his lab can Ö
Yeah, exactly. Thereís all those sorts of things.
Oh, well, all right, but that would be a knowledge of which we should remain
innocent. That would be more like a capacity.
I think, with foresight, certainly you can conceive of a circumstance where someone can
seek knowledge, the only conceivable application of which would be unethical, or the dissemination
of which would put power in the wrong hands. But actually, you brought up something which
I think is crucial here, because itís not so much the spread of seditious truths to
Islam or the rest of the world that I think weíre guilty of in the eyes of our opponents,
itís the not-honouring of facts that are not easily quantified, and easily discussed
in science. I mean the classic retort to all of us is ëprove to me that you love your
wifeí, as though this were a knockdown argument against atheism. You canít prove it. Well,
if you unpack that a little bit, you can prove it, you can demonstrate it, we know what you
mean by love, but, there is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by
science, and scientific discourse has really ceded it to religious discourse.
And artistic discourse, which is not religious, necessarily.
But I would argue itís not even well-captured by art, necessarily, thereís something in
the same way that love is not really well-captured by art, and compassion is not Ö well, I mean,
you can represent it in art, but itís not reducible to Ö you donít go into the museum
and find compassion in its purest form. And, I think thereís something about the way we,
as atheists, merely dismiss the bogus claims of religious people that convinces religious
people that thereís something weíre missing, and I think we have to be sensitive to this.
Absolutely, thatís why they bring up "when has secularism ever built anything like Durham
Cathedral or a Chartres? or a devotional painting? or the music of Ö?î
Well, I guess it would have to be Bach, yes.
But I think we have answers to that. I think we have answers to that
Yes, we do.
You provide a very good answer to that, if there was secular patronage of the arts at
that point, then one, we canít know that Michelangelo was actually a believer, because
the consequence of professing your unbelief, in that case, was death. But two, if we had
a secular organisation to Ö
To commission Michelangelo.
Ö to commission Michelangelo, you know, we would have all that secular artwork.
Though do you Ö I didnít actually say that the corollary held
I think itís true we canít know with devotional painting, and sculpture, and architecture
that the patronage didnít have a lot to do with it. But I canít hear myself saying ëif
only you had a secular painter, he would have done just as good work.í
Oh no, no, I think Iím fusing you and Richard there.
I donít know why, and Iím quite happy to find that I donít know why, I canít quite
hear myself saying that.
What? That Michelangelo, if heíd been commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science,
wouldnít have produced something just as wonderful?
In some way, Iím reluctant to affirm that, yes.
Really? I find it very, very easy to believe that.
That could be a difference between us, I mean with devotional poetry, where I do Ö I donít
know much about painting or architecture or music, and some devotional architecture, like,
say, St Peterís, Ö
It couldnít be done.
I donít like anyway, and knowing that it was built by a special sale of indulgences
doesnít help either!
Yeah, right.
With devotional poetry, like say that of, say, John Donne, or George Herbert, I find
it very hard to imagine that itís faked, or done for a patron.
Yes, I think thatís fair enough.
It would be very improbable people would write poetry like that to please anyone.
Well, could it be done in the spirit of reason?
Well, I frankly think thatís the only explanation.
But, in any case, what conclusion would you draw? I mean, if Donneís devotional poetry
is wonderful, so what? I mean it doesnít show that it represents truth in any sense.
Not in the least. Well, my favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkinís ìChurch Goingî.
Itís like one of the best poems ever written. It exactly expresses Ö I wish I had it here,
well actually I do have it here. If you like, I can read it ñ but I wouldnít trust anyone
who believed any more, or any less than Larkin does, when he goes to a wayside Gothic church
in the English countryside, who felt ñ I donít say believed ñ I shouldnít say believed
ñ who felt any more than he does, heís an atheist, or who felt any less, that thereís
something serious about this. And something written into the human personality, as well
as the landscape.
Letís bring this back to your question.
I donít see that this is anything other than a special case.
It goes without saying that this says nothing about the truth of religion.
I donít see how this is anything other than a special case. Other special cases of which
would be Ö I canít think of a perfect example Ö only by being lost at sea for two years
in a boat, and then surviving that, thatís the only way you could conceivably have written
this account, it could not be fiction.
Or quit smoking!
And itís glorious, wonderful art, and it can be true, and we just accept thatís true,
and Donneís poetry, only very extreme circumstances could make it possible. And we can be grateful,
perhaps, that those extreme circumstances existed and made this possible.
In his case?
But now you wouldnít recommend being lost at sea to everyone?
No, no, no.
No, I wouldnít recommend ìDeath Be Not Proudî to anyone, either, although itís a wonderful
poem, but itís complete gibberish if you look only at the words. Itís the most extraordinary
gibberish if you look only at the words, but thereís an x-factor involved, which Iím
quite happy to both assume will persist, and will need to be confronted.
Right. You raise this issue though, of whether or not we would wish the churches emptied
on Sundays. And I think you were uncertain whether you would, and I think I would agree.
I would want a different church. I would want a different ritual, motivated by different
ideas but I think thereís a place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal
it doesnít presuppose any bullshit. But thereís a usefulness to seeking profundity as a matter
of our attention, and our neglect of this area, I think, as atheists, at times makes
even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are. I mean, take someone like Sayyid Qutb,
whoís as crazy as it gets, mean Osama bin Ladenís favorite philosopher. He came out
to Greeley, Colorado, I think it was, around 1950, and spent a year in America, and noticed
that all his American hosts were spending all their time gossiping about movie stars
and trimming their hedges and coveting each otherís automobiles and he came to believe
that that America, or the West, was so trivial in its preoccupations and so materialistic
that it had to be destroyed. Now this shouldnít be construed as giving any credence to his
world view but he has a point. There is something trivial and horrible about the day-to-day
fascinations of most of us, and most people, most of the time. Thereís a difference between
really using your attention wisely in a meaningful way, and our perpetual distraction. And traditionally,
only religion has tried enunciate and clarify that difference. And I think thatís a lapse
in our Ö
I think youíve made that point and weíve accepted it, Sam. I mean, going back to the
thing about whether weíd like to see churches empty, I think I would like to see churches
empty. What I wouldnít like to see, however, is ignorance of the Bible.
Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You canít understand art,
you canít understand music. There are all sorts of things you canít understand, for
historical reasons. But those historical reasons you canít wipe out, theyíre there. And so
even if you donít actually go to church and pray, youíve got to understand what it meant
to people to pray and why they did it, and what these verses in the Bible mean and what
this Ö
But it only that? Just the retrospective and historical appreciation of our of our ancestorsí
You can more than just appreciate it, you can lose yourself in it, just as you could
lose yourself in a work of fiction without actually believing that the characters are
But youíre sure you wanna see the churches empty? You canít imagine a variety of churches,
maybe by their Ö like itís an extremely denatured church. A church which has ritual
and loyalty, and common cause and purpose, and even Ö
and music.
yes, yes, yes
And they sing the songs and they do the rituals, but where the irrationality has simply been
long without.
oh, okay. So you go to those places for funerals and weddings
and you have beautiful poetry and music,
and also perhaps for Ö
group solidarity meetings.
group solidarity to create some project which is hard to get off the ground otherwise.
I think thereís one more tiny thing, I mean, I havenít been tempted to go to church and
thatís a very, very small point but one reason that makes it very easy to keep me out it
is the use of the New English Bible instead of Ö
Oh, how dull, yes.
the King James one, right. I mean, thereís really no point, I canít see why anyone goes,
and (inaudible) stay away. Theyíve thrown away Ö
All the poetry, yeah Ö
A pearl richer than all their tribe.
They donít even know what theyíve got. Itís terrible. If I was a lapsed Catholic and I
brooded about how I wanted my funeral to be arranged, which is not something I would,
Iíd want the Latin Mass. YES!
For sure.
I mean thereís another issue there, which of course is that is when it becomes intelligible
the nonsense becomes more transparent, and so if itís in Latin, it can survive much
better. Itís rather like a camouflaged insect. It can get through the get through the barriers,
because you canít see it. And whereas when itís translated into not just English but
modern English, you can see it for what it is.
But now, seriously then, do you, therefore delight in the fact that churches are modernising
their texts and using the Ö
No, no I donít.
Or do you Ö
Itís an aesthetic point. No, I donít.
Thatís the worst of both worlds.
(inaudible) it seems to me Ö
And we should be grateful for it. We didnít do this to them.
Yeah, thatís right, we didnít impose this on them Ö
Any more than we Ö
We werenít clever enough Ö
We donít blow up Shiía mosques either. We donít blow up the Birmingham Buddhas, we
donít desecrate. For the reasons given, myself at least (inaudible), we would have a natural
resistance to profanity and desecration. Weíd leave it to the pious to destroy churches
and burn synagogues or blow up each otherís mosques, and I think thatís a point that
we might spend more time making because I do think it is feared of us, and this was
my point to begin with, that we wish for a world thatís somehow empty of this echo of
music and poetry and the numinous and so forth. That we would be happy in a Brave New World.
And since I donít think itís true of any of us Ö
No, no itís not.
itís a point one might spend a bit more time making, that indeed, the howling wilderness
of nothingness is much more likely to result from holy war, or religious conflict or theocracy
than it is from a proper secularism, which would therefore, I think, have to not just
allow or leave or tolerate or condescend to or patronise, but would actually in a sense
welcome the persistence of something like faith. I feel Iíve put it better now than
I did at the beginning.
but not as unintelligently there, I think. What do you mean ësomething like faithí?
Yeah, and how like faith?
Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know.
Well, thatís fine.
Well that we could share.
Dan Dennett believes that, thatís not faith.
Yeah, sure.
I mean, we know thereís more than we presently know Ö
Well, that was my original point in saying, or are likely to know. If we could find a
way of enforcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious, we would be
doing something culturally quite important.
When I talk about this stuff Ö well, Richard and I did this at Central Hall with Scruton
and that rather very weird team that we debated, who kept on saying, Scruton particularly,
well what about the good old Gothic spires and so forth? I said look, I wrote a book
about the Parthenon, Iím intensely interested in it. I think everyone should go, everyone
should study it and so forth, but everyone should abstain from the cult of Pallas Athena.
Everyone should realise that probably what that sculptural frieze thatís so beautiful
describes, may involve some human sacrifices. Athenian imperialism wasnít all that pretty,
even under Pericles and so on. The great cultural project, in other words, may very well be
to rescue what we have of the art and aesthetic of religion while discarding the supernatural.
And I think acknowledging the evil that was part of its creation in the first place. That
is, we canít condone the beliefs and practices of those Aztecs but we can stand in awe of
and want to preserve their architecture and many other features of their culture. But
not their practices and not their beliefs.
I once did a British radio programme called Desert Island Discs, where you have to go
on and choose your six records which you take to a desert island, and talk about it. And
one of the ones I chose was Bach Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. Itís wonderful sacred music
and the woman questioning me couldnít understand why I would wish to have this piece of music.
Itís beautiful music and its beauty is indeed enhanced by knowing what it means. But you
still donít actually have to believe it. It like reading fiction. You can lose yourself
in fiction, and be totally moved to tears by it, but nobody would ever say youíve got
to believe that, this person existed and that the sadness that you feel really reflected
something that actually happened.
Yes, like the Bishop of Dublin preached a sermon against Swift and said that heíd read
every book of Gulliverís Travels, and for his part he didnít believe a word of them!
(laughter). So thatís the locus classicus, I think, of all that. Well, clearly weíre
not cultural vandals but maybe we should think of the way in which so many people suspect
that thatís what we are. If I would accept one criticism that these people make, or one
suspicion that I suspect they harbour, or fear that they may have, I think that might
be the one. That it would be all chromium and steel and Ö
Yes, and very much so.
and no Christmas carols and no menorahs, and no Ö
Anybody who makes that criticism couldnít possibly have read any one of our
No. Well, thatís another problem, too.
Another problem is that the people that Ö
the criticism isnít just our books, itís so many books.
and people donít read them, they just read the reviews and then they decide thatís what
Weíre about to have the Christmas wars, again of course, and this being the last day of
September, you can feel it all coming on, but whenever it comes up, when I go on any
of these shows to discuss it, I say it was Oliver Cromwell who cut down the Christmas
trees and forbade Ö It was the Puritan Protestants, the ancestors of the American Fundamentalists
who said Christmas would be blasphemy. Do you at least respect your own traditions,
ícause I do. I think Cromwell was a great man, in many other ways as well. This is actually
a pagan festival.
Well, we were all outed with our Christmas trees last year.
I have not the slightest problem with Christmas trees.
No, no, we had our Christmas card with our pictures of us.
Itís a good old Norse booze-up. And why the hell not?
Well, but itís not just that, I mean, we Ö
I like solstices as much as the next person.
We have an annual Christmas carol party, where we sing the music and all the music with all
the words, and not the secular Christmas stuff.
And why not? Yes.
And itís just glorious stuff. That part of the Christian story is fantastic. Itís just
a beautiful tale. And you can love every inch of it without believing.
I once at lunch was next to the lady who was our opponent at that debate in London.
Rabbi Neuberger.
Rabbi Neuberger. And she asked me whether I said grace in New College, when I happened
to be a Senior Fellow. And I said of course I say grace, itís a matter of simple courtesy
and she was furious.
Oh, really?
Yes. That I should somehow be so hypocritical as to say grace. And I had could only say
well look, it may mean something to you but it means absolutely nothing to me. This is
a Latin formula which has some history, and I appreciate history. Freddy Ayer, the philosopher,
also used to say grace, and what he said was: ìI wonít utter falsehoods but Iíve no objection
to uttering meaningless statements.î (general laughter)
Oh thatís very good. The Wykeham Professor?
Yes, with (inaudible)
(inaudible) was an old friend. Did we answer your question on Islam?
Ah, I donít know. Well, okay, Iíll ask a related question. Do you feel thereís any
burden we have, as critics of religion, to be even-handed in our criticism of religion,
or is it fair to notice that thereís a spectrum of religious ideas and commitments and Islam
is on one end of it, and the Amish and the Jains and others are on another, and there
are real differences here that we have to take seriously?
Well, of course they have to take them seriously but we donít have to do the network balancing
trick all the time. There are plenty of people taking care of pointing out the good stuff
and the benign stuff and we can acknowledge that and then concentrate on the problems.
Thatís what critics do, and again, if we were writing books about the pharmaceutical
industry, would we have to spend equal time on all the good they do? Or could we specialise
in the problems? I think itís very clear.
I think Samís asking more about Ö
Well we could criticise Merck, if they were especially egregious, as opposed to some other
company, I mean if we were focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, not all pharmaceutical
businesses would be culpable in the same way.
Yeah right. Then the question is what? That should we Ö is there something wrong with
No I think youíre talking cross-purposes, I think I think Samís asking about whether
we should be even-handed in criticising the different religions, and youíre talking about
evenhandedness about good versus bad.
Whether all religions are equally bad?
Whether Islam is worse than Christianity or Ö
It seems to me we fail to enlist the friends we have on this subject, when we balance this. I mean, itís
a tactic, itís a media tactic, and in some sense itís almost an ontological commitment
of atheism to say that all faith claims are in some sense equivalent. You know, the media
says that Muslims have their extremists and we have our extremists. We have jihadists
in the Middle-East and we have Ö
Thereís an imbalance there, yeah.
people who kill (inaudible) doctors, and itís just not a real equation. I mean, with the
mayhem thatís going on under the aegis of Islam, it just cannot be compared to the fact
that we have, you know people who (?missing word) a decade, kill abortionists. And so
I think my commitment Ö I mean, this is one of the problems I have with the concept of
atheism is that I just think it hobbles us in this discourse where we have to seem to
kind of spread the light of criticism equally in all directions at all moment. And I think
we could, on any specific question, have a majority of religious people agree with us.
I mean, a majority of people in this country, in the United States, clearly agree that the
doctrine of martyrdom in Islam is appalling, and not benign, and liable to get a lot of
people killed, and worthy of criticism. Likewise, the doctrine that souls live in Petri dishes
Ö even Christians, even 70 percent of Americans donít want to believe that, in light of the
promise of stem cell research. So it seems to me once we focus on particulars, we have
a real strength of numbers, and yet when we stand back from the ramparts of atheism and
say itís all bogus, we lose 90 percent of our neighbours.
Well Iím sure that thatís right. On the other hand, my concern is actually not so
much with the with the evils of religion as whether itís true. And I really do care passionately
about that. The fact of the matter: is there, as a matter of fact, a supernatural creator
in this universe? And I really care about that. And so although I also care about the
evils of religion, I am prepared to be even-handed because they all make this claim. Seems to
me equally upfront Ö
Yeah. I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false. And for that
reason, because theyíre forced by preferring faith to reason, latently at least, equally
Equally false but surely not quite equally dangerous, because Ö
No, latently I think so.
Latently, maybe.
Because of the surrender of the mind. The eagerness to discard the only thing that weíve
got that makes us higher primates, the faculty of reason. Thatís always deadly.
And always Ö
Iím not sure there, I think Ö
and I think Ö
Itís potentially (inaudible)
The Amish canít hurt me, but they can sure hurt the people who live in their community;
theyíre a little totalitarian system.
But not quite in the same way Ö
The Dalai Lama claims to be a God King of hereditary monarchy and inherited godliness.
Itís the most repulsive possible idea and he runs a crummy little dictatorship in Dharamsala,
and it would be worse, and praises the Indian nuclear tests, it would be worse. Itís only
limited by his own limited scope.
But if you added Jihad to that, you would be more concerned.
The same evil is present. Every time Iíve ever debated with Islamists, theyíve all
said: ìAh, youíve just offended a billion Muslimsî, as if they spoke for them. As if
thereís a different threat to this, a menace, a military turn to what they say. In other
words, if theyíd said ìYouíve just offended me as a Muslimî, it doesnít quite sound
the same, does it? If they were the only one who believed in the prophet Muhammad. No,
no, itís a billion! And by the way, whatís implied in that is ìwatch out!î I donít
care. If there was only one person who believed that the prophet Muhammad had been given dictation
by the archangel Gabriel, Iíd still say what I was saying.
Right, but you wouldnít lay awake at night.
And it would be just as dangerous that they believed that, yes. It would, ícause it could
spread. The belief could become more general.
Well, it has, in the case of Islam, it has spread, and is spreading, and so itís danger
is not only potential but actual.
Yeah. I can see no contradiction Ö
Yes but over space and time, I think this tremendously evens out. I mean I didnít expect
ñ Iím sure, neither did you ñ in the sixties, that there would be such a threat from Jewish
fundamentalism, of relatively small numbers but in a very important place, a strategic
place in (inaudible) Ö deciding to try and bring on the Messiah by stealing other peopleís
land, and trying to bring on the end. Numerically itís extremely small, but the consequences
that itís had, have been absolutely calamitous. We didnít used to think actually of Judaism
as a threat in that way at all, until the Zionist movement annexed the messianic, or
fused with it, because the messianists didnít used to be Zionists, as you know, so, youíd
never know when itís gonna be next.
Well that I certainly Ö
I agree, Iím not likely to have my throat cut at the supermarket by a Quaker, but the
Quakers do a lot of the work by saying we preach nonresistance to evil. Thatís as wicked
a position as you could possibly hold.
Given the right context, yeah.
I mean, what could be more revolting than that? Say you see evil and violence and cruelty
and you donít fight it?
Yeah, theyíre free riders.
Read Franklin on what the Quakers were like at the crucial moment in Philadelphia, when
there had to be a battle over freedom and see why people despised them. I wouldíve
then said that Quakerism was actually quite a serious danger to the United States. So,
itís a matter of space and time, but no, theyíre all, theyíre all equally rotten,
false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.
Itís true, I mean, thereís one point you make here that I think we should say a little
more about, is that you almost can never quite anticipate the danger of unreason. I mean,
when your mode of interacting with others and the universe is to affirm truths, youíre
in no position to affirm. If the liabilities of that are potentially infinite, I mean you
just donít know. So to take a case that I raised a moment ago, stem cell research, you
donít know going in, that the idea that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception,
is a terrible idea. I mean, it seems a totally benign idea, until you invent something like
stem cell research, where it stands in the way of incredibly promising, lifesaving research.
I mean, thereís something about dogmatism which you can almost never foresee how many
lives itís gonna cost, because the conflict with reality just erupts.
Well, thatís why I think the moment where everything went wrong, is the moment when,
the Jewish Hellenists were defeated by the Jewish messianists. The celebration now benignly
known as Hanukah, so as it can not clash with Christendom. Thatís where the human race
took itís worst turn. Thereís a few people, but they re-established the animal sacrifices,
the circumcision and the cult of Yahweh over Hellenism and philosophy and Christianity
is a plagiarism of that. Christianity would never have happened (inaudible) and nor would
Islam. No doubt there wouldíve been other crazed cults and so forth, but there might
have been a chance to not destroy Hellenistic civilisation. Well, itís not a matter of
numbers Ö
Youíd still have a Dalai Lama Ö
itís a matter of, if I may say so, memes and infections, which would spread very fast.
Of course I wouldíve certainly said in the 1930s that the Catholic Church was the most
deadly organisation because of its alliance with fascism, which was explicit and open
and sordid, much the most dangerous church. But I would not now say that the Pope is the
most dangerous of the religious authorities, thereís no question Islam is most dangerous
religion and partly because it doesnít have a papacy. You canít tell it to stop something
and make an edict saying Ö
(inaudible) out of control, yeah.
But I would still have to say that Judaism is the root of the problem.
Although itís only the root of the problem in light of the Muslim fixation on that
land. If the Muslims didnít care about Palestine we could have the settlers trying to usher
in the messiah all they want. Thereíd be no issue. Itís only the conflict of claims
on that real estate.
Well, both sides have that, are fixated on it.
Both sides are at fault, but the only reason why 200,000 settlers could potentially precipitate
a global conflict is because there are a billion people who really care whether those settlers
tear down the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Ö
Which itís their dream to do, because they have the belief that one part of the globe
is holier than another. Than which no belief could be no more insane or irrational or indecent.
And so just a few of them holding that view and having the power to make it real, is enough
to risk the civilisational conflict which civilisation could lose. I mean, I think weíll
be very lucky if we get through this conflict without a nuclear exchange.
Actually, I think thatís a very good topic. What are our most grandiose hopes and fears
here? I mean, what do you think reasonably could be accomplished in the lifetime of our
children? What do you think the stakes actually are, and Ö
And how would you get there?
Yeah, I mean, is there something we could engineer apart from just mere criticism? I
mean, are there sort of like practical steps? I mean what with a billion dollars could we
do to effect some significant change of ideas? Is there any practical Ö
Well, I feel myself on the losing side politically, and on the winning side intellectually.
But you donít see anything to do?
Look, in the current zeitgeist. I donít think we would be accused of undue conceit if we
said of ourselves, or didnít mind it being said of us, that weíve been opening and carrying
forward and largely winning an argument thatís been neglected for too long. I mean, certainly
in the United States and Britain at this moment thatís true, it seems to me, but in global
terms, I think weíre absolutely in a tiny, dwindling minority thatís going to be defeated
by the forces of theocracy, which will probably Ö
So youíre betting against us?
No, I think theyíre gonna end up by destroying civilisation. Iíve long thought so.
Well of course you may be right, because Ö
but not without a struggle.
because it can be a single catastrophe Ö
ëcause thatís my big disagreement with Professor Dawkins is that I think itís us, plus the
82nd Airborne and the 101st, who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment. The
ones who are really fighting the main enemy.
So in what sense do you disagree?
And I think, amongst secularists, that must be considered the most eccentric
position that you could possibly hold. Thatís a tooth fairy belief among most people. But
I believe it to be an absolute fact. It is only because of the willingness of the United
States to combat and confront theocracy that we have a chance of beating it. Our arguments
are absolutely of no relevance in that respect.
well you may have many more takers, although not on the territory of Iraq. It mean it may
be that we need the 82nd Airborne to fight a different war in a different place, for
the same purpose, for the stated purpose.
Voila, by all means, there are reservations to be expressed by me, which I happily give
you but in principle I think itís a very important recognition.
Unfortunately weíre running out of time,
And possibly tape.