When the formation of Yoism was first proposed to
Saint Richard in 1988, he had an anaphylactic reaction. He seemed to experience hysterical deafness and, immediately after hearing the word "religion," he turned away in apparent disgust. Two decades later, while promoting his book, The God Delusion, his hysterical deafness seems to have dissipated and he finally was able to acknowledge that the pantheistic Reality/Universe/God of Baruch Spinoza or of Albert Einstein—i.e., the type of "God" represented by Yo—is something he, in fact, believes in!
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Richard Dawkins is the
world's most famous out-of-the-closet living atheist. He is also the world's
most controversial evolutionary biologist. Publication of his 1976 book, "The
Selfish Gene," thrust Dawkins into the limelight as the handsome, irascible,
human face of scientific reductionism. The book provoked everything from outrage
to glee by arguing that natural selection worked its creative powers only
through genes, not species or individuals. Humans are merely "gene survival
machines," he asserted in the book.
Dawkins stuck to his
theme but expanded his territory in such subsequent books as "The Blind
Watchmaker," "Unweaving the Rainbow" and "Climbing Mount Improbable." His recent
work, "The Ancestor's Tale," traces human lineage back through time, stopping to
ponder important forks in the evolutionary road.
Given his outspoken
defense of Darwin, and natural selection as the force of life, Dawkins has
assumed a new role: the religious right's Public Enemy No. 1. Yet Dawkins
doesn't shy from controversy, nor does he suffer fools gladly. He recently met a
minister who was on the opposite side of a British political debate. When the
minister put out his hand, Dawkins kept his hands at his side and said, "You,
sir, are an ignorant bigot."
Currently, Dawkins is the
Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford
University, a position created for him in 1995 by Charles Simonyi, a Microsoft
millionaire. Earlier this year, Dawkins signed an agreement with British
television to make a documentary about the destructive role of religion in
modern history, tentatively titled "The Root of All Evil."
I met Dawkins in late
March at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in Los Angeles,
where he presented the alliance's top honor, the Richard Dawkins Prize, to
magicians Penn and Teller. During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was
as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft
Once again, evolution
is under attack. Are there any questions at all about its validity?
It's often said that
because evolution happened in the past, and we didn't see it happen, there is no
direct evidence for it. That, of course, is nonsense. It's rather like a
detective coming on the scene of a crime, obviously after the crime has been
committed, and working out what must have happened by looking at the clues that
remain. In the story of evolution, the clues are a billionfold.
There are clues from the
distribution of DNA codes throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, of protein
sequences, of morphological characters that have been analyzed in great detail.
Everything fits with the idea that we have here a simple branching tree. The
distribution of species on islands and continents throughout the world is
exactly what you'd expect if evolution was a fact. The distribution of fossils
in space and in time are exactly what you would expect if evolution were a fact.
There are millions of facts all pointing in the same direction and no facts
pointing in the wrong direction.
British scientist J.B.S.
Haldane, when asked what would constitute evidence against evolution, famously
said, "Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian." They've never been found. Nothing
like that has ever been found. Evolution could be disproved by such facts. But
all the fossils that have been found are in the right place. Of course there are
plenty of gaps in the fossil record. There's nothing wrong with that. Why
shouldn't there be? We're lucky to have fossils at all. But no fossils have been
found in the wrong place, such as to disprove the fact of evolution. Evolution
is a fact.
Still, so many people
resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?
It comes, I'm sorry to
say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won't find any opposition to the
idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an
exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at
present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in
Britain, but in the United States.
Creation vs Evolution, Simpson Style (along
with a very brief version of the creation
story believed by most Americans).
My American friends tell
me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very
disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and
right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly
outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.
But the broad direction
of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going
through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is
great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don't despair, these things pass.
You delve into
agnosticism in "The Ancestor's Tale." How does it differ from atheism?
[Dawkins' Teapot Atheism:]It's said that the only
rational stance is agnosticism because you can neither prove nor disprove the
existence of the supernatural creator. I find that a weak position. It is true
that you can't disprove anything but you can put a probability value on it.
There's an infinite number of things that you can't disprove: unicorns,
werewolves, and tiny teapots in orbit around [the sun]. But we don't pay any heed to them
unless there is some positive reason to think that they do exist.
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Believing in God is
like believing in a teapot orbiting [the sun]?
Yes. For a long time it
seemed clear to just about everybody that the beauty and elegance of the world
seemed to be prima facie evidence for a divine creator. But the philosopher
David Hume already realized three centuries ago that this was a bad argument. It
leads to an infinite regression. You can't statistically explain improbable
things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because
you're still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even
more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate
explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a
car is explained by a designer but that's because the designer himself, the
engineer, is explained by natural selection.
Those who embrace
"intelligent design" -- the idea that living cells are too complex to have been
created by nature alone -- say evolution isn't incompatible with the existence
There is just no evidence
for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works
up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The
engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain -- but it is
explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary
biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known
mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come
into the universe anywhere.
So why do we insist on
believing in God?
From a biological point
of view, there are lots of different theories about why we have this
extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things. One suggestion
is that the child mind is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to
infection the same way a computer is. In order to be useful, a computer has to
be programmable, to obey whatever it's told to do. That automatically makes it
vulnerable to computer viruses, which are programs that say, "Spread me, copy
me, pass me on." Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it.
Similarly, the child
brain is preprogrammed by natural selection to obey and believe what parents and
other adults tell it. In general, it's a good thing that child brains should be
susceptible to being taught what to do and what to believe by adults. But this
necessarily carries the down side that bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time
ideas like rain dances and other religious customs, will also be passed down the
generations. The child brain is very susceptible to this kind of infection. And
it also spreads sideways by cross infection when a charismatic preacher goes
around infecting new minds that were previously uninfected.
You've said that
raising children in a religious tradition may even be a form of abuse.
What I think may be abuse
is labeling children with religious labels like Catholic child and Muslim child.
I find it very odd that in our civilization we're quite happy to speak of a
Catholic child that is 4 years old or a Muslim of child that is 4, when these
children are much too young to know what they think about the cosmos, life and
morality. We wouldn't dream of speaking of a Keynesian child or a Marxist child.
And yet, for some reason we make a privileged exception of religion. And, by the
way, I think it would also be abuse to talk about an atheist child.
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A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit,
neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit . . .
Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.
~ Matthew 7:15-20 ~
You are working on a
new book tentatively called "The God Delusion." Can you explain it?
A delusion is something
that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence. Religion is scarcely
distinguishable from childhood delusions like the "imaginary friend" and the
bogeyman under the bed. Unfortunately, the God delusion possesses adults, and
not just a minority of unfortunates in an asylum. The word "delusion" also
carries negative connotations, and religion has plenty of those.
What are its negative
A delusion that
encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble.
Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned
argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion
from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in
extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves
but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go
out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and
But you don't do that if
you just know your holy book is the God-written truth and the other guy knows
that his incompatible scripture is too. People brought up to believe in faith
and private revelation cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds. No
wonder religious zealots throughout history have resorted to torture and
execution, to crusades and jihads, to holy wars and purges and pogroms, to the
Inquisition and the burning of witches.
What are the dark
sides of religion today?
Terrorism in the Middle
East, militant Zionism, 9/11, the Northern Ireland "troubles," genocide, which
turns out to be "credicide" in Yugoslavia, the subversion of American science
education, oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Roman
Catholic Church, which thinks you can't be a valid priest without testicles.
Fifty years ago,
philosophers like Bertrand Russell felt that the religious worldview would fade
as science and reason emerged. Why hasn't it?
That trend toward
enlightenment has indeed continued in Europe and Britain. It just has not
continued in the U.S., and not in the Islamic world. We're seeing a rather
unholy alliance between the burgeoning theocracy in the U.S. and its allies, the
theocrats in the Islamic world. They are fighting the same battle: Christian on
one side, Muslim on the other. The very large numbers of people in the United
States and in Europe who don't subscribe to that worldview are caught in the
Actually, holy alliance
would be a better phrase. Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the
side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have
implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that
when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the
other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The
delusional "next world" is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much
better place without either of them.
contribute to the violence of Islamic extremists? Christian extremists?
Of course it does. From
the cradle, they are brought up to revere martyrs and to believe they have a
fast track to heaven. With their mother's milk they imbibe hatred of heretics,
apostates and followers of rival faiths.
I don't wish to suggest
it is doctrinal disputes that are motivating the individual soldiers who are
doing the killing. What I do suggest is that in places like Northern Ireland,
religion was the only available label by which people could indulge in the human
weakness for us-or-them wars. When a Protestant murders a Catholic or a Catholic
murders a Protestant, they're not playing out doctrinal disagreements about
What is going on is more
like a vendetta. It was one of their lot's grandfathers who killed one of our
lot's grandfathers, and so we're getting our revenge. The "their lot" and "our
lot" is only defined by religion. In other parts of the world it might be
defined by color, or by language, but in so many parts of the world it isn't,
it's defined by religion. That's true of the conflicts among Croats and the
Serbs and Bosnians -- that's all about religion as labels.
The grotesque massacres
in India at the time of partition were between Hindus and Muslims. There was
nothing else to distinguish them, they were racially the same. They only
identified themselves as "us" and the others as "them" by the fact that some of
them were Hindus and some of them were Muslims. That's what the Kashmir dispute
is all about. So, yes, I would defend the view that religion is an extremely
potent label for hostility. That has always been true and it continues to be
true to this day.
How would we be better
off without religion?
We'd all be freed to
concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in
the privilege -- the remarkable good fortune -- that each one of us enjoys
through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the
people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose
number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and
presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we
all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if
morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them,
rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual
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environmental costs of a religious worldview?
There are many religious
points of view where the conservation of the world is just as important as it is
to scientists. But there are certain religious points of view where it is not.
In those apocalyptic religions, people actually believe that because they read
some dopey prophesy in the book of Revelation, the world is going to come to an
end some time soon. People who believe that say, "We don't need to bother about
conserving forests or anything else because the end of the world is coming
anyway." A few decades ago one would simply have laughed at that. Today you
can't laugh. These people are in power.
Unlike other accounts
of the evolution of life, "The Ancestor's Tale" starts at the present and works
back. Why did you decide to tell the story in reverse?
The most important reason
is that if you tell the evolution story forwards and end up with humans, as it's
humanly normal to do so because people are interested in themselves, it makes it
look as though the whole of evolution were somehow aimed at humanity, which of
course it wasn't. One could aim anywhere, like at kangaroos, butterflies or
frogs. We're all contemporary culmination points, for the moment, in evolution.
If you go backward,
however, no matter where you start in this huge tree of life, you always
converge at the same point, which is the origin of life. So that was the main
reason for structuring the book the way I did. It gave me a natural goal to head
toward -- the origin of life -- no matter where I started from. Then I could
legitimately start with humans, which people are interested in.
People like to trace
their ancestry. One of the most common types of Web sites, after ones about sex,
is one's family history. When people trace the ancestry of that name, they
normally stop at a few hundred years. I wanted to go back 4,000 million years.
The idea of going back
towards a particular goal called to my mind the notion of pilgrimage as a kind
of literary device. So I very vaguely modeled the book on Chaucer's "Canterbury
Tales," where the pilgrims start off as a band of human pilgrims walking
backward to discover our ancestors. We are successively joined by other pilgrims
-- the chimpanzee pilgrims at 5 million years, then the gorilla pilgrims, then
the orangutan pilgrims. Starting with humans, there are only about 39 such
rendezvous points as you go back in time. It's a rather surprising fact.
Rendezvous 39 is where we meet the bacteria pilgrims.
The idea that
evolution could be "random" seems to frighten people. Is it random?
This is a spectacular
misunderstanding. If it was random, then of course it couldn't possibly have
given rise to the fantastically complicated and elegant forms that we see.
Natural selection is the important force that drives evolution. Natural
selection is about as non-random a force as you could possibly imagine. It can't
work unless there is some sort of variation upon which to work. And the source
of variation is mutation. Mutation is random only in the sense that it is not
directed specifically toward improvement. It is natural selection that directs
evolution toward improvement. Mutation is random in that it's not directed
The idea that evolution
itself is a random process is a most extraordinary travesty. I wonder if it's
deliberately put about maliciously or whether these people honestly believe such
a preposterous absurdity. Of course evolution isn't random. It is driven by
natural selection, which is a highly non-random force.
Is there an emotional
side to the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth?
Yes, I strongly feel
that. When you meet a scientist who calls himself or herself religious, you'll
often find that that's what they mean. You often find that by "religious" they
do not mean anything supernatural. They mean precisely the kind of emotional
response to the natural world that you've described. Einstein had it very
strongly. Unfortunately, he used the word "God" to describe it, which has led to
a great deal of misunderstanding. But Einstein had that feeling, I have that
feeling, you'll find it in the writings of many scientists. It's a kind of
quasi-religious feeling. And there are those who wish to call it religious and
who therefore are annoyed when a scientist calls himself an atheist. They think,
"No, you believe in this transcendental feeling, you can't be an atheist."
That's a confusion of language.
Some scientists say
that removing religion or God from their life would leave it meaningless, that
it's God that gives meaning to life.
"Unweaving the Rainbow"
specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic
worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific
worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are
amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades -- before
we die forever -- in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe.
And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged
than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of
scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of
knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any
schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which
we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite,
and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each
morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into
which I am so privileged to have been born.
Humans may not be
products of an intelligent designer but given genetic technologies, our
descendants will be. What does this mean about the future of evolution?
It's an interesting
thought that in some remote time in the future, people may look back on the 20th
and 21st centuries as a watershed in evolution -- the time when evolution
stopped being an undirected force and became a design force. Already, for the
past few centuries, maybe even millennia, agriculturalists have in a sense
designed the evolution of domestic animals like pigs and cows and chickens.
That's increasing and we're getting more technologically clever at that by
manipulating not just the selection part of evolution but also the mutation
part. That will be very different; one of the great features of biological
evolution up to now is that there is no foresight.
In general, evolution is
a blind process. That's why I called my book "The Blind Watchmaker." Evolution
never looks to the future. It never governs what happens now on the basis on
what will happen in the future in the way that human design undoubtedly does.
But now it is possible to breed a new kind of pig, or chicken, which has such
and such qualities. We may even have to pass that pig through a stage where it
is actually less good at whatever we want to produce -- making long bacon racks
or something -- but we can persist because we know it'll be worth it in the long
run. That never happened in natural evolution; there was never a "let's
temporarily get worse in order to get better, let's go down into the valley in
order to get over to the other side and up onto the opposite mountain." So yes,
I think it well may be that we're living in a time when evolution is suddenly
starting to become intelligently designed.
But don't forget:
Root of All Evil?
By the way, the title, "The Root of All Evil," was chosen by the producers of the TV program, not by Dawkins. Dawkins appears to agree with this statement, "Religion is 'The Root of a Large Amount of Evil,'" which would have been a poor title for a TV program ;-)
The neuroscientist and rationalist has made his name attacking religious faith. Who knew he was so spiritual?
by Lisa Miller
October 18, 2010
Jonathan Alcorn / Zuma
Sam Harris, a member of the tribe known as “the new atheists,” wishes the headline to this story said something else. How about “Sam Harris Believes in Spirituality,” he suggests over lunch. Or “Sam Harris Believes in ‘God,’ ” with scare quotes?
In any case, Sam Harris—a hero to the growing numbers of Americans who check the atheist box on opinion polls—concedes he believes in something certain people would call “God.” In a related thought, he raises the topic of his next project: a spirituality guide tentatively titled The Illusion of the Self. Based on Harris’s own “spiritual journey,” it will “[celebrate] the spiritual aspect of human existence [and explain] how we can live moral and spiritual lives without religion,” according to a statement from his publisher, Free Press. It’s surprising. One hardly expects Harris, a hyperrational polemicist, to veer into the realm of spiritual self-help.
Spirituality is not a new interest of Harris’s, however. A careful reader will have noticed that though he’s often been lumped together with the rabble-rousers Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (all are advisers to his nonprofit group Project Reason), and though he continues to insist that religious faith is possibly the most destructive force in the world, he shuns the label “atheist.” Harris places reason at the apex of human abilities and achievement, but he concedes that there’s much that humans may never empirically know—like what happens after death. “Mystery,” he wrote in the concluding chapter of The End of Faith, published in 2004, “is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely on to explain everything else.” For his praise of the contemplative experience in The End of Faith, Harris has received criticism from atheists.
Harris is in town promoting The Moral Landscape, his new book. Even here, he briefly explores the connections between spiritual experience—especially an experience of selflessness—and human happiness. “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have,” he writes. Over lunch, he says with a smile how much he looks forward to working on the next project, which will allow him to pull back, after six long years, and focus on things that support human flourishing. “Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred—I’m comfortable with all of that,” says Harris later. “I think all of that is indispensable and I think it’s frankly lost on much of the atheist community.”
The answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” comes down to this: It depends on what you mean by “God.” The God Harris doesn’t believe in is, as he puts it, a “supernatural power” and “a personal deity who hears prayers and takes an interest in how people live.” This God and its subscribers he finds unreasonable. But he understands that many people—especially in progressive corners of organized religion and among the “spiritual but not religious”—often mean something else. They equate God with “love” or “justice” or “singing in church” or “that feeling I get on a walk in the woods,” or even “the awesome aspects of existence I’ll never understand.”
According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans believe that God is “an impersonal force.” Among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the unaffiliated, the number rises to a third. Among Jews, it’s half. In a Gallup study done in May, 9 percent of respondents said they believe in a God who doesn’t answer prayers.
When polled about God, “people substitute in their own ideas,” says John Green, senior research adviser at Pew. “People have a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence, and they substitute God for it...When you try to make the definition more specific, fewer people answer in the affirmative.” Or put another way, “If you let the concept of God float a little bit, almost everybody is a theist,” says Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One. What Sam Harris believes in—rationality, morality, transcendence, humility, awe, community, selflessness, and love—meets a fairly common definition of God.
Harris says he became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions while an undergraduate at Stanford University. At 18, he experimented with the drug ecstasy and was struck by the possibility that the human mind—his own mind—might be able to achieve a state of loving unselfishness without the help of drugs. So he left college and traveled to India and Nepal, where he studied with Hindu and Buddhist teachers who could help him attain a kind of peace and selflessness through meditation. Over the next 10 years, he read religion and philosophy on his own and spent weeks and months—adding up to two years—in silent retreat.
He finally returned to Stanford to complete a philosophy degree. Though he prefers the Eastern mystics, he sees some wisdom in the Western mystical tradition as well. “If I open a page of [the 13th-century Christian mystic] Meister Eckhart, I often know what he’s talking about.” Harris pursued a doctorate in neuroscience because he hoped science would give him the tools to rationally explore human experience.
Harris’s true obsession, then, is not God but consciousness, the idea that the human mind can be taught—trained, rationally—to be more loving, more generous, less egocentric than it is in its natural state. And though he knows that he can sound like a person who believes in God, he thinks that God is the wrong word to describe his beliefs. “There’s a real problem with the word,” he says, “because it shields the genuinely divisive doctrines and believers from criticism. If the God of the 25 percent is incredibly valuable, which it is; and it’s actually worth realizing, which it is; and it’s something we can talk about rationally, which it is; then calling it ‘God’ prevents you from criticizing all the divisive nonsense that comes with religion.” Believing in transcendence is not the same thing as believing that you’ll get virgins in paradise if you blow yourself up—and Sam Harris wants to be clear about that.
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife.
Bill Maher's "Religulous"
or, "When rational people are too timid to organize, to come out of the closet."
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