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Q&A with Richard Dawkins: ‘I guess I’m a cultural Christian’

The great Darwin defender comes to Charleston March 9



Richard Dawkins, the celebrated evolutionary biologist and author of books including The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, will give a free talk in Charleston on Sat. March 9 at 7 p.m. Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry and president emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, says he will lead a discussion with Dawkins on the challenges of promoting secularism in the United States, along with topics including "why the American public views evolution as controversial, whether religion and science are compatible, and why he feels it's important for atheists to come out of the closet." The talk will be followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

Dawkins was gracious enough to do a phone interview from the road. Here's a preview of what you might hear if you come out to the Physicians Memorial Auditorium at the College of Charleston Saturday night (the easiest way to find it is to enter 3 College Way in your GPS). The auditorium has 516 seats, and they'll go on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there early.

Do you think it's more difficult in the United States than in other countries to promote secularism? Well, it shouldn't be, because the United States Constitution is founded in secularism, but paradoxically, the United States is also by far the most religious country in the Western world, and that is superficially a paradox. There's a constant push, constant pressure to drag religion into the affairs of the United States despite the fact it is unconstitutional in many cases to do so. In Western Europe, in my country, in Britain and Scandinavia, the paradox is that we have an established church, but religion doesn't play a very great part in public life, and that's an interesting paradox in itself that perhaps deserves discussion.

As I'm sure you've heard, our president is proposing a project to map the activity of the human brain, and people are comparing the idea to the Human Genome Project. I'm curious to know what you think of it. Is it a realistic goal in the near future, and if so, is this the best way to go about it, with a push from the top level of government? I think it's imaginative. It's obviously directly comparable to Kennedy's undertaking to put a man on the moon. It's comparable to the undertaking to map the human genome. These very ambitious scientific projects tend to work when a powerful politician such as the United States president puts his weight behind it, so I'm in favor of imaginative schemes of this sort.

I understand you've had several speaking engagements around the United States recently. I'm curious what sort of feedback you get when you come here — particularly in the Southeast, which I'm sure you're aware people call the Bible Belt. Yes, there are many places that call themselves the Bible Belt, and I enjoy speaking in those places, and I go there as often as I can. The reception that I get is almost without exception extremely warm, extremely friendly. I tend to get very large audiences when I'm speaking in the Bible Belt, and I don't think it's that difficult to work out why. I think that people in the Bible Belt are far less monolithically religious than many people imagine. There are lots and lots of people who are free-thinking, secularists, or atheists in the so-called Bible Belt. And when somebody like me comes and gives a lecture in a large lecture hall, they tend to turn out sometimes in the thousands. And they look around the hall and they see each other, and they realize they're not as alone as they thought they were. So I think that's a very valuable service that people like me and Sam Harris can provide, and I enjoy it.

Do you get hecklers or people who come just to argue with you at these events? Virtually never. There are often people handing out leaflets outside, but they never seem to want to bother to come inside and heckle. I wish they would, I mean I would like to — I don't mean literally shout me down, of course, but to ask questions. But they almost never do, and that's a pity. I wish they would.

I spent some time in college with the Pastafarians, which was sort of the atheist club on our campus, and there was some debate among them about whether or not to proselytize, whether you should try to convert religious people. I would guess that you fall into the camp that says you should. What do you say to atheists who just want to keep it to themselves? Well, I think different people can do what they want to do. I believe passionately in truth; I believe passionately in scientific truth, and I think that scientific truth is so wonderful and so fascinating and so intriguing that it's well worth proselytizing about science, and I think that atheism kind of follows on from that. But I wouldn't wish to do what Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons do, actually doorstep people and ring people's doorbells and say, "Are you saved?" I think that that's intrusion, and I wouldn't wish to do that. I write my books, I put my books out there, and people can read them if they want to. Nobody's forcing them to, but fortunately, a very large number of people do.

Richard Dawkins speaking at the STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands in 2011. - MAX ALEXANDER / STARMUS
  • Max Alexander / STARMUS
  • Richard Dawkins speaking at the STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands in 2011.

I read in The Guardian earlier this month that you had a debate against Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and the writer wrote that "the encounter was disappointingly good natured and civilised, raising the very real, if dull, possibility that the two men might actually not despise one another." We don't despise one another. It's a typical reporter who's just looking for trouble, looking for mischief. Actually, it wasn't a debate against Rowan Williams; it was a proper debate at the Cambridge Union with three people on each side. I was on one side with Andrew Copson, the president of the British Humanist Association, and somebody else, and the ex-Archbishop was on with a couple of other people. So it wasn't really a debate between me and Rowan Williams; it was a debate of three against three. The most successful speaker, I think, on the archbishop's side was actually an atheist, and he made the point that although he was an atheist, he said that people need religion, and I thought that was what won the floating vote over: People need religion, even though religion is false. He was the last speaker, so there was no chance to reply to that, but if I had a chance to reply, I would have said, "What a patronizing, condescending thing to say: 'We intellectuals are too intelligent to need religion, but you hoi polloi, you ordinary people down there, you need religion.'" What a patronizing, condescending thing to say. Nevertheless, the evidence seems to be that insofar as there were people won over by a speech, it was the speech by that atheist.

Do you think there are any elements of religion that we do need? Are there any salvageable bits of the world's religions that you say we should hang on to? Not insofar as they attempt to answer the big questions of existence and science, no. People may have a certain need for fellowship, for ritual, for getting together in groups, and religion seems to provide that, but it seems to me a rather odd thing to have to tie that to a belief about the cosmos. I mean, many people call themselves Jews, including Herb Silverman. He's a Jewish atheist. He identifies with Jewish culture, believes he's a part of the Jewish tradition, and that's valuable. I guess I'm a cultural Christian.

Cultural Anglican, right? Yes, I guess I'm a cultural Anglican. But to tie that to belief about the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the nature of life, et cetera, is clearly ridiculous, and I don't think that the advantages of getting together once a week and singing together or something like that ­— insofar as that has community-building advantages, it most certainly does not need to go with fundamental beliefs about the cosmos. Those are separate and to be treated separately.

Within the atheist community, you mentioned people coming out and looking across the room, seeing that they're not alone. Is the building of community among atheists important in the same sense? I don't think that everybody needs to build a community, actually. I think there are some things that make life worthwhile, human relations of all kinds: love, parental love, sexual love, getting together for parties, getting together to go to lectures, to do sports together. There are all sorts of things that make life worthwhile, which we can all join in with. There are people who try to get atheists to form a sort of atheist church and have atheist community singsongs and things. I don't see the need for that, but if people want to do it, why shouldn't they?

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