24 June 2008
Richard Dawkins

"Nicholas Newman interviews Richard Dawkins' at his Oxford home"

By: Nicholas Newman
Richard Dawkins, though perhaps not well known in Europe, is one of the world’s most controversial and influential intellectual figures. He holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His book ‘The selfish Gene’ published in 1976, in which he argued that the “the selfish gene was the basic engine of evolutionary development.” This book became one of the most influential scientific texts of modern times.

Dawkins is a committed atheist, a scientific rationalist and secular humanist. In his 2006 book ‘the God delusion’, he argues that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and religious faith is a delusion - as a fixed false belief. As of November 2007 the English language version had sold more than 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 31 other languages.

Professor Richard Dawkins is well known for his contempt for religious extremism from Christian fundamentalism to Islamic terrorism, and has also argued with liberal believers, religious scientists, biologists and theologians.

Dawkins arguments aroused great controversy, especially in the English speaking world and have been the subject of debate and argument in the press, the television and many learned debates. Inevitably and perhaps disappointingly, given much of the discussion hinges on scientific rationalism versus belief without evidence, of the discussion has tended to become stultified and repetitious.

It was with this thought in mind that I determined to be different and ask questions that in my interview would intrigue a priest in Poland and a socialist in Spain. In fact, Richard found the questions fascinating.

I asked Professor Dawkins, if it is still possible to see the utility of certain psychological aspects in some religious beliefs or customs. I was thinking of: comfort to a soldier about to die, or succour for a mother on the death of her child or belief in the after life of a husband who is mourning the death of his wife?

Richard Dawkins agreed that he did see a “psychological value", if it does have a real value, and I would not wish to be the person who destroys that person’s psychological succour. But I would not, however, compromise with my public speaking out in the public forum and writing, but if I was visiting someone who was recently bereaved, I might dissemble somewhat in what I said, but would not do so in when writing a newspaper article. It is also I think disputable whether it is that comforting, given that people are brought up to fear hell for example. They might actually be comforted by the lack of religion, depending on their upbringing. Although many of us fear death, I think there is something illogical about it.“

When Richard was asked, does religion, however misguided, also provide a useful social mechanism, irrespective of people’s beliefs by reinforcing social discipline by using the power of religious sin to gain reinforce adherence to man made laws?

Richard Dawkins observed: “that the religious ‘carrot or stick’ argument for being good i.e. god will punish you, or reward you, is not a very, in fact, is an ignoble reason for being good. A moral philosopher could write down a better set of reasons for being good. Being cynical, one could say, people need the carrot and the stick to be good. I told - retold in my book ‘The God Delusion’ the anecdote by Steven Pinker, when, in 1969, police went on strike in Montreal.”

Professor Dawkins likened abolition of God to a Police strike, if God was a abolished: “it would be like a police strike; people would go on a rampage of immorality. Yet, it does make me wonder how sincere many of these rioters were; I suspect many would say they were religious. It looks like the real flesh and blood Police acted as a real deterrent. I find that impressive, as a Darwinian I think many of us, do have a built in morality, just like we have sexual desire built into us, from our Darwinian past, we do feel a sense of justice, fairness, empathy and sympathy for people in trouble or suffering.”

On being asked why many great scientists, well versed in the ‘scientific method’ still find it possible to maintain their religious beliefs? Richard answered: ‘I am not sure that this is true today. For me the great watershed would have come with Darwin and I am utterly unmoved by the fact that Newton was religious. Anyone living before Darwin, one might expect to be religious. As for today, if you find a great scientist who is religious, cross question him and ask if he actually believes in a supernatural intelligence that listens to your prayers and reads your thoughts and forgives your sins. Or whether he is like Einstein, who believed in using quasi religious language to express his feelings for his reverence for the wonders and mysteries of the universe.

Richard Dawkins, though perhaps not well known in Europe, is one of the world’s most controversial and influential intellectual figures. He holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His book ‘The selfish Gene’ published in 1976, in which he argued that the “the selfish gene was the basic engine of evolutionary development.” This book became one of the most influential scientific texts of modern times.

by Nicholas Newman - 24 June 2008


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