Faith in reason

Religion and politics have always been an explosive mix, perhaps never more so than in the case of ISIS. But is the brutality that we've seen a result of violent ideology or a reflection of the darker side of human nature? Oksana is joined by Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and controversial author, to discuss these issues

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Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. Religion and politics have long been a dangerous mix, perhaps never more so than in the case of the so-called Islamic State. Is this violence and gloating evidence of everything that's wrong with religion, or perhaps how religion can be used as a scapegoat for other, less than honourable fields of human activity? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Mr Dawkins, it's a great honour to have you on the show.

Richard Dawkins: Thank you very much.

OB: Well, I know that you have been a critic of organised religion for quite some time, and you spoke about religion and evil. But I wonder if the pictures, the footage that we see coming out of Syria, of Iraq – you know, with the Islamic State executions, crucifixions, decapitations – if they leave you shocked? If somebody told you five years ago that we would be dealing with a phenomenon of such proportions, do you think you would be surprised?

RD: Of course I would, I'm totally shocked. I think it's absolutely horrible. You're presumably raising the question, “Is religion responsible?” Religion itself is not responsible for this. These are savage people. You could ask whether religion is responsible for the support that they're getting. And there I think it probably is. I mean, they are getting support from people in Britain, people in Europe, and young men are going out to Syria and Iraq to join IS. And the motivation for that is in some sense religion. It's also this feeling of political involvement. It's a feeling that it's “us against them.” And I think that quite a large number of young Muslims feel kind of beleaguered against the rest of the world. And so religion in some sense might be just an excuse, but I do think that a dominant part of the motivation for these young men has to be religion.

OB: Well, I would like to explore that a little bit later, but before we go there, if we could look at the biological aspect of it. And I think it, you are an evolutionary biologist, and probably you would agree that as species, we develop some adaptations to prevent us from excessive gore. I mean, killing itself is not easy. And you can argue that perhaps they're savage people and just a bunch of psychopaths, but there are a lot of them. Their number is too high to believe that there is something that is psychologically wrong with all of them. So, I wonder if this type of violence itself is not natural? Because, I mean, some people have, for example, a fainting reflex at the sight of blood. You know, it's difficult to kill people with your bare hands, and they do it very, very easily.

RD: Well, a small number of them do. I mean, the ones who actually wield the knife are presumably psychopaths, and you probably could find them in any society. But perhaps you need to make a distinction between them and the people who support them. I am worried by the fact that so many people know about these awful decapitations and so on, and yet still join up. That, I think, you're perfectly right, that is a worrying thing. As for the biology of it, there's a tussle in evolutionary biology between a tendency to selfish violence and a tendency to altruistic cooperation. My book, The Selfish Gene, my first book, is sort of about that tussle. It's somehow, sometimes being misinterpreted as an advocacy of selfishness or a statement that we're all selfish. It's not that at all, of course. It's mostly about altruism. But there is a kind of tension between selfishness and altruism, both of which are favoured by natural selection, Darwinian natural selection, in different circumstances.

OB: But I think you argue in your book that every activity has a purpose. I mean, even when people resort to violence, it has some practical value for them, for example the survival value, what have you. But what I think is very interesting about IS is they seem to be revelling in that killing. And that killing does not really serve any practical role, or perhaps it does, but I wonder if the case could be made that what they do is essentially against basic human instincts? Because, I mean, if you look at the footage, they're stepping over bodies lying in the street. And you can argue that just from the biological point of view, smelling decomposing flesh would be revolting, because we are afraid of catching infections, what have you. But they seem to be, it's almost like their basic instincts have gone numb. How would you explain that?

RD: There is a perfectly good evolutionary theory of reciprocation, in which revenge plays a part. And so there can be an escalation of vengeance, which can go over many generations sometimes. And so you get vendettas in various societies, Mafia-influenced societies, various societies around the world. Killing, often of a hideous nature, is motivated by a vendetta, sometimes a family vendetta, tribal vendetta. There is a kind of pseudo-tribalism which uses religion as a label. And I suspect that some of these people think that this hideous violence is vengeance against, say, America, for attacking Iraq or for forming alliances with, I don't know, with Israel, say. And this vengeance becomes directed towards innocent people. There's one British man who is threatened with execution now, who is an aid worker, whose motivation is purely altruistic towards the people there. And yet he's been scapegoated as vengeance against the US and British governments. I think vengeance is a hideous emotion, but it is one that does have a biological basis.

OB: I wonder if I can pick up on this political point, because clearly, as you just articulated, religion or any group of beliefs – they're also a reflection of everyday reality, what these people have been exposed to. And IS originated in Iraq, where violence has been raging for pretty much 10+ years. The coverage that we're getting, especially from Western media, of the IS, is that they're a bunch of psychopaths, barbarian sadists, and that may be true. But I wonder if politicians are perhaps exonerating themselves a little bit here? Because when you're exposed to extreme violence, not just on a daily basis but for years on end – is that really surprising that these people are willing to go to such great lengths to -

RD: Yes, but if the causes of – I mean, are you saying something like the causes of the violence are the American invasion of Iraq, I mean that sort of thing?

OB: Not so much the American invasion, but the type of violence that was brought by the war. You know, people exposed to very gory pictures on a daily basis.

RD: Oh, ok, what do you mean [that] somehow people get desensitised because they're -

OB: Absolutely, yeah, well that's the first thing that happens in a war zone.

RD: Oh yes, I think that that does happen. And I think if you look back at, say, the First World War, Second World War, those things escalated and by the end of the war, people on both sides were prepared to do the most hideous things because they'd seen hideous things already done, yes.

OB: Now, I consider myself an atheist, primarily thanks to you. But as a war reporter in the past, I've seen many examples, especially in war zones, when people experience so much grief or so much violence that religion becomes their only salvation. And it's not only on an intellectual level. I don't think they really think about the origins of the universe when they lose their loved ones. But they really need some sort of support at that time, and I don't think that critical thinking provides that, in those days. Do you think that religion still has a place in those societies, the most vulnerable societies? Not again as an intellectual concept, but as a social or emotional crutch?

RD: Yes, I think very likely it does. I mean, I think it's perfectly possible to say there is no justification, scientific justification, for any truths that religious people claim. But on the other hand, they do provide consolation. And so, in the same way that a psychiatrist can console somebody by telling them something which may not be true, that I could imagine people do get consolation from religion. What sort of irritates me is when people do put it, what you're not doing, which is to confuse the possible role of religion with consoling people, with saying therefore it must be true. That's a total non-sequitur.

OB: Now, I'm speaking here from perhaps my personal experience, but I found that to be an atheist, you have to invest a lot of time and effort into it, you have to do a lot of reading, you have to do a lot of thinking. And I think, for a lot of people around the world, that's a pure luxury. I mean, they cannot afford an intellectual lifestyle. They perhaps work several jobs, or again, live in war zones, when they would love to wonder about stars, but it's simply not part of their life. I wonder if the case could be made that atheism, at the end of the day, is a mark of social and intellectual distinction or status? That this is something that a lot of people around the world, stricken by poverty or stricken by war, simply cannot afford?

RD: Yes, that's true, of course, of any intellectual pursuit. If you're starving, you better get on with trying to survive, and it's very, very difficult. So all intellectual pursuits, in a way, are a luxury which privileged people can afford to indulge in. The same is true of music, of philosophy, mathematics – all pursuits of the mind are things that we can do when we have the luxury, the leisure to do so. And many people, unfortunately, haven't got that luxury or leisure.

OB: So would that essentially mean that your efforts to spread atheism around the world are essentially limited to the most fortunate part of it?

RD: I would like to think not, because I think that a lot of the problems that the poorer people have may be brought upon them by religion. I don't deny that religion can be consoling to them, but what I'm suggesting is that they may be actually oppressed by religion. I think, for example, of the place of women in Islamic societies, where they are hideously oppressed by religious forces.

OB: Well, I think we'll get a lot of response to just this phrase that you just uttered, because many would argue that in those societies, what looks like oppression to you is a set-up of life that makes it possible for a family unit or society to exist. Perhaps not perfect, but this is essentially a product of the circumstances.

RD: Allow me to be sceptical.

OB: Well, we talked about ISIS, and on the political level, we can see that it can, perhaps, bring sworn enemies together, like for example the United States and Iran. There are some negotiations about them working together. I wonder if the same could apply to religions, moderate religions, and atheists? Do you think that they could join forces, and if so in what way, in combating this very extreme form of (inaudible) -

RD: Yes, that's a perennial argument again. I mean, it came up in the Second World War over enmities between Britain and the US, and Stalin's Russia. And they came together to fight Hitler, and then parted again after Hitler was defeated. In the case of atheists and religious people joining together, this comes up, in America especially, with the argument over Creationism and the teaching of evolution, where moderate religious people are on the same side as scientists in wanting evolution to be taught, and wanting young Earth Creationism not to be taught. And I have myself joined up, joined forces with bishops in Britain on this very issue. So yes, there are times when one seeks to make alliances with people that one doesn't always see eye to eye with.

OB: But when you make those alliances, I wonder what kind of compromise, intellectual compromise, you're making with yourself? Because, you just decide that you're not going to look at their ideology, and not going to take it seriously? Because I mean, the story, for example, of Origin is a very important part of the doctrine. So even if you are joining forces with them, how -

RD: We agree to differ on this, but we feel very strongly about that, so we're going to join forces over that.

OB: Mr Dawkins, we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back – how could evolution of religion look like? That's coming up in a moment on Worlds Apart.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing religion and politics with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Now, the main premise of most Abrahamic religions is the so-called Golden Rule, the rule of reciprocity. And in The Selfish Gene, you wrote about that Game Theory Analysis, that shows that reciprocity is an evolutionarily sustainable strategy. And I wonder if what you believe in is more important than how you believe? Because your case is obviously against how people believe in certain things, that you have to think rationally, you have to employ critical thinking. But at the end of the day, good people of faith, and good people of atheism, they all seem to believe in the same thing – that you have to be fair and treat others as you want to be treated?

RD: Yes, the Golden Rule is pretty much universal in all societies, and it makes a lot of sense. What's objectionable is when religious people claim that you need religion in order to be good to other people. Of course, you don't. And if people really did base their morality upon religion, they would, by no means, be doing the sorts of things that you and I both agree they should be doing. They would be stoning people to death for adultery, for homosexuality etc. So we don't, as a matter of fact, get our morals from religion. We get them from somewhere else, things like moral philosophy, which is often just an elaboration of the Golden Rule and other things. We get it from that. It happens to coincide with some verses of religious scripture, very much does not coincide with other verses of religious scripture. We pick and choose which verses of religious scripture – the religious people pick and choose which verses of religious scripture they want to believe. The basis on which they pick and choose is the same as the basis that you and I use in order to decide what's moral. It's not other parts of scripture.

OB: I would like to ask you perhaps a sexist question. But there are a lot of studies that show that for males, how you do certain things is more important than for females. For example, in war zones, valour and honour are male values, predominantly male values. Women tend to compromise for the sake of their loved ones. I mean, for them, even though they are more attuned to public opinion, in critical situations they are ready to sacrifice that. And that led me to thinking that perhaps what some would call the strident form of atheism is perhaps a male construct? Because for most women, or for many women, it doesn't really matter whether somebody, again, believes in the Bible or in Allah, as long as they are decent human beings, as long as they function in a society in a way that doesn't threaten anyone.

RD: I hesitate to tie labels on sexes of that sort. There could be evidence for that, I could imagine psychological evidence for that. I haven't looked into it. I think we need to discuss, in a civilised way, the differences between these two ways of looking at things. And I'd be hesitant before I tied gender labels on them.

OB: But I mean, the reason I'm asking, of course, is because many people believe that your very principled, and some would say strident position on that, you put it on an intellectual basis. You believe that it's intellectually driven. And I wonder if you ever thought about it also being influenced by gender factors? You know, we see similar phenomenon, for example, in organised religion, when again most of the high priests arealso male, and those who indoctrinate and postulate values, they also happen to be male?

RD: I value the world of the mind. I value truth. I care passionately about what's true. And so to me, as an individual, when I look at a religion, what I care about is is it true, is it really true that there is a God etc. I recognise that emotions are also important. I'm driven by emotion in other issues. I'm driven by emotion, for example, in the question of saving species from going extinct. Things like rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers – it's quite hard to build a purely rational case for saving the elephant, saving the black rhino, saving the tiger. My case is an emotional one, and I'm not ashamed of that. I would weep if we lost the two elephant species that we have. That's emotional, and I defend it on those grounds. Religion, to me, is a matter of intellect, and I take my stand on that.

OB: Now, the traditional atheist view has been that with the development of science, religion will die out. And obviously, this is not what we're seeing these days. If you look at some of the IS fighters, there are reports that some of them have advanced scientific degrees. You know, there are chemists and physicists among them. And yet, they seem to have this ability of using critical thinking in one domain, and going totally blind in other areas of life. And I wonder if atheism, in some way, overestimates peoples' ability to think rationally? Are you putting too much faith in human rationality?

RD: Well, it looks as though you may be right. I mean, it is quite mysterious to me, the way that people can do that. Identity politics in the case of IS is, no doubt, a part of it. I think there is a capacity in the human mind to separate things out. It's not just in Muslims, it's in Christians as well. There are scientists who, perfectly competent not brilliant scientists, but they're competent scientists, who write – I mean there's an extreme case known to me of an American professor of astronomy who writes competent mathematical papers about astrophysics, which make the assumption that the universe is, whatever it is, 13 billion years old, but privately he believes the universe is only 6,000 years old. So that shows that it's possible for an apparently intelligent and academically competent mind to be split in half and to go through the motions of writing papers in astrophysics, while believing that everything about his paper is nonsense. That's an extreme case, and what we see much more often is less extreme cases of the same thing.

OB: Now, I was born in the Soviet Union, and one of the things that made communism degenerate into what we had in later years is that communist ideologues essentially either over-simplified or over-estimated the human nature. That they didn't take into account all the various impulses of people. And I wonder if you would actually like to live in a world with only agnostics and atheists all around? Wouldn't that be a place that perhaps could also degenerate into something that we had in the Soviet Union? Because communism at the beginning was also a theoretical concept. It talked about the goodness of people, sharing, abandoning private property because you don't need it. You know, it counted too much on the better side of human rationality. But at the end of the day, it brought out the worst. Can atheism do the same?

RD: Well, you may be saying it's realistic. Sorry, you may be saying it's unrealistic to count on human nature. But I still think it's a worthwhile ideal. I mean, I would like to live in a society where people are rational and sceptical and critical. And that, I think, means they would be atheistic. We live in a society now where nobody believes in fairies and in pink unicorns and things, and that's fine. I think I would like to live in a society where people are critical, sceptical, rational, believe things only when there's evidence and not because of tradition, or emotion, or revelation, or holy books, or priesthoods.

OB: Have you ever thought how much critical thinking may be too much? I mean, is there a limit beyond which it may get -

RD: No, I don't think there is. I mean, you don't want to apply the sort of extreme sceptical critical thinking to ordinary personal relationships. You know, does my lover love me or not – we use human faculties for that. It would be, life would be unpleasant if we were constantly seeking evidence and doubting our loved ones. So no. But when it comes to beliefs about the real world, about science, about religion, then I think, yes I do want people to be sceptical and critical.

OB: And I heard you often talk about, or people rather asking you about religious art. And you always reply that, for example, the existence of the Sistine Chapel is not proof of the belief system that helped to bring it about. But I wonder if you see anything in common between creativity and religion? In the sense of both of them providing some sort of escape from the rule-bound world. Because on some level, you could even argue that religion is just an example of human creativity, creativity of thought, and just giving yourself some respite from the bounds of logic.

RD: I'm all for having a respite from all sorts of things, in music, poetry, human love, art. But I would draw the line at using false beliefs about the universe for that purpose. I don't mind poetic – I mean, I could appreciate the poetry of, say, Bach's St Matthew Passion. Beautiful music, and the words – I don't discount the words, it's a tragic story that's being told. I appreciate tragic stories, even if they're not true. Like I appreciate Romeo and Juliet, although it's fiction. So yes, we take refuge in fiction. But don't let's forget that it is fiction. That's the point I would make.

OB: And finally, I wonder if religion would stop making those unsubstantiated claims about the origins of the universe, and would embrace some sort of, let's say, definition of God that would be similar to Einstein's – would you be willing to drop your objections against religion? How do you see the evolution of it?

RD: I would have no objection to an Einsteinian religion, so long as people don't confuse it with supernaturalism. I think that Einstein made a mistake in using religious language, because people have been misled by that. I mean, Einstein used the word “God”, and he didn't actually believe in any kind of God. He was a pantheist, and I'd be happy to go along with that kind of religion. I just wouldn't call it religion.

OB: But how do you see the future of religion, you seem to be agreeing that the social and emotional function that it serves is a very important one. Do you see any institution that could either substitute that, or a way in which religion could evolve? You know, if I just ask you to use your imagination, and let's say imagine a religion in 100 years.

RD: I wouldn't call it religion. I think we need human comfort, psychological comfort, human comfort, emotional counselling. All these sorts of things, people get help from each other. We're a social species, we put our arms around each other to comfort each other. We don't need supernatural spooks in order to do that.

OB: Absolutely, but my point is that religion, as of now, is pretty much the only, or perhaps very rare social institution that has these open-door policies. Science doesn't. You have to meet certain criteria to be a scientist.

RD: (crosstalk) No, science doesn't, but counselling does, psychology does.

OB: But you have to pay for that, religion provides it free of charge.

RD: Well, then we shouldn't. I mean, I would like to see a more socialistic approach to that kind of thing, to mental health.

OB: So, are you advocating the return to the Soviet Union?

RD: I think social good will is something we could achieve without overbearing dictatorialordering about.

OB: Well Mr Dawkins, it's been a great pleasure talking to you, thank you very much for your time. And please join the conversation on our YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.