The Four Horsemen — Transcript
THE FOUR HORSEMEN: Discussions with Richard Dawkins Episode 1
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Put into readable transcript by: Aesthetic Atheist
From left to right (on screen):
[CH] Christopher Hitchens
[DD] Daniel Dennett
[RD] Richard Dawkins
[SH] Sam Harris
[RD] One of the things we’ve all met is the accusation that we are strident or arrogant, or vitriolic, or shrill. What do we think about that?
[DD] Hah! Yeah, well I’m 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 didn’t do any good in the end because I still got hammered for being for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realise that it’s a no-win situation. It’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.
[RD] Without being rude.
[DD] 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?
[SH] Right, well, that’s what it is to trespass a taboo. I think we’re all encountering the fact that that religion is held off the table of rational criticism in some kind of formal way even by, we’re discovering, our fellow secularists and our fellow atheists. You know, just leave people to their own superstition, even if it’s abject and causing harm, and don’t look too closely at it.
[DD] 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, I’m not just in disagreement when someone like Tariq Ramadan, accepted now at the high tables of Oxford University as a spokesman, says the most he’ll demand, when it comes to the stoning of women, is a moratorium on it. I find that profoundly … much more than annoying.
[SH] Right, yeah, but I think …
[CH] Insulting, not only insulting, but actually threatening.
[SH] But you’re not offended. I don’t see you taking things personally. You’re alarmed by the liabilities of certain ways of thinking, as is in Ramadan’s case.
[CH] Yes. But he would say, or people like him would say that if I doubt the historicity of the prophet Muhammad, I’ve injured them in their deepest feelings.
[CH] 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 wouldn’t know right from wrong. That we only live by …
[SH] But are you really offended by that? Doesn’t it just seem wrong with you?
[CH] No. I say only, Sam, that if the offensiveness charge is to be allowed in general, and arbitrated by the media, then I think we’re 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. I’d 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. It’s just too bad.
[RD] I’m fascinated by the contrast between the amount of offence that’s 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 you’d like, but you could be far, far more rude about such things. And I’d 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 … well, is there anything else, apart from say, how ugly your face is, that gives such …
[CH] Or your husband’s or wife’s, or girlfriend’s or partner’s faces.
[RD] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yes.
[CH] Well it’s 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 Serrano’s ‘“Piss Christ”, or the elephant dung on the Virgin, and so on. And indeed, I think think it’s quite important that we share,
with Sophocles and other pre-monotheists, a revulsion to desecration or to profanity, that we don’t want to see churches desecrated …
[RD] No, indeed not.
[CH] or religious icons trashed, and so forth. We share an admiration for at least some of the aesthetic achievements of religion.
[SH] Right. I think this whole notion of … I think our criticism actually more barbed than that, in the sense that we’re not … we are offending people, but we are also telling them that they’re wrong to be offended. I mean, physicists aren’t offended when their view of physics is disproved or challenged. I mean, this is just not the way rational minds operate when they’re really trying to get at what’s true in the world. And religions purport to be representing reality. And yet there’s this peevish, tribal, and ultimately dangerous, reflexive response to having these ideas challenged. I think we’re pointing to the total liability of that fact.
[DD] Well, and too, there’s no polite way to say to somebody …
[SH] You’ve wasted your life! (laughter)
[DD] do you realise you’ve wasted your life? Do you realise that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something which is just a myth? Or have you ever considered – even if you say have you even considered the possibility that maybe you’ve wasted your life on this? There’s 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.
[SH] Oh, absolutely.
[RD] Dan Barker’s making a collection of clergymen who’ve lost their faith but don’t dare say so, because it’s their only living. It’s the only thing they know what to do.
[SH] Yeah, I’ve heard from one of them, at least.
[RD] Have you? Yes.
[CH] 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 couldn’t give it up, because it would involve a similar concession. But certainly, I mean, if anyone said to me, “how could you say that to them about the Soviet Union? Didn’t you know you were going to really make them cry and hurt their feelings?” I would’ve said don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be absurd! But I find it in many cases almost an exactly analogous argument.
[DD] When people tell me I’m being rude and vicious and terribly aggressive in the way that I say … 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.
[RD] ‘Course it wouldn’t.
[DD] Well, I want religion to be treated just the way we treat the pharmaceuticals and the oil industry. I’m 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.
[CH] Including denying them tax exemption.
[CH] Or in the English case, state subsidy.
[RD] I’m curious how religion acquired this charm status that it has, compared to any of these other things. And somehow we’ve all bought into it whether we’re 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.
[DD] And what’s particular amusing to me finally – at first it infuriated me, but now I’m amused – is they’ve managed to enlist legions of non-religious people who take offense on their behalf.
[RD] And how!
[DD] In fact, the most vicious reviews of my book have been by people who are not themselves religious, but they’re terribly afraid of hurting the feelings of the people that are religious. And they chastise me worse than anybody who is deeply religious.
[RD] Exactly my experience. Exactly my experience.
[SH] So one of you pointed out how condescending that view is. It’s like the idea of penitentiaries I mean, other people need them, you know, that we must keep these people safely in their myths.
[SH] Well. I think there’s 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. There’s something about … I mean, I still use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” 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 it’s only talked about in religious discourse, it is just riddled with superstition. And it’s used to cash out various metaphysical schemes which it can’t 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, that’s one reason why I think it seems to be taboo to criticise it, because you are talking about the most important moments in people’s lives and trashing them, at least from their view.
[RD] Well, I don’t have to agree with you, Sam, in order to say that it’s a very good thing you’re 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. It’s like it’s a good idea to have somebody from the political right who is an atheist, because otherwise there’s a confusion of values which doesn’t help us. And it’s much better to have this diversity in other areas. But I think I sort of do agree with you. But even if I didn’t, I think it was valuable to have that.
[CH] If one could make one change, and only one, nine would be to distinguish the numinous from the supernatural.
[CH] 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.
[CH] It’s never even been suggested that Jesus Christ created that landscape
[SH] Right. A frozen waterfall in three …
[RD] Three parts …
[SH] parts which would remind of the Trinity.
[CH] Well, absolutely. We’re all triune in one way or another, We’re programmed for that. That’s very clear. There wouldn’t ever have been a four-headed God.
[SH] Right (laughs)
[CH] You know that from experience. But that would be an enormous distinction to make. And I think it would clear up a lot of people’s confusion that what we have in our emotions are the surplus value of our personalities, the bits that aren’t particularly useful for our evolution, well, that we can’t prove are, but that do belong to us all the same – don’t belong to the supernatural and are not to be conscripted or annexed by any priesthood.
[DD] Yes, it’s a sad fact that people, in a sense, won’t trust their own valuing of their numinous experiences. They think it isn’t really as good as it seems, unless it’s from God, and some kind of a proof of religion. No, it’s just as wonderful as it seems. It’s just as important. It is the best moment in your life. And it’s 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. That’s it! And that’s wonderful. But, it doesn’t add anything to say, golly, that has to have been given to me by somebody even more wonderful.
[RD] It’s been hijacked, hasn’t it, by the …?
[CH] But it’s also, I’m afraid, I think it’s 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.
[SH] Yeah, yeah.
[CH] And I felt terrifically humble about it. Come on! You know, we can laugh people out of that, I believe.
[DD] Also, and I think we should, and indeed must …
[DD] I am so tired of the “if only Professor Dennett had the humility to blah, blah, blah”
[DD] And humility, humility … and this from people of breathtaking arrogance. And I think …
[CH] We shove one aside, saying … just don’t mind me, I’m on an errand for God!
[DD] Yeah, right.
[CH] How modest is that?
[SH] 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 don’t know. I mean if you get a scientist to start talking off his area of specialisation, he immediately starts – he or she – hedging his bet, saying, you know, I’m not sure but I’m sure there’s someone in the room who knows more about this than me … and, of course, so, you know, all the data’s not in. This is the mode of discourse in which we are most candid about the scope of our ignorance.
[CH] Well actually a lot of academics come up with that kind of false modesty, but I do know what you mean.
[SH] Well, yeah, yes it is.
[CH] Many’s the historian who says, “no, I yield …” (inaudible)
[RD] No, but any academic should do that, any …
[CH] Yes, they should.
[RD] 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 … went to the … what was it? … down for three days, and then came up again?
[RD] In precise detail, and yet, they have the gall to accuse us of being overconfident and of not knowing what it is to doubt.
[DD] And I don’t think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question, which I think scientists ask themselves all the time: “what if I’m wrong?”. “What if I’m wrong?” I mean, it’s just not part of their repertoire.
[CH] Actually, would you mind if I disagree with you about that?
[CH] A lot of talk that makes religious people hard to … not hard to beat, but hard to argue with, is precisely that they’ll say that they’re in a permanent crisis of faith. There is indeed a prayer, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” 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, it’s my impression that a majority of the people I know who call themselves believers, or people of faith, do that all the time. I wouldn’t say it was schizophrenia, that would be rude. But they’re quite aware of the implausibility of what they say. They don’t act on it when they go to the doctor, or when they travel, or anything of this kind. But in some sense they couldn’t be without it. But they’re quite respectful of the idea of doubt. In fact they try and build it in when they can.
[RD] Well, that’s interesting then. And so when they are reciting “the Creed”, 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 don’t.
[CH] And of course, like their secular counterparts, they’re glad other people believe it. It’s an affirmation they wouldn’t want other people not to be making.
[SH] Well, also, there’s 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 “belief without evidence is especially noble”. 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, we’re kind of wired to … 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 it’s this kind of kindling phenomenon where once you say, “it’s good to start without evidence …” 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.
[CH] But like the idea that it can’t be demonstrated, because then there’d be nothing to be faithful about.
[SH] Right, that’s the point of faith.
[CH] If everyone has seen the resurrection, and if we all knew that we’ve 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 … those of us who don’t believe in it are very glad it’s not true, because we think it would be horrible, those who do believe it don’t want it to be absolutely proven so there can’t be any doubt about it, because then there’s no wrestling with conscience, there are no dark nights of the soul.
[SH] Somebody … it was a review of one of our books, I don’t 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. I’m sorry. This is Francis Collins.
[CH] 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 didn’t want any part of it.
[CH] I didn’t 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.
[SH] Yes, that was amazing luck!
[CH] I didn’t expect Mother Teresa to come out as an atheist.
[CH] But, reading her letters, which I now have, it’s rather interesting. She writes, “I can’t bring myself to believe any of this”. She tells all her confessors, all her superiors, “I can’t hear a voice. I can’t feel the presence, even in the mass, even in the sacraments”. No small thing. And they write back to her saying, “that’s good. That’s great. You’re suffering … it gives you a share in the crucifixion. It makes you part of Calvary.” You can’t beat an argument like that. The less you believe it, the more your demonstration of faith.
[SH] The more you prove it’s true.
[CH] 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 can’t hope to argue with a mentality of this kind.
[SH] Well, no, actually, I disagree there …
[DD] No, but we can do just what you’re doing now, and that is, we can say, “look at this interesting bag of tricks that’ve evolved” “Notice that they are circular … that they’re self-sustaining … that they don’t have any … that they could be about anything.” And then you don’t 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 … 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 … gets all hurt on you, plays the hurt feelings card, and reminds you how wonderful taking it on faith is. I mean, there aren’t any new tricks, these tricks have evolved over thousands of years.
[CH] 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, “the whole point about it is, there are no miracles, there are no changes in the natural order. That’s the miraculous thing.” They’re completely cynical about claiming him in almost the same breath. Every religious person feels the same criticism of other people’s 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 people’s faith, and they see it rather readily. You know, every Christian knows the Koran can’t be the perfect word of the creator of the universe, and anyone who thinks it is, hasn’t read it closely enough and it’s just in this hermetically-sealed discourse that isn’t 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 can’t be matter of the divinity of Jesus, or the unique sanctity of the Koran, or because …
[DD] ‘Cause there’s seventeen different ways of getting there, yeah.
[CH] By the way, on that, a tiny point. I hope not a digression, it’s useful bearing that in mind, too, when you get, as I did this morning on ABC News, the question “well, wouldn’t you say religion did some good in the world, and there were good people?” You don’t go that argument, and by the way, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t, you say “well, yes, I have indeed heard it said that Hamas provides social services in Gaza”, And I’ve even heard it said that Farrakhan’s group gets young, black men in prison off drugs. I don’t know if it’s true, I’m willing to accept it might be but it doesn’t 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.
[SH] And the other move you can make there …
[CH] ‘Cause if you don’t it’s flat-out dishonest.
[SH] 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 don’t persist in those efforts, they’ll 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.
[RD] There’s a slipperiness too, isn’t 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 we’ve, 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 don’t 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. They’ll talk about miracles, they’ll talk about …
[DD] Well they won’t talk to a congregation …
[RD] Well, archbishops will …
[DD] Yes, but when sophisticated theologians try to talk to the preachers, the preachers wont have any of it.
[RD] Well that’s true of course.
[DD] I mean, you gotta realise that sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. It’s a very specialised thing and only a few people do it.
[RD] They’re of negligible influence.
[DD] 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 they’re 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.
[CH] Oh! No I must insist, I must say a good word here for Professor Allister McGrath who, in his attack on Richard, said it’s not true, as we’ve always been told and most people, most Christians believe that Tertullian said “credo quia absurdum”, I believe it because it’s ridiculous, no! It turns out, I’ve checked this now, though, I don’t know this in McGrath that in fact Tertullian said the impossibility of it is the thing that makes it the most believable. That’s a well worth distinction, I think, and very useful for training one’s mind in the fine (inaudible).
[SH] If possibility is cause to absurdity …
[CH] It’s the likelihood, in other words, that it could’ve been made up.
[CH] … is diminished by the incredibility of it. Who would try and invent something that was that unbelievable, that is so off the wall?
[SH] You make a very good point on those lines.
[CH] That actually is, I think, a debate perfectly well worth having.
[RD] That’s a good point.
[CH] What I say to these people is this, you’re sending your e-mail or your letter to the wrong address. Everyone says let’s 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 they’re thinking …
[DD] God’s aim is a little off!
[CH] 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 you’re 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.
[RD] The Bishop of Carlisle backtracked.
[CH] Why are they telling me that? I will judge the church by the statements of its
bishops, I think I’m allowed to.
[RD] 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 “of course we don’t believe the Book of Genesis literally”, and yet they do preach about what Adam and Eve did as though they did exist, as though there’s somehow … it’s 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.
[DD] Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying, as such a topic is introduced, ‘this is a sort of theoretical fiction’?
[DD] It’s not true but it’s a very fine metaphor. No, they’d never … they’re just not going …
[RD] they kind’ve, after the fact imply that that’s what they expect you to know.
[DD] Yes but they would never announce …
[SH] Well there’s 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, we’re as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists, and yet these moderates don’t 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 …
[DD] of the crass literalism of the critics.
[SH] 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 it’s been enlightened from the outside. It has been intruded on by science.
[CH] On that point that I was wanting to raise myself, about our own so-called fundamentalism, there’s 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?
[RD] No, I don’t remember his name.
[CH] Sorry, I don’t remember. He’s a very senior Anglican cleric in the diocese of Southwark. I went on the BBC with him just entre parentheses I’ll say, when I’ve said, ‘how can you call your congregation a flock? doesn’t that say everything about your religion? that you think they’re sheep? He said, “Well actually I used to be a pastor in New Guinea, where there aren’t any sheep”. Well of course there’re a lot of places where there aren’t any sheep! Gospel’s quite hard to teach, as a result. We’ve 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 ‘behold these swine’, his new congregation. But this is the man who deliberately does a thing like that, that’s 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. It’s unconscionable. Thus, I don’t 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, I’m not going to repress that, for the sake of politeness of people.
[DD] 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 … this is their professional life. It seems to me, they know better.
[DD] The congregations don’t know better because it’s maintained that they should not know better. I do get very anxious about ridiculing the beliefs of the “flock”, because of the way in which they have ceded to their leaders. They’ve 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 it’s the preachers themselves, it’s the priests, it’s 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 don’t check everything out. But where’d the pastor get this idea? I don’t care where. He or she is responsible because their job is to know what they’re talking about in a way that the congregation …
[RD] You have to be a little bit careful not to sound condescending when we say that, and in a way it’s reflecting the condescension of the preacher.
[CH] Yes, because I’ll take things you and Richard say on the human and natural sciences, not without wanting to check, but I’m often unable to but knowing that you are the sort of gentlemen who would have checked. If you say, ‘the bishop told me it so I believe it’ 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 that’s not gonna save him from my condemnation and nor should it. And I think exactly it’s 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.
[SH] Well, let’s linger on this issue before …
[CH] Religious opinion is wrong, religious opinion is wrong by definition. We can’t 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. They’re not being fooled, they are fools. They should …
[DD] Shame on them for believing me.
[CH] 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 there’s probably ever been in the modern world. In the twentieth century, anyway.
[SH] 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. We’re 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.
[RD] 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 they’ve done experiments, that they’ve peer-reviewed their papers, that they’ve criticised each other, that they’ve been subjected to massive criticism from their peers in seminars and on lectures and things. And they’ve come through with …
[DD] And remember the structure that’s there, too. It’s not just that there’s peer-review but it’s very important that it’s competitive. For instance, when Fermat’s Last Theorem was proved by …
[RD] Andrew Wiles.
[DD] Andrew Wiles, the reason that those of us who … forget it, I’m never going to understand that proof but the reason that we can be confident that it really is a proof is that …
[SH] Nobody wanted him to get there first, yeah!
[DD] Every other mathematician who was competent in the world was very well motivated to study that.
[RD] To find out, yeah.
[DD] And believe me, if they begrudge him that this is a proof, it’s a proof! And there’s nothing like that in …
[SH] No, because we’re the antithesis of that.
[CH] No religious person’s ever been able to say what Einstein said, if I’m right,
[DH] the following solar event will occur off the west coast of Africa in …,
[CH] I forget how many years and months from now, and it did, within a very tiny degree of variation; there’s never been a prophecy that’s been vindicated like that, or anyone willing to place their reputation and, as it were, their life on the idea that it would be.
[RD] I was once asked at a public meeting “Don’t you think that the mysteriousness of Quantum Theory is just the same as the mysteriousness of the Trinity or the Transubstantiation?” And the answer, of course, can be answered in two quotes from Richard Feynman. One, Richard Feynman said “if you think you understand Quantum Theory, you don’t understand Quantum Theory”. He was admitting that it’s 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 don’t understand the mystery of the Copenhagen Interpretation, or whatever it is. Whereas the mystery of the Trinity doesn’t even try to make a prediction, let alone an accurate one.
[DD] You know, I don’t like …
[CH] It it isn’t a mystery, either.
[DD] I don’t like the use of the word “mystery” here. I think, I think there’s 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 “mystery”. Noam Chomsky is famously quoted to say “There’s two kinds of questions, there’s puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles are soluble, mysteries aren’t”. And first of all, I just don’t buy that. I buy that but I buy the distinction and say ’there’s nothing about mystery in science. There’s puzzles, there’s deep puzzles, there’s things we don’t know, there’s things we’ll never know, but they aren’t systematically incomprehensible to human beings. The glorification of the idea that these things are systematically incomprehensible, I think, has no place in science.
[CH] 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, who’s 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 there’s been published. In his review of you, he says “Mr Dawkins … Professor Dawkins should just look at the shelves of books there are on the Trinity.” “The libraries full of attempts to solve this problem before he …” But none of the books in those religious libraries solve it either! The whole point is that it remains insoluble and it’s used to keep people feeling baffled and inferior.
[RD] But I want to come back to the thing about mystery in physics, because isn’t it possible that our evolved brains … 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 what’s 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, ’cause anybody can read the dials on a …
[DD] 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, you’ll just never be able to think intuitively about this but you can know that, even though you can’t think intuitively about it.
[RD] Yeah, that’s right.
[DD] There’s 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 you’re a quadriplegic, an artificial device can carry you from A to B. It doesn’t mean you can walk from A to B but you can get from A to B.
[RD] And the bolder physicists will say “well, who cares about intuition? I mean, just look at the math!”
[DD] Yeah, yeah, that’s right, they are comfortable with their … living with their prostheses.
[SH] Well, the perfect example of that is dimensions beyond three, because we can’t visualise a fourth dimension or a fifth but it’s trivial to represent it mathematically, and so we can move in that dimension.
[DD] 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 can’t quite imagine … 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.
[RD] But see, it’s easy to do some … say you’re 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 you’re … you can imagine moving along any one of those dimensions with respect to the others, and you don’t actually have to visualise fifteen dimensional space.
[DD] No. And you give up that demand, and you realise …
[RD] Yes, yes.
[DD] I can live without that. It would be nice if I could do that but hey, I can’t see bacteria with the naked eye, either. I can live without that but …
[SH] I think there’s one…
[CH] Yeah, I was challenged on that, I was challenged on that on the radio the other day by someone who appeared to be fairly … who said “I believe in atoms on no evidence, ‘cause I’ve never seen one”. Not since George Galloway said to me that he’d never seen a barrel of oil …
[SH] Right! that’s cute …
[CH] Yes but you realise that people at this point, they’re wearing themselves right down to their uppers, I mean they’re desperate when they get to this stage. The reason I say it is because I think it could … I don’t want us to make our lives easier but it makes the argument a little more simple.
[CH] We are quite willing to say there are many things we don’t know. What Haldane, I think it was, said, you know, the Universe is not just queerer than we understand, it’s queerer than we can understand. We know there’ll be great new discoveries, we know we’ll live to see great things but we know there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty. That’s 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 can’t disprove, but they know that, mind, and can interpret it. They’re on good terms with it. They get occasional revelations from it …
[SH] They have a book that is a verbatim screed.
[CH] … 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 “well, that’s wrong to begin with, now can we get on with it?”, so theism’s gone in the first round.
[CH] It’s off the island, it’s out of the show.
[SH] That’s a footnote I wanted to add to what Dan was saying. That even if mystery was somehow something we had to just … a bitter pill we have to swallow in the end, we are cognitively closed to the truth at some level, that still doesn’t give any scope to theism.
[DD] Absolutely not, because it’s just as closed to them as it is to …
[SH] And also we claim perfect transparency of revelation.
[CH] And also they can’t 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 don’t believe it, we’ll kill you.
[SH] we’ll kill you, yes.
[CH] We’ll kill you, and it may take some days to kill you, but we will get the job done, yeah.
[SH] Yes, we’ll kill you slowly.
[CH] I mean, they wouldn’t have the power they have now, if they hadn’t had the power they had then.
[DD] 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 hasn’t been brought home to them that this move of theirs is just off-limits. It’s not the game. You can’t do that. And they’ve been taught all their lives that you can do that – this is a legitimate way of conducting a discussion. And here, suddenly we’re just telling them ’I’m sorry, that is not a move in this game’. In fact it is a disqualifying move.
[SH] Right. It’s precisely the move you can’t be respected for making.
[CH] Adumbrate the move for me a bit, if you would, or for us. Perhaps only for me. Say what you think that move is.
[DD] Somebody plays the faith card.
[DD] They say look, I am a Christian and we Christians, we just have to believe this and that’s it. At which point, I guess the polite way of saying it is well, okay, if that’s true you’ll just have to excuse yourself from the discussion because you’ve declared yourself incompetent to proceed with an open mind. Now …
[CH] That’s what I hoped. That’s what I hoped you were saying.
[DD] If you really can’t defend your view, then sorry, you can’t put it forward. We’re 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 doesn’t cut any ice at all. And if you think it does, that’s just arrogant. It is a bullying move and we’re just not going to accept it.
[SH] And it’s a move that they don’t accept when done in the name of another faith.
[CH] 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 Stenger’s book that says you can now scientifically disprove the existence of God? Do you have a view on this?
[DD] Which god? I haven’t read the book. Which god?
[RD] Any kind of …
[CH] Any. Either a creating one, or a supervising one, and certainly an intervening one. I mean, I think that’s 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 we’ve got to the stage where we can say with reasonable confidence, it’s disproved. It’s not vindicated or a better explanation proposed [inaudible]. I just thought it’d be an interesting proposition, because it matters a lot to me that our opinions are congruent with uncertainty.
[SH] Right. Well, I think the weak link …
[CH] And in other words, we doubt.
[SH] 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, it’s 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 would’ve 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.
[CH] You know, Dinesh D’Souza makes this statement in his new book. He’s going to be, by the way, one of the much more literate and well-read and educated of our antagonists I’m going to be debating soon. He says that in Genesis, which people used to mock, they said ‘let there be light’ and then only a few staves later you get the sun and the moon and the stars.
[CH] How could that be?
[CH] Well, according to the Big Bang, that would be right.
[RD] Yeah, but that’s pretty pathetic.
[CH] The Bang precedes the galaxies. Believe me, I think it’s pathetic too, but …
[SH] Right. Well, I try to demonstrate this cast of mind in, I think, a very long end note in ‘The End of Faith’, where I say, “any 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.
[CH] Michael Shermer did it with the Bible code.
[SH] Right, I haven’t seen that, but, yeah.
[CH] The hidden messages in the Bible. Very, very good. You can write yesterday’s headlines from it anytime you like. Yeah.
[SH] 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 didn’t have a ready answer, etc?
[DD] Actually I can’t think of anything.
[RD] 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 it’s true. I mean, Victor Stenger doesn’t think it is true but many physicists do. I mean, it certainly doesn’t in any way suggest to me creative intelligence because you’re 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 …
[CH] Yeah, why create all the other planets in our solar system dead?
[RD] Well, that’s a separate question.
[CH] Well say we think he was that good. Bishop Montefiore was very good at this; he was a former friend of mine. He’d say that you have to marvel at the conditions of life and the knife-edge on which they are. And I’d say well, it is a knife edge. Yes, a lot of our planet is too hot or too cold.
[SH] Right. Riddled with parasites.
[CH] The other planets are completely too hot or too cold to support it. And that’s just one solar system, the only one we know about where there is life. Not much of a designer. And of course you can’t get out of the infinite regress. But I’ve not come across a single persuasive argument of that kind. But I wouldn’t 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 I’d call the apotropaic. When people say all praise belongs to God for this, He’s to be thanked for all this. That is actually a form of modesty. It’s a superstitious one, that’s why I say apotropaic, but it’s avoiding hubris. It’s 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 …
[RD] But that’s not an argument that it’s true.
[CH] Oh, for heaven’s sake! No. There are and cannot be any such arguments, I think.
[SH] Well maybe I should broaden this question.
[DD] Well, no, no. Wait a minute! I think …
[SH] Before you answer Dan, I want …
[DD] I could give you several discoveries which would shake my faith right to the ground.
[SH] No, no! Let me just broaden the question.
[DD] Yep, yep.
[SH] Not only …
[CH] Rabbits in the Precambrian?
[RD] No, no, no. That won’t work!
[SH] Not only in argument for the plausibility of religious belief, but an argument that suggests that what we’re up to, criticising faith, is a bad thing.
[RD] Oh, that’s much easier.
[SH] That we shouldn’t be, so let’s exclude that.
[CH] Ah! Okay, yes, by all means.
[SH] We shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.
[RD] That’s much easier.
[DD] It’s easier to think of a good reason?
[RD] 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?
[DD] Oh, yes. Oh, yes! Not so much in ‘Breaking The Spell’ but when I was working on my book on free will,, ‘Freedom Evolves’. 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 don’t 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 …
[SH] That’s dangerous.
[DD] which would have such devastating effects on the world, that I should just shut up and change the subject?
[DD] And I think that’s a good question that we all should ask.
[RD] Yeah, it’s good.
[DD] Absolutely! And I spent a lot of time thinking hard about that and I wouldn’t have published either of those two books if I hadn’t 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.
[RD] 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 …
[DD] Which is a different thing entirely. No. No.
[CH] No, it would be like discovering that you thought that the bell on white and black intelligence was a correct interpretation of IQ.
[RD] Yes, and you could well suppress publication of …
[CH] You see (inaudible) And now I’ve looked at all this stuff again, I’m absolutely (inaudible) … so you could say, “now what am I gonna do?”
[CH] Fortunately these questions don’t, in fact, present themselves in that way.
[SH] I’ll tell you one place where it’s 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 …
[DD] As in Western Europe?
[SH] in Western Europe. Now, I don’t know if this is true, but if it were true that gave me a moment’s pause.
[CH] 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 shouldn’t have had the job in the first place. Because we know one absolute thing for certain about that conflict, which is that it’s been made infinitely worse by the (inaudible). If it were only a national and territorial dispute it would’ve been solved by now. But his self-satisfaction in saying so, even if it were true, would turn me even more against him.
[SH] 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 can’t argue anyone out of their beliefs. It’s 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, I’m 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 camel’s 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 it’s possible for people to be shown the contradictions, internal to their faith or the contradiction between their faith and what we’ve 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.
[RD] I was having an argument with a very sophisticated biologist who’s a brilliant expositor of evolution, and he still believes in God. And I said how can you? What’s this all about? And he said I accept all your rational arguments, however it’s faith. And then he said this very significant phrase to me: “There’s a reason that it’s called faith!” He said it very decisively, almost aggressively, that there’s a reason that it’s called faith. And that was, to him, the absolute knockdown clincher. You can’t argue with it because it’s faith and he said it proudly and defiantly rather than in any sort of apologetic way.
[CH] 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 people’s subjective experiences with something that’s by definition impossible to do.
[CH] If it’s real to them why can’t you respect it? I mean this wouldn’t 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 wasn’t an exponent, but I said well what about the graves opening at the time of the crucifixion according to Saint Matthew? Matthew, I’d 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, doesn’t 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 don’t want to say anymore to you now. You’ve said all I could say.
[SH] Yeah, yeah. Well there’s one other chip I’d like to put on the table here. There’s 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 it’s true to say that you can go through the curriculum of becoming a scientist and never have your faith explicitly challenged, because it’s taboo to do so, and now we have engineers who can build nuclear bombs in the Muslim world, who still think it’s 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.
[CH] 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 reactor.
[SH] It’s almost tempting to fund such a project.
[DD] Haha, yes!
[CH] And it seems, and I gather that … again, I can’t get over him still, that the respected, Tariq Ramadan of Saint Anthony’s College, Oxford says in his book, I’m told, that he believes in djinns too. I hope I’m not doing him an injustice, I’ve been told that in his book, ‘In the Steps of the Prophet’, he says as much, so one is up against things that are flat-out primitive and superstition.
[DD] I think it may be easier than we’re supposing to shake peoples’ faith. There’s been a moratorium on this for a long time. We’re just the beginning of a new wave of explicit attempts to shake peoples’ faith. And it’s bearing fruit, and the obstacles it seems to me are not that we don’t have the facts or the arguments, it’s 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, you’re just embarrassed to admit that you were taken in by this for so long. It takes, I think, tremendous courage to just declare that you’ve 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 they’re 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 it’s a good thing to encourage and I don’t think we should assume that we can’t do this. I think we can.
[RD] Yes, it’s almost patronising to suggest that we couldn’t and to suggest that it shouldn’t. 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 there’s nothing I suppose neurologically wrong with that, I mean there is no reason why one shouldn’t have a brain that’s split in that kind of way …
[DD] But it is unstable in a certain way but, and I’m sure you’re right, that people do this and they’re very good at it, and they do it by deflecting attention from it. Let’s start focusing attention …
[RD] But how you can live with a contradiction? How you can live with it?
[DD] by forgetting that you’re 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 they’re doing.
[CH] I’m afraid to say that I think that cognitive dissonance is probably necessary for everyday survival. Everyone does it a bit.
[DD] You mean tolerating cognitive dissonance?
[CH] No, practicing it.
[RD] Actually practicing it.
[CH] I mean take the case of someone who’s a member of moveon.org. They think that the United States government is a brutal, militaristic, imperial regime who crushes the poor and invades other peoples’ countries, but they pay their taxes and, it’s very, very rare that they don’t. They send their children to school, they do their stuff, you know, they don’t 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.
[SH] Too many commitments, yeah.
[CH] But you absolutely wouldn’t be challengeable in your belief. It’d 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 I’m sure the same is true of people who say well I shouldn’t really prefer one child to another or one parent to another but I do, I’m just not gonna act as if I do.
[CH] All kinds of things of this kind.
[SH] But what do you think, as educators …
[CH] Or Senator Craig saying he is not gay. Thinking in his own mind he’s absolutely sure he’s not, but he can’t manage his life by saying he is or that he isn’t. 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 don’t. I don’t either expect to, or wish to, see that.
[SH] What do you mean by ‘faith’?
[CH] Well I don’t think it’s possible, because it replicates so fast, faith. As often as it’s 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
[SH] So you mean faith in supernatural paradigms?
[CH] Yes, the wish. Wish thinking.
[RD] Then why would you not wish it?
[CH] And then, the other thing is, would I want this argument to come to an end, with all having conceded that …
[SH] You wouldn’t like to retire and move on to other stuff?
[CH] ‘Hitchens really won that round, now nobody in the world believes in God’? Now, apart from being unable to picture this, I’m not completely certain that it’s 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. It’s the thing you have to always be arguing against, the other explanation.
[RD] It’s an extraordinary thing. I don’t understand what you’re … I mean, I understand you’re saying that it’ll never work, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t wish it.
[CH] 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.
[RD] Because it’s interesting.
[CH] I want our side to get more refined, and theirs to be ever more exposed. But I can’t see it with one hand clapping.
[SH] I mean, you don’t want it to go on with the Jihadists, I mean, there’s a certain face of this …
[CH] No, but I don’t have a difference of opinion with the Jihadists.
[SH] Well, you do in terms of the legitimacy of their project …
[CH] No, not really, no, there’s nothing to argue about with that, I mean, there it’s a simple matter of survival. I want them to be extirpated.
[SH] Alright, well move it down to the people who are blocking stem cell research.
[CH] No, that is a purely primate response with me, the recognising the need to destroy an enemy in order to assure my own survival. I’ve no interest at all in what they think.
[RD] Sounds like you’re (inaudible)
[CH] No, I mean, really … we haven’t still come to your question about Islam, but no interest at all in what they think. Only interested in refining methods of destroying them.
[DD] In other words, you’ve simply given up.
[CH] A task in which, by the way, one gets very little secular support.
[SH] Yes, that’s notable.
[CH] Most atheists don’t want this fight. The most important one is the one they want to shirk. They’d far rather go off and dump on Billy Graham, ‘cause on that they know that they can’t, so there’s no danger.
[DD] Well I think that because we find the idea of exterminating these people just abhorrent, and we think that, besides, it will (inaudible) them.
[CH] No, I said ‘extirpating’.
[CH] Yes, complete destruction of the Jihadist forces. Extermination, I think, has to be applied more as a species, or, sort of …
[RD] No, but Christopher, it sounds as though you like argument. You like having … it’s almost the theatre of having an intellectual argument, which would be lost.
[CH] Well, I’d rather say the dialectic actually, Richard. In other words, one learns from arguing with other people.
[CH] Now I think all of us around this table have probably enhanced, or improved, our own capacities as reasoners.
[RD] 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 there’s plenty of arguments, really worthwhile arguments to be had.
[CH] But it’ll 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.
[SH] Well let me make an analogy here. ‘Cause you could’ve 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 we’re never going to get rid of it, and we’re 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 … I mean, you can find certain communities where …
[CH] Not at all, not at all.
[SH] No, I mean real witchcraft, not witchcraft as in its religious …
[CH] Witchcraft is completely ineradicable; it spreads like weed, often under animist and Christian religions.
[SH] No, no, I don’t mean …
[DD] But not in the western world.
[SH] I mean frank witchcraft,
[CH] The Washington Post …
[SH] The witchcraft of the evil eye, and instead of medicine, you have the …
[CH] You think you’ve gotten rid of that?
[SH] I think fundamentally we’ve gotten rid of that, yes.
[RD] But in any case …
[CH] Not at all.
[RD] don’t you want to get rid of it?
[CH] Not at all. There’s currently a campaign to get Wiccans registered to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.
[SH] Well, modulo the Wiccans …
[DD] But Wiccans are to witchcraft as Unitarians are to … (laughter)
[SH] Right, they’re not real. What I’m 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 … I mean it comes in ignorance of medical science. I mean, you don’t know why people get sick, and you suspect your neighbour of ill-intent, and then witchcraft fills the void there.
[CH] No, I wouldn’t say in such a case that one didn’t wish to be without it, that we’d have lost something interesting to argue with.
[SH] But, we are effectively … I mean, we’re not dealing with the claims of witches intruding upon medical – and don’t go to alternative medicine and acupuncture here – I’m talking about real witchcraft, you know, medieval witchcraft.
[CH] Well I was about to deal with that very thing, and The Washington Post publishes horoscopes every day.
[SH] Astrology is yet another …
[DD] Yes, and that is …
[CH] You think … I’m …
[DD] Astrology is a pale …
[CH] Astrology is not going to be eradicated, even after I stop reading my horoscope.
[SH] Okay, but it doesn’t need to be eradicated.
[RD] No, but you’re confusing whether it’s going to be eradicated and whether you want it to be eradicated. And it sounds as though you don’t want it to be eradicated, because you want something to argue against, and something to sharpen your wits on.
[CH] Yes, I think that is, in fact, what I …
[DD] 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 … I mean, I don’t care about astrology, I don’t think it’s 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, I’d be happy.
[CH] Well, look, you don’t accept my – or you don’t like my – 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: “Do you wish no one was going to church this morning in the United States?”
[DD] What’s your answer?
[CH] Well, I’ve given mine, Richard’s disagreed. Well, the answer I gave this morning was "I think people would be much better off without false consolation, and I don’t want them trying to inflict their beliefs on me. They’d 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.
[RD] (laughs) Well, I just don’t …!
[SH] But, you have many other subjects!
[CH] And I certainly didn’t say that I thought if they’d only listen to me, they would stop going. Okay, so there are two questions here. So that was my very experimental answer, but I’d love to hear … would you like to say that you look forward to a world where no one had any faith in the supernatural?
[RD] I want to answer this. Whether it’s astrology, or religion, or anything else, I want to live in a world where people think skeptically for themselves, look at evidence. Not because astrology’s harmful, I guess it probably isn’t harmful, but if you go through the world thinking that it’s okay to just believe things because you believe them without evidence, then you’re missing so much. And it’s such a wonderful experience to live in the world, and understand why you’re living in the world, and understand what makes it work, understand about the real stars, understand about astronomy, that it’s 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 it’s 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 …
[DD] Well, fine, I …
[CH] I could not possibly agree with you more.
[DD] But, let’s talk about priorities.
[DD] 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? Let’s look at Islam, and let’s look at Islam as realistically as we can. Is there any, remote chance of a reformed, reasonable Islam?
[RD] Well, isn’t the present, savage Islam actually rather recent? Isn’t it the Wahabi … I mean, doesn’t …?
[DD] You have to go back quite a ways, I think, to get …
[SH] Only up to a point. I mean, I think there’s … and again none of us are the … whether we’re equipped to do it, we’re 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 don’t 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 … 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 don’t see the inherent conflict, and the inherent liability of its creed. I mean, Samuel Huntington said that Islam has bloody borders. It’s at the borders that we’re 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 weren’t running around waging Jihad, because they had successfully waged Jihad.
[DD] But what about women in that world?
[RD] Exactly, the suffering of women within those borders.
[DD] Yeah, yeah. Even in the best of times.
[CH] But there’s obviously some kind of synchronism, and we know quite a lot now. There have been some wonderful books; Maria Menocal’s 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 …
[CH] 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.
[DD] In all religion.
[CH] It must be so. A creator whose will can’t … our comments on his will are unimportant. You know, his will is absolute, it cannot be challenged, and applies after we’re dead as well as before we’re 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.
[CH] There have been previous words from God, we admit that, we don’t claim to be exclusive, but we do claim to be final. There’s no need for any further work on this point.
[SH] And we do claim that there’s no distance between theology and …
[CH] The worst thing in our world, surely the worst thing anyone can say is ‘no further enquiry is needed’.
[RD] Oh yeah.
[CH] You’ve already got all you need to know. All else is commentary. It’s the most sinister and dangerous thing, and that is a claim that Islam makes that others don’t quite make in the same way.
[DD] Well, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment on that …
[CH] There’s 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 that’s great, you’re all welcome to join, but we have the final word. That’s deadly. And I think our existence is incompatible with that preaching.
[DD] Let me just play devil’s advocate for a moment, so at least we’re clear what the position is.
[CH] I’d rather speak for the devil pro bono myself!
[DD] We can all speak for the devil, I’m sure a lot of people think we’re 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 there’s 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 there’s 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 that’s not good for us, it’s knowledge that we were better off without, and the fact that many Muslims would like to turn the clock back, they can’t of course. But, I have a certain sympathy for a Muslim who says ‘well yeah, the cat’s out of the bag, it’s too late, it’s a tragedy, you in the West have exposed truths to yourselves, and now you’re forcing them on us, that the species would be better off not knowing.’
[CH] I’m absolutely riveted by what you say. I’d 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.
[SH] Well, you brought up the bell curve – I mean, if there were reliable differences in intelligence between races, or species, or gender …
[CH] Yes, but I don’t think any of us here do think that that’s the case. I mean, I’m thinking there must be something, you must’ve thought of something you could believe, but wish you didn’t know.
[DD] Oh, I don’t think it’s hard to dream up things which, if they were true, it might be better for the human race to go on not knowing them.
[CH] But could you concretise it just a little more? I’m completely …
[RD] I mean, the hypothetical is one thing, but Christopher is asking do you actually … have you ever suppressed something that … ?
[DD] No, no, I haven’t.
[RD] No, no.
[CH] Can you imagine yourself doing so, by the way? I mean, I can’t.
[DD] Oh, I can imagine it, I hope it never comes up.
[SH] Well, take the synthesising of bioweapons. I mean, should Nature publish the code for Smallpox, where anyone within his lab can …
[DD] Yeah, exactly. There’s all those sorts of things.
[CH] Oh, well, all right, but that would be a knowledge of which we should remain
innocent. That would be more like a capacity.
[SH] 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 it’s not so much the spread of seditious truths to Islam or the rest of the world that I think we’re guilty of in the eyes of our opponents, it’s 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 ‘prove to me that you love your wife’, as though this were a knockdown argument against atheism. You can’t 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.
[DD] And artistic discourse, which is not religious, necessarily.
[SH] But I would argue it’s not even well-captured by art, necessarily, there’s something in the same way that love is not really well-captured by art, and compassion is not … well, I mean, you can represent it in art, but it’s not reducible to … you don’t go into the museum and find compassion in its purest form. And, I think there’s something about the way we, as atheists, merely dismiss the bogus claims of religious people that convinces religious people that there’s something we’re missing, and I think we have to be sensitive to this.
[CH] Absolutely, that’s why they bring up "when has secularism ever built anything like Durham Cathedral or a Chartres? or a devotional painting? or the music of …?”
[CH] Well, I guess it would have to be Bach, yes.
[SH] But I think we have answers to that. I think we have answers to that
[CH] Yes, we do.
[SH] You provide a very good answer to that, if there was secular patronage of the arts at that point, then one, we can’t 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 …
[RD] To commission Michelangelo.
[SH] … to commission Michelangelo, you know, we would have all that secular artwork.
[CH] Though do you … I didn’t actually say that the corollary held
[CH] I think it’s true we can’t know with devotional painting, and sculpture, and architecture that the patronage didn’t have a lot to do with it. But I can’t hear myself saying ‘if only you had a secular painter, he would have done just as good work.’
[SH] Oh no, no, I think I’m fusing you and Richard there.
[CH] I don’t know why, and I’m quite happy to find that I don’t know why, I can’t quite hear myself saying that.
[RD] What? That Michelangelo, if he’d been commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, wouldn’t have produced something just as wonderful?
[CH] In some way, I’m reluctant to affirm that, yes.
[RD] Really? I find it very, very easy to believe that.
[CH] That could be a difference between us, I mean with devotional poetry, where I do … I don’t know much about painting or architecture or music, and some devotional architecture, like, say, St Peter’s, …
[SH] It couldn’t be done.
[CH] I don’t like anyway, and knowing that it was built by a special sale of indulgences
doesn’t help either!
[SH] Yeah, right.
[CH] With devotional poetry, like say that of, say, John Donne, or George Herbert, I find it very hard to imagine that it’s faked, or done for a patron.
[RD] Yes, I think that’s fair enough.
[CH] It would be very improbable people would write poetry like that to please anyone.
[SH] Well, could it be done in the spirit of reason?
[CH] Well, I frankly think that’s the only explanation.
[RD] But, in any case, what conclusion would you draw? I mean, if Donne’s devotional poetry is wonderful, so what? I mean it doesn’t show that it represents truth in any sense.
[CH] Not in the least. Well, my favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”. It’s like one of the best poems ever written. It exactly expresses … I wish I had it here, well actually I do have it here. If you like, I can read it – but I wouldn’t 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 – I don’t say believed – I shouldn’t say believed – who felt any more than he does, he’s an atheist, or who felt any less, that there’s something serious about this. And something written into the human personality, as well as the landscape.
[SH] Let’s bring this back to your question.
[DD] I don’t see that this is anything other than a special case.
[CH] It goes without saying that this says nothing about the truth of religion.
[DD] I don’t see how this is anything other than a special case. Other special cases of which would be … I can’t think of a perfect example … only by being lost at sea for two years in a boat, and then surviving that, that’s the only way you could conceivably have written this account, it could not be fiction.
[SH] Or quit smoking!
[DD] And it’s glorious, wonderful art, and it can be true, and we just accept that’s true, and Donne’s poetry, only very extreme circumstances could make it possible. And we can be grateful, perhaps, that those extreme circumstances existed and made this possible.
[SH] In his case?
[SH] But now you wouldn’t recommend being lost at sea to everyone?
[DD] No, no, no.
[CH] No, I wouldn’t recommend “Death Be Not Proud” to anyone, either, although it’s a wonderful poem, but it’s complete gibberish if you look only at the words. It’s the most extraordinary gibberish if you look only at the words, but there’s an x-factor involved, which I’m quite happy to both assume will persist, and will need to be confronted.
[SH] 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 there’s a place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal it doesn’t presuppose any bullshit. But there’s 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, who’s as crazy as it gets, mean Osama bin Laden’s 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 other’s 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 shouldn’t 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. There’s 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 that’s a lapse in our …
[RD] I think you’ve made that point and we’ve accepted it, Sam. I mean, going back to the thing about whether we’d like to see churches empty, I think I would like to see churches empty. What I wouldn’t like to see, however, is ignorance of the Bible.
[RD] Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You can’t understand art, you can’t understand music. There are all sorts of things you can’t understand, for historical reasons. But those historical reasons you can’t wipe out, they’re there. And so even if you don’t actually go to church and pray, you’ve 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 …
[SH] But it only that? Just the retrospective and historical appreciation of our of our ancestors’ ignorance?
[RD] 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 real.
[DD] But you’re sure you wanna see the churches empty? You can’t imagine a variety of churches, maybe by their … like it’s an extremely denatured church. A church which has ritual and loyalty, and common cause and purpose, and even …
[SH] and music.
[RD] yes, yes, yes
[DD] And they sing the songs and they do the rituals, but where the irrationality has simply been long without.
[RD] oh, okay. So you go to those places for funerals and weddings
[RD] and you have beautiful poetry and music,
[DD] and also perhaps for …
[RD] group solidarity meetings.
[DD] group solidarity to create some project which is hard to get off the ground otherwise.
[CH] I think there’s one more tiny thing, I mean, I haven’t been tempted to go to church and that’s 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 …
[RD] Oh, how dull, yes.
[CH] the King James one, right. I mean, there’s really no point, I can’t see why anyone goes, and (inaudible) stay away. They’ve thrown away …
[DD] All the poetry, yeah …
[CH] A pearl richer than all their tribe.
[CH] They don’t even know what they’ve got. It’s 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, I’d want the Latin Mass. YES!
[CH] For sure.
[RD] I mean there’s another issue there, which of course is that is when it becomes intelligible the nonsense becomes more transparent, and so if it’s in Latin, it can survive much better. It’s rather like a camouflaged insect. It can get through the get through the barriers, because you can’t see it. And whereas when it’s translated into not just English but modern English, you can see it for what it is.
[DD] But now, seriously then, do you, therefore delight in the fact that churches are modernising their texts and using the …
[RD] No, no I don’t.
[DD] Or do you …
[RD] It’s an aesthetic point. No, I don’t.
[CH] That’s the worst of both worlds.
[DD] (inaudible) it seems to me …
[CH] And we should be grateful for it. We didn’t do this to them.
[DD] Yeah, that’s right, we didn’t impose this on them …
[CH] Any more than we …
[SH] We weren’t clever enough …
[CH] We don’t blow up Shi’a mosques either. We don’t blow up the Birmingham Buddhas, we don’t desecrate. For the reasons given, myself at least (inaudible), we would have a natural resistance to profanity and desecration. We’d leave it to the pious to destroy churches and burn synagogues or blow up each other’s mosques, and I think that’s 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 that’s 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 don’t think it’s true of any of us …
[RD] No, no it’s not.
[CH] it’s 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 I’ve put it better now than I did at the beginning.
[SH] but not as unintelligently there, I think. What do you mean ‘something like faith’?
[DD] Yeah, and how like faith?
[CH] Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know.
[DD] Well, that’s fine.
[RD] Well that we could share.
[SH] Dan Dennett believes that, that’s not faith.
[DD] Yeah, sure.
[SH] I mean, we know there’s more than we presently know …
[CH] 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.
[CH] When I talk about this stuff … 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, I’m 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 that’s so beautiful describes, may involve some human sacrifices. Athenian imperialism wasn’t 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.
[DD] And I think acknowledging the evil that was part of its creation in the first place. That is, we can’t 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.
[RD] 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. It’s wonderful sacred music and the woman questioning me couldn’t understand why I would wish to have this piece of music.
[RD] It’s beautiful music and its beauty is indeed enhanced by knowing what it means. But you still don’t 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 you’ve got to believe that, this person existed and that the sadness that you feel really reflected something that actually happened.
[CH] Yes, like the Bishop of Dublin preached a sermon against Swift and said that he’d read every book of Gulliver’s Travels, and for his part he didn’t believe a word of them!
(laughter). So that’s the locus classicus, I think, of all that. Well, clearly we’re not cultural vandals but maybe we should think of the way in which so many people suspect that that’s 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 …
[RD] Yes, and very much so.
[DD] and no Christmas carols and no menorahs, and no …
[RD] Anybody who makes that criticism couldn’t possibly have read any one of our
[DD] No. Well, that’s another problem, too.
[RD] Another problem is that the people that …
[DD] the criticism isn’t just our books, it’s so many books.
[DD] and people don’t read them, they just read the reviews and then they decide that’s what …
[CH] We’re 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 … 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, ’cause I do. I think Cromwell was a great man, in many other ways as well. This is actually a pagan festival.
[SH] Well, we were all outed with our Christmas trees last year.
[RD] I have not the slightest problem with Christmas trees.
[DD] No, no, we had our Christmas card with our pictures of us.
[CH] It’s a good old Norse booze-up. And why the hell not?
[DD] Well, but it’s not just that, I mean, we …
[CH] I like solstices as much as the next person.
[DD] 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.
[RD] And why not? Yes.
[DD] And it’s just glorious stuff. That part of the Christian story is fantastic. It’s just a beautiful tale. And you can love every inch of it without believing.
[RD] I once at lunch was next to the lady who was our opponent at that debate in London.
[CH] Rabbi Neuberger.
[RD] 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, it’s a matter of simple courtesy and she was furious.
[DD] Oh, really?
[RD] 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: “I won’t utter falsehoods but I’ve no objection to uttering meaningless statements.”
[CH] Oh that’s very good. The Wykeham Professor?
[DD] Yes, with (inaudible)
[CH] (inaudible) was an old friend. Did we answer your question on Islam?
[SH] Ah, I don’t know. Well, okay, I’ll ask a related question. Do you feel there’s any burden we have, as critics of religion, to be even-handed in our criticism of religion, or is it fair to notice that there’s 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?
[DD] Well, of course they have to take them seriously but we don’t 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. That’s 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 it’s very clear.
[RD] I think Sam’s asking more about …
[SH] 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.
[DD] Yeah right. Then the question is what? That should we … is there something wrong with …?
[RD] No I think you’re talking cross-purposes, I think I think Sam’s asking about whether we should be even-handed in criticising the different religions, and you’re talking about evenhandedness about good versus bad.
[CH] Whether all religions are equally bad?
[RD] Whether Islam is worse than Christianity or …
[SH] It seems to me we fail to enlist the friends we have on this subject, when we balance this. I mean, it’s a tactic, it’s a media tactic, and in some sense it’s 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 …
[RD] There’s an imbalance there, yeah.
[SH] people who kill (inaudible) doctors, and it’s just not a real equation. I mean, with the mayhem that’s 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 … 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 … even Christians, even 70 percent of Americans don’t 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 it’s all bogus, we lose 90 percent of our neighbours.
[RD] Well I’m sure that that’s right. On the other hand, my concern is actually not so much with the with the evils of religion as whether it’s 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 …
[CH] Yeah. I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false. And for that reason, because they’re forced by preferring faith to reason, latently at least, equally dangerous.
[RD] Equally false but surely not quite equally dangerous, because …
[CH] No, latently I think so.
[RD] Latently, maybe.
[CH] Because of the surrender of the mind. The eagerness to discard the only thing that we’ve got that makes us higher primates, the faculty of reason. That’s always deadly.
[CH] And always …
[DD] I’m not sure there, I think …
[CH] and I think …
[RD] It’s potentially (inaudible)
[CH] The Amish can’t hurt me, but they can sure hurt the people who live in their community; they’re a little totalitarian system.
[SH] But not quite in the same way …
[CH] The Dalai Lama claims to be a God King of hereditary monarchy and inherited godliness. It’s 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. It’s only limited by his own limited scope.
[SH] But if you added Jihad to that, you would be more concerned.
[CH] The same evil is present. Every time I’ve ever debated with Islamists, they’ve all said: “Ah, you’ve just offended a billion Muslims”, as if they spoke for them. As if there’s a different threat to this, a menace, a military turn to what they say. In other words, if they’d said “You’ve just offended me as a Muslim”, it doesn’t quite sound the same, does it? If they were the only one who believed in the prophet Muhammad. No, no, it’s a billion! And by the way, what’s implied in that is “watch out!” I don’t care. If there was only one person who believed that the prophet Muhammad had been given dictation by the archangel Gabriel, I’d still say what I was saying.
[SH] Right, but you wouldn’t lay awake at night.
[CH] And it would be just as dangerous that they believed that, yes. It would, ’cause it could spread. The belief could become more general.
[SH] Well, it has, in the case of Islam, it has spread, and is spreading, and so it’s danger is not only potential but actual.
[RD] Yeah. I can see no contradiction …
[CH] Yes but over space and time, I think this tremendously evens out. I mean I didn’t expect – I’m sure, neither did you – 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) … deciding to try and bring on the Messiah by stealing other people’s land, and trying to bring on the end. Numerically it’s extremely small, but the consequences that it’s had, have been absolutely calamitous. We didn’t 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 didn’t used to be Zionists, as you know, so, you’d never know when it’s gonna be next.
[SH] Well that I certainly …
[CH] I agree, I’m 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. That’s as wicked a position as you could possibly hold.
[SH] Given the right context, yeah.
[CH] I mean, what could be more revolting than that? Say you see evil and violence and cruelty and you don’t fight it?
[DD] Yeah, they’re free riders.
[CH] 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 would’ve then said that Quakerism was actually quite a serious danger to the United States. So, it’s a matter of space and time, but no, they’re all, they’re all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.
[SH] It’s true, I mean, there’s 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, you’re in no position to affirm. If the liabilities of that are potentially infinite, I mean you just don’t know. So to take a case that I raised a moment ago, stem cell research, you don’t 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, there’s something about dogmatism which you can almost never foresee how many lives it’s gonna cost, because the conflict with reality just erupts.
[CH] Well, that’s 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. That’s where the human race took it’s worst turn. There’s 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 would’ve been other crazed cults and so forth, but there might have been a chance to not destroy Hellenistic civilisation. Well, it’s not a matter of numbers …
[SH] You’d still have a Dalai Lama …
[CH] it’s a matter of, if I may say so, memes and infections, which would spread very fast. Of course I would’ve 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, there’s no question Islam is most dangerous religion and partly because it doesn’t have a papacy. You can’t tell it to stop something and make an edict saying …
[SH] (inaudible) out of control, yeah.
[CH] But I would still have to say that Judaism is the root of the problem.
[SH] Although it’s only the root of the problem in light of the Muslim fixation on that
land. If the Muslims didn’t care about Palestine we could have the settlers trying to usher in the messiah all they want. There’d be no issue. It’s only the conflict of claims on that real estate.
[RD] Well, both sides have that, are fixated on it.
[SH] 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, …
[CH] Which it’s 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 we’ll be very lucky if we get through this conflict without a nuclear exchange.
[SH] Actually, I think that’s 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 …
[DD] And how would you get there?
[SH] 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 …
[CH] Well, I feel myself on the losing side politically, and on the winning side intellectually.
[DD] But you don’t see anything to do?
[CH] Look, in the current zeitgeist. I don’t think we would be accused of undue conceit if we said of ourselves, or didn’t mind it being said of us, that we’ve been opening and carrying forward and largely winning an argument that’s been neglected for too long. I mean, certainly in the United States and Britain at this moment that’s true, it seems to me, but in global terms, I think we’re absolutely in a tiny, dwindling minority that’s going to be defeated by the forces of theocracy, which will probably …
[SH] So you’re betting against us?
[CH] No, I think they’re gonna end up by destroying civilisation. I’ve long thought so.
[DD] Well of course you may be right, because …
[CH] but not without a struggle.
[DD] because it can be a single catastrophe …
[CH] ‘cause that’s my big disagreement with Professor Dawkins is that I think it’s 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.
[SH] So in what sense do you disagree?
[CH] And I think, amongst secularists, that must be considered the most eccentric
position that you could possibly hold. That’s 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.
[SH] 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.
[CH] Voila, by all means, there are reservations to be expressed by me, which I happily give you but in principle I think it’s a very important recognition.
[RD] Unfortunately we’re running out of time,
[CH] And possibly tape.