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Ask Richard Dawkins About Evolution, Religion, and Science Education 1142

Richard Dawkins is an author and an evolutionary biologist. For 13 years, he held the Simonyi Professorship at the University of Oxford. His 1976 book The Selfish Gene helped popularize the gene-centric view of evolution and coined the word "meme." Several other of his books, including Climbing Mount Improbable, River Out of Eden, and The Greatest Show on Earth have helped to explain aspects of evolution in a way non-scientists can more easily understand. Dawkins is a frequent opponent of creationism and intelligent design, and he generated widespread controversy and debate in 2006 with The God Delusion, a book that subjected common religious beliefs to unyielding scientific scrutiny. He wrote, "One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding." Most recently, Dawkins wrote The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, a graphic book that aims to introduce kids to science. He's also recently begun a video series titled "Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life" about how our world would look without religion. Mr. Dawkins has graciously agreed to answer some questions for us. Post your suggestions in the comments below, but please limit yourself to one question per post. We'll post his responses sometime next week.
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Ask Richard Dawkins About Evolution, Religion, and Science Education

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  • by SoTerrified ( 660807 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:41PM (#41694269)

    Great question! We should ask him if he's jealous of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as well!

  • Re:AC from work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aaaaaaargh! ( 1150173 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:41PM (#41694285)

    Isn't it the case that anything could have unforeseen consequences? Related to this, if that avoiding unforeseen consequences were a requirement, how would you show that something does not have any unforeseen consequences?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:21PM (#41695007)

    Because of the laws of thermodynamics. The universe isn't a perpetual motion machine - it needs something outside itself to come into existence. Something outside of space and time - therefore something immaterial and eternal - and powerful. I'm speaking of space-time itself and even the laws of physics. Particles can't come from a void without physical laws.
    Also, if you need another reason - the anthropic principle. There are not enough sub atomic particles in the universe for there to be a life-possible planet statistically - the numbers will blow your mind if you look at them. Anyone with an open mind will see that God is really the only rational, logical explanation. If you disagree, I would encourage you to read some actual works on the topic - maybe something by Robert Spitzer. I'm amazed at the lack of education on this topic by most people - atheists seem to simply assume their position without any logical study.
    Dawkins was an amateur compared to Spitzer.

    Also, if you need another reason - the anthropic principle. I drew a card out of this deck, and oh look, it's the three of clubs. There are not enough three of clubs in this deck for this to be possible statistically (because there is only one) - the numbers will blow your mind if you look at them. Anyone with an open mind will see that God is really the only rational, logical explanation.

    The "many universes" theory aside, if there is no life, you wouldn't be here, trolling people on Slashdot, would you? This "it's absurdly improbable so God did it" argument always seems to be rather silly to me.

  • Gender equality (Score:4, Insightful)

    by amstrad ( 60839 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:26PM (#41695119)

    How serious of a problem do you think gender inequality is in the scientific academic world? What would you do to correct it?

    Follow up:

    You caught a lot of heat for the "Dear Muslima" episode last year. Do you feel you were misinterpreted or misrepresented? Is there anything you regret or would have said differently in retrospect?

  • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <> on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:26PM (#41695121) Homepage Journal

    Dawkin's books discuss this at length. It comes down to education in logical thinking and taking a scientific, evidence based approach to things. At the same time people try to indoctrinate children with religion before they develop these skills and come to naturally reject it.

    My father was indoctrinated as a child and despite being a software engineer and so demonstrably more than capable of logical thinking and understanding he could never abandon Islam. Are people like that beyond help, I wonder.

  • by Myopic ( 18616 ) * on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:28PM (#41695171)

    Oh, that is wonderful. My first child is due next month. You commented on the difference between a just-about-to-be-born fetus and a just-recently-born baby; would you also comment on the difference between a blastocyst and a baby? In my experience as an expectant father, there seems to be a big difference between a blastocyst and a near-term fetus, so there must be an even bigger one compared to a fully born baby. For me, the important distinction is that when it's inside a woman, it's part of the woman, literally and figuratively and legally; and women are empowered to do as they choose with their bodies.

    It's not really a religious issue, though, from my perspective -- not for Christians anyway. The Bible defines life as beginning with breath [], while tattoos are explicitly prohibited []. It's not clear to me why Christians get so bothered about abortion, which is not prohibited in their holy book, but never seem to spend much energy picketing tattoo parlors.

  • Re:Being a Symbol (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:29PM (#41695203) Journal

    in others you're quoted without question like a religious prophet.

    When does this actually happen? I see the assertion a lot, but I've never seen it happen.

  • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:06PM (#41695915)

    How about the religions that are believed by the young earth creationists (which includes all three of the religions you mentioned)? Or the religion that persecuted Galileo? Or the religions which refuse to acknowledge the over whelming evidence in support of evolution? It's nice that the old book has those passages, but it has a lot of passages that people ignore these days, the fact is that a sizable percentage of religious people do reject scientific evidence when it disagrees with their faith. That's not to say everyone who is religious does so, only that it's far more common in people who are heavily religious.

  • by NoSleepDemon ( 1521253 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:16PM (#41696085)
    Your belief that the Universe needed something to come into existence in the first place is fascinating!

    If this were true, then something would have had to have created The Creator as well. I posit that the same malfunctioning part of your brain that believes in God has also attempted (poorly) to impose your human interpretation of your surroundings upon the actual functioning of the Universe, thus dumbing down its laws to your level of intellect. In this simplistic view of the Universe (where something all powerful created it, yet is not also subject to having been created by something even more powerful) the existence of God is of course possible, but only because you said so!

    In reality, life and death are purely human concepts. Nothing is actually completely destroyed, merely converted to another state. The Universe had no beginning and it will have no end. Using this more general concept of the functioning of the Universe, where we do not impose our beliefs upon it, it is clear that God, in the form of The Creator, does not exist.
  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:27PM (#41696279) Journal

    That's unfortunate. Because a critical thinker is likely not to stop at religion, but think critically about all of our institutions. Once you do that, you see that essentially everything mainstream society values is worthless at best, and most likely fraudulent. This leads to marginalization and unhappiness.

    It's not that there's anything inherently depressing about thinking critically. It's that the society we live in can only be tolerated with large amounts of self-delusion.

  • by tragedy ( 27079 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:30PM (#41696351)

    Because of the laws of thermodynamics.

    The laws of thermodynamics are convenient aren't they? They're so poorly understood by most people that it's easy to claim that things are impossible due to the laws of thermodynamics, even when they aren't, and people have a hard time arguing back. The best part is, you don't really need to understand the laws of thermodynamics yourself in order to claim that they make something impossible.

    The universe isn't a perpetual motion machine - it needs something outside itself to come into existence.

    A. The universe may, in fact, be a perpetual motion machine. It depends on a number of factors, such as whether or not the laws of conservation of matter and energy are true and exactly how you define motion (for example, do photons move?). Understand that the heat death of the universe does not mean an entire universe at absolute zero, it just means an entire universe in which you can no longer exploit energy to do work.
    B. Why would a non-perpetual motion machine need something outside itself to come into existence, and how do you resolve the obvious paradox of how that something itself came into existence?

    Something outside of space and time - therefore something immaterial and eternal - and powerful. I'm speaking of space-time itself and even the laws of physics. Particles can't come from a void without physical laws.

    It's curious that you say that particles can't come from a void without physical laws. It seems that you're strongly suggesting that whatever the universe arose from is governed by some sort of physical laws. If that's the case, you've just offloaded the mysteries of the universe onto a mysterious extra-universal thing which itself must have some sort of origin governed by some sort of physical laws. This sort of thing either requires an infinite series of creative forces: creator, then meta-creator, meta-meta-creator and so on, or it requires that, somewhere along the chain, something simply came into being or somehow created itself. If you can believe that about some sort of extra-universal creator, then why can't you believe it about the universe itself?

    Also, if you need another reason - the anthropic principle. There are not enough sub atomic particles in the universe for there to be a life-possible planet statistically - the numbers will blow your mind if you look at them.

    Oh please. We don't have the kind of information to realistically calculate those statistical odds. Even with the size of the universe truly known, depending on your base assumptions, the estimates can be off by hundreds of orders of magnitude. Even if we actually had some clue on those base assumptions, we don't even have any real clue how big the universe is. We are pretty sure that the universe is so big that there are parts of it expanding away from us so fast that the light from them will never reach us though. If the universe actually is infinite, then that means that statistical probabilities of life evolving are meaningless and it simply has to happen somewhere. If it's not infinite, it's still of mind-boggling and unknowable size so we can't realistically ever give the odds of life springing up somewhere. The fact that it sprang up on Earth rather than somewhere else is meaningless statistically. Wherever you go, there you are.

    Anyone with an open mind will see that God is really the only rational, logical explanation

    What about pantheons of gods? Cosmic eggs? Various kinds of heavenly cow? Flying spaghetti Monsters? Unfathomable cosmic horrors from beyond the gulfs of space and time? Ascended lower life-forms from the far future travelling outside of time to create their own past? The universe being sneezed into existence by the Great Green Arkleseizure? Self-transforming machine elves? It's all just a simulation (hey look, another explanation that just shifts the question to where did the m

  • by Myopic ( 18616 ) * on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:36PM (#41696455)

    "why do you think you can twist what the bible says?"

    Why do I think I can? Hardly, I'm sure that I can twist what the Bible says! I mean, I'm not as good at it as Christians are, but at least I can try. It's really hard for Christians to turn "love your neighbor" into "hate fags", but they manage to do it. The real underlying point is that if you can twist a text into either of two opposite conclusions, then you can simply skip the text in the first place and focus on the actual issue without all the religious nonsense clouding things.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:36PM (#41696469)

    Anyone with an open mind will see that God is really the only rational, logical explanation.

    If there is something out there that caused our universe to exist, I don't see any reason why it should even remotely resemble any of the many gods humans believe in or have believed in through the ages. If it is one of them, it could for instance be Ra, who created himself and went on creating others by masturbating. Or Eurynome, who arose naked from chaos, parted sea from sky so she could dance on the waves, generated a serpent from the north wind and mated with it, and laid an egg that hatched everything that exists. Those stories strike me as highly improbable, though, and so does every other creation story I'm aware of. The only rational, logical position for me is that all human religions are most likely fantasies with no relation at all to the real origins of our universe, and if one of them isn't we have no way to decide which one. Perhaps the physicists who proposed a method to determine if the universe is a simulation [] have taken the first step in a direction that may actually give us answers instead of beliefs.

    If you disagree, I would encourage you to read some actual works on the topic - maybe something by Robert Spitzer.

    Which Robert Spitzer? There are several.

  • Re:Good one (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:55PM (#41696765)

    We have yet to find any. It's pretty rare right here in the solar system.

    That's pretty egotistical to assume that since we haven't detected it, that it has never existed and still doesn't exist anywhere else in the solar system. It may be in 10 other places in the solar system, for all we know. We aren't exactly accomplished explorers in space.

    A certain Discovery channel show I was watching made a really good point that sort of blew my mind. They had a scale model of the solar system that was large enough such that "Neptune" was positioned about a mile from the "sun". In this model, the Earth was about the size of a marble, and the moon was just a little bead on a toothpick. They go through the process of walking down the model measuring distance, and at each planet they would look back at the sun and see how far away everything looks, just to make the point that distances in space are larger than anything we have a reference for. The mind-blowing part was when they pointed out that, out of this entire mile full of planets and moons, that the maximum distance that humans have traveled is those 2 inches between the Earth marble and the moon bead. And you want to sit here and say that, since we haven't found other life in all of our ingenuity and awesomeness, that it must be rare. That's pretty egotistical. Give humanity another 10,000 years of exploration before we start deciding how rare life in the universe is.

  • by rmstar ( 114746 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @03:24PM (#41697143)

    These passages are shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, so it's none of these religions. What religion values ignorance?

    Indirectly, they all do. They are based on the idea that you are supposed to believe in some things, and are not allowed to doubt them. Only then you are virtuous. But, well, that is ignorance.

    Every time you hear a religious person complain that Darwin's theories are the work of the devil or somesuch, then they are saying that ignorance is good.

    A lot of information is supposed to be kept away from certain groups of people (women, children) to keep them docile. This is considered a good thing, and yes, this *is* valuing ignorance.

  • by LateArthurDent ( 1403947 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @03:42PM (#41697397)

    I once proposed here that not having sex is a pretty good way to stay clear of HIV and was immediately bashed as a religious zealot.

    I'm not religious and I have no problem with that sentence as stated, although in a different context I'd probably assume it's a joke, due to impracticality of asking people not to have sex. What was the context? Were you promoting teaching abstinence instead of teaching safe sex?

    The reason that abstinence is labelled as the strategy proposed by religious fanatics is because it doesn't work. It's not that being abstinent won't make you safe from STDs, it's that teaching abstinence doesn't actually make teens abstinent.

    I'm perfectly fine with teaching kids to wait until they're ready, just so long as you also teach them to have safe sex once they decide to stop waiting.

  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @04:32PM (#41698113) Homepage

    So which is more logical - we live in a universe with a basic set of rules that "just happens to be", or we live in a universe created by an infinitely more complex deity who "just happens to be"?
    Occam's Razor, anyone?

    Honestly, my view is, the reason for the universe is: "Everything" Existence, yes or no? "Everything". By the anthropic principle, we can only exist in the scenario where the universe exists, so we don't percieve the scenario where it doesn't. What rules to the universe? "Everything". All happen. Any possible scenario where nothing comes into existence to perceive it, it's like it never even happened. We perceive this universe only because it made us.

    But hey, if you think a sentient being just happening to exist is simpler than the rule "Everything"....

  • Re:Good one (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thesandtiger ( 819476 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @04:53PM (#41698359)

    "I find it odd that so many believe without doubt that there is extraterrestrial life despite no indication that there is (note, I think there there probably is, considering how many planets there must be, but accept that this rock may possibly be the only one alive), yet are just as certain that God doesn't exist, despite witnesses to the contrary."

    I believe it very likely that extra-terrestrial life exists because i have unambiguous proof that life exists, and I see no reason to think Earth is somehow unique as a harbor for life in the entire huge universe.

    I do not believe in god or gods because I have never seen ANY evidence what-so-ever for the existence of ANY god, and thus see no reason to invoke one.

    If you can show me unambiguous proof that even one bona fide god exists, I will consider the possibility that other gods, even yours, may exist.

  • by Yaztromo ( 655250 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @05:08PM (#41698543) Homepage Journal

    My bible says "fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7). "Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart."

    I think the modern scientific concept of "wisdom" and the religious/biblical meaning of "wisdom" differ greatly.

    I don't know Prof. Dawkins, however I'll assume his definition of "wisdom" is along the lines of "being informed by current scientific theories that bear the preponderance of evidence, eschewing concepts for which there is no evidence, while being open to changes as more evidence and better models present themselves."

    Unfortunately, the religious definition of "wisdom" typically winds up meaning "is able to quote bible/torah/koran verses verbatim".

    The point being, "wisdom" is a very slippery word with a very nebulous definition that changes depending on who you're talking to. Which one do the verses you quote above refer to? Probably depends on who you ask, but I suspect most "experts" in this area would point towards religious wisdom rather than rationality.


  • by Genda ( 560240 ) <> on Thursday October 18, 2012 @07:04PM (#41699775) Journal

    Friend, I consider myself a Christian, but these days, there are so many who have a fundamentalist belief system, and take every word of the Gospel as basic fact without the faintest consideration for context, physics or the nature of the conversations contained in both the Old and New Testaments. That the entire world was flooded when Naoh saved the animals... where did enough water to flood the world come from and where did it go to? The magical thinking is shocking. That the world is thousands of years old and that people lived with the dinosaurs like the Flintstones. These too are beliefs grounded in the same scriptures that you quote, and these good and decent people have given up all rational consideration to instead cling to mysticism and magical thinking. The universe is so vast in size and time and we can see such a precious small slice of that eternity, that is it perfectly appropriate for men of knowledge to probe the mysteries and hold faith in those places for which answers may forever exceed our grasp. I am simply concerned that too many would avoid the light of simple truth, for fear that it would threaten their clockwork belief of God and this universe.

    How do you reconcile Georgia Rep. Paul Broun saying in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell" meant to convince people that they do not need a savior? Worse, that this man has immediate and direct influence on the future of scientific research in the United States. Do you question his faith, his understanding of his religion, his sect or orthodoxy, his belief or his sanity? I appreciate that there is a critical need for ethicists in the science community, to look at the impact of our growing technological information and how we can best apply our growing understanding to serve the greater interests of humanity. That neither explains or excuses a growing number of people who have turned away from truth and wisdom in the name of religion, or the religious leaders who would have them behave this way. Part of the problem, is that the Bible is a book, most of which was written in a context specific to a rowdy dessert people living in the Sinai Peninsula 5 to 2 millennia ago. The amazing thing is that so much of the human content is so completely valid and appropriate thousands of years later. The prophesies, that are only now coming to pass. Most amazing is the amazing accuracy of the historical content as every year archeologist discover some new dig which validates the descriptions portrayed in the Bible. That said, the book is a gift from God, and even contains the fascinating process by which men gathered the Word and selected from all the Christian writings to come to a place where it was decided this is our religious text. It reflects the strong Jewish influence in the early church, and the desire to keep the early church as close as possible to Jewish faith, so the Gospel of Mary was left out. The most powerful thing about Christianity, has been its spiritual core of Love and Service. As it spread its ability to coop pagan culture and symbols and still pass the core belief along intact and healthy.

    Its time for Christians and all other religions that are the children of Abraham, to let go of the dogma. Stop trying to force people to obey your beliefs on threat of death. Its time to honor the Prince of Peace, by really being peaceful.

If you want to put yourself on the map, publish your own map.