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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 eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:14PM (#41693883) Journal
    I constantly see your work referenced both by opponents and proponents and feel like they don't always fully understand the concepts. My personal favorite is when I find a proponent of your work taking the personification of the gene to a new level past its role as a mere didactic device -- sometimes expounding at length about what genes want and desire. So what is your favorite misunderstanding that may have ended up as a headline, news story or that you've found on the internet?
  • Hitch (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dhermann ( 648219 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:16PM (#41693903)
    What is your fondest memory of Christopher Hitchens?
  • Widespread religion (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:21PM (#41693973)

    The God Delusion helped me make explicit several inchoate ideas I had about why a belief in a god is not necessary to explain the world around us. Why do you think that so many people around the world still feel the need to rely on a personal god?

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> 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 mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:59PM (#41695807) Homepage Journal

        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.

        No. I know a man who was raised as an athiest and who swears that God touched him; he's now a Christian. On the other hand, I know another man who was raised in a strict Christian family in Kentucky (Bible Belt) who is now a die-hard athiest. A woman I know was raised as a Catholic and still considers herself a Catholic, yet believes that God doesn't exist (now there's a logical disconnect if I ever saw one).

        I would bet that most athiests were raised in religious families. People tend to rebel against their parents and their beliefs at a point in their lives.

      • by isorox ( 205688 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:46PM (#41696629) Homepage Journal

        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.

        sounds like a healthy survival instinct. A large portion of western Muslims (30%) believe that apostasy should be punished by death.

        While Jehovah's witnesses may annoy you, Scientology and Islam are cults with dangerous followers. Safest not to piss them off.

  • by mrkitty ( 584915 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:21PM (#41693979) Homepage
    Do you believe a democratic society can exist which has no form of religion in its laws, or within government?
    • by mcmonkey ( 96054 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:36PM (#41694205) Homepage

      Do you believe a democratic society can exist which has no form of religion in its laws, or within government?

      I think a better question is, can a democratic society exist with any form of religion in its laws or government?

      (I say better as in more practical. I don't think we'll ever see a society without some aspect of religion enshrined into law (considering the cult of personality around a dictator or monarch as a form of religion).)

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      Do you believe a democratic society can exist which has no form of religion in its laws, or within government?

      They say there's no such thing as a stupid question and I've always said that myself, but you've proven me wrong. It's Richard Dawkins, fergawdsake. Of course he believes a democratic society can exist which has no form of religion in its laws, or within government.

      And even though I'm Christian, I would agree with him on this. The US laws aren't religious and the US isn't a Christian nation, or mari

  • by Quakeulf ( 2650167 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:22PM (#41693995)
    And how do you pronounce it yourself?

    Thank you very much in advance for taking your time to answer my questions. :3
    • by dubdays ( 410710 )

      And how do you pronounce it yourself?

      It's pronounced "meem". That's the only way I've ever heard it pronounced, and even by Dawkins himself.

    • by Speare ( 84249 )
      The term meme has evolved (or devolved) rapidly. The "current" use, as far as I've seen, has come to mean "an ugly square graphic of a recognizable image overlaid with some large typeface text describing bumper-sticker philosophy or a barely ironic pop culture observation."
  • DNA Methylation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alphaamanitin ( 1798136 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:24PM (#41694023)
    DNA methylation seems an interesting property that has been shown to be heritable in some instances (cannot remember citation, study involving desert plants in Arizona or New Mexico, USA), changing the phenotype without the genotype. If this is inheritable, this seems to break your assertion that the gene is always the level of selection. In this case a gene producing X phenotype is methylated to produce Y phenotype, which could be selected for against (either direction) phenotype X, phenotype Y individuals net result in my hypothetical is a increased fitness and fecundity relative to individuals with phenotype X. Do you view this as escaping your assertion or a mere special case as it is still the gene being methylated. AlphaA
    • by tragedy ( 27079 )

      If there are two genes, identical in terms of base pairs but with some form of activation that makes them express differently, and that difference is inheritable, then I would contend that they are, in fact, two different genes for the purposes of evolution. Genes, after all, were a concept that was understood well before the structure of DNA was understood or even before DNA was discovered. We decided that genes meant particular sequences of DNA due to better understanding of DNA. With even greater underst

  • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:25PM (#41694035)
    Do you think humans have a genetic predisposition to believe in things that have no basis in science?
  • by NixieBunny ( 859050 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:25PM (#41694043) Homepage
    Do you think that it will ever happen that a society exists without religion?
  • Gallup poll (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:30PM (#41694105)

    In a recent Gallup poll it has been shown that there has been no change in 30 years of Americans accepting evolution as truth. What do you think are the major factors for this?

  • by Gotung ( 571984 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:31PM (#41694129)
    It seems that most creationists are successful in convincing their peers of the faults in the theory of evolution because they are the only source of information on what the theory actually is. They setup a completely outdated or just plain fabricated version of the theory and then argue against that. Which makes them look like they know what they are talking about and makes their arguments convincing to the ignorant. How do you convince people that what they have been taught is completely wrong without insinuating that they or their respected teacher/pastor etc is a complete idiot?
  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:34PM (#41694177)

    While the theological propositions of most religions are laughable, the empirical neurophysiological techniques for the induction of mystical states can be quite useful as a means of inducing subjective feelings of happiness, satisfaction and stress relief. If "mystical" state induction techniques (e.g. breathing, sustained attention) were generalized, codified and distributed widely, do you think that these would work against religious organizations and their more deplorable behaviors? Religious history suggests this, as almost every religious organization eventually suppresses the actual practice of inducing mystical states.

  • So I've always wondered how someone gets into gene research despite having a sibling who just received her PhD in a related field. What is odd is that we both went to a Catholic (K-8) school run by nuns, we both went to a local high school in literally the middle of nowhere and we both read works like The Panda's Thumb. But she went into research on genes and gene therapy while I went into software development and coding. So I've always wondered how much the United States' religious system actually inhibits our work in this field and other fields of science. Could you explain to me -- in your ideal world -- what would change in schools (at all levels) as a young mind develops that is distinctly different from the way it is now to better promote these options? Do you believe that the arcane and puritanical views of religious groups actually hinder us or that people who want to excel in these fields will find their way to it? Assuming you do believe this is a hindrance, how bad is it?
  • Historically entrenched Mysticism has reacted poorly to the thoughts of Scientific minds.

    Do you think there might be better ways to approach this communication that would improve the rate of Scientific progress and do you think that this interaction might be amenable to Scientific study?

    Do you also feel that this debate that rages between those that would manipulate mysticism to gain power over others and Science can ever be won or is it a battle that must be fought for every succeeding generation?

  • A lot of effort (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ciderbrew ( 1860166 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:37PM (#41694233)
    At any point, have you ever had a religious person say "I think you're right, it is all bollocks!" after they've had a chat with you?. It seems like so much hard work to destroy the fantasy.
  • Circumcision (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:37PM (#41694235)

    Kind of an oddball question for you - What are your thoughts on circumcision? The reason I ask is because, according to the World Health Organization, about 30% of males on the planet are circumcised and 70% of those are Muslim. It appears that the decision to circumcise is heavily influenced by religious beliefs, but the WHO also states that circumcision helps reduce the risk of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Christopher Hitchens, a man who I loved and respected, thought it was a barbaric practice. Being another person I love and respect, I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  • Cognitive Dissonance (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BiophysicalLOVE ( 2650233 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:40PM (#41694257)
    Is it possible to fully comprehend the world scientifically, and foster a mechanistic perception of the universe, and still foster a faith at the same time? If this it isn't possible, and it is argued that faith will cloud our otherwise pristine judgement, how can we trust the observations or arguments produced by scientists of faith?
    • Well. A scientist who challenges his previous dogma and is willing to adjust his world view is quite trustworthy. The oh so flexible Catholic church managed to accept things they previously quite vilently rejected. You can trust any scientist who follows the scientific method.
      The Münchhausen Trilemma says that we will never ever achieve absolute certainty. Which is what makes the scientific method so utterly unattractive to people who live comfortably with dogma. Which offers certainty by default.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:42PM (#41694293) Journal

    Given that religion is present in every society, and by far the norm in almost every society, it stands to reason that we are genetically disposed to be religious. That would imply that religion has some evolutionary benefits.

    Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, what are those benefits, and how can they be provided by a fully secular society?

  • There's the idea that's been tossed around for a long time that we're programmed to believe in gods, goddesses, higher powers, and all that to explain things we don't yet understand, that it's some kind of evolutionary coping strategy. Do you think that's true? Why (or why not)?
  • Being a Symbol (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Antipater ( 2053064 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:43PM (#41694315)
    You've become an incredibly polarizing figure in a contentious debate. In certain groups, you're akin to the Anti-Christ, and in others you're quoted without question like a religious prophet. How do you handle that? Does it feel weird to have everything you say dissected (and possibly misinterpreted)? Is there pride? Exasperation? Amusement?
    • 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.

    • You know that in the [bible.cc] source [bible.cc] document, [bible.cc] the term "antichrist" just meant anyone who denied Christ, right? "Anti-" like anticlockwise or antifreeze, or antidisestablishmentarianism. Dunno why you guys need to demonize anyone.

      Anyone who ascribes religious fervor to someone quoting Dawkins is projecting. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...

  • by martinux ( 1742570 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:43PM (#41694333)

    Hi Professor Dawkins and thanks for offering to answer some of our questions.

    In the past, some science educators (Dr. Tyson for example) have criticised what they perceived to be your overuse of the stick in promoting rationalism and fact-based decision making where they considered the carrot to be a better tool. There is some evidence that simply stating the facts may actually be counter-productive: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf [dartmouth.edu]

    Would you mind talking about the efficacy of both approaches to the greater understanding of the value of fact-based decision making?

  • Doctor Dawkins,
    In your book, The God Delusion, you consider religion as a memetic trait passed from generation to generation. Although many have pondered as you have a world without religion, given the aforementioned context do you consider an end to religion possible in much the same way we may treat a genetic flaw with genetic therapy in the near future?

  • Do you think there's a genetic difference between conservatives and liberals?
  • by Laxori666 ( 748529 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:45PM (#41694359) Homepage

    You have spent a lot of time debunking religion and thinking about how to think rationally - something that I have come to appreciate immensely. I'm curious what your take on climate change/global warming is. Is it happening? What does it mean for it to be happening? Is it caused by humans? It would be rather ironic if I were simply asking you so I could then take your word for it and believe whatever you say, so I'm curious about your thought processes as well. Contrary to the "there is no debate; the scientific community 100% agrees on this issue and the only ones who disagree are funded by oil companies" line the pro-global-warming crowd says, I see much evidence [middlebury.net] that not all scientists agree, and not all the ones that disagree have hideous ulterior motives. Further, I see similarities between the religious preachings of doomsday scenarios and the claims that the world is going to explode soon unless we do something right now.

    How can I separate the BS claims and the politicization of the issue from what the factual data actually is?

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      He is an evolutionary biologist, and a climatologist.
      So, ask the experts. Well, you don't need to ask becasue scientific consensus among the experts clearly say yes, it is real, and yes we are the cause for temperature changes on top of normal cycles.

      No one else has presented in credible argument to the contrary in decades.

      "How can I separate the BS claims and the politicization of the issue from what the factual data actually is?"
      Read the data and not the media reports? Try to remember the the media makes

  • The Flock (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 )
    Assuming you're aware of the behavior, what are your thoughts regarding the fundamentalist-like fervor exhibited by many of your followers, as well as the irony of their penchant for elevating you to a god-like status?
  • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:47PM (#41694391)
    When I received my religious education as I child, my rabbi taught me about the Documentary Hypothesis -- not to deny it, but to show me that the torah was not always what it is today. What are your thoughts on this sort of religious education i.e. religious education that is not based on denying or avoiding scientific or historical realities?
  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:49PM (#41694415) Journal
    Something that's always troubled me about memes is that I cannot understand what the core language or data is for a meme. I know that our genes can be pinned down to be DNA but with memes it's troubling for me to try to imagine a language that conveys what is happening in them. We can observe a meme's transmission, we can observe a meme's mutation, we can observe a meme's fitness and we can observe its extinction -- but what we can't do is break those things down to some finite chunk of information such that we can analyze them on a empirical level. For instance, mutations of memes appear to be limited to only the human imagination and physics. It feels as though I would have as much luck describing how art went from cave paintings to film CGI with only mathematics as the language. So what is the concrete language of memes or are they destined to be more of a curious observation than a falsifiable and reproducible analysis like genetics?
  • by rhartness ( 993048 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @12:59PM (#41694589)
    There is a small percentage of Christians, such as myself, who adamantly believe in both evolution and Christianity. We believe that scripture must be read and interpreted through a context that understands that scripture should be interpreted by first considering the culture of the original audience. As such, we believe that the "historical" aspect of the Biblical account of creation isn't as important as understanding the purpose and point of all of "creation", humankind and who we are in relation to our creator. My intent is not to lecture on the creation of mankind. Instead, I am interested in knowing if you've ever spoken or debated much with other Christians who have similar beliefs as myself. For many of us, evolution is unquestionable! However, the sheer existence of such truth does not exclude the fact that a creator couldn't have been a part in the process. Much of your Christian (or other religious) interactions that I've observed tend to involve arguing against the most commonly propagated beliefs of creationism. I am interested in your thoughts, on such a different perspective, as my own. Please comment. Thank you so much.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:08PM (#41694751)

    I am a christian catholic. I do not go to the church very often, but I pray every single day.

    As an educated believer and a scientist, I know that evolution is a fact and intelligent design is such a stupidity that it doesn't even need to be debated. To be very clear, if I would know *for sure* that only one of the following sentence is true:
    (a) God exists
    (b) evolution exists
    then I would immediately abandon my religion. Still, I believe both exists, although for (a) I cannot have a proof.

    Is there a place for people like me, in your view of a "good" society?

  • reductio ad deum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by potpie ( 706881 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:11PM (#41694795) Journal
    I am (pleasantly) surprised by how many of my friends have "come out," as it were, as atheists over the last few years. I'm a young person, and I suspect that the amount of closet atheists among younger people (in America at least) is much greater than that among older people. In general, how optimistic are you about humanity getting past religion in the next few decades?
  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:14PM (#41694845) Journal

    Fictional doctor House M.D. is famously quoted as saying, "If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people." Is this your experience? If religious people are immune to rational arguments, how do we have a productive discussion with them? How do you impress on a religious person the importance of evidence and reason?

  • I am an atheist, like you, Mr. Dawkins. And I have an educational background comprising a good deal of scientific study. There is obviously no scientific/material evidence of God.

    But if we take a step back from the material, and just look at rational philosophy, we accept concepts like mathematics as reality.

    So, my question is...

    Even as you and I don't believe in God, is there any _possible_ way to construct a rational philosophy that lends _any_ bit of credence to the existence of a master "orderer" of the cosmos (God)?

  • by xs650 ( 741277 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:20PM (#41694985)

    "One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding."

    Religion is a system that takes advantage of people not being satisfied with not understanding. It scratches that itch by giving its adherents a false understanding of the world.

    No one in the real world can understand everything, so to not be comfortable accepting not understanding a good share of reality is folly.

  • by ideonexus ( 1257332 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:24PM (#41695071) Homepage Journal

    My wife and I attended the Reason Rally [reasonrally.org] on the National Mall this year, which was billed as a positive expression of non-theistic secular thought. We met many wonderful people there and were truly inspired by Adam Savage's [youtube.com] incredibly positive and inspiring speech on the wonders of science, Nate Phelps [latimes.com] remarkably eloquent denunciation of his father's Westboro Baptist Church, and your own speech [youtube.com] highlighting the absurdity of having to hold such a rally at all; however, I we were also incredibly put off by vitriol on display by so many other speakers who were entirely focused on the evils of religion rather than the good science and rationality brings to civilized life. We ended up leaving the rally in the middle of PZ Meyer's speech because we found it so distressing in its Rush Limbaugh-esque tone.

    It bothers me that so many of us define ourselves by what we don't believe rather than what we do [ideonexus.com]. As Carolyn Porco elucidated so concisely at a talk you were involved in, I am not an atheist, I am a scientist [youtube.com]. Like Carl Sagan [goodreads.com], I get a profound sense of spirituality from science that I want to desperately for everyone in the world to open their own eyes and discover.

    My attempts to get people to read your book The God Delusion [wikipedia.org] were met with strong resistance, people were very turned off to its tone, but those same individuals loved your book The Magic of Reality [wikipedia.org]. As someone who has pursued both the strategy of being highly critical of religion in one work, while apparently softening that criticism in your latter work in exchange for focusing on the wonders of the natural world, could you speak to pros and cons of these different strategies of persuasion, not just in your own work but in the efforts of others like Adam Savage and PZ Meyers?

    Thank you so much for your taking the time to interact with us on /.! This really is an exciting development and an honor.

  • by steppedleader ( 2490064 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:25PM (#41695103)
    A few years back I saw on C-Span a talk that you gave at (IIRC) Liberty University. Afterwards, an audience member asked you a question along the lines of "Could you imagine any event that you would construe as evidence of God's existence?" Unfortunately, I remember feeling that your answer at the time didn't really address the substance of the question, and I'd be interested to hear your answer to the same question without the pressure of having to come up with something immediately. I'm already an agnostic/atheist myself, but I'm curious as to how you deal with the fact that supernatural causes are ruled out axiomatically in a naturalistic philosophy -- any unexplained event is assumed to be due to an as of yet undiscovered natural cause. If a supernatural cause existed, could we ever know, even in principle?

    You've been described as a 'militant atheist', but do you consider yourself to be certainly atheist or rather technically agnostic, in the same sense that Bertrand Russell described himself as in his essay "Am I Atheist or Agnostic?"
  • 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 Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:28PM (#41695169) Homepage Journal
    You criticize Nowak et al's "The Evolution of Eusociality", and in particular E. O. Wilson's popularized version in "The Social Conquest of Earth", in part, as failing to address Alex Kacelnik's argument that "kin selection is the only way in which worker adaptations such as soldier jaws and honeypot abdomens – phenotypes that are never expressed in reproductive individuals – could have evolved". However, isn't it the case that your own work in "The Extended Phenotype" shows how a parasite's genes can express in its host, up to and including castration? If so, what organism is in a better position to parasitically castrate a host than is a queen her own offspring?
  • by gshegosh ( 1587463 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:32PM (#41695287)

    I cannot stop religion-related things from coming to my children ears. Even though they are not baptised, some teachers, grandmothers, etc. _will_ talk about god and will do so without appropriate distance to the matter. I do not want to force my kids to "believe" in science or evolution, but I would love to balance what they will learn about god with what _I_ and my wife consider truth and I would love my kids to respect science and think critically. Do You have any insights about raising children to be like that?

    Also, You have written in God Delusion that if just one person is "cured" of religious faith (I don't remember the exact phrasing), You will consider the book successful. Well, Selfish Gene and Extended Phenotype were more eye-opening for me, but I'd like to thank You for all of them :-) They surely cured me.

  • by gshegosh ( 1587463 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:34PM (#41695321)
    Do You sometimes regret becoming a kind of an "atheist" role model? Even looking through these Slashdot questions, most of them are about religion, not Your scientific fields...
  • by Dr. Tom ( 23206 ) <tomh@nih.gov> on Thursday October 18, 2012 @01:51PM (#41695667) Homepage

    How cool is it being married to Dr. Who's companion, the Time Lady Romana?

  • by na1led ( 1030470 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @02:24PM (#41696227)
    will finaly put an end to most religious beliefs about evolution?
  • by XSpud ( 801834 ) on Thursday October 18, 2012 @03:16PM (#41697041) Homepage
    Once DNA-based life had become common, was it inevitable that evolution would lead eventually to intelligent life on Earth?

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas