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The godless guru

From The Dominion Post, New Zealand.

dawkinsRichard Dawkins thinks it's time we dropped our delusional ideas about the existence of God. But Britain's most outspoken atheist admits to a fondness for Christian rituals and wishes more people would read the King James Bible. He talks to Sarah Boyd.

It's late in the evening at his Oxford home but Richard Dawkins is crisp and direct down the phone: there is no God and he's out to persuade as many people as possible about that. Nor is he only targeting Christians; he has no truck with Islam or Buddhism or any religion that posits a supernatural being running the show. He takes a swipe at fence-sitting agnostics too. It may not be possible to absolutely disprove the existence of God, but that doesn't mean there's a 50/50 chance that he does exist.

Dr. Dawkins was brought up Anglican but shook it off early. "I think it's a fairly mild strain of the virus, it doesn't really indoctrinate in the way that others do."

He's now a passionate non-believer who borrows the language of the preacher to reel in wayfarers and encourage atheists to come out of the closet. He fervently believes a great deal of harm is done in the name of religion and that the world would be a better place if everyone abandons beliefs he regards as medieval.

"Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars..." goes the blurb on his new book.

Earlier this year he fronted a television series about religion entitled The Root of All Evil?, the question mark striking the only conciliatory note. His new book, The God Delusion (Bantam, pb $39.99), is a hard-hitting polemic minus the question mark. It's intended to challenge those who no longer really believe, but who need a clincher argument to turn their backs on religion once and for all.

Might that group not resent being labeled delusional by implication? "I don't think it's that strong a title. It's just what I honestly think it is."

Would people object if it was a political book called The Socialist Delusion, he asks. No, because robust debate is expected in the political realm. He thinks people behave as if religious views are in some way more vulnerable to offence than the views about anything else and so need protecting by an abnormally thick wall of respect.

That means not only are religious beliefs inadequately scrutinized and challenged, but they're a ticket to special treatment. He'd like to see religious leaders knocked of their pedestals and their teachings treated with critical skepticism.

Instead, whenever a committee of inquiry is established on a moral question or an issue such as reproductive technology, religious leaders are automatically invited on board. Increasingly, in Britain, a rabbi or Muslim leader will be there alongside Christians. "That's fair enough because we've already given Christians that privileged position. I want to deprive all of them of the privilege due to their religion. There are all sorts of interest groups - birdwatchers, model railway enthusiasts - but you don't automatically think you need one of those if it's a question of general morality."

Dr. Dawkins is the professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, best known for his seminal work on evolutionary theory, The Selfish Gene, just republished to mark its 30th anniversary. He's fired off best sellers on related subjects since then, so his latest work is something of a departure but one with the feel of the book he's been wanting to write all his life.

He tried six years ago but his American literary agent was against it, convinced it wouldn't sell. Then the political climate changed and his agent was among those urging him to write it.

Dr. Dawkins attributes the shift to a backlash against the Bush Presidency, in response to the war in Iraq and to fears that the president is driving the United States toward a theocracy. His book has soared up the bestsellers list on Amazon.com in teh US, along with another prominent work challenging the place of fundamentalist religion, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation.

Dr. Dawkins regards the US as something of a curiosity. Forty-four per cent of Americans tell pollsters they believe Jesus Christ will return to judge the living and the dead within the next 50 years. No one who wants to be elected to office would admit to being an atheist and various religious lobbies wield enormous power. Yet the nation's founding fathers were determined to build a secular nation, with a clear separation between church and state.

"It's got to be a blip," he says of the current strength of the religious Right. But on present trends, he finds a theocratic US easy to imagine. The ban on stem cell research that's already occurred would be only the beginning. He sketches a kind of American Taleban in power, subverting science education with creationism, reversing abortion laws and so on.

It's a different story in Britain. He says it's full of people whose ancestors were Christians, but most of whom no longer take it terribly seriously. He worries about that's taking its place: "I have an awful feeling it may be replaced by New Age codswallop - druids and people who worship fairies." There are religious strongholds in Britain; they just don't tend to be Christian ones.

"The Muslims are different - they really are religious. There's this constant taking offence, whether it's because of the veil, or women dressing inappropriately, or cartoons or plays."

Criticism is easily labeled racist. "Of course it's not racist. It's simply saying, live and let live. If that is your religious faith, you should be able to withstand criticism instead of immediately taking offence."

The God Delusion sets out his argument that the existence of God is a scientific thesis that can be put to the test like any other. He tests it out and finds the evidence wanting.

Rather, he favours natural selection as the explanation for the world and all its complex life forms. The unknown - the mysteries of the cosmos - is what really excites him, but he's not expecting to encounter God there.

So how does he explain the persistence of religion across all human cultures and its apparent flourishing in places such as the US?

He thinks the fact the US is a nation of immigrants may be part of the explanation. "They turn to the local church as a kin substitute."

But, ever the evolutionist, he also looks for a Darwinian explanation. He suggests religious belief may have survived as a by-product of something else. "Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival."

The problem with that is that parents hand down a lot of nonsense along with the words of wisdom, including myths and superstitions. "The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time."

The field of evolutionary psychology also provides some clues. Dr. Dawkins makes a link between religious faith and the irrational state that allows people to fall in love. In both cases people see what they want to see, believe what would be nice to believe. Religious faith can be extremely consoling.

He's been criticised for failing to really get religion on that emotive level, though he reckons he does. "I understand that. But it doesn't make it true."

Some cling to religion because they believe it provides the moral bedrock for society. In other words, they worry whether people will still be good if they don't believe in God.

He reckons Jesus is an improvement on "the cruel ogre" of the Old Testament but he says much of the teaching remains vindictive and plain weird, certainly not a place to look for a morality by which to live.

"If we reject Deuteronomy and Leviticus (as all enlightened modernists do), by which criteria do we decide which of religion's moral values to accept? Or should we pick and choose among all the world's religions till we find one whose moral teachings suit us?"

He argues that definitions of morality tend to shift over time, influenced by debate, legal decisions, newspaper articles, talk at dinner parties and in the pub - "the whole zeitgeist thing."

"Whatever the criteria is that enables us to pick up the good and avoid the bad, that's available to all of us whether we're religious or not."

About the only concession he makes is that the various faiths have wonderful buildings and have cornered the market on ritual. Even non-believers flock to church for weddings and funerals.

Dr. Dawkins fully accepts the importance of ritual but says such ceremonies can and are being done in entirely secular ways. And he's happy to see non-believers take over the churches.

As for festivals such as Christmas, there are the usual celebrations in the Dawkins household and he's not one to insist on wishing people only a merry holiday. In fact, he joins many believers in bemoaning the way most people worship only the god of commerce.

Christianity is an important part of the heritage of places such as Britain and New Zealand and he maintains it's possible to hold onto its cultural and literary traditions without buying into supernatural beliefs. He rather wishes more people would read The Bible.

"The King James version has been rendered into the most extraordinarily beautiful English - it's a major work of literature. I think it should be taught not as religion but as literature."

TAGGED: INTERVIEWS, RICHARD DAWKINS


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