Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins

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by Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins”

    1. I think maybe what James Onen was getting at was since Voltaire said men find it necessary to invent gods then atheists would also find it necessary to invent their own gods or god, i.e., something that explains everything that they can’t explain. Implying that the god of atheism is maybe science or that atheists are making gods of themselves through skeptical rationality and honing critical thinking skills. I would have liked to have heard Dawkin’s response to that also.

      1. Richard Dawkins’s great videos on YouTube were “The Root of All Evil”, and “The Psychology of Religion”.
        This last one withdrawn from YouTube because of copyrights complaints, alas, a heartbreaking development. Hard to replace or improve upon.

      2. Hello,

        James Onen here.

        The ‘holy cow’ I specifically had in mind to ask Richard Dawkins about was radical feminism. Currently this ideology is tearing the online atheist community apart. See this for a little background. Dawkins himself got burned for saying the right thing to the wrong people (radical feminist ideologues). I too would have loved to hear his response 🙂

    1. Western ignorance of the Arab world is appalling. Al Jazeera is set up and funded by Qatar (that’s an Arab state). Wikipedia informs us that women in Qatar “vote and may run for public office. . . . . Women hold leadership positions in a number of ministries/supreme councils.

      Qatari women are allowed to go out and drive without related male companion. While most Qatari women wear the abaya, there do not seem to be any formal restrictions on what women can wear, although dressing modestly is generally preferred.

      Qatar said they will send their women athletes to the 2012 Olympic games that begin July 27 in London, England.”

        1. In all fairness the times i have watched Al Jazeerah, the male reader also wears some head covering. The Abaya is hardly hiding her face in the spirit of all other fanatical muslim states.

      1. Jesus the myth is fascinating but the history of Islam, more importantly why Muhammad started it from my limited knowledge shares many similarities from my understanding of who or where Jesus came from.

    2. A nice example of fast thinking (bias, imagination, immediate knowledge) pre-empting slow thinking (reflection, hunting for facts, requesting evidence, building a rational story, etc…)

  1. Lisa Fletcher, the presenter whose head is uncovered, is an American TV journalist, reporter and anchor, who works for Al Jazeera in Washington DC where the video was shot.
    She used to work for ABC News. She started in Oregon, where she went to high school and university.
    Her diction is impeccable, as well as her looks. She was the head of her high school’s team for speech and debate. And later a candidate for the Miss Oregon title. A perfect combination for TV journalism. Notice the very elegant shoes she’s wearing shown under the table.
    She is a first-class American professional reporter, and it is amusing that some readers here thought she might have been an Arab.
    She is well enough known to have her article on Wikipedia, and a lot of elegant pictures on Google Images.


    What is remarkable about Richard Dawkins is that he is a true product of the Western Enlightenment.

    The discovery of the Enlightenment was that fantastic beliefs in the supernatural could be neutralized by science and defeated by the use of “Reason”. Reason was conceived as a natural ability of the human mind to use logic and experience, and trust only facts and evidence in order to establish irrefutable knowledge.
    This was an intellectual function that could and should be separated from emotions and religious beliefs, a separation that was the foundation of Descartes’s philosophy of a brain with two distinct natures: intellect and passions (i.e. feelings, emotions).
    This was considered a natural feature of the human mind, to be found in all humans, that is it was assumed to be universal. This belief in the universality of reason in all human brains was the characteristic of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

    The Enlightenment first stood up against the tyranny of religion and the supernatural, and with the intense conviction of the new convert, declared war on God and Church in the 18th century, naively hoping that the new cultural fight would succeed in replacing faith with reason, once and for all. This was the major fight of classical rationalism through the 19th and 20th centuries.

    But our progress in psychology, brain science, sociology and anthropology have made us aware that superstition and religious beliefs are natural immediate responses to the mysteries and dangers of our environment, and the product of a primary mode of brain activity not only in the child, but also in the member of the social group subjected to the authority of a leader.

    Psychology has revealed that things were not that as simple as the 18th-century Rationalists had assumed, and that in fact it was impossible to dissociate feelings from intellect. Instead of the brain at birth being clean and ready to function logically, it was already shaped and programmed by a lot of inner predispositions, ready to get activated after birth: the ability to speak, focus on faces, and start imagining causes and agents for every phenomenon. Children spontaneously tend to believe in hidden forces, and spirits.

    And, by the same token, the use of reason was revealed as not being immediately automatic. Reason was more precisely critical thinking. And Dawkins does stress that critical thinking is not a spontaneous propensity of the brain. In fact, critical thinking and reason must be developed, trained and practiced. And promoted by propagandists like Dawkins himself, and coached by teachers and university professors. This is why the Ph.D. degree is now considered the hallmark of supreme rationality.

    Faith is more spontaneous and, ironically, more universal than reason. And Dawkins treats the subject quickly in his presentation: beliefs are immediate and necessary to survival. They have a great adaptive value for the human species. Reason and investigation come later, when there’s time and leisure.

    Aristotle and Plato (Republic?) stated somewhere that the “philosopher” (i.e. the rational man, the man who “thinks”) had to be free of economic pressures to be an effective reasoning mind. Only aristocrats could reach this freedom of thinking. Which is why great thinking has often been produced by an elite somewhat protected from economic struggles. The salary that comes with tenure is one example of this freedom. Richard Carrier has a wife with a steady job, allowing him to be a free-floating historian.

    But critical thinking is not immediate. It requires training, and work, and time.
    The dream of the Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment that all men could be brought to the “Age of Reason”, that is to overcome supernatural beliefs and use only logical thinking and evidence, will probably remain a distant dream.
    Dawkins’s crusade will not transform the natural human mind. Reason and critical thinking are too hard to be expected from everybody. Religions and primitive beliefs will remain a part of human cultures. The resistance to total, “cold”, rationalism is too imbedded in most societies.

    Some time ago, the Templeton Foundation’s Big Question, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?”, was posed to leading scientist and scholars, among them: Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, Mary Midgley, William D. Phillips, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and Michael Shermer.
    Christopher Hitchens’ answer was: “No, But it Should”

    We have to remark that this skepticism in a great mind in the 20th century comes after thousands of years since the discovery by the Ancient Greeks of the methods of inquiry, debate and critical thinking leading to the first rudiments of scientific and experimental knowledge.

    So it may not be possible to extirpate from the brain the emotional and “primitive” source of religious thinking, with a crusader’s hope of replacing this primary mental mode with abstract reason. Christopher Hitchens is perspicacious enough to emphasize that “science” is NOT going to make religious beliefs in God obsolete. And this for some fundamental reasons related to the structure of the brain and human thinking, well enumerated by Hitchens:

    1) The brain activity that produces ideas of Gods is more primary (primitive) and immediate than the reasonings of science;

    2) The immediate power of strong emotions on the brain is an ineradicable given: Hitchens cites the “human capacity for wonder,” the fact that “religion is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence”;

    3) The subjugation of the childish mind to the authority of parents, and more widely, the hierarchical respect of the average tribal member for the authority of the leaders of the group: what Hitchens terms “the terrified childhood of our species,” and the need for a “tyrannical authority: a protective parent…the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother.”

    And so, wisely, and (for an avowed crusader against religious superstitions) courageously, Hitchens concluded that the progress of science and humanism, in spite of the wishful thinking of fanatical, pure rationalists, will not make religious beliefs obsolete in our species of “insecure primates”.

    Evaluation of evidence, and construction of theories take time, and are a secondary response of the brain that is never immediate and fast, as it needs a pause in action and a certain degree of security, for the patient processing of data and the persuasive task of implanting new ideas (which Socrates called “new gods” to dislodge the “old gods”) through critical thinking.

    We have now come to accept the reality that faith and science do co-habit the same brain. We are not split between two natures: emotional and rational, superstition and science, but are thinking only with one brain, where both modes are active, at different levels of intensity.

    Psychology and anthropology have reinforced Christopher Hitchens’s insightful conclusions. We have to start thinking about “faith” and “reason”, “childish” and “mature” thinking in a modern scientific way, as belonging to the same brain system, and no longer in terms of antiquated notions of “two natures”, or two opposed “systems”. Faith and reason, religion and science are at the extreme ends of the same continuum. There are no demons in the brain, and no angels either, in spite of Steve Pinker’s latest writing.

    1. I don’t interpret Dawkins as saying that the emotional brain needs to be kept distant from the rational brain. All we lose with religion is superstition. We still have our sense of wonder and awe and beauty. (And these are also necessarily part and parcel of our rational functioning.) It is very easy to look around and say that critical thinking is never going to be found by everybody. But why not recall how the well-to-do elites of past eras could simiilarly see no hope for the vast masses of humanity — they (we) were generally assumed to be ineducable. I have no way of knowing if the human species will survive many more generations, or if it does, whether it will slide back into an age where Enlightenment values will be lost and forgotten. But given our proven ability to overcome the worst pessimistic assumptions of the past, I’d like to be optimistic, even if that does mean waiting many more generations than we’d like before we see the new realities. Optimism encourages making an effort to make it happen. And that’s not a bad way to live.


    I certainly agree with Neil Godfrey that optimism in the struggle against obsurantism and superstition is a must, and that it is the engine for action. Without optimism, Richard Dawkins’s crusage would be unsustainable.
 And optimism and activism can show results.
    Let’s simply look at how the Enlightenment thinkers had to face the active persecution of the Christian Churches in the 18th century, and compare it with 250 years later, where we now are in the West. Terrific progress has been made.

    But the Encyclopedists were right: It took the power of printing to disseminate the new ideas and provide a base for teaching the public (what elitists like to call “the masses”). It is the spread of information through books and the press, and the creation of a class of teaching professionals in elementary schools and universities that enabled the current progress towards a wider spread of reason.

    “All we lose with religion is superstition”, says Neil Godfrey. Sure, but this loss is far from instant. Superstition is not just like a cancer tumor that can be extirpated, to establish a now clean mind. Superstition is not located anywhere in the brain, it is a mode of thinking of the brain, always active, always lurking. It is restrained and refuted only through patient and methodical training by expert teachers.

    It is still remarkable that the rudiments of critical thinking and science were discovered by the Ancient Greeks, at a time when their neighbors never achieved anything comparable: not the Persians, not the Egyptians with their much older civilization but still devotees of their hundreds of gods, and not the Israelites, who had no use for critical thinking and were never interested in science or art for that matter. The Jews never produced the equivalent of Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, or the Olympic Games.

    This is the “miracle” that Carl Sagan so eloquently described in the first episodes of Cosmos about the Ancient Ionians of the 6th century BC. The best way the Ionians found to consolidate and pass on their new secrets was to found schools of philosophy to transmit their heritage.
    And such schools prospered and multiplied all through the ancient Greco-Roman world, in spite of the heavy polytheism of the ancient world. Pythagoras, Democritus, Socrates, Epicurus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, along with the various “schools” of “philosophy”, the Cynics, the Stoics, and many more were advancing in their understanding of the modalities of the human mind far ahead of their surrounding religious societies and their superstitions and rituals.

But they never faced the systematic rage of persecution and destruction launched by Christianity in the 5th century AD. Christianity was a major catastrophe for the development of critical thinking and science in the West, not unlike the disaster of the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

    And if the Christian totalitarianism was miraculously stopped and controlled, it was thanks to the technology of printing that opened the sacred books to the elite “humanists”, the new observations of nascent astronomy made possible by better lenses and telescopes, and the innovations of medical science.


Still, “superstition” was far from eradicated. The heart was believed to be the center of feeling and thinking for a very long time. A genius like Newton spent more time on deciphering the mysteries of alchemy and astrology than on the mechanical science that bears his name.
    Medical practices were ruled by the most bizarre beliefs, including the famous bloodletting which killed more patients than many diseases. If Mozart died “suddenly” at 36, it’s most likely because the doctors got to him and bled him. Same thing happend to his mother in Paris (1778) and his father in Vienna (1787). In those days, people died “suddenly” as soon as doctors where called in.

    The concepts of hygiene to control infections in operations were long opposed by surgeons who had strong established ideas, until Robert Liston (1794-1847) in London, and Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) in Vienna discovered the vital effect of cleanliness and handwashing on reducing infection and mortality — an outrageous novelty that was vigorously rejected by academic doctors. 

    Until the French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) demonstrated by studying fermentation that germs could develop without air due to the presence of micro-organisms, and Joseph Lister (1827-1912) applied Pasteur’s ideas to abandon the beliefs in “miasma” (dirty air) as cause of infection in wounds and surgery, and pioneering antiseptic surgery and sterilization of instruments to prevent gangrene.
No wonder that philosophers like Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959) were attracted by medicine.

    So critical thinking is not an immediate winner in the arena of ideas. On the contrary, critical thinkers, ever since the first Ancient Ionians, have always been facing the power of their surrounding societies and their ancestral gods. Critical thinking was always a secondary line of action against established doctrines.
    Even today, “peer review” in universities and scientific journals is the modern way to combat new critical ideas and confront them with the serious barrage of established consensus in the field.

    So superstition is not a simple thing to eradicate. It is not a peculiarity of the religious mind. It is part of the functioning of the human mind as a whole. And a belief can be categorized as “superstition” only after the fact, when the “old gods” have been replaced by “new gods”. 

    All the great ideologies of the 19th century based on the mystique of “history” and evolution were promoted first by their advocates as triumphant innovations of the rational human mind: democracy (another innovation we owe to the ancient Greeks), republicanism, socialism, communism, Darwinism, and later nazism, fascism, maoism, until after a lot of time and a lot of wars, most of them were repudiated as superstitions. Darwinism withstood the test of time and science, but even today it still has to combat the rear-guard resistance of creationism in the US, of all places.

    It is unlikely that we can dream of eliminating superstition from our brain output. One major problem is that we cannot tell in advance what is superstition or not. Only time and subsequent knowledge can tell. Christianity itself was rightly dismissed by Romans as a “superstitio”, and it took 300 years before it was legalized as bona fide religion (Constantine’s Edict of Milan, 313).

Once clearer ideas are established, it is then a matter of education, teaching and coaching to spread the new knowledge. It is new, better knowledge that allows us to repudiate older beliefs as “superstitions”. The “supernatural” becomes clear once we have determined what the “natural” is like.

    And, when it comes to religious superstitions — ideas such as “Creator of the universe,” “First cause of the universe,” “Providence”, “Miracles’, “Sources of Principles of Morality”, no doubt, the new technology of the Internet will allow critical thinking to spread more swiftly, reach larger audiences and become the new phase in its unceasing fight against the supernatural and its superstitions.

    1. Of course, everybody knows that Leopold Mozart, the father, died in Salzburg in 1787, and not Vienna. As usual for the times, he died “suddenly” after doctors came to help him in his sickness, aged 67.

  4. I was intrigued by Richard Dawkin’s statement to the effect that strictly speaking he is an agnostic — because he can’t absolutely prove there is no god — though at the same time he’s as close to the general understanding of “atheist” as one can get. That makes a mockery of that claim that denounces atheism as being arrogant by definition.

    1. This word “arrogant” as addressed to Dawkins resonates so distinctly in my mind.

      I have tried to locate the video segment where Richard Dawkins visits that young pastor head of a huge megachurch in the Midwest or California, and the two have the kind of tense conversation with drawn knives barely disguised that Dawkins knows so well how to generate.

      In conclusion, the head of that pastor fills the screen with a menacing glare and distorted lips, hammering at Dawkins “Yes, sir, you do know a lot, but don’t be ARROGANT”. The contorted face and lips of the pastor when he’s articulating this word is an epitome of pure hatred. A masterpiece of evangelical fundamentalism more expressive than any movie scene.

      This admonition sounded like one of those famous five warnings in Epistle to the Hebrews: Don’t Drift Away, Don’t Defect, Don’t Degenerate, Don’t Sin Willfully, Don’t Deny.
      But there’s no “Don’t be Arrogant” in Hebrews (although the “Don’t Deny” is pretty close), even if that pastor made it sound as if his snarling was lifted straight from that famous 14th letter.
      I vaguely remember that this final scene may have been in one part of the “Psychology of Religion” series. Too bad if it is no longer recoverable, unless someone was smart enough to have taped the whole series.

    2. Fortunately, I was wrong.
      The clip has been recently uploaded and is still available on YouTube, it is called “Richard Dawkins Interviews Ted Haggard”, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmMv0ceWTVQ

      It is a great classic. The face of Haggard is straight from Central Casting. His eyes, brows, and mouth exude hatred, and his speech while rejecting all of Dawkins’s objections out of hand and blasting him for “intellectual arrogance”, would earn him a prize from the movie industry. Ted Haggard delivers a formidable performance that no professional actor could duplicate in intensity and animosity
      I admire Dawkins for his courage in visiting the lion’s den and confronting him, seconded by his cameraman. At the end, after Haggard has viewed some of the film, he orders Dawkins out of the Church property.

    1. The interview is part of THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL, PART I (segment 3/5). See full description at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Root_of_All_Evil%3F

      The full article on Ted Haggard is also interesting, and seems as long as the one on Richard Dawkinshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Haggard#cite_ref-83

      This article is a good demonstration that having a good command of the holy talk of christianity can secure a young man a promising career in the evangelical community. Religion is still big business, especially in rural areas where fewer sources of excitement are available.
      And if such a young man can capitalize on his experience of falling into sin (not willfully, to abide by Hebrews’s injunction), followed by confession, and rehabilitation, he can still transmute the whole experience into a story of “death and resurrection” that has public appeal and may lead to rebounding in the religious business.

  5. Everything that i have ever read or heard Dawkins say it would seem that while he tries to be scientific he never demonstrates any knowledge of myths and ancient religions particularly in what they are trying to explain. He seems to see the words of the religions as being extremely literal rather than trying to see what the ancient man was trying to explain in his very different world.

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