Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...
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Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.

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30 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion”

  1. Excellent discussion. I was disappointed that the interviewer let the “mankind excludes infidels” smear get through, but concentrating on the question itself shows his professionalism.

  2. Can’t believe the host had the gall to suggest that the Qur’an doesn’t call for death to apostates. How does he reckon with 4:89? Has he never read the Hadith, which says similarly instructs in at least 3 places? Or is he going to depend on Richard not knowing the Hadith references, and therefore get away with only talking about the Qur’an. I was really disappointed when he did that….if Richard had been able to catch it, he would have had clear justification to call the host’s teaching of the Qur’an to his daughter as abusive.

    1. Spoken like a good fundamentalist Christian or Jew who wonders how anyone can have the gall to deny that the Bible commands Christians to hate having any association at all with unbelieving family members, or that good Jews should stone to death anyone who works on the sabbath. It was good to see Richard make his point that we should not have to put ourselves in a position to choose which commands in a holy book we think are right and wrong as our guide to life. See Controversial Islam, The American Muslim, and Islam Newsroom.com for how the overwhelming majority of Muslims read their own holy book. Do you really believe the interviewer was deliberately lying?

      1. As you know from prior posts, Neil, I’m formerly religious, but far from it now. Of course I know that all religions excel at this tradition of selective reading that is so insipid…probably done more by Jews and Christians since they’ve have longer to develop the inane practice. However, I’ve noticed that Muslims will go particularly overboard with it (even peaceful, moderate Muslims), if they detect any hint of a suggestion that Islam is a violent faith. So yes, I’m sure he was lying. I had distinguished Muslim professors who would deny to your face that the Qur’an says what it says – not unlike MG trying to deny Paul the very words that he indeed pen. I respect the right of both (or anyone) to hold whatever beliefs they want, personally. But as a matter of good teaching, I’m no longer going to let people (of any creed) to suggest things that they know are not true, in order to defend a faith (or ideology) from unpleasant criticisms.

        1. People are people. We all have the same human nature, the same human universals. You are coming across like an anti-Muslim bigot who believes he knows more about the truth of that religion than the majority of its own practitioners. MG does not deny the very words Paul penned so there is no comparison. What MG does is have a different interpretation of the words Paul penned. No text can be read without interpretation. Some people read the sixth commandment as an absolute decree against all killing — which is exactly what the text literally says — while others read it as a text against murder. To understand a faith you need to start with the people who hold to that faith. They are the authorities on what they believe. For an outsider to come in and tell others what their religion “really teaches” is the arrogance of imperialism. What their religion teaches is what they themselves understand their holy books to mean, or the intent of the words expressed in them, etc.

          Most Christians today would disagree with what I think the Gospel of Mark was really saying, or some letters of Paul. Most would probably disagree with what scholars know parts of them to be saying. So where do we turn to find the religion of Christianity? Religion is in the minds and lives of the people who adhere to it. It is their interpretation and understanding of their books that is their religion.

          After I left religion I had no time at all for the Bible or Koran as a basis of belief any more than I did for the Homeric epics. What I did have time for, though, was attempting to do something positive locally for harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims, so I initiated contacts with the State representative of the Muslim communities to have community presentations to explain to others what Muslims believed and practiced. It was about civic understanding, social cohesion.

          Around the same time I had the misfortune of engaging with a terrible bigot (Christian fundamentalist) who really did believe that I should not trust my Muslim friends since they really were quite capable of killing me at any time of their choosing. He had completely lost touch with our common humanity. Once we do that we become comparable to others who do the same, such as racists who do not believe that certain groups even share our common humanity. I felt that if anyone was capable of killing so easily it was that anti-Muslim bigot.

          It’s not a bad idea to try to think “historically”, too — survey the origins of the current western fear of Muslims. This is the new bogeyman that has arisen to fill the place the Red Menace once held. The violence has escalated at the same time as geo-political shifts. That should tell us something. The interviewer was right to quote Robert Pape’s scholarly research on factors associated with this violence.

          1. ‘Around the same time I had the misfortune of engaging with a terrible bigot (Christian fundamentalist) who really did believe that I should not trust my Muslim friends since they really were quite capable of killing me at any time of their choosing.’

            That was an absurd attitude to take. Totally ridiculous.

            For one thing, you are not an apostate.

            Secondly, although there are many Muslims who believe that apostates should be killed, very few indeed believe that they personally should do the killing.


            ‘What this means is that no Muslim has a right to go to America or Europe for example and start killing ex-Muslims, for he has no such authority to do so.’

            I think that is pretty clear.

            1. What is pretty clear to anyone who has spent time in Muslim countries and with Muslims personally is that the homo sapiens who are recognized as part of that faith are no different from any of the rest of our species who are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Of the Christians who “believe” homosexuals, witches and abortion doctors should be killed “fortunately” only a tiny minority believe in personally killing homosexuals, witches and abortion doctors. Of the Jews who believe that the “Canaanite in the land” should be killed “fortunately” only a tiny few believe in personally killing the Palestinians. The interviewer nailed Richard Dawkins on the way he has allowed himself to be swept up by the popular propaganda of today (it didn’t exist yesterday, if we recall) and quite rightly cited Robert Pape’s research.

              1. Precisely!

                How many people have been burned alive this year for the crime of setting fire to a Koran?

                Far fewer than were killed by one person at a school in America.

                And yet Islamophobia is far more widespread than a fear that any American might kill you at any time.

              2. A more historically valid viewpoint would be to assess the numbers of Muslims killed by Western powers in the past 20 years against the converse. It was after the wiping out of the socialist and secular revolutionary movements that we saw the rise of a religious movement to fill the vacuum — just as the American churches have filled the gap after the suppression of the trade union/workers’ movements in the nineteenth century.

          2. A very interesting and unexpected response, Neil. We agree on much and disagree on much, I’d say. First let me say, I’m not anymore an anti-muslim than I am an antitheist in general. I have quite a few muslim friends, as well as jewish, christian, hindu etc. friends…and I don’t automatically question any of these people’s characters just because I happen to disagree with their doctrinal beliefs. I agree with Dawkins that we must, to a degree, combat superstition and powerful ideas that are believed for bad (or no) reasons. But that doesn’t mean that I, like Richard, can’t have friends and associates from all walks of life, and truly respect their different approaches to the social and moral questions of our day. Also let me say, in my undergraduate religious studies degree, I had to take almost as many classes in Muslim theology as I did classes in the Christian tradition….so I understand the gamut of Muslim belief better than most, I dare say. Those professors that I said lied to my face….I actually still respect them very much overall, but just wish that they didn’t distort facts to their students…

            So about “facts” vs. interpretation: of course we agree that, as you said, “What their religion teaches is what they themselves understand their holy books to mean, or the intent of the words expressed in them, etc.”. That’s not what I’m decrying. I’m decrying when someone claims that the words on the page are different from what they are. In the example of MG that I was referring to, we can have plenty of debate over the precise meaning (or best interpretation) of the words of 1Cor15:1-3…..BUT, it’s good that RC caught him when he suggested that the verse talks about Paul receiving the tradition from those “in Christ”. Those words aren’t in there to be interpreted, there simply can be no debate on the interpretation of words that AREN’T IN THE TEXT. It’s good that MG, for all his admirable work otherwise, was not allowed to get away with changing the wording of the text for his purposes in the debate.

            In the case of the Al-Jazeera debate, we have the reverse: something IS there in the text that the believer wants to deny is there. 4:89 of the Qur’An says “They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper.” This is a clear instance where the holy book is instructing adherents to kill apostates. It may not be categorical, and probably isn’t when taken in it’s broader context (an ongoing battle). That is where interpretation will need to come in, and on this point I’m sure we’d agree. I’m not saying the verse, as written, has the same effective meaning as “Kill all apostates, at all times, immediately, Allah commands it”. That’s not what the verse says, so proper hermeneutics and quality historical thinking would be good tools to bring into the discussion. This I understand. But when the interviewer sort of acted confused as to where anyone would get the idea that killing apostates is a Qur’Anic notion, I just had to slap my forehead in frustration. He knows full well where someone would get that notion, and he’s lying (like my professors did) if he’s suggesting that the notion is nowhere found in the Qur’An. So yes, I’m all for civil and respectful debate about proper interpretation of scriptures, and I have no additional hard feelings towards Islam specifically… but I’m not gonna let people deny that the words are there, for anyone to read. They’re just hoping that someone won’t take the time to read the relevant parts of the Qur’An to hold them accountable. I don’t see how it’s bigoted to say “I’ve read the text, I’ve found many verses that you deny exist, and I’m holding you to it.” Doesn’t matter what religion we’re talking about. Insofar as we can be clear on the facts (of which there are few in religious matters, I grant) we need to be.

            1. Then let’s say that the Qu’ran is no better than the Bible when it tells devotees of God to kill apostates, too. And at a different socio-political time many more did take that much more seriously than they do today. But if we are going to talk about religion as a subject of the society we share in common, then let’s take our understanding of one another’s beliefs from those who espouse them. When a believer myself, I would not have trusted anyone unfamiliar with my own views to simply read the Bible and then, on that basis, tell me what I believed or what my religion was about.

              1. Indeed, the violent and barbaric parts of the Qur’An are no better or worse then the violent and barbaric parts of the Bible. They are equally atrocious to me, but that’s not the point. If that was the point I was making, to a lack of common sense morals or something like that, then everything would hinge on interpretation. And indeed, it’s best to “take our understanding of one another’s beliefs from those who espouse them”. We agree, but “beliefs” is the operative word there, which again is all about interpretation. But again, that’s not the point I’m making, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert exegete of the Quranic text…..so I’m not telling Muslims what they ought to believe or what they in fact believe (so I don’t see the worth of your analogy to your former faith). Instead, I’m telling them to acknowledge the words in the text and not pretend they are other than what they are! If you want to say “Yes, I can see why you’d find 4:89 problematic in regards to the apostasy issue, but let me tell you how an informed interpretation of the verse, in context, removes any and all problems”….that would be great. I’d consider that major progress in the discourse. But what did the Al-Jazeera interviewer do? He flatly denied that the notion was in the Qur’An…that is where I cry “disingenuous!”. Interpretation is all fine and good, especially in theological debate, but the debate is completely derailed if one won’t be totally honest about what words are in the text.

            2. I disagree with that many scholars that defend the apostasy punishement don’t base it on this aya alone
              they base it on the sunna (prophet sayings) and this also is a subject of debate
              thought most literalist (old sheikhs) are still defending this
              but some modern scholras rised many objections of this
              one of the best I remmeber is that of Adnan ibrahim
              his said (if i remmeber correclty) that the said stories were prophet ordered the execution of apostat was not because of simple apostasy but because said persons were guilty of conspiring with the enemy
              and another one was about hypocrites living in Madina were their leader (who before the prophet came to it was the top leader) openly insulted the prophet
              and he and his fellow were conspiring against the muslims and were involved in the siege of madina by meccan paggans
              so if such a rule was followed by the prophet why didn’t he punish the hypocrist and their leader
              another one is a hadith about a nomad who converted to islam and then reverted again because of material reason
              the prophet let him go and didn’t say a word
              all indices point to that the aya and the sunna say that the ones that were punished were not simple apostate but enemies that showed falce conversion to infiltrate muslims and acted hostile
              and even some of them wern’t killed (like Ibn salul the leader of hypocrites)

            3. No to mention the oposition of such a punishment to some verse in the quran
              were it said that there is no compulsion in religion
              todays old schoolars are mainly following old schools rules (taklid)
              but there is many efforts done by different schoolars to revise or restudy old practices
              though most muslims arn’t conserned about such old rules (mayb because they fall in the authorities responsabily) and thus concern not the average muslim
              thought in the ME there is alot of rab christians, druz, alawites and other minorities like asyrians and armenians
              if muslims were as hostiles as islamophobes claim they are these minorities would have disapeared long ago
              an example would be to compare Syria Iraq Libanon and Egypt (were milion of christian Copts live) to North Africa and maghreb were for example in Algeria there is seldom no such christian minorities left (although before french colonialism and independance there was sizable jewish minority there)

              Submitted on 2012/12/26 at 12:50 am

              the apostasy controverse reflect one of the problems facing today muslims
              the bankrupcy of the clergy since the late centuries of the muslim golden age
              but there is still hope that new scholars with new interpretation will renew and fight against ignorance
              alot of scholars a fighting against holding the sunna as sacred (or example some hadith just because their part of sahih bukhari are held a the truth or abrogate the quran which is a strange thing to do and it is know that following the grat fitna (the Ali/Muyawia civil war) lot of false hadth were fabricated to deligimise each camp

              1. It is sometimes said that one of the unfortunate aspects of Muslim history is that it lacked a Reformation era as Christianity did and that led to a breakdown of Christianity being a religion of a monolithic authority. I guess it is better if there are multiple competing authorities than a single authority telling everyone what to believe.

                But why, any more than a Christian or a follower of Judaism, would you let anyone else — or any book — tell you what to think?

              2. “It is sometimes said that one of the unfortunate aspects of Muslim history is that it lacked a Reformation era”

                Up to now, anyway. But if we accept that Christianity began in the first century CE, the Reformation didn’t come until the religion was about 1400 years old.

                Islam is deemed to have started in the seventh century CE, so it is only just now getting on for 1400 years old.

  3. If this was a debating contest, then Richard Dawkins lost! He was not as cohesive and clever in his counter arguments as he was in his book God Delusion where he made sweeping statements. In short, he was stumped on many occassions. In fact he fumbled and contradicted himself on several occasions. I asked myself why? To answer this, I looked at myself first. I am a metallurgical engineer by profession. I know a bit about electrical / chemical / civil / mining engineering, accounting, law etc. But I am not an expert or professional enough to comment or claim to know these subjects. I will therefore not be able to authoratively pronounce on these subjects. Richard is not an expert on religion and therefore too cannot make any authorative statements on religion let alone sweeping statements for the sake of his own scientific arguments. This therefore is very unscientific and an intelligent person like Richard should know this. Religion and the belief in God is a way of life to many people, whether the existence of God can be proven or not. Like my 10 year old son told me, “don’t delve into the rationality of religion, it is a matter of faith – let it be”. If Richard has not felt the power of religion or faith, then why not let it be? Surely his scientific exploits has already contributed immensley to mankind.

    However, what saddens me is to see what the debate of this nature brings out in mankind. From the reponses on this website, it is clear that the airing of the program has degenerated into an argument about the merits of Islam and Christianity and the mudslinging that goes with that. There may have been wars in the past based purely on religion, but it looks like scientists can now add themselves to that equation, simply because religion goes against the grain of scientific fact. Where’s the rationality and reason in that?

    1. Hi Rajan, I hope you don’t see the discussion on this site degenerate to mudslinging or pointless arguing over whether Christianity or the Muslim religion is “better”. That’s not the way I have understood the discussions so far.

      But more to the point of the post, surely there is a difference between not speaking out about scientific disciplines about which we are not expert and remaining quiet about an institutionalized system of thought that encourages anti-scientific thinking in society.

      One does not need to be an expert in religious studies to speak out when they see religion at the heart of so many anti-scientific prejudices and habits of thought. We still have religious values breeding dysfunctional families, ruined lives, needless deaths and sufferings, and religious convictions that the environment there to be exploited for immediate economic gain. We all have a responsibility, surely, to speak out against the values and ways of thinking that underpin all of this.

      It is not just the extreme forms of religious belief that are to blame. It is the mainstream faith that gives respectability to the very idea that “faith without evidence” is a virtue — and from that position respectability can be given to any whacky idea by others.

  4. so back to the
    “Can’t believe the host had the gall to suggest that the Qur’an doesn’t call for death to apostates”
    the response is this debate isn’t decided you can find imams/ayatollah issuing such fatwa of apostasy while you can find muslims and scholars refuting such an act
    and while I’m a muslim myself I don’t blindly obey any fatwa or order given by scholars/imam if I’m not convinced of its validity and my moral and logical compass
    the more you learn the more you find that the issue is much complex than simple black/white
    there are lots of disinformation going on
    and it doesn’t stop at religion, science isn’t clear of confusion too and its also had it’s fanatics (Academia defending dogma) and heretics (not necessary pseudo-science, true pioneers are considered that ) too


    Submitted on 2012/12/26 at 1:06 am

    last word I find all of Richard Dawkin arguments weak
    did biologist and physists finish all their work and discover everything that they had nothing left to do then to indulge into such debates?
    I find the Digital philosphy debate more interesting, thats the future of physics and cosmology if I’m not wrong (the similarities to Asha’arite philosphy is strikingly amazing)

    1. Sorry zaz, but I never said that the defense of killing apostates is based only (or even mostly) on that sura. The point is that the notion (which then gets debated by clerics, imams, theologians, etc.) IS in fact found in the Qur’An. Of course it’s more prevalent in the hadith (at least 3 or 4 plausible references there), but even if you’re talking to Muslims that don’t regard the hadith as being as authoritative as they are for other Muslims, you still have the precedent of that one sura in the Qur’An itself. Of course, it’s not an open and shut case as to the interpretation of the verse…but the notion is there! And subsequently, I do consider it complete gall for the interviewer to deny that the notion is there. It’s that simple. Muslims are free to argue out the specifics all they want, and decide for themselves the best application of the text….you just can’t deny what the text actually says, when any translator of Arabic can prove you wrong in a heartbeat.

        1. Neil, you can downgrade the term to something more gentle if you’d like, but yes I think it’s necessary to call BS when someone is caught being utterly disingenuous on camera (even if only for a split second), or downright lying. And I think I’ve shown how the interviewer was doing one of those two things. To not call it out is to help propagate deception, and I’d say that’s self-evidently a bad thing. And I wouldn’t say I’m “harping” on it. I said it once initially, and only when back to it a second time when zaz seemed to take umbrage at it. Didn’t intend to do any harping beyond that, I promise.

          1. “Gall” implies motive and I believe you do not know the interviewer and are not in a position to suggest he is acting with the deliberation of intent to deceive or with the dishonesty that your words impute to him. You have seen how Muslims interpret the words. Many Christians would deny outright that Jesus command they hate unbelieving parents, but I could accuse few of them of “gall” for denying this. People who are so black and white in their judgements of others scare me a little.

            1. Neil, come on be reasonable….let’s take your analogy…yes many Christians would deny that Jesus’ words, properly understood, mean that followers should hate their parents. We agree. But they WON’T deny that those words are there, they’ll just be quick to say “please don’t just take the words at face value, learn how to interpret them in context, etc.”. That’s fine. If they flat out deny that the words are in the NT, then they too would be displaying real gall. I don’t think that’s an overboard statement in the slightest. And I’m not trying to impugn the Al-Jazerra interviewer in general….he seems to be a level-headed, genuine, kind, and intelligent journalist overall, who I’m sure loves his family dearly. I don’t mean to call that into question. But in this instance, he DID show some real gall to deny that the text says what I’m sure he knows it says…he just didn’t want to honestly acknowledge that one truth in front of Dawkins. Imagine if Dawkins didn’t let him gloss over the point, and instead pressed him on the issue. It would have got extremely awkward on that stage in an instant. It was actually quite charitable of Dawkins to say (even if somewhat facetiously), “Ok good, glad to hear that” and move on.” He thereby saved the interviewer a little public embarrassment. Again, I’m sure he’s a good guy overall, but it was not genuine of him, in that particular moment, to deny the Qur’An of words that it definitely contains.

  5. How can an eminent scientist be interrogated by an irrational 7th century idiot who admits publicly he believes his ‘prophet’ rode a winged horse through the night. Pathetic.

  6. The Prophet told his companions that he flew to heaven on a winged horse. Narrated by Anas bin Malik From Sahih Muslim.
    The Quran which was revealed 14 centuries ago to the Prophet states:
    (And whomsoever Allah wills to guide, He opens his breast to Islam, and whomsoever He wills to send astray, He makes his breast closed and constricted, as if he is climbing up to the sky. Thus Allah puts the wrath on those who believe not.) (6:125)
    The 125th verse of chapter 6 of the Quran (sūrat Al-An’aam).

    While the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) told us that he flew to heaven on a winged horse, he also told us about this Physical Law.
    This matter cannot be proven by anyone unless the person ascends up into the sky! This fact was discovered only after humans learnt how to fly and reach heights. Therefore, astronauts wear special protective gear to enable them to breathe at high altitudes.

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