The Books Interview: David Lewis-Williams

Darwin thought direct arguments against theism were ineffective. What do you make of Richard Dawkins's full-frontal arguments against religious belief?
He has more confidence in those sorts of arguments than Darwin did. I happen to think all the arguments hold water, but there are so many people who feel put off by the belligerence of Dawkins's approach, which is a pity. I would say he is perhaps less sensitive than he might be, but on the other hand he's entitled to the way he sees it. And I wouldn't want to get into an argument with Dawkins - I would lose!

Your book Conceiving God is a kind of archaeology of religious belief. Were you ever a believer yourself?
I grew up in a tradition where you don't question religion - does that mean that you're a believer? I can remember in my youth the church having evangelical crusades, and I recall myself being put off enormously by those sorts of things. So
if I was a believer, I suppose I was a partial believer at best.

You spend some time in the book discussing proselytising and evangelism.
If you believe in supernatural revelation and that God has given you a revelation about how things are and what people should be doing - if you believe that, then I don't see how you can avoid proselytising.

I suppose proselytising in the suburbs of London doesn't stir up too much trouble. But try doing that in other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, and you're in deep trouble. That's why I fear for the idea that religions which are based on supernatural revelation are ever going to get on together.

It's not just religions that clash, is it? You are also deeply concerned with the relationship between faith and science.
Yes, I think the clash between science and religion is unsolvable, despite what really well-meaning people do. The likes of Stephen Jay Gould tried to dampen down the fires, but he was only papering over the cracks, if I can change my metaphor.

I take it you're referring to Gould's idea that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria"?
Yes. I think Gould was well-meaning, and he was trying to find a way out of a dilemma. But religion constantly makes claims that are scientific, such as answered prayer - that God is going to intervene and save somebody from drowning, or that God is going to create a virgin birth, that kind of thing. Religion keeps on making scientific statements.

So, in your view, even the mildest Anglican who is not a creationist is nonetheless committed to truths which are incompatible with what science teaches us?
Someone like the Archbishop of Canterbury tries to touch all bases, and I wouldn't want his job. But if you pray, then you're asking God to intervene in the material world.

Why, if the scientific evidence tends against theism, do so many people continue to believe?
I think that the raw materials for belief in the supernatural are created by the electrochemical functioning of the brain. So, as long as that remains, you're going to have the grounds for belief.

Whether we can ever - through education, I suppose - reach a stage where people see that there's another explanation for those strange experiences, and that it's a material explanation, I'm not sure. When you view America, you despair of it ever happening. Empirically, it does seem to be the case that religious belief shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. But it persists in the face of what I see as powerful evidence that there is no such thing as a supernatural realm.

I was watching Barack Obama the other day announcing his victory in health care. I find it extraordinary that the Americans don't have a healprogramme and yet they're such a religious nation. Anyway, Obama ended his speech by saying, “God bless America." It's a form of rhetoric that people don't question.

But you think they should?
Yes. We don't have to have it. I think morality is secular. The morality that the church claims to have doesn't operate in the really difficult issues of life.