Richard Dawkins interview: On Pope Francis, poetry and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes

The controversial biologist Richard Dawkins talks unrepentantly to Isaac Chotiner about Muslim scientists, the uses of literature, Pope Francis, and Darwinian altruism.

Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins speaking at a book festival last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

This piece was originally published at newrepublic.com

Richard Dawkins first became famous for his pioneering work in evolutionary biology, but these days his reputation stems mostly from his no-holds-barred advocacy of atheism. On Twitter, his attacks on religion are blistering and relentless. Sample tweet: “I’m not ‘intolerant’ of your belief in a virgin birth. Please be tolerant of my right to tolerate your belief but call it stupid.”

But in his new memoirAn Appetite For Wonder, Dawkins reveals a softer side. The book covers his childhood—including his struggles with a stammer and nasty teachers—and his discovery of the beauty of science. He writes about scientific discoveries with a sense of joy: In the early 1960s, as a zoology student at Oxford, he was transfixed by the experience of processing data on the university’s sole computer. The memoir concludes with the publication of his foundation-shattering1972 bookThe Selfish Gene, which argues that selflessness is a good genetic strategy because it can help close relatives thrive.

When I met Dawkins at a hotel in Washington, D.C.—he currently lives and teaches at Oxford—he did not noticeably resemble his forceful public persona. Instead, he was soft-spoken and reserved. He is not exactly warm, but listens attentively, a rather rare quality among famous academics. Over the course of two chats, he discussed a wide range of topics—including Pope Francis, his love of poetry, and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes—without any apparent concern for political correctness.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think religion can be eradicated from society?

Richard Dawkins: Yes, because individuals clearly get rid of it, and they can be educated into realizing the truth. Faith is the lack of evidence, and it shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that the right reason to believe something is that there is evidence for it. People do not innately go for this view, but nevertheless it is not that difficult to teach.

IC: When you think about faith, do you think about it as an ideology, the way some people “believed in” communism? I am not comparing the two, but do you think religious beliefs and ideological commitments are similar?

RD: Yes, I think I do. Again, it is belief without evidence. In the case of Stalinism, people actually distorted science, because it was for the good of the Communist Party.

IC: Are you trying to say that people go along with religion even though they know some of it isn’t true—the way American Catholics, for instance, pick and choose what to believe, but don’t question the fundamental tenets of the faith?

RD: I wrote The God Delusion in 2006. You are giving me an interview about The God Delusion and faith, not about my memoir.

IC: We are going to cover it all.

RD: OK.

IC: Do you see any dangers from science? And I don’t mean simply that scientists can do bad things just like religious people can do bad things. But also that, with technology and environmental damage and nuclear weapons, the real dangers come from scientific advancement, rather than faith?

RD: If you want to do bad things, science is the most powerful way to do them. If you want to do good things, science is the most powerful way to do them. It is just an effective way to get things done. The whole of technology depends on a scientific background, and of course technology can be used for evil purposes. You can’t blame science for that. What you can do is say, ‘This is an exceedingly powerful tool.’ And you want to make sure it is used for good purposes, not bad ones. That is a political decision.

IC: Do you feel the same way about religion, though? You frequently highlight things like men in Saudi Arabia who stone their wives for having affairs. Is that not a political action rather than a religious one?

RD: You are trying to say, I suppose, that religion is a powerful weapon that can be used because it persuades people to do things. And thus it can be used for good or ill. But it should not be a powerful weapon at all. There is something wrong with using faith—belief without evidence—as a political weapon. I wouldn’t say there is something similar about using science. Science—or the products of science like technology—is just a way of achieving something real, something that happens, something that works.

IC: Doesn’t religion work for people, like for someone who has had children die and gets comfort from believing they are in heaven?

RD: Yes, it can be consoling to think your children are in heaven. You have got to understand that that doesn’t make it true. Many people cannot understand that distinction.

IC: You have gotten involved in a lot of controversies on Twitter about faith. One thing I have noticed is that you often use the argument that religion is something that we choose, unlike, say, race or sexual orientation. I wonder what the word “choose” means if you go to, say, a poor, religious, Muslim country.

RD: You don’t really get much choice.

IC: In two senses: One is that you cannot go on the street and shout that you are an atheist, the other is that you are never given the intellectual framework for calling your faith into question.

RD: That is true. I suppose I would like to give them the intellectual framework. I would like to find a way in which people in Saudi Arabia could learn that they can be something other than a Muslim. Some people may not realize this. Of course, there is the problem that you can get in trouble or get stoned.

IC: Small side effects.

RD: Yes. But you are asking how much freedom of choice we really have. It is important not to confuse race and religion.

IC: You got in trouble for a tweet where you noted that there had been more Nobel Prizes from King’s College, Cambridge, than from “all the world’s Muslims.”

RD: Trinity College, you mean.

IC: Trinity College. I am American. But back to your remark.

RD: That was unfortunate. I should have compared religion with religion and compared Islam not with Trinity College but with Jews, because the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

IC: OK, but what do you make of that?

RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

IC: I still want to know what you draw from this. Do you think the Torah is more progressive than the Koran?

RD: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that.

IC: So then what?

RD: I haven’t thought it through. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is a minor thing; it is colossal. I think more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews. And especially if you don’t count peace prizes, which I think don’t count actually …

IC: Kissinger won one of those. C’mon.

RD: Exactly. Most of the ones that have gone to Muslims have been peace prizes, and the [number of Muslims] who have gotten them for scientific work is exceedingly low. But in Jews, it is exceedingly high. That is a point that needs to be discussed. I don’t have the answer to it. I am intrigued by it. I didn’t even know this extraordinary effect until it was pointed out to me by the [former] chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks.

IC: He must have been anxious to share this fact.

RD: Yeah. He shared it with due modesty, but I thought it was astounding, and I am puzzled about it.

IC: There have been a lot of studies done—Paul Bloom at Yale is one of the big guys behind this—that say there is a genetic basis to faith. Or at least a genetic reason that we look for patterns in things that are not there. Are you sympathetic to this view?

RD: Oh yes. I think that Bloom’s approach—and others who take it—is not so much that there is a precise genetic basis to faith. But there is a genetic basis to a psychological predisposition that manifests itself as faith and religion under the right conditions.

IC: Does this change, in any way, your belief that faith is a choice?

RD: No, I don’t think so.

IC: I am curious how much you try to convince people about religion. I am sure you have heard people say that you are a great advocate for science and others who say that you alienate people. Do you worry about that?

RD: There may be some people who are turned off, but I think there are a lot who are not. Possibly we need both approaches. When I sign books, I get lines of people and what they usually say is: “Thank you. You have changed my life.” I am really moved by that.

IC: These are people of faith?

RD: They are either people of faith who have lost their faith from reading my books, or they are people who had already lost their faith, and something about my books encouraged them to affirm that.

IC: How old were you when you began to think about science and faith?

RD: I remember at the age of six regaling my poor little sister with stories about the planets, and how far away they were and which ones might have life. I think by the age of about nine I recognized that there were a lot of different religions, and it was an accident I happened to be born into one of them. If I had been born somewhere else, I would have had a different one. Which is a pretty good lesson, actually. Everyone should learn that.

IC: Are you interested in science fiction?

RD: Yes, I’m fond of science fiction. But not all science fiction. I like science fiction where there’s a scientific lesson, for example—when the science fiction book changes one thing but leaves the rest of science intact and explores the consequences of that. That’s actually very valuable. I’m not so fond of the sort of science fiction that isn’t really science fiction but is sometimes thought to be—Gothic princesses and white horses and bats and castles and things.

IC: Your wife was an actress on “Doctor Who,” so I guess you’ve seen it.

RD: I’ve seen her episodes of “Doctor Who.” They’re good, at least partly because the scripts were written by Douglas Adams. I think Douglas is writing with an eye to irony for adults at the same time as entertaining children.

IC: That’s true of a lot of great writers. P.G. Wodehouse, whom I know you like, but also Philip Pullman, right?

RD: Yes, I do like Philip Pullman. And that’s an exception because Philip Pullman’s books allow magic.

IC: This fits into the two conflicting popular conceptions of scientists. You have this very serious person who’s doing experiments and is somewhat austere. And then you have these dorky people who love Star Trek and Star Wars.

RD: Well, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle’s science hero, was a sort of irascible man constantly bellowing at people, so he was a little bit of a departure from both of those stereotypes.

IC: So you don’t feel like you fit either stereotype?

RD: No, I don’t think I do.

IC: You have more of a reputation as someone who shouts people down.

RD: I don’t shout people down. I argue people down, perhaps.

IC: Your book The Selfish Gene talks a lot about Darwinian altruism: How the promulgation of the species causes us to act in generous ways. Some people have said that altruism is something distinct—when you go out of your way to do something nice that’s not about the promulgation of your tribe.

RD: People who criticize The Selfish Gene like that often haven’t read it. The selfish gene accounts for altruism toward kin and individuals who might be in a position to reciprocate your altruism.

Now, there is another kind of altruism that seems to go beyond that, a kind of super-altruism, which humans appear to have. And I think that does need a Darwinian explanation. I would offer something like this: We, in our ancestral past, lived in small bands or clans, which fostered kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, because in these small bands, each individual was most likely to be surrounded by relatives and individuals who he was going to meet again and again in his life. And so the rule of thumb based into the brain by natural selection would not have been,Be nice to your kin and be nice to potential reciprocators. It would have been, Be nice to everybody, because everybody would have been included.

It’s just like sexual lust. We have sexual lust even though we know perfectly well that, because we’re using contraception, it is not going to result in the propagation of our genes. That doesn’t matter, because the lust was built into our brains at a time when there was no contraception.

IC: One problem with these Darwinian explanations, however convincing they are, is that they aren’t really falsifiable.

RD: That is a very common criticism, and it’s probably a valid one. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, of course. I think from my point of view—I won’t say it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong, it’s just sufficient in some cases, for me, to be able to say, Well, at least it’s not totally implausible from a Darwinian point of view.

IC: But is that science?

RD: Yes, it sort of is. I mean, it would be really worrying if, as a Darwinian, it was impossible to think of ways in which our behavior could be explained.

IC: But it seems like evolutionary psychology gets presented as hard science in a way that it’s not.

RD: I think that’s absolutely right, and the better examples of evolutionary psychology actually do get evidence. They do psychological studies.

IC: To what degree did your findings on the selfish gene influence your feelings about politics or religion or the world at large? Or do you bracket those things?

RD: I think I put them in a separate compartment. I’ve always been antagonistic to any naïve application of the selfish gene theory to politics. Some people have attempted to suggest that it means we are selfish or we should be selfish.

IC: What other big thinkers do you really like?

RD: Daniel Kahneman.

IC: What about novelists?

RD: I read novels for entertainment rather than for edification, so I tend not to read the sort of novels that are said to illuminate the human condition.

IC: You don’t look to art for that?

RD: I have never quite understood—and this is no doubt my failing—I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition. Although I’m easily persuaded that a really good novelist who gets inside somebody else’s head could be serving a valuable purpose. I enjoy satirical novels that take a wry, humorous, ironic look at modern life.

IC: You know, Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced former New Yorker writer, has a bookcalled Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

RD: I haven’t read that.

IC: Well, it’s a stupid book, but the idea is that science has uncovered things about the way the brain works that novelists did in the past. I do think you can find something about the human condition by reading George Eliot or Dickens.

RD: You probably can. That’s probably right.

IC: I was wondering what you think of the current Pope. What’s your emotional reaction to religious figures who don’t seem so doctrinaire or who reach out to people who are less religious?

RD: I’m a sucker for nice religious leaders. I fall for it every time. But that doesn’t mean that I accept their arguments. Pope Francis seems to be a much nicer man than Pope Benedict, but I’m not sure that his views on things that really matter are all that different. Whereas Benedict was perhaps a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Francis is perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

IC: People talk about “new atheism.” Is there something new about it?

RD: No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll. But I suppose it is more of a political effect, in that all these books happened to come out at the same time. I like to think that we have some influence.

IC: Sometimes when I read the so-called new atheists, there’s almost a certain intellectual respect for the fundamentalist thinkers. For being more intellectually coherent.

RD: I’m interested you noticed that. There’s an element of paradox there—that at least you know where you stand with the fundamentalists. I mean, they’re absolutely clear in their error and their stupidity, and so you can really go after them. But the so-called sophisticated theologians, especially ones who are very nice, like Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks, you sometimes don’t quite know where you are with them. You feel that when you attack them, you’re attacking a wet sponge.

IC: Do you want people to become secular, or do you want religion to be less conservative and patriarchal?

RD: Ideally, I’d like everybody to be secular. I suppose I have to say politically I would like religion to become gentler and nicer and to stop interfering with other people’s lives, stop repressing women, stop indoctrinating children, all that sort of thing. But I really, really would like to see religion go away altogether.

IC: Have you ever been tempted by faith? Felt there was something missing?

RD: It’s wonderful what we’ve got! How much more do you want? It would be a shallow chimera to want some sort of spook in the sky to look up to when you have such wonderful reality.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This piece was originally published at newrepublic.com