Dawkins draws nearly 900 to convention
God Delusion author Richard Dawkins accepts an Emperor Has No Clothes Award on Oct. 12 at FFRF’s 35th annual national convention in Portland, Ore. Photo: Andy Ngo
This speech, excerpted for print, was given Oct. 12 by Richard Dawkins at FFRF’s 35th annual convention in Portland, Ore. Dawkins, a distinguished evolutionary biologist and author, is arguably the world’s most renowned living atheist. He received an Emperor Award in 2001 but was unable to accept it personally due to 9/11. The award is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion.
Thank you very much indeed. [I am] delighted to have made a diversion to Portland to see this magnificent gathering and to see Annie Laurie and Dan Barker, who are some of my favorite people. We have been collaborating with them on the Clergy Project, among other things, and it’s a very great pleasure to see this splendid audience,
I’m often asked, why do you pick easy targets, like Ted Haggard? Why don’t you have an argument with a real theologian, the best that religion has to offer, a sophisticated religious thinker? But what’s the difference between an evangelical wingnut like Ted Haggard and a sophisticated theological thinker like the archbishop of Canterbury or the pope?
In one sense, I believe the wingnuts are more honest. They know what they believe, and although it’s false, at least they really believe it. The sophisticated theologians, I shall argue, are so drunk on metaphor, they don’t really know what they believe, or they may be deliberately deceptive.
Honoree Richard Dawkins accepting the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from FFRF Officer Jim Coors. The statuette honors public figures for “telling it like it is” about religion. Photo: Andy Ngo
To quote Peter Medawar on Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest and author of The Phenomenon of Man, “It may be that they can be excused of deceitfulness only because before deceiving others, they’ve gone to great pains to deceive themselves.”
The case I want to make is that in the hands of a sophisticated theologian, the resort to metaphor may be a vehicle of deceit, a con trick, played on their innocent congregations.
C.S. Lewis made the point that our whole language is full of dead metaphors. The word “attend” is a metaphor. The word “reflect” is a metaphor.
You say she’s very bright, or a very dim student. How dare you, he thundered. I can’t grasp your nebulous — meaning cloud-like — meaning. Almost every word, every phrase in our language was once upon a time a metaphor.
I’m not knocking metaphors, but they have to obey two rules. They must do real explanatory work, and it must be clear that they are metaphors. One of the problems with the sophisticated theologians is that they are very unclear when they’re talking about metaphors and when they’re not.
Here’s a good example of a very good metaphor — the distinction between skyhooks and cranes, which all of you will know from the work of Dan Dennett. It does useful explanatory work, and it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything but a metaphor.
Here’s another: When you’re trying to explain the phenomenon of refraction, physicists have found that a good way to do it is to assume that the photons of the light are trying to minimize the time they take to get through the medium, whatever it is. The beautiful metaphor, which I’ve seen exposed by Peter Atkins, is if you are on the shore, you’re a lifesaver. You see somebody drowning out to sea at a diagonal, what’s the best course to follow in order to get to them as quickly as possible?
The straight beeline direction is not good, because you can run much faster than you can swim. So you want to increase the time you spend on the beach before you hit the water. Or in that case, you could minimize the time you spend on the beach and go right to opposite where the person is drowning, and then swim straight out to them. Or you could do the opposite, which is clearly not sensible.
The optimum solution is to go at a certain angle, which really does minimize the time you take to get to the drowning swimmer, and that is exactly what photons do. If you assume that a photon is working hard to minimize the time it takes to pass through the medium, then you get the right answer with respect to refraction. So once again, the photon lifesaver metaphor passes its test with flying colors. It does real work in helping you to get the right answer, and it’s perfectly clear. It’s obviously a metaphor.
I once attended a posh conference in Germany where Nobel Prize winners were invited to bring one young colleague. I went as the colleague of my Nobel Prize-winning boss, Niko Tinbergen. Jacques Monod, the distinguished French molecular biologist, was there. He said that when he was trying to solve a problem in chemistry, he would say, “What would I do if I were an electron?”
My late colleague W.D. Hamilton solved an enormous number of problems in evolutionary genetics by asking himself, “What would I do if I were a gene trying to maximize my survival through many generations?” If you use that metaphor, then you can get all sorts of answers right.
Once again, the intelligent gene metaphor passes the test. It does real work in helping us to get the right answer, and it’s impossible for a reasonable person to think that we really mean that genes have intelligent motives.
Also I thought, one might have thought it was obvious that a selfish gene couldn’t possibly mean literally selfish. But this lady, a philosopher called Mary Midgley, wrote a savage attack on [Dawkins’ 1976 book] The Selfish Gene, in which she began, “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract, or biscuits teleological.”
Einstein’s bad metaphor
John Krebs and I used a thing called the life-dinner principle in explaining certain aspects of evolutionary biology. It comes from Aesop’s Fables. “The hare runs faster than the dog because the hare is running for his life, while the dog is only running for his dinner.” You use that principle to explain all sorts of things in evolutionary ecology.
An extremely common error is to assume that what animals are doing is working for the good of the species, working for example to stop the species going extinct. This fallacy was identified by J.B.S. Haldane as “Pangloss’s theorem,” after the character in Voltaire [parodying Leibniz] who thought all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Molecular biologist Sydney Brenner satirized that theorem by suggesting that a molecule which arose in the Cambrian era, half a billion years ago, might have been of no use at the time, but it stuck around because it might come in handy in the Cretaceous.
Another example of bad metaphors I’m afraid Albert Einstein was guilty of — Einstein, when he wanted to say something like, “Could the universe have been different from what it is? Is there only one way for a universe to be?”
Unfortunately, Einstein chose to express that very important question with a God metaphor, “Did God have a choice?” He used another God metaphor when he was complaining about Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which he didn’t like. He said, “But he does not play dice,” meaning that God does not play dice [with the world].
The fact that Einstein used the God metaphor has been used over and over again by “faith heads” who wish to claim Einstein as one of their own. It’s a very good thing, by the way, that Einstein, in one of the last letters he wrote near the end of his life, showed absolutely that he did not believe in any kind of personal God. That letter has now come up for sale. I tried to bid on it when it came up for sale last time. I was miserably outbid.
Religion arguably got its start from this very human habit of metaphorically personifying natural phenomena. People lacked a naturalistic explanation for thunder, so tribal peoples would resort to a supernatural explanation — thunder gods, like Thor with his hammer, and Zeus.
Yahweh himself seems to have begun as a storm god, one of a polytheistic pantheon of Canaanite gods that included Baal, the thunder god.
Here’s a good example of the misapplication of metaphor. Pope Benedict said, “Christ stresses that the gift received in him far surpasses Adam’s sin and its consequent effects on humanity.” The pope knows perfectly well there never was an Adam. He’s an evolutionist. He’s come down in favor of it. But he can’t resist the temptation of metaphor. They are drunk on metaphor.
I was curious to know whether priests, pastors, were aware [that the biblical creation stories are myth, not history]. I asked two of them who have since become atheists. The first one said, “During my first few months of doubt, I actually met with, all in confidence, three former students, all preaching in similar congregations, and three seminary professors. All six of them admitted to not believing in the literal creation account of a literal Adam and Eve, and the resulting fall. And they questioned the historicity of Moses, etc. But they preach as if they do when they speak in local congregations. In other words, they share their scholarly beliefs with scholars, and preach down to the laity of rural congregations.”
The second pastor said, “I would completely agree that theologians are intoxicated by metaphor and that tendency trickles down to the local pulpit. I think in some cases, both in the academy and the pulpit, the intention is to feel comfortable in perpetuating a traditional narrative, but to do it in ways that serve both a metaphorical and literal understanding. In other words, we try to be all things to all people, but fail to say anything substantial.”
Biblical beauty, atrocity
The Song of Songs is a beautiful book of the bible. It’s recommended. Read it in the King James version. “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that feed among the lilies. Thou art all fair, my love. There is no spot in thee. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse. Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is they love, my sister, my spouse? How much better is thy love than wine and the smell of thine ointments than all spices, thy lips, oh my spouse, drop as the honeycomb. Honey and milk are under thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”
Well that, as I said, is summed up in the King James bible at the top as “The Church’s Love Under Christ.” [laughter]
The horrific story of Abraham, almost murdering his son Isaac, is said to be a parable, symbolically telling the Hebrews to stop sacrificing humans and sacrifice sheep instead. You can’t help wondering why God didn’t simply tell Abraham instead of making him commit child abuse, which today would have him locked up.
Sophisticated theologians are drunk on metaphor, so in love with metaphor as to be seduced by atrocities like that; so in love with metaphor as to be persuaded that in order for God to forgive our sins, he had to reenact the metaphor of Abraham in the blood sacrifice of Jesus, without which it was impossible to forgive our sins. Somebody had to die.
Imagine you are God. You’re all-powerful. You’re all-loving. So it is really, really important to you that humans are left in no doubt about your existence and your loving nature, and exactly what they need to do in order to get to heaven and avoid eternity in the fires of hell. It’s really important to get that across. So what do you do?
If you’re Jehovah, apparently this is what you do. You talk in riddles. You tell stories which on the surface have a different message from the one you apparently want us to understand. You expect us to hear X, and instinctively understand that it needs to be interpreted in the light of Y, which you happen to have said in the course of a completely different story 500, 1,000 years earlier.
Instead of speaking directly into our heads, which God has presumed the capability of doing — simply, clearly and straightforwardly in terms which the particular individual being addressed will immediately understand and respond to positively — you steep your messages in symbols, in metaphors. In fact, you choose to convey the most important message in the history of creation in code, as if you aspired to be Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.
Anyone would think your top priority was to keep generation after generation after generation of theologians in meaningless employment, rather than communicate an urgent life-or-death message to the creatures you love more than any other.
Religion and public office
Now I want to switch to a completely different topic, which I think is important, because we’re just in the throes of a very important election. I want to say something which may be a bit more unpopular. We’ll see. Should we respect the privacy of a politician’s religion, or is it up for discussion, like his economic policy or his foreign policy?
Should politicians be allowed to hide behind the convention that privacy is to be respected where faith is concerned and refuse to discuss it? We shouldn’t even ask them about it, or should we question them about it?
Britain and America are rather different in the way their politicians treat religion. Tony Blair, under the forceful direction of a rather sinister figure, Alistair Campbell, who was his spin doctor, very forcefully said we don’t do God. Blair’s best friend, George W. Bush, did God in a big way, even to the extent of listening to God’s advice to invade Iraq.
I’m conscious of not being American, but because the election is hanging over the whole world, I’m going to take the liberty of making a point about American election manners. I expect I may find myself at odds with some people here.
Almost every politician in America has to do God, or at least thinks he has to do God, on the pain of almost certainly losing the election if he doesn’t. The next point, which ought to be uncontroversial, is that the separation of church and state is quite rightly deeply woven into the DNA of America, unlike in Britain, where we have an established church and we have 27 bishops as ex-officio members of Parliament.
The American Constitution states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” John Kennedy famously laid the principle on the line: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding office.”
But while it’s of course right that no religious test should be imposed before a candidate is allowed to stand for election, that’s very different from saying that voters are expected to ignore a candidate’s religious beliefs when they’re deciding whether to vote for him.
Discriminating against anybody’s eligibility to stand for election goes right against the spirit of the American Constitution. Amazingly, however, in several states, atheists are barred by state law. [Dawkins names states with specific prohibitions: North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.]
I’m using Romney only as an example for the thesis that I want to advance, which is I think unpopular with some Americans, because they wrongly think it goes against the Constitution, against the “no religious test” laws. Whereas no religious test should be imposed when deciding whether a candidate’s eligible, voters are entitled to take account of what a candidate is capable of believing, even if he doesn’t let his beliefs interfere with his policies, as Kennedy vowed.
By the same token, I think journalists should be free to ask candidates about their beliefs. Their private beliefs should be fair game in debates between candidates. I wish that presidential debates were more gloves off when it comes to the religious beliefs of candidates.
Why does Mr. Obama limit himself to criticizing Mr. Romney’s taxation policy, medical policy, foreign policy and so on? Why does he ignore the
elephant in the room, which is that his opponent is capable of holding beliefs which, in England, we call barking mad, and here, you might call batshit crazy.
Joseph Smith, charlatan
Mitt Romney believes that the Book of Mormon is a sacred book, translated by a 19th century American called Joseph Smith, whom Romney reveres as a prophet and the founder of his faith. Mormons believe that Smith was guided by an angel, Moroni, to dig up some golden plates on which were written characters of an ancient language which he called reformed Egyptian, unknown to archaeologists, by the way.
He bought a seer stone in a hat, buried his face in the hat and looked at the seer stone. One by one, characters of reformed Egyptian would appear in the stone, together with the English translation. Smith would say the English word, which would be written down by a scribe sitting behind a curtain so he couldn’t see what was going on.
The scribe repeated the word, and when Smith approved it, the stone would display a new word in its place, and so on until all 531 pages of the book had been written down — in English. Mark Twain remarked that if you remove all occurrences of “it came to pass,” the Book of Mormon would be reduced to a pamphlet.
Before any of this happened, Joseph Smith had built up a track record in the area as a psychic diviner of buried treasure. He claimed to be able to see underground, looking for treasure by looking through his hat. Everything about the Book of Mormon reeks of fake.
Joseph Smith was an obvious charlatan. That’s not an interesting fact in itself. There have been numerous charlatans down the ages. The point is that Mitt Romney, candidate for the job of most powerful man in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button, is a gullible fool who believes Joseph Smith.
It seems to me entirely right that journalists should question him on his Mormon beliefs. They should not feel it’s a taboo they have to tiptoe around. The only reason President Obama should refrain from doing so, if he should, would be a purely tactical reason. It might put voters off because they wrongly, in my view, think that to do so would be to go against the spirit of the First Amendment.
There he is, looking through his hat. I’ve been Tweeting about this lately. The commonest retort that I’m getting is, well, Obama’s Christianity, isn’t that just as ridiculous?
Obama not a Christian?
I think there’s an excellent chance that Mr. Obama is not a Christian at all. I strongly suspect he may be an atheist.
I say that mainly because he’s obviously intelligent and educated. But in any case, the fact that he professes Christianity means absolutely nothing. He’s an elected American politician. And if you are an elected American politician, that has to mean that you pretend to be religious. There’s no other way about it. So that doesn’t really mean anything.
One could say the same of Romney. But I think the evidence shows actually Romney does believe it. He was a Mormon bishop. There are records of his excommunicating people. He excommunicated a woman because she left the Mormon Church. You’d think since she’d left already, there was no need to excommunicate.
And it’s really much more recently that he, I think really rather obnoxiously, posthumously baptized his atheist father-in-law. If he were professing religion for reasons purely of political expediency, instead of saying he’s a Mormon, couldn’t he say he sort of believes in spirituality or something vague like that?
I think it’s pretty clear Romney is a definitely strong-believing Mormon, whereas I don’t think it’s clear that Obama is a Christian. But even if he is, Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, I think is substantially less, I mean it may be ridiculous, but it’s not as ridiculous.
Christian scriptures are genuinely ancient. The translations from Hebrew and Greek that Christians use are in a language contemporary with the translators. The Book of Mormon is not ancient. The language of its alleged translation is ludicrously anachronistic. It contains absurdities, scientifically demonstrable absurdities, about the origin of Native Americans, about people of African descent. It’s an absurd piece of work. A man who seriously believes it, it seems to me, cannot be trusted to have the sort of acumen, the sort of critical mind that you need in a leader of a great country.
DNA evidence conclusively refutes the claim that Native Americans are a remnant of the house of Israel. The idea that Jesus visited America is archaeologically preposterous. The idea that Adam and Eve did, too, is even worse. It’s at least arguable that Jesus existed.
The traditional Mormon belief in the inferiority of black people, only lately renounced for reasons of political expediency, is as scientifically inaccurate as it is obnoxious. The great prophet Brigham Young even prescribed the death penalty for interracial marriage.
Reductio ad absurdum
Are any Christian beliefs as daft as Mormonism? I think the answer is probably no, but I do think that the bread and wine question should be put to any Roman Catholic seeking high office. Do you really believe in transubstantiation? Do you literally believe that the wafer becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ?
I think that question should have been put to Kennedy. I suspect that if he were honest, he would have said no, to which the reasonable response would then be, then why do you remain Catholic?
For many Americans, the sticking point is whether the candidate keeps his religion separate from his politics. This was the Kennedy defense, and it has a lot going for it. But I actually want to go further.
I’m not an American voter, but if I were, I would want to know that my president has the critical intelligence needed to be a president. Anybody who can’t see that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a liar doesn’t have critical intelligence.
I wanted to get to the bottom of what I see as a reluctance among some Americans to question a candidate’s private religious beliefs, a reluctance to intrude upon this private matter of religious belief. Shouldn’t it be a private matter that we leave to him and don’t question? So I invented a hypothetical example.
My extreme reductio ad absurdum was a hypothetical doctor. He was an excellent eye surgeon, brilliant at removing cataracts, repairing detached retinas, all the other things that an eye surgeon should be good at. You couldn’t fault him, except for one peculiar fact. He doesn’t believe in the sex theory of reproduction.
I published this hypothetical example in two places, richarddawkins.net/, which I recommend to you, and boingboing.net/, which I also recommend to you. I expected that the commenters would at least agree with me in this extreme case. They’d agree with me that this doctor should be struck off, or at least they wouldn’t consult him, even if they had an eye problem.
Not a bit of it! I would say most of them, were outraged at my suggestion. So long as he does his job as a doctor, well how dare you criticize his believe in the stork theory!
I offered another example, which was a professor of geography who believes the Earth is flat, but who gives perfectly good lectures based on the assumption of a round Earth. But nevertheless, he privately believes the Earth is flat. I think he should be fired, but many people don’t.
Maybe people here wish to argue the case that if religious beliefs or disbeliefs, about the stork theory or whatever, are private, we have no business intruding upon them. I’m offering my alternative view, which is that we don’t only want to know what the candidate’s policies are, we want to know whether he has the kind of mind that you can trust to take reliable decisions under difficult circumstances.
Thank you very much.
The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (richarddawkins.net/) is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.
[Thanks to Cal Hutson for the excellent transcription.]