Salon interview with Dawkins

October 22, 2009 • 11:40 am

In case you don’t read Salon, today’s issue has both a print and a video interview with Dawkins about his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Of course the reviewer can’t stay away from Dawkins’s atheism:

In the past few years, especially with “The God Delusion,” you’ve become sort of an evangelist for the atheist movement. How have you dealt with becoming a more polarizing figure over the past few years?

I don’t quite know why it should be polarizing. I like to think “The God Delusion” is a humorous book. I think actually it’s full of laughs. And people who describe it as a polarizing book or as an aggressive book, it’s just that very often they haven’t read it. They’ve read other people reacting to it. It is true that religious people do react to any kind of criticism as almost a personal insult, it’s almost as if you’re saying their face is ugly or something, and so that has put out the idea that “The God Delusion” is an aggressive book. You’ve heard words like strident and shrill, as well. I’d like to suggest that actually it’s quite a funny book.

Do you regret having that kind of reputation? Do you feel like it’s handicapping you in the future — that you’ll always be seen as having a certain kind of agenda in mind?

Yes, I think it’s unfortunate. I think it comes from people who haven’t actually read the book, or who haven’t actually met me personally, and so I’m described as a very aggressive, strident person, which I’m not.

And he isn’t.


Oh, curiously enough, the Socialist Party of the UK has published a joint review of The Greatest Show on Earth and Why Evolution is True.  Let a hundred evolution books blossom!

35 thoughts on “Salon interview with Dawkins

  1. I have read “The God Delusion” and I REALLY liked it. I thought it was great.

    But FUNNY?

    I guess I’ll have to re-read it, because I missed THAT part!

      1. To be quite honest I didn’t think The God Delussion was funny when I read it but then I got the audio book. For some strange reason hearing the emphasis on the words, narrated by Richard and Lalla, do add a certain humour to it. I wouldn’t say it’s hysterical but it is funny. I did giggle at a few points.

  2. I think it’s funny but because he says things that aren’t said in “polite” company, which is a point of the book, people think it’s rude or harsh. Hopefully, one day, TGD will be seen as passe and the new-new atheist critiques will be strident but no one will be bothered by the election of the latest atheist president…..

  3. Maybe they get that idea from writing like this:

    TM [to Dawkins]: You quote physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. For good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

    Which is hardly correct, as many “good people” have done evil for the sake of ideology, which often substitutes rather easily for theology, and vice-versa. It’s not hard to criticize religion without making such sweeping and incorrect judgments.

    Glen Davidson

    1. “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. For good people to do evil things, it takes religion OR ANY OTHER FORM OF BLIND FAITH/IDEOLOGY.”

      There, it’s still correct, just a bit more accurate.

  4. And this isn’t polarizing?

    Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

    Maybe it “shouldn’t” be polarizing in some ideal sense, but he’s hardly giving it to us straight when he claims not to be polarizing.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Oh please… his comments seem childish at worst, when compared to all the craziness spewed by religious leaders (Evangelicals, Limbaugh, preachers all over).

      Dawkins oftentimes has likened faith/religion to a mind virus, a negative sort of meme, so for him to say, “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate” doesn’t seem at all that bad.

    2. You have to remember Dawkins is a scientist. In science if you’re criticized you look to see if you’ve made some mistakes or if the other people just don’t have the brains to understand you (or you all have the brains but you’re not good at explaining things). When Dawkins says “faith is one of the world’s great evils” he’s not necessarily even talking about religion but faith in general. Now going back into the real world, the people who tend to exhibit the most faith (in mythologies even) are the religious. Yet Dawkins is neither attacking any specific religion or even religion in general in that particular instance, only unquestioning belief in anything. Now any thinking person can see that, but religious people tend to rave about the Evil Dawkins simply because Dawkins says believing things without evidence is arguably one of the world’s great evils. A proper response would be to point out that Dawkins is wrong because blind belief in adults in fact leads to far more good than harm (except that such a claim wouldn’t be true in general so it cannot be made).

  5. To claim that Dawkins isn’t polarizing, strident or aggressive is either astonishingly disingenuous or blindly ignorant. Quotes from Dawkins’s own website:

    “The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as ‘faith’.”

    “Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the ‘know-nothings’, the ‘know-alls’, and the ‘no-contests'”.

    “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

    “What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot child.”

    “[W]e should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns.”

    Or, if you prefer a narrative:

    Darwin’s Rottweiler

    I expect that the attempts to reinvent Dawkins into a more palatable public figure will continue (after all, it’s difficult to bring people around to your point of view by constantly telling them they’re stupid, ignorant and mentally ill). But it’s hardly honest.

    1. I wonder if you have any sense of humour.

      A bunch of that was hilarious (and true).

      It’s unfortunate that you seem to think that the truth is polarizing (robot quote, faith as a cop-out, theology/fairies/unicorns).

      And no, what’s difficult is trying to bring people around that can’t stand being told that they don’t know everything, that can’t stand being wrong, that can’t or won’t think critically.

      1. “Congratulations Robocop, you’ve earned your badge in quote mining! Ray Comfort will be proud of you.”

        Since I reproduced the quotes completely and exactly the way Dawkins himself provided them on his own website, I’m left to laugh at yet another ridiculous attempt to rehabilitate Sir Richard’s public persona. Congratulations.

  6. When reading TGD I often laughed out loud enough for those around me to inquire. I found the book funny and to all those that I pass it along to I let them know I think it’s a funny book.

  7. The God Delusion *is* funny until you realize there are very serious people out there who believe in fundamentalist religion and discount logic and reason in favor of mindless faith.

    All the funny moments I can think of in the book were tempered by the fact that there are people who go through life in such willful ignorance and think it’s not only okay, but that it should be absolutely free from scorn or derision or even honest questioning. That ain’t funny. It’s sad and poisonous.

  8. Of COURSE it’s funny … or at least “frequently laced with cunning humour”. I still pride myself that I was about the only reviewer at the time who noticed.

    Alas, I suspect this is because the various other reviewers are deaf to literary tone – or become so when faced by a challenging book – than that I have any special sensitivity.

  9. Joint review of WEIT and TGSOE… and the winner is… WEIT!

    Congrats, Jerry!

    Of course, the review was by the Socialist Party, so the right-wingers will throw THAT around your neck like a big scarlet A. 😉

  10. Jerry,

    No shit Dawkins is nice to you. You’re on his team! And I’ve read Dawkins book. And of course Dawkins is a caustic and smirking Eddie Haskel/Iago towards religion. Wherever he tones down or qualifies his statements about religion, he does so for maximal rhetorical effect, not because he likes to restrain his id. Dawkins clearly feels that religion, across the board, is bullshit and religious believers are, at some level, completely ridiculous. And of course Dawkins is displaying oral aggression in the presentation of his views.

    In short, Dawkins is showing a lack of self-knowledge in denying his own rhetorical moves.

    But wait. That’s only one side of the story.

    It’s also true that religion frequently invites mockery, and humor is a proper tool of deflation directed towards those in power (and the clergy have lots of power). If Dawkins is caustic, if he is sarcastic, if he is barbed and assertive, fine. But he should own it. If he’s pissed, he’s pissed. I’m pissed too. I want more of Dawkins’s rhetoric directed at religion (wherever it is clearly deserved). I don’t want less of it. Religious leaders should be no more shielded from mockery than political leaders. I don’t want to live in a politically correct or litigious culture where you can’t speak your mind. And I’m speaking as an agnostic, and as someone who often defends theists against atheist attacks that I think are dubious. So hats off to Dawkins.

    But here’s the thing: the New Atheists, if they are going to give a punch, have to learn to take a punch. Most New Atheists I encounter and argue with have very thin skins. If you make fun of their leaps of faith beyond the empirical, or question their “my shit doesn’t stink” motives, then suddenly they pounce on you for “incivility” with the zeal of their religious counterparts.

    And let’s face it: atheists and atheism are every bit as funny as any other form of human folly. And make no mistake. Atheism is a total human folly. It is a folly because the universe is absurd, and you cannot have a sane response to the absurd without yourself missing the joke that is on you. Everybody, it seems, except atheists, can clearly see that if the atheist universe is true, then we’re all fucked. Physicist Lawrence Krauss, if you will recall, contemplated calling his talk at AAI, “We’re fucked”, which I thought was refreshingly honest and funny. So it would be nice if more atheists learned to laugh at themselves as well, and show some self awareness, and even, dare I say, honesty about their own emotional aggressions and the bleak worldview to which they obviously subscribe.

    As Will Durant once wrote (I think quoting someone else): “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.”


    1. Wow. You’re an idiot.

      Atheists have been taking punches for millennia, ever since morons who thought that anything some imaginative person conjured was actually, you know, REAL, banded together to drag everyone else down to their level of stupid.

      Dawkins is incredibly funny. The universe is funny and absurd. It has wonder, but it also has a screaming amount of goofy, it’s fully of people who are goofy and stupid, and he well knows it.

      Look, our entertainment complex is in a sewer–that isn’t absurd? Funny?

      Get over yourself, and get a sense of humor of your own. You clearly need one.

    2. I think Santi has some good points here, but I think his characterization of Dawkins is wrong.

      Lawrence Krauss is correct. We are fucked, but one’s attitude and way of living life is what is important.

    3. Santi–

      The universe is indeed absurd. More so than you realize. The Atheist worldview however is far from bleak. It’s real and points up the importance of NOW–this moment–as opposed to some unrealistic afterlife of which there is no evidence except for sad wishful thinking.

      In an Atheist universe the only ones who are “fucked,” as you so eloquently state, are those who think there is something more–who cannot appreciate and drink in the beauty around them because it fails to measure up to the fairy stories in their heads.

  11. Jgrow and Aquaria:

    I may be an idiot. And infantile.

    Part of the noble tradition of atheism (and I think that atheism is a brave and noble and intellectually honest path) is humor, and Dawkins has a lot of it, and I assume he is ironic towards himself in private as well. And Dawkins also faces life bravely. I admire that.

    I just, personally, find full atheism terrifying. Whenever I think of becoming a full-on atheist and abandoning complete hope that mind may have preceded matter, I shudder at the oblivion. I think of Dostoevsky’s blind spider at the heart of the universe. And I think of my kids, and if one of them died I could not bear the thought of not ever seeing them again. Atheism is a path that requires a lot of cognitive dissonance (regarding the consequences of living in an absurd universe) or a lot of bravery. Perhaps I lack both.

    I know there are a lot of atheists who don’t understand my agnostic position, who think it’s kind of a sign of weakness. But doesn’t the heart have anything to do with what we can tolerate in terms of the truth?

    Didn’t Oedipus, that grand pursuer of full truth, find himself, in the end, gouging out his eyes?


    1. Santi–
      If you shudder at the oblivion, then don’t think about it. It’s a waste of time.

      Enjoy today. Enjoy your kids. Enjoy the sunset. Enjoy a cold beer. Enjoy life. Be good to yourself and those you love. Hell, be good to those you *don’t* love. You’ll confuse them and you might make their days go better too.

      This is not cognitive dissonance. This is acceptance of what *is.* There is no good or evil in the universe. The universe is an unfeeling place. So what? We can feel. Your dog can feel. Your cat can feel too, even if it’s indignance or scorn or whatever it is cats feel.

      Enjoy NOW, because that’s all we ever had or will have.

      1. I agree jgrow2.

        There is no reason to shudder. Just like none of us knew about the nothingness that came before our birth, we will not know the nothingness after our death. It didn’t hurt before and wont hurt later.

  12. JGrow and Bob:

    I can accept what you’re saying. Carpe deum. Okay. But in terms of hope for an ultimate meaning to existence there is a Dante “gates of hell” quality to becoming an atheist: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” To focus in on daily pleasures (“beauty is truth, truth is beauty; that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know”) is fine when you’re young. But (to echo Robert Frost on aging and infirmity), what do you do “with a diminished thing”?

    As a practical matter your advice is good, but I doubt that the refusal to look at the bigger picture can be consistently sustained. At some point the atheist-scorched psyche, and the horror of the atheist universe, has to surface somewhere, don’t you think?


    1. No. I do not take it as ONLY carpe diem. There is much more to life than just seeking pleasure. I am not refusing to look at the bigger picture. I have concerns and (sometimes) act on them to try to correct errant situations. There are situations that are horrible and that no one can do anything about. That is part of life.

      There is no inherent horror to the universe; there is wonder at its complexity and there can be satisfaction at trying to observe it and figure it out.

      Your link to “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” – The queen is dead. Long live the queen. Now get on with it.

      1. Bob has put it most succinctly. Santi, you seem to think that being an atheist means putting on a brave face except in those unguarded moments when we’re struck dumb by concealed horror because there’s nothing else but this here and now. This universe.

        Bob is right. There is no inherent horror to the universe. Things happen. They may be bad, they may be good, they may be random has all hell to your perception.

        Personally, I learned long ago that good and bad are relative to how one thinks, or where one is relative to the situation, and nothing more than that. After that analysis, after looking at the big picture, it becomes getting down to business. What is the problem I have and how do I solve it if necessary.

        As for the universe, it is breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity, and in the complexity that grows from such simplicity. I am continually entranced by the unlikeliness of being alive here and now and by the uniqueness of all things. To consider that all this is the product of some superior being cheapens the wonder of these things here. It cheapens all life to think of it all as toys in some tinkerer’s shop.

        Knowing how electromagnetic radiation diffuses through air and water molecules of sufficient density makes the wonder of seeing a rainbow that much more wonderful. That much more amazing.

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