Dawkins on Al Jazeera

July 1, 2012 • 8:52 am

Yesterday Richard Dawkins spent 35 minutes on the Al Jazeera television show “The Stream,” answering the hosts’ and viewers’ questions. The topic: “Is there room for religion in science?”

The questions facing Dawkins include the following: “Is atheism a religion?”, “Is there anything good about religion?”, “Isn’t it a base canard to say that religion is correlated with lack of education”, “Doesn’t living on science and facts alone make for a cold world?”, “Does morality come from God?”, and “Should atheists try to convert people to unbelief?”

I think you’ll agree that Richard is particularly eloquent in answering these questions. And for those who argue that Richard is strident (that includes you, Michael Ruse), look how cooly and respectfully he handles these hot issues.

Maryam Namazie and James Onen (from Freethought Kampala) make an appearance to add some support and intelligence. The skunk in this woodpile, though, is Haroon Moghul of the New America Foundation, who is antagonistically pro-faith and, at 18:30, blames extreme fundamentalist Islam and other fundamentalists faith on atheism: “state-enforced secularism”. That’s insane.

Further, one of the two hosts is repeatedly annoying in stressing that science has been wrong and of course will be wrong in the future; her implication is that we can’t have confidence in any science (this tactic, used in a subtler way, is beloved of Sophisticated Theologians™ ). Richard defuses it handily.  She doesn’t mention, of course, that religion has always been wrong.

I think this is worth watching in its entirety:

h/t: Abbie Smith

84 thoughts on “Dawkins on Al Jazeera

  1. Further, one of the two hosts is repeatedly annoying by repeatedly stressing stressing that science has been wrong and of course will be wrong in the future; her implication is that we can’t have confidence in any science…

    Yes, this is one of the most common fallacies of the religionists.

    Science can be wrong but it is also self correcting and asymptopically approaces the truth.

    Religion just gets everything wrong in the beginning. It then kills anyone who points that out. Eventually no one cares.

    Religion has no way to verify their faith claims except violence and murder. That is why there are 42,000 xian sects and growing yearly and thousands of nonXian gods and religions, most of which are…now dead.

    1. Sophisticated theologians (an oxymoron really) and philosophers usually don’t say science can be wrong.

      They attack reason itself.

      “Human reason is faulty and can’t be relied on.

      I’ve never bought this.

      1. It can be in the short term but reason is a continuous process that relies on data and crosschecking against reality. In the long term it isn’t faulty.

      3. We rely on human reason every day, year, and millennia. It’s the basis of our civilization and what makes us human.

      It is reliable enough that we don’t still live in caves.

      1. Good points. Science doesn’t say it is infallible, but religion certainly does. See people arguing the inherent truth of the Bible.

        Science gets things wrong (says the host on a show that’s then put on the Internet, all possible with science and not at all with just religion), sure, but it works.

        1. Using “science gets things wrong” as an excuse to believe any old thing is a little like saying “Sex results in thousands of miscarriages and birth defects each year and so is unreliable; therefore I am completely justified in believing the Stork Theory of Reproduction.”

      2. What’s faulty are human senses. This was well known to the ancient Greeks, and remains well known today, but in the interim methods have been devised to overcome the fallibility of the senses. Multiple observers comparing notes and the use of machines (sensu latu) to carry out objective observations are perhaps the most obvious ways to compensate for sensory fallibility.

        If human reason is fallible (which it is, of course) the most glaring examples lie in the fields of theology and philosophy, which come up with the most outrageous nonsense as a result of faulty reasoning.

        1. If human reason is fallible (which it is, of course) the most glaring examples lie in the fields of theology and philosophy, which come up with the most outrageous nonsense as a result of faulty reasoning.

          How do you know that theology and philosophy come up with “outrageous nonsense”?

          Voices in you head, talking with the elves, your cat told you, UFO aliens?

          You used reason, didn’t you. It was either that or something invisible to the rest of us.

          Reason is fallible in the short term. But it isn’t an abstract one shot event separate from reality. It is a continuous process that uses data and crosschecks with reality. It eventually asymptopically approaches the truth.

          Nothing else even comes close.

      3. 1. What happened to number 2?
        2. If someone presents an argument for why reason is faulty, haven’t they just defeated their own argument, as well as precluded themselves from reasoning any further from their assertion?

    2. Science can be wrong but it is also self correcting and asymptopically approaces the truth.

      Isac Asimov ( http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm ) put it thus:

      John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

    3. Science doesn’t get things wrong. Scientists get things wrong. And as long as all of scientists’ statements are understood as starting with the phrase “According to current scientific understanding”, no scientific consensus has been wrong, by definition. Religious people, on the other hand, clearly reject the idea that it is at all proper to prepend any of their statements with “According to current belief”.

    1. Thank you for your concern, but that is not the colour I actually am! The TV camera had the colour temperature all wrong. They could presumably have fixed it “in post” but perhaps they rather enjoyed the association of red face with strident anger!


      1. I was rather concerned about the rubor too. Try getting a colour calibration card from somewhere – the photography lab in the university should have them – and carry it. Dig it out and witter on about it while doing the camera and sound checks – so the “post” people have something to work with. (I keep one tucked in my ink-on-paper address book along with the business expenses credit card, spare pen … the usual suspects.)
        Expecting to see reports of your impending death on Creationist websites. Then we’ll know it’s not true!

      2. I’m glad to hear you’re well! I’m red-green color blind, but you looked a bit red even to me. I wonder if someone did do that intentionally? Trying to make you look like the devil, or something?

        In other respects it seemed they were reasonably fair, as these things go. You got to have your say, and handled all questions with apparent ease.

      3. Yes, it would not be unknown in television to tweak colour saturation in setting a contrived visual image.

        That’s what visual experts are masters at doing.

        1. In addition, Richard’s presentation was a wonderful and measured response to some of the more nonsensical questions and comments offered.

          Who needs stridency when truth founded on fact and evidence is the appropriate strategy for discourse.

      4. Al Jazeera is funded by the State of Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world – and they can’t hire a competent engineer?

  2. Great video. I watched it twice last night and posted to my blog too. I agree completely with your assessment of Haroon Moghul as a skunk. Haroon tried to contradict the point about religiosity being geographically correlated to poor education and bad welfare. Glad Richard called him on that telling him is is just wrong. Haroon was trying to say that there are many religious people in places with good education and welfare. I wonder if there is any data out there indicating people who were brought up in a geographical areas with good education and welfare are less likely to be religious than those brought up in impoverished areas who then move to more progressive area as adults?

  3. Nice general overview; most impressive that Prof. Dawkins has all of his answers, illustrations, and reasoning right at his fingertips.

    I made no effort to follow the stream of on-screen comments, but did notice one excellent one (quoting from memory): “Isn’t ‘evolutionist’ just another name for ‘someone who accepts science’? We don’t have ‘gravitationists’ and ‘germists’.”

    Prof. Dawkins gave a good answer to the question “Is there anything good about religion?” stating basically, “No, but that does not mean that there are not any good people who are religious.” I only wish he had used Steven Weinberg’s quote “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” (Facing Up, p. 242)

  4. The girl in the blue blouse suggests Richard’s children’s book was written to indoctrinate children. How is brainwashing children with a Bible or Koran equal to exposing myths with scientific facts? And the guy at 18:20 is a lunatic.

    1. The question the host asked him was ridiculous, almost begging for an equally ridiculous response. By making that whole “state enforced secularization” comment that guy revealed himself as someone not interested in arguing in good faith. Apart from his using “atheism” and “secularization” interchangeably—which I think was a purposeful conflation by someone who knows better—the guy seems to know nothing about countries he named. How can someone go on TV and argue that the real problem in the Middle East is too much atheism and secularism? Yeah, because that’s the prime engine of social strife over there…I’m sure every locker in East Tehran High School is plastered with Sam Harris posters.

      1. He seemed to say the problem was !*state-enforced*! secularism which is just a tad more plausible, but it doesn’t mean the reaction/backlash doesn’t have ill-effects of its own.

          1. From his comments, I take it he means actual suppression of religion, not the kind of First Amendment secularism here.

  5. Here, Al Jezeera (which I’ve found often does good reporting on certain subjects) has staged an extended, relatively sophisticated discussion of an important topic—which is more than some other news networks can say. The hosts were obviously hostile to Richard’s point-of-view (about 18 min. in, she characterizes RD’s views as “sweeping generalizations about billions of people worldwide”; of course, his comments had all been precise and measured). But at least they were not hostile to people hearing what Richard had to say. They didn’t interrupt him relentlessly, like many American hosts do, and they asked their hostile questions in a respectful manner. It also seems like they chose to have something like a fair balance in selecting the audience questions and comments. Aside from being pleasant and articulate, Richard is fairly effective on TV because he gives pithy, easy-to-understand responses, often summarizing the science without veering too far far into the weeds (technical details are awesome, but on this “talking head” format short and sweet is the way to go).

    I bet lots of “undecided” viewers felt the evil atheist made more sense than that New America Foundation guy, whose points were actually somewhat unresponsive to Richard’s points. It was like he was arguing with the caricature of a nasty new atheist in his head, not the actual person in front of him.

    1. I’ve noticed the same thin. Al Jezeera is much more journalistically competent than our home grown US news organizations. (And I don’t count Faux News as a news organization.)

  6. I’m annoyed when people claims that a statement of a certain fact “condescending”. So? That describes their emotional reaction to the fact, like saying “your fact hurts my feelings.” Boo hoo. Either make a coherent argument against the fact, or don’t partake in the discussion.

    1. Yeah, unless it’s presented in an insulting manner, a true statement is not “condescending”. For an example of Dawkins actually being condescending, google “Dawkins Rachel Watson”.

  7. Both the hosts seem to be hunting for opportunities to one-up Prof Dawkins with quick and wannabe clever retorts (“What’s the point of your book for children then?”, “Hasn’t science been wrong?”, “Everybody in our society is talking about everything”). Looks like they were not given the first journalistic lesson of trying your best to keep your own beliefs out of the presentation? It is almost like a Bill O’ Reilly show (minus the tides), by what little I have seen of him.

    1. If they didn’t cut off his mic while screaming at him, it wasn’t at all like a Bill O’Reilly show.

        1. I wondered why, in some comment on his website, Richard Dawkins singled out Bill O’Reilly as an example of spectacular stupidity. But having since seen Bill on Youtube going on about the tides, I have to agree – he’s truly in a class by himself. 🙂

    2. Even the wonderful & responsible Anderson Cooper occasionally asks questions that he !*knows*! are stupid just to get them out on the table and then out of the way. It’s a rhetorical technique occasionally used by even very competent journalists.

      1. I realize that, and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but somehow it seemed clear to me that they were doing this not as a rhetorical technique, but as inserted jabs. Especially the “Everybody in our society is talking about everything” part seemed to me to be laced with a lot of implied sarcasm, but perhaps it is just me.

          1. I like to imagine that archaeologists from the 40th century would find that video clip as the only evidence of a Bill O’Reilly having existed. They would then correlate this with the facts that firstly, an explanation for tides was already known in the 17th century, and secondly, that Bill O’Reilly must have been reasonable well educated for his times since he was so influential that so many people watched him. They would then conclude that Bill O’Reilly couldn’t have been born any later than the 18th century.

          2. Some contend that the rascal means that God is the ultimate answer and the primary cause,but He cannot be either as He’d have to operate according to Nature. Such swill!
            Sean Hannity- Hannity-capped- revels in lying like him.

  8. I saw the two hostesses attempting to inject the idea of “consciousness” as a vast enigma that trumped all scientific explanation. Certainly the fact that you can be rendered unconscious by a vast variety of physical devices (sleep, blow to the head, lack of oxygen, drugs) repeatedly and predictably, should leave no doubt, even on the most elementary level, that consciousness is only within the brain, and cannot travel, go anywhere, be anywhere, but inside a human head.

    It is only a congratulatory example of the power of human brain to be aware that abstract reasoning and thoughts are available to us.

    Religions are woeful in their lack of understanding of human anatomy and particularly the brain. Heck, religion could not even propose or understand blood circulation! How could religion ever have anything substantive to say about thoughts and thinking that could withstand the slightest reasoned scrutiny??

  9. I was struck by the bookcases in the backgrounds. Maryam Namazie’s is floor-to-ceiling and full of books; Haroon Moghul’s is small and contains a little stack of paper and a coffee mug.

  10. I didn’t think the general layout and execution of the show were very impressive. They were frequently interspersing comments they got from the web without allowing Dawkins an opportunity to respond, and in at least one instance they included a comment to which he had already adequately responded.
    Example: someone wrote in, apparently offended that Dawkins woud equate creationism with religion, because there are religious people who believe in evolution. Dawkins had already made the same point about the existence of religious evolutionists – including the pope.

    1. Compared to the news programs I see on other cable channels, I thought the execution was better than average (which is not saying much), but your criticism is totally valid. Surely the people who wrote in wanted to hear the guest’s response. I don’t understand why they would read someone’s comment and then not allow it to be discussed by Richard or the other fellow.

  11. Being that religion is little more than socially acceptable mental illness, I think Richard always does a good job answering gibberish.

  12. Thanks for posting this great video. Richard Dawkins just gets better and better at answering these kinds of questions. I stopped even noticing the red lighting issue after a while. His elegance overpowered it.

  13. The “New Atheists” generally sound more reasonable on these things because in order for their opponents to sound just as reasonable they have to actually agree which sends them of on tangents that make them look utterly insane.

  14. Even admitting the possibility that Al Jazeera doesn’t sound this way in arabic-speaking outlets and accounting for the critical points others here have made, it is embarrasing that they did a better jounalistic job than most American corporate media does. This kind of contrast sadly demonstrates just how much sheer propaganda Americans are subjected to.

  15. The pope is happy with evolution? I’m not so sure about that. Evolution makes a mockery of much of the Bible and essentially disproves the Abrahamic god. The latter can only be saved from oblivion by asserting that the pertinent statements in the Bible are not to be taken literally and that evolution was the mechanism God used to bring us about. But it is utterly illogical to assume that an unguided, stochastic process like evolution can have a fixed outcome. You cannot at the same time accept evolution and believe that Homo sapiens was God’s special creation. If the pope is happy with evolution he is fooling himself in one way or another.

    1. I think that’s exactly the version of relligiously-accepted-evolution that a lot of theologians hold. God sets the natural selection proccess going, then does nothing for a while, then at some point “inserts” a human soul in some monkey, and voilà! Godly-made-evolved-man.

      Yeah, I know… because that makes the whole thing make sense, right?

    2. Oh, come one. Referring to evolution as “unguided” begs the question, and just because evolutionary theory is stochastic doesn’t prove that evolution itself was stochastic. Stochasticism is an entirely epistemological concept, and has no place in ontology. Obviously, if it’s possible for initial conditions to result in humans (as evolutionary theory asserts), then an omniscient, omnipotent being could have determined what those conditions were, and created the universe with those conditions.

      1. Evolution guided by a supernatural being is not evolution but design. Evolution is by definition unguided. Whether we owe our existence to evolution or design is an empirical question that has to be decided on the basis of evidence.

        When a natural process can be described to within the margins of statistical error as a stochastic process it is reasonable to call that natural process a stochastic process. In this sense evolution as observed in nature is clearly stochastic. If mutations can be caused by quantum effects, which appears to be the case, then evolution, as far as anyone can tell, is truly stochastic and fundamentally unpredictable.

        About the only thing we can definitely state about any god is that it can’t be an omniscient and omnipotent being. Such a being is as logically impossible as a four-sided triangle. To assume that there exists a supernatural entity that craved for the company of humans and therefore used evolution to create them, is, in the absence of any supporting evidence, only one of infinitely many arbitrary possible hypotheses, and can therefore be rejected out of hand.

        1. Again and again, the Coyne-Mayr-Lamberth teleonomic argument and Carneades’ atelic argument gainsay all teleological arguments-from reason, to design, fine-tuning and probability. And each contains other fallacies.
          Ernst Mayr notes how teleonomy works; in ” What Evolution Is,” he deprecates rightly teleology.
          WEIT in a superb essay lays out the case for necessity and teleonomy instead of that grand mystery,surrounded by still other mysteries, parading as the Primary Cause and the Sufficient Reason!
          WEIT can handle any theological gibberish in favor of divine teleology!
          Theistic evolution, that oxy-moronic obscurantism merits colossal mockery!
          We owe putative God no worship, nothing at all! This goes to the theistic jugular!

        2. “Evolution is by definition unguided.”
          So there has been no evolution in dogs since they’ve been domesticated? You clearly are not using a standard definition of “evolution”.
          wikipedia: “Evolution is any change across successive generations in the inherited characteristics of biological populations.”
          http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/evo_02 : “Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification.”

          “Whether we owe our existence to evolution or design is an empirical question that has to be decided on the basis of evidence.”
          No, it isn’t. “Design” can be inferred from empirical evidence, but it is not fundamentally an empirical question, and its absence most certainly cannot be proven empirically. Occam’s razor is an epistemological, not empirical, principle.

          “When a natural process can be described to within the margins of statistical error as a stochastic process it is reasonable to call that natural process a stochastic process.”
          It is reasonable to take an epistemological position that it is stochastic. It is not reasonable to assert that there is any ontological meaning to calling it “stochastic”.

          “In this sense evolution as observed in nature is clearly stochastic.”
          Observation = epistemology, not ontology.

          “If mutations can be caused by quantum effects, which appears to be the case, then evolution, as far as anyone can tell, is truly stochastic and fundamentally unpredictable.”
          According to current scientific theory, all effects are ultimately quantum. But the assertion that quantum effects are stochastic is just as ontologically nonsensical as is the assertion that evolution is.

          “About the only thing we can definitely state about any god is that it can’t be an omniscient and omnipotent being. Such a being is as logically impossible as a four-sided triangle.”
          How so?

          1. God-guided evolution — directly tinkering with DNA — is more like genetic engineering than like dog breeding, wouldn’t you say? I for one wouldn’t call genetic engineering ‘evolution’. This merely demonstrates that the Wikipedia definition of evolution as cited by you is worthless. Your other definition at least indicates (‘simply put’) that matters are more subtle than you think.

            Of course, evolution is logically compatible with the existence of a non-intervening deity or one which intervenes in ways that can’t be observed even in theory. In that sense, evolution doesn’t disprove each and every possible god. That merely demonstrates that ontological arguments are sterile here. I am arguing epistemologically against the kind of deity the Pope and most religious people believe in, which is one that interacts in measurable ways with the world and which took special steps to create Homo sapiens. This god is falsified by the Theory of Evolution. Modern evolutionary theory already explains perfectly well how Homo sapiens came into existence (even if we don’t know the precise history). The addition to this explanation of a factor G can be rejected on the ground that in the absence of any evidence for the existence of G it is just one of potentially infinitely many factors that could have been added. Therefore the prior probability that this factor G happens to be relevant is zero, and therefore it can be deleted from our explanation. The first thing the Pope and his ilk have to do is to demonstrate that G exists; only then we can discuss if and how it has any bearing on evolution.

            “But the assertion that quantum effects are stochastic is just as ontologically nonsensical as is the assertion that evolution is.”

            Why? Because God doesn’t play dice?

            About omniscience, etc.: Can a god know that there are no other gods? Even if a god happens to know everything there is to know, it can’t know this to be a fact, so omniscience is logically impossible.

          2. Disclaimer: When I say that the Wikipedia definition of evolution is worthless I mean worthless in this particular debate, as it doesn’t exclude genetic fiddling by a deity. Otherwise it’s not such a bad definition.

  16. Richard is indeed quick on his feet and delivers his answers in pithy, well-constructed sentences that get right to the root of the question. I wish I thought that well on my feet! My favorite example of Richard dissecting a question and delivering a knock-out punch is here:


    I enjoyed the video but my feelings are a mixture of boredom and frustration: boredom because I’ve heard Richard (and others) say these things many times before, and frustration over the fact that he has to endure endless repetition of the same answers to the same stupid, easily refuted questions. I mean how much does a person have to endure?! Since he appreciates Biblical allusions, I’ll simply say that he has the patience of Job — and encourage him not to give up! As Converts Corner on his website demonstrates, his ideas often meet with resistance and shock, but people do sometimes abandon bad ideas. I’d be curious, for example, to know how Richard’s answer in the video I posted above may have influenced the young man who thought he had trapped Richard with an unanswerable question.

    1. Oh my metaphorical and non-existent god; this is awesome. Even better than my heretofore favorite “short video in which Professor Dawkins demolishes a traditional religious argument,” located here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mmskXXetcg
      (I don’t know how to embed the video itself into the comment, as you did).

    2. A nice response, but of course it was “philosophically naive.” He might have noted that many atheist philosophers believe in absolute morality (or “moral facts,” which I consider to be a category error). He might have gone all Euthyphro. etc.

      1. There are a number of things that Richard might have gone into greater depth on, such as his statement that the Pope believes in evolution, which the host found surprising. But the Pope believes that at some point God inserted a soul in homo sapiens, making us unique amongst living creatures. Richard could have noted this and commented that there is no evidence for the existence of a soul, that it is an unsupported hypothesis that science has no need of. But hey, he’s on a program hosted by scientific illiterates (or close to it) and anything you say in such a situation is restricted to a sound bite. Given the venue and the audience I say he did an admirable job.

      2. Here’s the guys question:
        “Considering that atheism cannot have any absolute morality, would it not be an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?”

        This “question” is actually two assertions and a question:
        Statement: atheism cannot have any absolute morality
        Statement: atheists harshly condemn leaps of faith
        Question: would it not be an irrational leap of faith for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?”

        This is a common tactic: pretend you’re asking a question, when in fact you’re making a bunch of assertions.

        1. Correct about the implied assertions, but (as an atheist) I don’t have a problem with them. I think they’re reasonable generalisations, true in the majority of cases.

          Just that the question does not follow from the assertions.

  17. Richard is always fantastic, but the questions and comments from the public and the interviewers have stagnated in a very boring endless loop for a long time.

  18. I watched it several times and without exception each time Professor Dawkins does a great job and is strong while being polite. If there are any honest christians they could easily see no stridency.

    Thank you much Professor Dawkins you almost always tickle my brain.

  19. Richard Dawkins appears just a bit strident maybe once or twice a year, but that’s what his opponents focus on, and ignore the many more frequent times that he is patient.

  20. Andree., that’s why I came up with the Coyne-Mayr- Lamberth atelic-telenomic argument as you note that unguided,stochastic process of necessity [Leucippus].I find randomness part of necessity as it occurs without directed outcomes for what happens. How silly to find directed outcomes when that as Carneades’ atelic argument notes that that begs the question of directed outcomes.
    ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs
    I have a Dawkins’ blog and a Stenger’s blog also at wordpress.
    Google lamberth’s naturalist arguments to find my other one,except for the ones @ blogspot that perhaps some virus got to.
    I invite all to post at any of them! Those with scientific backgrounds can correct any errors I might make.
    WEIT commands respect as well as does Daniel Flinke’s Camels with Hammers and John Loftus’ Debuning Christianity, where our dear Articulett now holds forth.
    Other fine naturalist blogs do exist!I promote and reblog from this one and those to mine.

  21. Wow, I really wish theist would start coming with some new arguments, because this is becoming so boring!

    1. Science sometimes gets things wrong, therefore GOD
    2. The physical world cannot account for morality, therefore GOD
    3. Religion has been around for a long time, therefore GOD
    4. There is unknown stuff, therefore GOD

    I think I’ve summarized every theistic argument EVER. I admire Richard’s patience to deal with these people…

    1. And those theists never make it even remotely plausible that this generic all-purpose god happens to be the highly specific deity who desperately needs to be worshipped by humans.

  22. Richard Dawkins has a lot of patience answering the same questions over and over again. But does it with such eloquence. Perhaps he should make a video of faq’s so that he doesn’t have to go on repeating himself.

  23. The host refers to “creationism” as including a belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, which is actually Young Earth Creationism.

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