UnHerd interviews Richard Dawkins, tries to get him to praise religion

June 8, 2023 • 11:00 am

Here’s a new interview with Richard Dawkins by Freddy Sayers (the editor-in-chief of UnHerd), who apparently tried to create a lot of buzz by issuing this tweet. It turns out that his first two claims are exaggerated, as I’ll show below. But Dawkins does—and rightly so—decry universities for the abysmal treatment of Kathleen Stock. It’s a good interview, though, and you’ll want to read it if you follow Dawkins.


Click the screenshot to read. And no, Richard doesn’t think that New Atheism was a mistake.  He is eloquent and interesting enough that this kind of buzz, or journalistic hype, is unnecessary.

I’ll give a few relevant quotes, with a long section in which Sayers tries to make Dawkins laud religion:

On religion:

FS: In the realm of theoretical physics, for example, there are whole dimensions of the universe that we simply don’t know how to describe yet. Is there not a chance that some of those feelings might be perceiving physical realities that we don’t yet have a way to analyse?

RD: As it happens, this evening I’m going to a meeting in London with Lawrence Krauss, the American theoretical physicist, who has just written a book called The Known Unknowns, which is about all that we don’t yet know. And physicists are proud to admit that there’s a lot that they don’t know, but they’re working on it. It is entirely possible — probable, even — that there are beings in the universe who already do understand things that are beyond our understanding, and that our brains simply aren’t big enough to understand these profundities about the universe. But to somehow equate those with mystical feelings that you get when you’re in love, or when you contemplate a rose, or religious feelings, that’s a naive confusion.”

. . . here’s where Sayers is almost hectoring Dawkins, trying to get him to admit that religion is, on balance, a good thing:

FS: Your work on evolution and natural selection holds that most things about human nature and the human body, in our evolved cells, are there for a purpose.

RD: Yes — and I might be in a minority of biologists for believing that. For that reason, I’ve been called an ultra-Darwinian. Quite a lot of other biologists feel there’s a lot in life that is not actually Darwinian, in the sense that it’s not actually designed by natural selection, but is there by chance.

I think Sayers is getting balled up here in the word “purpose”, which in evolution is just shorthand for “natural selection increasing adaptations.” We don’t see structures as “purposeful” in a teleological sense or being somehow driven to a goal. But even if Sayers realizes that, the next question is wonky.  For Sayers seems ignorant of the possibility that natural selection can create byproducts that are not in themselves adaptive, as in the (likely) evolved tendency for humans to believe authorities, especially parents. Dawkins fends him off.

FS: In which case, should we not view the religious impulse, or mystical impulses, and those feelings that we were just talking about, with more respect? Should we not view them as more likely to be more intelligent than purely a kind of mistake, possibly being wiser and more purposeful than you have been prepared to admit?

RD: Not wiser and more purposeful, but possibly there for a reason. I readily agree that, because it’s a human universal, pretty much, and therefore logically that means that it is highly probably that it is of Darwinian advantage. That, I get. It doesn’t mean religion is true, though. I mean, you could say, the tendency to be religious, the tendency to believe in something supernatural, the tendency to think there’s something higher than you, the tendency to think that people also can connect… all this could have been built in by natural selection.

I often suggest that this could be because children have been naturally selected to be respectful of what their parents tell them, what their culture tells them, because they need that in order to survive. Religion flourishes because children who are vulnerable, in a dangerous world, need to be instantly obeying their parents advice, not to endanger themselves. You don’t question what your parents say, you just believe what they say, which means the child mind is pre-programmed by Darwinian natural selection to be credulous of what elders tell them. And that is fertile ground for falsehood, as well as truth.

Sayers won’t give up. Religion could be a byproduct of an evolved respect for authority, but Sayers is determined to show that it also must be a “net positive”!:

FS: But if it’s there by natural selection, it must be a net positive?

RD: A net positive in a survival sense, yes – but it doesn’t make it true. [JAC: no, religious belief itself need not be a net positive in an evolutionary sense, but simply a byproduct of an evolved respect for authority that itself is a net genetic positive.] It’s not true that if you sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, you will cause the crops to succeed. But it’s a net positive in the sense that it’s a by-product of the impulse to obey authority, because the impulse to obey authority, in general, is a net positive.

FS: In that context, the latest mostly secular generation could be seen as a species-wide experiment. It hasn’t happened before in history — and you had a fair bit to do with bringing it about. Judging on the evidence, how do you think the secular experiment is going?

RD: The statistics I’ve seen suggest it is slowly getting better. The statistics I’ve seen suggest that the number of people who profess some kind of religion is going down. It’s now below 50%, which is the first time that a British census has shown that to be the case, which I think is good. Similarly in America, which is lagging behind, in this respect, but it’s still going in the right direction. Those are the only figures I’ve seen and, all I can do is offer you my intuition, which is worthless.

Sayers keeps hammering away, desperate to find that religion, despite its disappearance, has simply gone underground:

FS: There’s a book by Tom Holland called Dominion, which has been very influential in suggesting that a lot of what we consider to be secular Western ways of thinking on morality is still drenched in Christian thinking. So perhaps, although people aren’t describing themselves as religious in the census, they’ve just moved those religious intuitions into other realms?

RD: Yes, I think that’s very likely true. You can make a good religious case for the trans debate. I make an analogy with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the wine in the Aristotelian accidentals remains wine but, in its true substance, becomes blood. Similarly, the trans person: he has a penis, but that’s a mere accidental, and in true substance he’s a woman. I mean, that’s a perfect analogy to transubstantiation. It even begins with the same prefix.

FS: So which is better, then? We’ve gone through this whole process, we’ve had a whole generation who’ve now been brought up reading your books, and Christopher Hitchens, who are now ardent and proud atheists, and then they end up believing things like you just described. And that has all sorts of societal repercussions. Should we now look back on the New Atheist movement with regret?

RD: No, I don’t get that at all. It’s just an interesting analogy to point out that there is a strong religious element to a current political fad. So what?

Sayers still won’t give up:

FS: The question is: empirically speaking, between conventional religion and what appears to be its successor ideology, which will be proven by history to be better for the flourishing of the species? Early signs are that this new kind of religion, which thinks it’s secular, has some major problems.

RD: Well, if you care about the flourishing of the species, yes, but I care about truth.

Now Sayers is getting unduly antagonistic:

FS: So you don’t care about the flourishing of the species?

RD: Well I do care about it as a human being, but more deeply I care about truth.

Sayers doesn’t like that answer! It might lead to our annihilation!

FS: And if your sense of truth would lead to the annihilation of the species, would you be content with that?

RD: No I would not be content with that. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t happen. I think that truth actually is a genuine value. I believe that a true scientific outlook on the world would actually be best for the flourishing of humankind.

And that’s all I’ll say, though you should read Dawkins’s take on affirmative action, the vaccine controversy (overhyped in Sayers’s tweet), and the ruination of science journals by the invasion of woke ideology.

And there’s this nice ending:

FS: So if Elon Musk succeeds at getting human beings to Mars in your lifetime, would you volunteer for his next flight?

RD: No, I wouldn’t volunteer… actually perhaps yes. If I knew I was dying, it might be the last thing I’d do.

Here’s a tweet by Sayers showing the discussion about covid vaccines.

All in all, it looks to me as if Sayers isn’t really drawing out Richard’s thoughts so much as trying to trap him with a number of “gotcha” questions. Yes, it’s fine (and recommended) for reviewers to ask hard questions, but Sayers goes beyond that, particularly with religion. I don’t know if he’s religious, but he sure keeps hectoring Richard about whether religion might be a good thing.

Dawkins, of course, is an expert at answering these antagonistic questions, and both keeps his cool and admits when he’s misspoken.

16 thoughts on “UnHerd interviews Richard Dawkins, tries to get him to praise religion

  1. I found the clip at the bottom a bit irksome. I don’t think that I could stomach watching the whole thing. The interviewer used Sweden without big lockdowns as strong scientific evidence like a double blind that lockdowns might not be necessary. Of course not, but there are many other variables, it is not a control. Cultural attitudes (behaviour) differences might be the causal to both the outcome and management.

    1. Very true, the deep sense of social responsibility among native Scandinavians makes them unlike the rest of us. Although, to the point, have you seen what is coming out of the public enquiry in the UK examining the handling of the pandemic? It seems that the less rabid conspiracy theorists were right about some things, even if for the wrong reasons. Lockdowns killed more than they saved, no point in compulsory vaccination when they did not prevent infection or transmission. I don’t fault a government for reacting with strong measures to an unknown threat, but as it became clear that the measures were not helping they should have changed course and kept public confidence. The danger now is that when the next pandemic comes along, we will have learned the wrong lessons, and the next one might just be bad enough that we need those strong measures but the governments won’t dare impose them and the public will refuse to comply with them. Recipe for disaster.

      1. I despise Johnson and his government of Brexit fanatic economic terrorists, and they obviously did a crap job with the pandemic, but where’s your evidence that: Lockdowns killed more than they saved?

        Also, you said: no point in compulsory vaccination when they did not prevent infection or transmission. Compulsory vaccination in the UK was limited to those employed in health and social care. That requirement was revoked on 15th March 2022, exactly because the risks were reassessed, and it became clear that the measures were not helping. This was partly because the less dangerous omicron variant had become dominant. However, the biggest factor in this decision was that transmission levels had reduced massively, due in no small part to the successful UK vaccination programme.

        I’m curious as to why you would claim vaccines did not prevent infection or transmission. It is well established that vaccination significantly reduces infection and transmission; the evidence is clear and abundant. So what’s your reasoning here? I guess you could be claiming that prevention of infection or transmission is not guaranteed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. That’s like saying “Yes, seatbelts can save lives, but lot’s of seatbelt wearers die in accidents, so I’m not wearing one!”

  2. It’s my (extremely limited) understanding of evolution that the property of advantageousness is not written in stone but depends upon the environment. The modern world is vastly different today than it was just a hundred or so years ago. In a tribal world belief systems may have helped hold the tribe together. But now, with all of humanity deeply interconnected worldwide, and with no objective way to determine who’s belief system is best, religion can only tear people apart. The only thing that can bring people together in this modern world, I believe, is objective truth.

  3. Sayer repeatedly refers to a secular outlook as being something that’s just happened in the last twenty years, and all the data we have about its social impact is limited to that time. Does he really not know that in northern and western Europe that outlook was the norm for at least 2 – 3 generations before that? The experiment has been running for a lot longer than he seems to realize, and the results so far are that those are the happiest, most flourishing human civilizations in history.

    1. I suspect that he’s writing from an American religious perspective, and his experience has been of growing up governed by religion and religious figures. For other people, their whole life has been devoid of religious interference and they have a very different take on such things.
      If someone were to have asked me which church I went to at a new worksite, I’d have viewed it as a deeply suspicious indicator of a malign and nefarious hidden agenda. But I gather from America’s PR department in Hollywood that it is considered normal or even polite behaviour over there.

  4. Sayers has a record of “both-sides-ism” when it comes to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine. In fact, he strikes me as been an apologist for Russia.

    Another thing, Sayers seems to have a large following of anti-vax cranks, who somehow believe all their conspiracy theories have been vindicated. I saw one demanding Dawkins and other “pro-vax” people apologise. Sayers should reflect on this.

  5. FS: And if your sense of truth would lead to the annihilation of the species, would you be content with that?

    That can cut both ways, of course, with the extremely devout so sure of supernatural sanction and a blissful afterlife that they could destroy the world in good conscience. The sense of truth ought to be coupled with the sense of making sense to others.

    I disagree a bit with Dawkins on the origins of religion, I think, because anchoring it in “believe your elders” just seems to end up becoming a chain of questions about why the elders ever thought to come up with that in the first place. I suspect the evolutionary roots of supernatural beliefs lie in our species’ highly developed and attuned social skills and theory of mind, so that a tree which falls in the forest had rotten roots which didn’t hold up in the strong wind — but the tree that fell on your hut must be involved with obligations, respect, envy, lies, relationships, cultural rules, and/or communications about them.

    1. Dawkins says, many times in his writings, that until the last few hundred years, the presence of a “creator” in the sense of a divine watchmaker seemed self-evidently true. The idea that a complex functioning system could arise from impersonal forces only recently has seemed plausible. Gould made the same basic observation, arguing that the idea arose from Adam Smith’s theory of how the economy operates.

    2. That can cut both ways, of course, with the extremely devout so sure of supernatural sanction and a blissful afterlife that they could destroy the world in good conscience.

      Remind me again, if you can, what the millenarian Protestant estimate of the number of “the Saved” who will spend eternity in Heaven with Jeebus is to be. It’s about 100,000, isn’t it? Or about 50 people for every year between now and Jeebus’ spectacularly bad attempt at nailing up shelves
      Corollary : almost nobody who is “Saved” will know anybody else who was “Saved”. And assuming no communication between Heaven and Hell, the “six degrees of separation” claim couldn’t even be used to bring any of the “Saved” into communication through a chain of mutual acquaintances. Seems pretty hellish to me.

  6. I just finished watching the interview. Pretty good! Yes, the interviewer several times was looking for a way to get God or religion in there—even to the point of asking if religious belief might be a superior trait fashioned by natural selection—but I chalk that up partly to naïveté and partly to (perhaps) being religious himself. People who believe in God often try to get us atheists to admit that their cherished myths have at least a sliver of hope. (They don’t. It’s only a sliver of a sliver of a sliver … , at most.)

    The propensity to submit to authority—or to authoritarian religion—might indeed be adaptive, but that doesn’t mean that the mythical belief is true. We’ll put, Sir.

    Overall, an interview that did some good for the cause of science.

    1. I mean “Well put, Sir.” Apple annoys me no end when it changes my words. Actually, pi**es me off.

        1. Oops, I meant to add that Richard did well to remain calm and polite despite the interviewer’s hectoring antagonism. The tweets below Sayer’s are mostly odd, I’m not sure what it says about the types who appear to follow him.

          1. I expect you know that unherd (just a smidgen of hubris in that name) is a right-leaning site that has taken on the full package deal of current rightist markers. I’ll read Lionel Shriver there, but the rest makes me uncomfortable.

            1. but the rest makes me uncomfortable.

              I read that as a recommendation. Were I minded (no Apple apostrophe’s here, Norman! Not even a Malus-cious substitution.) to read religious clap trap, I might be tempted to visit this “UnHerd” site.

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