In his controversial bestseller The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins attacked religious belief. He spoke with me about his new work, The Greatest Show on Earth, and his inimitable style. Excerpts:
Why were you motivated to write this book?
Well, it's about the evidence for evolution. Evolution is one of the most fascinating ideas in all of science. It explains your existence and mine, and the existence of just about everything we see. How can you possibly ask what motivated me? It's just a wonderful subject to write a book about.
Is this supposed to be the definitive refutation of creationist arguments?
Well, it's amazing that there needs to be a definitive refutation of them, but yes, if you put it like that, it is a propitious time from that point of view. Any time would have been a good time for this book.
Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?
No, I don't think they're incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God—to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.
I wonder whether you might be more successful in your arguments if you didn't convey irritation and a sense that the people who believe in God are not as smart as you are.
I think there is a certain justified irritation with young-earth creationists who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Those are the people that I'm really talking about. I do sometimes accuse people of ignorance, but that is not intended to be an insult. I'm ignorant of lots of things. Ignorance is something that can be remedied by education. And that's what I'm trying to do.
Is there anything else I've missed?
I would be glad if you didn't use the word "strident." I'm getting a little bit tired of it.
I've read your books and I would not disagree with that characterization.
OK. Well, let me plant one idea in your head. When somebody offers an opinion about anything other than religion—say, politics or economics or football—they will use language that is no more or less outspoken than mine, and it isn't called strident. As soon as it's an atheistic opinion, immediately the adjective "strident" is attached to it, almost as though the word atheist can't be used without the preceding adjective "strident." You wouldn't talk about a strident Christian.
Oh, yes, you absolutely would. I wouldn't call all of the new atheists strident. Christopher Hitchens, for example, isn't strident.
Is he not?
I would just say that it's a different approach.
I suppose the most strident passage in The God Delusion is where I talk about how the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction. I had this long list of adjectives: homophobic, infanticidal. That's kind of using long words, long Latinate words to describe what everybody actually knows: that the God of the Old Testament is a monster. I put it in this rather, I'd like to think, amusing way.
Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God. To make fun of them is to alienate them.
Well in that particular passage I'm only talking about the God of the Old Testament, so the only people who will be offended are the people who believe in the God of the Old Testament—which by the way is most of the people you're referring to. So that has to be conceded. But I also suspect that if they actually read the Old Testament, they could not fail to agree with what I said. The God of the Old Testament is a monster. It's very, very hard for anybody to deny that. He's like a hyped-up Ayatollah Khomeini.
But if some portion of that 90 percent are intelligent people—
But they wouldn't disagree with what I said about the God of the Old Testament. They'd probably say something like, "Oh, that's quite different. We believe in the God of the New Testament." Something like that.
Not if they're Jewish they wouldn't.
Well, sure enough. They'd say, "OK, we've moved on since that time." Thank goodness they have.