Richard Dawkins, one of the most popular and controversial atheists of modern times, will speak at Duke University at 2 p.m. Sunday.
A British molecular biologist, Dawkins is promoting his newest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution," recently released in paperback. The book, a survey of evolution, serves as a counterattack to advocates of intelligent design. But Dawkins is better known for "The God Delusion," a furious attack on organized religion. Dawkins' most recent remark that Pope Benedict XVI is an "enemy of humanity" is an example of his strident anti-religious stands.
Religion reporter Yonat Shimron caught up with him by phone this week.
Q: Do you think more people need to be encouraged to be atheists? I think we need to grow up. If you had a society in which everybody believed in Santa Claus, you might say it's harmless. But I think it would be an impoverished view of life if you think the good things in life come from some bearded figure. Similarly with God, it would be a good idea if people grew up, stood on their own feet and learned that this life is the only life we have and [people] should make the most of it, not just for themselves but for others.
Q: Are you an optimist on this?
I do see it happening among educated people. I'm an optimist if we can increase the number of educated people. That's what we have to work toward.
Q: Across the world, we're witnessing renewed religious conflicts, including in this country, where a Christian pastor threatened to burn a Quran. How do you explain that?
I think if you take the long view of history, there is confidence. We don't burn witches anymore. Things are getting better in a sawtooth fashion. There are setbacks. Obviously, 9/11 was a setback. Obviously, suicide bombers are a setback. The election or nonelection of George W. Bush was a setback. But nevertheless, over the centuries there's an upward trend. I do take courage from that.
Q: Some say you're not unlike a religious fundamentalist, except you're a fundamentalist atheist. Would you agree?
I'm not fundamentalist. A fundamentalist is someone who knows they're right because they've read a holy book. Nothing is going to shift them from it, whereas a scientist is going to shift if the evidence changes. What a scientist does is say the evidence at present points me in one direction. If the evidence changes, I'll change with great pleasure. That's the opposite of a fundamentalist.
Q: The title of your latest book "The Greatest Show on Earth," suggests you find beauty in evolution. Is that so?
Indeed I do. The title comes from the famous [Barnum & Bailey] circus. But I got it from a T-shirt someone anonymously sent me from America that said, "Evolution: the Greatest Show on Earth, the Only Game in Town." I wanted to call the book that exactly. But the publisher said it was too long. ... You think that on this planet, without ever violating the laws of physics, you've got the flowering of this astonishingly complicated, beautiful phenomenon, which is life. We pretty much understand how it happens. It's a wonderful story. It's an inspiring and thrilling story. It may be the greatest show in the universe, for all we know.
Q: There's been speculation recently about a "God gene," the idea that human beings may be hard-wired to believe in something outside of themselves. What do you think of that?
If you look at human psychology, you can dissect various strands that are predispositions to religious feeling: a tendency to be impressed by coincidence, not to be good at statistical thinking, a reverence for authority, the desire to obey other people. It adds up to - I would never call it a God gene - but I think you could say there are genetic predispositions that under the right cultural conditions can lead to religion.
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