Religion: For Dummies

Scientist Richard Dawkins on Darwin, the Sistine Chapel, and why the world would be better off without religion.

An outspoken proponent of Darwinism and rationalism, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins is also a fierce critic of religion. In his articles and best-selling books, he has challenged attempts to ascribe design to the universe or purpose to life, calling those who don't believe in evolution "ignorant or brainwashed." He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his collection of essays, "A Devil's Chaplain."

In the first essay of the collection, you say that as a scientist, you're a Darwinist, but as a human being, you feel it's important to recognize that natural selection is unpleasant and fight against it. Could you explain this in more detail?

The collection gets its title from a quotation from Darwin, who said "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature."

Darwin realized that natural selection produces cruel results. He looked at predators and prey, parasites and hosts, and saw how there is an immense amount of suffering and cruelty out there in nature. He also realized that that was a logical consequence of his theory. The beauty and elegance of living things is produced as a result of a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel process-this constant winnowing, generation after generation, of animals and plants.

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The point of my essay [

read an excerpt

] is that we humans can escape from that, because our brains, which have evolved to a large size as a result of this very same process, are big enough to emancipate from the process that gave rise to them. They can set up new goals, new purposes that are not directly related to natural selection at all.

We can seek more altruistic, sympathetic, artistic things that have nothing to do with the preservation of our selfish genes-and thank goodness we can.

And people can pursue these goals-like altruistic ones--without benefit of religion?

Certainly. Those goals are clearly not Darwinian. Every time we use a contraceptive, we do a very non-Darwinian thing. Every time we write a book or go to a concert, we are doing something not directly related to preserving our selfish genes and surviving. We clearly can do it, and it doesn't seem to have any connection with religion at all.

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Interview by Laura Sheahen
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