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. 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. You seem to agree with E.O. Wilson that science can be a satisfying replacement for religion. Yes, I've written a book to that effect: "Unweaving the Rainbow." What about intelligent people who accept evolution and do marvel at scientific advances (and perhaps were raised without much religion), but who suddenly find themselves wanting more-wanting a specifically religious dimension to their lives that science can't fill? Well, I've never met one. I've met plenty of people who call themselves religious, but when you actually probe, when you ask them in detail what they believe, it turns out to be this very same awe and wonder that Wilson and Einstein talked about. If they're genuinely intelligent, it does not involve the supernatural. Unless they were brought up that way-but you were careful to say people who were not brought up religious.
Not even something like the Sistine Chapel? That's not religion; it's just because the church had the money. Great artists like Michelangelo or Bach and Beethoven would have done whatever they were told to do. Michelangelo painted what his sponsors told him to paint. Speaking of artists, your field, some might say, is somewhat left-brain: science and math. Yet you often quote Yeats, for example. Who are your favorite right-brain people-poets, artists, musicians? I love Yeats, Housman, Keats, Shakespeare, Mozart, Schubert above all, Beethoven. Housman's pretty pessimistic. I'm not a pessimistic person myself, but I just love his verse. Yeats, on the other hand, is very into mysticism and the supernatural. Quite. I sort of have to apologize for Yeats [laughs]. In one essay you mention that the Abrahamic faiths, in particular, can lead to intolerance and violence. Does this mean you find Eastern traditions like Taoism a little less objectionable?
I don't know very much about them, but I suspect the answer is yes. One of the most salient stories of all three Abrahamic religions-the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac-is such an utterly disgusting story, yet it is iconic for all three religions.
It's disgustingly cruel, a story of child abuse and violence.
It would be paradise on earth. What I hope for is a world ruled by enlightened rationality, which does not mean something dull, but something of high artistic value. I just wish there were the slightest chance of it ever happening.
So if people lived according to rationalism, you envision, for example, no more war? That might be a little bit optimistic, but there would be a much better chance of no more war. Obviously [there would be] nothing like 9/11, because that's clearly motivated by religion. There would be less hatred, because a lot of the hatred in the world is sectarian hatred. For example, in Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan. You wouldn't have an awful lot of the prejudice and trans-generational vendettas that humanity suffers from. There would be less waste of time. People would concentrate on really worthwhile things, instead of wasting time on religion, astrology, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling, things like that. Some might see the situation in Northern Ireland not as religious, but as class conflicts. The haves vs. the have-nots. There are struggles where religion isn't a factor-in America, whites vs. blacks, even if both groups were, say, Southern Baptist. That's absolutely right. But the thing about religious labels is that they're gratuitous; there's no need for them to be there. You can't do anything about your skin color, but religion could go. You also say critics of religion must speak up and not "tiptoe" around questions of religious belief.Yes. In any other field, you can argue about politics, taste in music, poetry. There's never the feeling that you're supposed to tiptoe away. You're just not allowed to criticize someone's belief if it's a religious belief, though you're perfectly allowed if it's about politics. I would like to raise people's consciousness against this feeling that religion deserves respect simply because it is religion. The essay in the book that most discusses this is called "Dolly and the Cloth Heads." It discusses the tendency of broadcast media, for example, to ask clergy to appear and give their opinion, whenever there's any controversial issue like abortion, simply because they represent those religions. Whereas other people have to earn the right to have their opinion asked by having something sensible to say. You say religion is so ingrained in society that it's like a computer virus. Can it really be eradicated?
Only by education and reason. If people realize that it might be a virus, and saw its resemblance to a virus, they might say, "That's right. That's the way it feels." It's teaching people to think for themselves, rather than just believe and take things on faith.