Richard Dawkins, the patron saint of nonbelievers, caused a stir earlier this year during a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who noted that his opponent is often described as the world’s most famous atheist. “Not by me,” Dawkins replied before providing his standard explanation—a supreme being is possible but highly improbable—which led a London newspaper to proclaim that the world’s most notorious skeptic was hedging his bets. Far from it. Dawkins, at 71, remains an unbending and sharp-tongued critic of religious dogmatism. Like any scientist who challenges the Bible and its lyrical version of creation, he spends a great deal of time defending Charles Darwin’s theory that all life, including humans, evolved over eons through natural selection, rather than being molded 10,000 years ago by an intelligent but unseen hand.
Dawkins, who retired from Oxford University in 2008 after 13 years as a professor of public understanding of science (meaning he lectured and wrote books), stepped into the limelight in 1976, at the age of 35, with the publication of The Selfish Gene. The book, which has sold more than a million copies, argues persuasively that evolution takes place at the genetic level; individuals die, but the fittest genes survive. Dawkins has since written 10 more best-sellers, including most recently The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. Since 9/11 he has become more outspoken about his skepticism, culminating in The God Delusion, which provides the foundation for his continuing debates with believers. Published in 2006, the book has become Dawkins’s most popular, available in 31 languages with 2 million copies sold. That same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.” His books have made Dawkins a popular speaker and champion of critical thinking. In March he spoke to 20,000 people at the Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; a week later he was at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, offering encouragement to the first gathering of atheistic and agnostic soldiers ever allowed on a U.S. military base.
Dawkins lives in Oxford with his third wife, Lalla Ward, best known for her role as Romana on Doctor Who. But he is rarely home for long, and Contributing Editor Chip Rowe had to travel to three cities to complete their conversation. He reports: “Dawkins is a careful speaker with little patience for foolishness (which is everywhere, especially among the faithful and the occasional journalist), but he straightens and his eyes dance when he is asked to explain an evolutionary principle. We met for the first time in Las Vegas at a convention for skeptics. We talked again when he visited New York to lecture at Cooper Union and in Washington, where he spoke at Howard University, checked in with the director of his foundation, thanked its volunteers and visited the impressive human origins exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. During a tour with the exhibit’s curator, Dawkins looked pained anytime he was compelled to chat, glancing furtively at the fossilized eye candy in every direction, including a wall of progressively modern skulls. At one point two young women approached. ‘This is Richard Dawkins!’ one told the other, wide-eyed. I suppose it’s like bumping into Bono at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
PLAYBOY: What is the A pin you’re wearing?
DAWKINS: It stands for “atheist.”
PLAYBOY: Like a scarlet letter?
DAWKINS: It’s not meant to reflect that. It’s part of my foundation’s Out Campaign. It means stand out and reach out, as well as come out for the beliefs you hold, and give the reasons. It’s a bit analogous to gay people coming out.
PLAYBOY: Although atheists can marry one another.
PLAYBOY: Is there a better word for a nonbeliever than atheist? Darwin preferred agnostic. Some have suggested humanist, naturalist, nontheist.
DAWKINS: Darwin chose agnostic for tactical reasons. He said the common man was not ready for atheism. There’s a lovely story the comedian Julia Sweeney tells about her own journey from devout Catholicism to atheism. After she’d finally decided she was an atheist, something appeared about it in the newspaper. Her mother phoned her in hysterics and said something like “I don’t mind you not believing in God, but an atheist?” [laughs] The word bright was suggested by a California couple. I think it’s rather a good word, though most of my atheist friends think it suggests religious people are dims. I say, “What’s wrong with that?” [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve described yourself as a “tooth fairy” agnostic. What is that?
DAWKINS: Rather than say he’s an atheist, a friend of mine says, “I’m a tooth fairy agnostic,” meaning he can’t disprove God but thinks God is about as likely as the tooth fairy.
PLAYBOY: So you don’t completely rule out the idea of a supreme being. Critics see that as leaving an opening.
DAWKINS: You can think so, if you think there’s an opening for the tooth fairy.
PLAYBOY: It sounds like the argument made by Bertrand Russell, who said that while he could claim a teapot orbited the sun between Earth and Mars, he couldn’t expect anyone to believe him just because they couldn’t prove him wrong.
DAWKINS: It’s the same idea. It’s a little unfair to say it’s like the tooth fairy. I think a particular god like Zeus or Jehovah is as unlikely as the tooth fairy, but the idea of some kind of creative intelligence is not quite so ridiculous.
PLAYBOY: So you aren’t taking Pascal up on his wager. He was the 17th century philosopher who argued it’s a smarter bet to believe in God, because if you’re wrong——
DAWKINS: The cost of failure is very high. But what if you choose the wrong god to believe in? What if you get up there and it’s not Jehovah but Baal? [laughs] And even if you pick the right god, why should God be so obsessive about you believing in him? Plus, any god worth its salt is going to realize you’re feigning. The odds are extremely low, but nevertheless it’s worth it because the reward is extremely high. But you may also be wasting your life. You go to church every Sunday, you do penance, you wear sackcloth and ashes. You have a horrible life, and then you die and that’s it.
PLAYBOY: Assume there is a god and you were given the chance to ask him one question. What would it be?
DAWKINS: I’d ask, “Sir, why did you go to such lengths to hide yourself?”
PLAYBOY: Do you have any deeply religious friends?
DAWKINS: No. It’s not that I shun them; it’s that the circles I move in tend to be educated, intelligent circles, and there aren’t any religious people among them that I know of. I’m friendly with some bishops and vicars who kind of believe in something and enjoy the music and the stained glass.
PLAYBOY: Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking reference God in their writings. Are they using the word in the sense of an intelligent designer?
DAWKINS: Certainly not. They use god in a poetic, metaphorical sense. Einstein in particular loved using the word to convey an idea of mystery, which I think all decent scientists do. But nowadays we’ve learned better than to use the word god because it will be willfully misunderstood, as Einstein was. And poor Einstein got quite cross about it. “I do not believe in a personal god,” he said over and over again. In a way he was asking for it. Hawking uses it in a similar way in A Brief History of Time. In his famous last line he says that if we understood the universe, “then we would know the mind of God.” Once again he is using god in the Einsteinian, not the religious sense. And so Hawking’s The Grand Design, in which he says the universe could have come from nothing, is not him turning away from God; his beliefs are exactly the same.
PLAYBOY: You’ve had a lot of fun deconstructing the idea of the intelligent designer. You point out that God made a cheetah fast enough to catch a gazelle and a gazelle fast enough to outrun a cheetah——
DAWKINS: Yes. Is God a sadist?
PLAYBOY: And bad design such as the fact we breathe and eat through the same tube, making it easy to choke to death.
DAWKINS: Or the laryngeal nerve, which loops around an artery in the chest and then goes back up to the larynx.
PLAYBOY: Not very efficient.
DAWKINS: Not in a giraffe, anyway.
PLAYBOY: You argue Christians worship a “created God.” Some Christians respond that their God isn’t created; he’s eternal.
DAWKINS: You could say the same of the universe. You could say elephants support the world on their backs. There have always been elephants. I declare it by fiat.
PLAYBOY: The attacks of 9/11 seemed to make you more militant about your atheism, as if you had finally lost patience.
DAWKINS: There was a certain amount of that. A lot of people in the world felt a desire to stand up and be counted. Any suggestion of anti-Americanism in my mind vanished. Ich bin ein Amerikaner. Then George W. Bush destroyed that. But it was also an anti-Islamic and an antireligious moment for me because I was nauseated by the way the response to “Allahu Akbar” was “God is with us,” or whatever the Christians said—the sound of Christian leaders in America uniting in support of the force that led to the crisis in the first place.
PLAYBOY: You blame 9/11 on belief in the afterlife.
DAWKINS: Yes. Normally when an aircraft is hijacked, there’s an assumption that the hijackers want to go on living. It changes the game if the hijackers look forward to death because it will get them into the best part of paradise.
PLAYBOY: You mean the part with the 72 virgins the Koran says await martyrs.
DAWKINS: Right. Young men who are too unattractive to get a woman in the real world go for the ones in paradise. But my point is these people really believe what they say they believe, whereas most Christians don’t. If you talk to dying Christians, they aren’t looking forward to it.
PLAYBOY: What will happen when you die?
DAWKINS: Well, I shall either be buried or be cremated.
PLAYBOY: Funny. But without faith in an afterlife, in what do you take comfort in times of despair?
DAWKINS: Human love and companionship. But in more thoughtful, cerebral moments, I take—comfort is not quite the right word, but I draw strength from reflecting on what a privilege it is to be alive and what a privilege it is to have a brain that’s capable in its limited way of understanding why I exist and of reveling in the beauty of the world and the beauty of the products of evolution. The magnificence of the universe and the sense of smallness that gives us in space and in geologically deep time is humbling but in a strangely comforting way. It’s nice to feel you’re part of a hugely bigger picture.
PLAYBOY: Are you concerned that your opponents might fake a deathbed conversion, as creationists have tried to do with Darwin?
DAWKINS: What’s slightly more worrying is the Antony Flew effect. Flew was an atheistic British philosopher who had an old-age conversion. It seems he went gaga. You can’t guard against that.
PLAYBOY: So if it happens we should assume you’ve lost it.
DAWKINS: Yes. After my friend Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer, he was asked if he might have a conversion. He said that if he did, it wouldn’t be the real him. What’s rather wicked is when religious apologists exploit that, as they did in the case of Flew, who in his old age was persuaded to put his name to a book saying that he’d been converted to a form of deism. Not only did he not write the book, he didn’t even read it. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: Your call for militant atheism is one reason you were featured as a character on an episode of South Park. The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had been accused of being atheists, so they thought of the most militant atheist they could skewer.
DAWKINS: It’s the only South Park episode I’ve seen. There was an attempt at something approaching satire in the idea of an imagined future in which different sects of atheists are fighting each other. But most of that episode was ridiculous in the sense that what they had the cartoon figure of me doing, like buggering the bald transvestite——