PLAYBOY: Transsexual, actually.
DAWKINS: Transsexual, okay. That isn’t satire because it has nothing to do with what I stand for. And the scatological part, where they had somebody throwing shit, which stuck to my forehead—that’s not even funny. I don’t understand why they couldn’t go straight to the atheists fighting each other, which has a certain amount of truth in it. It reminded me of the bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian with the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.
PLAYBOY: President Obama acknowledged “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address, which caused a fuss. But when you consider religious belief, one of the largest groups in the U.S. is atheists and agnostics. Why do they get overlooked in political discussions?
DAWKINS: It’s a good point. Of course, it depends how you slice it. Christians are by far the largest group. If you divide Christians into denominations, agnostics and atheists come in third, behind Catholics and Baptists. That’s interesting when you contrast it with the lack of influence of nonbelievers. And if you count up the number of Jews, certainly observant Jews, it’s much smaller than the number of nonbelievers. Yet Jews have tremendous influence. I’m not criticizing that—bully for them. But we could do the same.
PLAYBOY: You’re not hopeful about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
DAWKINS: There’s not much hope to the extent that the most influential protagonists both base their hostility on 2,000-year-old books that they believe give them title to the land.
PLAYBOY: What is your view of Jesus?
DAWKINS: The evidence he existed is surprisingly shaky. The earliest books in the New Testament to be written were the Epistles, not the Gospels. It’s almost as though Saint Paul and others who wrote the Epistles weren’t that interested in whether Jesus was real. Even if he’s fictional, whoever wrote his lines was ahead of his time in terms of moral philosophy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve read the Bible.
DAWKINS: I haven’t read it all, but my knowledge of the Bible is a lot better than most fundamentalist Christians’.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a favorite verse?
DAWKINS: My favorite book is Ecclesiastes. It’s wonderful poetry in 17th century English, and I’m told it’s very good in the Hebrew. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The Song of Songs is terrific, and it’s more bawdy in the Hebrew, almost a drinking song.
PLAYBOY: You’ve made the point that if Jesus existed and went to his death as described in the Bible, it was, as you put it, “barking mad.”
DAWKINS: There’s no evidence Jesus himself was barking mad, but the doctrine invented later by Paul that Jesus died for our sins surely is. It’s a truly disgusting idea that the creator of the universe—capable of inventing the laws of physics and designing the evolutionary process—that this protégé of supernatural intellect couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins than to have himself tortured to death. And what a terrible lesson to say we’re born in sin because of the original sin of Adam, a man even the Catholic Church now says never existed.
PLAYBOY: We hear constantly that America is a Christian nation and that the founding fathers were all Christians.
DAWKINS: They were deists. They didn’t believe in a personal god, or one who interferes in human affairs. And they were adamant that they did not want to found the United States as a Christian nation.
PLAYBOY: But you hear quite often that if you let atheists run things you end up with Hitler and Stalin.
DAWKINS: Hitler wasn’t an atheist; he was a Roman Catholic. But I don’t care what he was. There is no logical connection between atheism and doing bad things, nor good things for that matter. It’s a philosophical belief about the absence of a creative intelligence in the world. Anybody who thinks you need religion in order to be good is being good for the wrong reason. I’d rather be good for moral reasons. Morals were here before religion, and morals change rather rapidly in spite of religion. Even people who rely on the Bible use nonbiblical criteria. If your criteria are scriptural, you have no basis for choosing the verse that says turn the other cheek rather than the verse that says stone people to death. So you pick and choose without guidance from the Bible.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said that science is losing the war with religion.
DAWKINS: Did I say we were losing? I was just having an off day.
PLAYBOY: You are surprised science is still being challenged.
DAWKINS: I am surprised, but I’m not sure it’s a losing battle. If you take the long view of centuries, there’s an upward trend. Religious people like to point out that Isaac Newton was religious. Well, of course he was—he lived before Darwin. It would have been difficult to be an atheist before Darwin.
PLAYBOY: You might have been the guy who didn’t believe in Zeus.
DAWKINS: I would have been skeptical of the details of Zeus hurling thunderbolts, but I probably would have believed in some supernatural being. When you look around at the living world and see the complexity of a cell and the elegance of a tree—“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree. / Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree”—I would have been moved by that. Darwin changed all that. He provided a simple, explicable, workable story about how you can get the complexity not just of a tree but of a human by physics working through the rather special process of evolution by natural selection. If only Newton had been alive to be told about that.
PLAYBOY: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould viewed science and religion as——
DAWKINS: Non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA.
PLAYBOY: Completely separate.
DAWKINS: That’s pure politics. Gould was trying to win battles in the creation-evolution debate by saying to religious people, “You don’t have to worry. Evolution is religion-friendly.” And the only way he could think to do that was to say they occupy separate domains. But he overgenerously handed the domains of morals and fundamental questions to religion, which is the last thing you should do. Science cannot at present—maybe never—answer the deep questions about existence and the origins of the fundamental laws of nature. But what on earth makes you think religion can? If science can’t provide an answer, nothing can.
PLAYBOY: Some scientists say that you should stop talking about atheism because it muddies the waters in the debate over evolution.
DAWKINS: If what you’re trying to do is win the tactical battle in U.S. schools, you’re better off lying and saying evolution is religion-friendly. I don’t wish to condemn people who lie for tactical reasons, but I don’t want to do that. For me, this is only a skirmish in the larger war against irrationality.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said that if science and religion are truly NOMA, Christians must give up their belief in miracles.
DAWKINS: Absolutely. Miracles are a naked encroachment on science’s turf. If you ask people in the pew or on the prayer mat why they believe in God, it will always involve miracles, including the miracle of creation. If you don’t allow religion to have that, you’ve removed the reason just about everybody who is religious is religious.
PLAYBOY: Do you get discouraged by the continuing attacks on reason?
DAWKINS: No. I go on the internet quite a lot and read what young people are saying. I see a great upsurge of good sense, rationality, irreverence. America is split into halves. There’s the Sarah Palin know-nothing idiots on the one hand, and then there’s a huge number of intellectual, intelligent, educated people on the other. I find it hard to believe that the Stone Age types are going to win in the end. An awful lot of people who call themselves religious simply don’t know there’s any alternative. If you probe what they believe, it turns out to be pretty much the same—we all have a sense of wonder and reverence at the majesty of the universe.
PLAYBOY: You’re of the mind that religious belief probably evolved as an “accidental by-product.”
DAWKINS: Whenever something is widespread in a species, you have to reckon it has some sort of survival value. There’s probably no survival value in religion itself—though there might be—but value in lots of rather separate psychological predispositions such as obedience to authority. That has strong survival value for children. Because they’re helpless and don’t know their way around the world, they rely on parental wisdom. But they don’t have the means of distinguishing wisdom that is wise for survival from wisdom that is nonsense.
PLAYBOY: Your parents raised you in the Anglican church.
DAWKINS: I wouldn’t wish to malign my parents by suggesting they fed me religion. I was sent to some of the best schools, and as most such schools in England were at the time, they were Anglican schools. So I got daily prayers and Bible readings. I was confirmed at 13.
PLAYBOY: When did you first read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species?
DAWKINS: Two years later.
PLAYBOY: And it blew your mind.
DAWKINS: Yes. That such a simple idea could explain the complexities of a peacock’s tail, a bounding antelope, a sprinting cheetah, a flying swift, a thinking human. These are immensely complicated machines, and yet we understand why they’re here.
PLAYBOY: Your parents were naturalists who you’ve said could identify every plant in Britain.
DAWKINS: My father read botany at Oxford. I read zoology there. I wasn’t a naturalist in the way he was, but I loved going around the jungle with somebody who knew about it.
PLAYBOY: Is there any particular way he influenced you?
DAWKINS: Curiosity, scientific curiosity.
PLAYBOY: How about your mother?
DAWKINS: She didn’t do a degree in science, but she had a very good knowledge of plants as well. I guess that’s one of the things they did together. She educated me as a child, and I learned a great deal from her.
PLAYBOY: You were born in Nairobi. Why were your parents there?
DAWKINS: Because of his botanical background, my father joined the agricultural department of the Colonial Civil Service and was sent to East Africa, to what was then Nyasaland and is now Malawi. Then he was called up to join the King’s African Rifles, which was the British regiment headquartered in Nairobi. So he went up north to Kenya and my mother followed. She had a certain amount of trouble. Since she wasn’t in Kenya legally, it was quite difficult getting out. [laughs]