the "know-alls", and the "no-contests"
A lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted
from The Nullifidian, December 1994
Religious people split into three main
groups when faced with science. I shall label them the "know-nothings",
the "know-alls", and the "no-contests". I
suspect that Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, probably
belongs to the third of these groups, so I shall begin with them.
The "no-contests" are rightly
reconciled to the fact that religion cannot compete with science
on its own ground. They think there is no contest between science
and religion, because they are simply about different things.
the biblical account of the origin of the universe (the origin
of life, the diversity of species, the origin of man) -- all those
things are now known to be untrue.
The "no-contests" have no trouble
with this: they regard it as naive in the extreme, almost bad
taste to ask of a biblical story, is it true? True, they say,
true? Of course it isn't true in any crude literal sense. Science
and religion are not competing for the same territory. They are
about different things. They are equally true, but in their different
A favourite and thoroughly meaningless
phrase is "religious dimension". You meet this in statements
such as "science is all very well as far as it goes, but
it leaves out the religious dimension".
The "know-nothings", or fundamentalists,
are in one way more honest. They are true to history. They recognize
that until recently one of religion's main functions was scientific:
the explanation of existence, of the universe, of life. Historically,
most religions have had or even been a cosmology and a biology.
I suspect that today if you asked people to justify their belief
in God, the dominant reason would be scientific. Most people,
I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence
of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong,
but our education system is such that many people don't know it.
They are also true to history because
you can't escape the scientific implications of religion. A universe
with a God would like quite different from a universe without
one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look
different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific.
Religion is a scientific theory.
I am sometimes accused of arrogant intolerance
in my treatment of creationists. Of course arrogance is an unpleasant
characteristic, and I should hate to be thought arrogant in a
general way. But there are limits! To get some idea of what it
is like being a professional student of evolution, asked to have
a serious debate with creationists, the following comparison is
a fair one. Imagine yourself a classical scholar who has spent
a lifetime studying Roman history in all its rich detail. Now
somebody comes along, with a degree in marine engineering or mediaeval
musicology, and tries to argue that the Romans never existed.
Wouldn't you find it hard to suppress your impatience? And mightn't
it look a bit like arrogance?
My third group, the "know-alls"
(I unkindly name them that because I find their position patronising),
think religion is good for people, perhaps good for society. Perhaps
good because it consoles them in death or bereavement, perhaps
because it provides a moral code.
Whether or not the actual beliefs of the
religion are true doesn't matter. Maybe there isn't a God; we
educated people know there is precious little evidence for one,
let alone for ideas such as the Virgin birth or the Resurrection.
but the uneducated masses need a God to keep them out of mischief
or to comfort them in bereavement. The little matter of God's
probably non-existence can be brushed to one side in the interest
of greater social good. I need say not more about the "know-alls"
because they wouldn't claim to have anything to contribute to
Is God a Superstring?
I shall now return to the "no-contests".
The argument they mount is certainly worth serious examination,
but I think that we shall find it has little more merit than those
of the other groups.
God is not an old man with a white beard
in the sky. Right then, what is God? And now come the weasel words.
these are very variable. "God is not out there, he is in
all of us." God is the ground of all being." "God
is the essence of life." "God is the universe."
"Don't you believe in the universe?" "Of course
I believe in the universe." "Then you believe in God."
"God is love, don't you believe in love?" "Right,
then you believe in God?"
Modern physicists sometimes wax a bit
mystical when they contemplate questions such as why the big bang
happened when it did, why the laws of physics are these laws and
not those laws, why the universe exists at all, and so on. Sometimes
physicists may resort to saying that there is an inner core of
mystery that we don't understand, and perhaps never can; and they
may then say that perhaps this inner core of mystery is another
name for God. Or in Stephen Hawkings's words, if we understand
these things, we shall perhaps "know the mind of God."
The trouble is that God in this sophisticated,
physicist's sense bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible
or any other religion. If a physicist says God is another name
for Planck's constant, or God is a superstring, we should take
it as a picturesque metaphorical way of saying that the nature
of superstrings or the value of Planck's constant is a profound
mystery. It has obviously not the smallest connection with a being
capable of forgiving sins, a being who might listen to prayers,
who cares about whether or not the Sabbath begins at 5pm or 6pm,
whether you wear a veil or have a bit of arm showing; and no connection
whatever with a being capable of imposing a death penalty on His
son to expiate the sins of the world before and after he was born.
The Fabulous Bible
The same is true of attempts to identify
the big bang of modern cosmology with the myth of Genesis. There
is only an utterly trivial resemblance between the sophisticated
conceptions of modern physics, and the creation myths of the Babylonians
and the Jews that we have inherited.
What do the "no-contests" say
about those parts of scripture and religious teaching that once-upon-a-time
would have been unquestioned religious and scientific truths;
the creation of the world the creation of life, the various miracles
of the Old and New Testaments,, survival after death, the Virgin
Birth? These stories have become, in the hands of the "no-contests",
little more than moral fables, the equivalent of Aesop of Hans
Anderson. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is irritating
that they almost never admit this is what they are doing.
For instance, I recently heard the previous
Chief Rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jacobovits, talking about the evils
of racism. Racism is evil, and it deserves a better argument against
it that the one he gave. Adam and Eve, he argued, were the ancestors
of all human kind. Therefore, all human kind belongs to one race,
the human race.
What are we going to make of an argument
like that? The Chief Rabbi is an educated man, he obviously doesn't
believe in Adam and Eve, so what exactly did he think he was saying?
He must have been using Adam and Eve as
a fable, just as one might use the story of Jack the Giantkiller
or Cinderella to illustrate some laudable moral homily.
I have the impression that clergymen are
so used to treating the biblical stories as fables that they have
forgotten the difference between fact and fiction. It's like the
people who, when somebody dies on The Archers, write letters of
condolence to the others.
As a Darwinian, something strikes me when
I look at religion. Religion shows a pattern of heredity which
I think is similar to genetic heredity. The vast majority of people
have an allegiance to one particular religion. there are hundreds
of different religious sects, and every religious person is loyal
to just one of those.
Out of all of the sects in the world,
we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just
happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the
sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles,
the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass,
the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord
of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count
for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity.
This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could
seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary
nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in
their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared
to murder people who follow a different one.
Truths about the cosmos are true all around
the universe. They don't differ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland,
or Norway. Yet, we are apparently prepared to accept that the
religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.
If you ask people why they are convinced
of the truth of their religion, they don't appeal to heredity.
Put like that it sounds too obviously stupid. Nor do they appeal
to evidence. There isn't any, and nowadays the better educated
admit it. No, they appeal to faith. Faith is the great cop-out,
the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.
Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack
of evidence. The worst thing is that the rest of us are supposed
to respect it: to treat it with kid gloves.
If a slaughterman doesn't comply with
the law in respect of cruelty to animals, he is rightly prosecuted
and punished. but if he complains that his cruel practices are
necessitated by religious faith, we back off apologetically and
allow him to get on with it. Any other position that someone takes
up can expect to be defended with reasoned argument. Faith is
allowed not to justify itself by argument. Faith must be respected;
and if you don't respect it, you are accused of violating human
Even those with no faith have been brainwashed
into respecting the faith of others. When so-called Muslim community
leaders go on the radio and advocate the killing of Salman Rushdie,
they are clearly committing incitement to murder--a crime for
which they would ordinarily be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned.
But are they arrested? They are not, because our secular society
"respects" their faith, and sympathises with the deep
"hurt" and "insult" to it.
Well I don't. I will respect your views
if you can justify them. but if you justify your views only by
saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them.
I want to end by returning to science.
It is often said, mainly by the "no-contests", that
although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God,
nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to
keep an open mind and be agnostic.
At first sight that seems an unassailable
position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on
second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be
said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies
at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but
you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic
with respect to fairies?
The trouble with the agnostic argument
is that it can be applied to anything. There is an infinite number
of hypothetical beliefs we could hold which we can't positively
disprove. On the whole, people don't believe in most of them,
such as fairies, unicorns, dragons, Father Christmas, and so on.
But on the whole they do believe in a creator God, together with
whatever particular baggage goes with the religion of their parents.
I suspect the reason is that most people,
though not belonging to the "know-nothing" party, nevertheless
have a residue of feeling that Darwinian evolution isn't quite
big enough to explain everything about life. All I can say as
a biologist is that the feeling disappears progressively the more
you read about and study what is known about life and evolution.
I want to add one thing more. The more
you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are
pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex,
statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult
to explain than simple, statistically probable things.
The great beauty of Darwin's theory of
evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand
things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple,
easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost
infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount
of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through
a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular
beauty and complexity of life.
The alternative hypothesis, that it was
all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous,
it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument
that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because
any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal
intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability--a
very improbable being indeed.
Even if the postulation of such an entity
explained anything (and we don't need it to), it still wouldn't
help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.
Science offers us an explanation of how
complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy).
The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything,
for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates
the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that. We cannot prove
that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very,
very improbable indeed.
This was a lecture by Richard Dawkins
extracted from The Nullifidian (Dec 94)