Richard Dawkins interviewed by Sheena McDonald

The Vision Thing, Channel 4 in the UK, 1994


Channel 4 in the UK ran a half-hour series of interviews in 1994 called The Vision Thing. Various people with different beliefs were interviewed by Sheena McDonald, a respected TV journalist. The only atheist viewpoint was put by Richard Dawkins on August 15,1994.

At the time of the interview Richard Dawkins was reader in zoology at the University of Oxford. He is now Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He currently has 3 of the top 10 best selling science books in Britain.



McDonald's intro: Imagine no religion! Even non-believers recognize the shock value of John Lennon's lyric. A godless universe is still a shocking idea in most parts of the world. But one English zoologist crusades for his vision of a world of truth, a world without religion, which he says is the enemy of truth, a world which understands the true meaning of life. He's called himself a scientific zealot. In London I met Richard Dawkins.


McDonald: Richard Dawkins, you have a vision of the world---this world free of lies, not the little lies that we protect ourselves with, but what you would see as the big lie, which is that God or some omnipotent creator made and oversees the world. Now, a lot of people are looking for meaning in the world, a lot of them find it through faith. So what's attractive about your godless world, what's beautiful---why would anyone want to live in your world?


Dawkins: The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear. It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we're here. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand.


McDonald: Right, well, let's maximize this opportunity. Paint the world, describe the opportunity that too many of use---you will probably say most of us---are not exploiting to appreciate the world and to understand the world.


Dawkins: Well, suppose you look at an animal such as a human or a hedgehog or a bat, and you really want to understand how it works. The scientific way of understanding how it works would be to treat it rather as an engineer would treat a machine. So if an engineer was handed this television camera that engineer would get a screwdriver out, take it to bits, perhaps try to work out a circuit diagram and try to work out what this thing did, what it was good for, how it works, would explain the functioning of the whole machine in terms of the bits, in terms of the parts.

Then the engineer would probably want to know how it came to be where it was, what's the history of it---was it put together in a factory? Was it sort of suddenly just gelled together spontaneously? Now those are the sorts of questions that a scientist would ask about a bat or a hedgehog or a human, and we've got a long way to go, but a great deal of progress has been made. We really do understand a lot about how we and rats and pigeons work.

I've spoken only of the mechanism of a living thing. There's a whole other set of questions about the history of living things, because each living thing comes into the world through being born or hatched, so you have to ask, where did it get its structure from? It got it largely from its genes. Where do the genes come from? From the parents, the grand-parents, the great-grand parents. You go on back through the history, back through countless generations of history, through fish ancestors, through worm-like ancestors, through protozoa-like ancestors, to bacteria-like ancestors.


McDonald: But the end point of this process would simply be an understanding of the physical world.


Dawkins: What else is there?


McDonald: But to accept your vision, one has to reject what many people hold very dear and close, which is faith. Now, why is faith, why is religious faith incompatible with your vision?


Dawkins: Well, faith as I understand it---you wouldn't bother to use the word faith unless it was being contrasted with some other means of knowing something. So faith to me means knowing something just because you know it's true, rather than because you have seen any evidence that it's true.


McDonald: But if I say I believe in God, you cannot disprove the existence of God.


Dawkins: No, and the virtue of using evidence is precisely that we can come to an agreement about it. But if you listen to two people who are arguing about something, and they each of them have passionate faith that they're right, but they believe different things---they belong to different religions, different faiths, there is nothing they can do to settle their disagreement short of shooting each other, which is what they very often actually do.


McDonald: If religion is an obstacle to understanding what you're saying, why is it getting it wrong?


Dawkins: A creator who created the universe or set up the laws of physics so that life would evolve or who actually supervised the evolution of life, or anything like that, would have to be some sort of super-intelligence, some sort of mega-mind. That mega-mind would have had to be present right at the start of the universe. The whole message of evolution is that complexity and intelligence and all the things that would go with being a creative force come late, they come as a consequence of hundreds of millions of years of natural selection. There was no intelligence early on in the universe. Intelligence arose, it's arisen here, maybe it's arisen on lots of other places in the universe. Maybe somewhere in some other galaxy there is a super-intelligence so colossal that from our point of view it would be a god. But it cannot have been the sort of God that we need to explain the origin of the universe, because it cannot have been there that early.


McDonald: So religion is peddling a fundamental untruth.


Dawkins: Well, I think it is yes.


McDonald: And there is no possibility of there being something beyond our knowing, beyond your ability as a scientist, zoologist, to [...]


Dawkins: No, that's quite different. I think there's every possibility that there might be something beyond our knowing. All I've said is that I don't think there is any intelligence or any creativity or any purposiveness before the first few hundred million years that the universe has been in existence. So I don't think it's helpful to equate that which we don't understand with God in any sense that is already understood in the existing religions.

The gods that are already understood in existing religions are all thoroughly documented. They do things like forgive sins and impregnate virgins, and they do all sorts of rather ordinary, mundane, human kinds of things. That has nothing whatever to do with the high-flown profound difficulties that science may yet face in understanding the deep problems of the universe.


McDonald: Now a lot of people find great comfort from religion. Not everybody is as you are---well-favored, handsome, wealthy, with a good job, happy family life. I mean, your life is good---not everybody's life is good, and religion brings them comfort.


Dawkins: There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting---it might be more comforting, for all I know. But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true.


McDonald: You have rejected religion, and you have written about and posited your own answers to the fundamental questions of life, which are---very crudely, that we and hedgehogs and bats and trees and geckos are driven by genetic and non-genetic replicators. Now instantly I want to know, what does that mean?


Dawkins: Replicators are things that have copies of themselves made. It's a very, very powerful---its' hard to realize what a powerful thing it was when the first self-replicating entity came into the world. Nowadays the most important self-replicating entities we know are DNA molecules; the original ones probably weren't DNA molecules, but they did something similar. Once you've got self-replicating entities---things that make copies of themselves---you get a population of them.


McDonald: In that very raw description that makes us---what makes us us? We're no more than collections of inherited genes each fighting to make its way by the survival of the fittest.


Dawkins: Yes, if you ask me as a poet to say, how do I react to the idea of being a vehicle for DNA? It doesn't sound very romantic, does it? It doesn't sound the sort of vision of life that a poet would have; and I'm quite happy, quite ready to admit that when I'm not thinking about science I'm thinking in a very different way.

It is a very helpful insight to say we are vehicles for our DNA, we are hosts for DNA parasites which are our genes. Those are insights which help us to understand an aspect of life. But it's emotive to say, that's all there is to it, we might as well give up going to Shakespeare plays and give up listening to music and things, because that's got nothing to do with it. That's an entirely different subject.


McDonald: Let's talk about listening to music and going to Shakespeare plays. Now, you coined a word to describe all these various activities which are not genetically driven, and that word is 'meme' and again this is a replicating process.


Dawkins: Yes, there are cultural entities which replicate in something like the same way as DNA does. The spread of the habit of wearing a baseball hat backwards is something that has spread around the Western world like an epidemic. It's like a smallpox epidemic. You could actually do epidemiology on the reverse baseball hat. It rises to a peak, plateaus and I sincerely hope it will die down soon.


McDonald: What about voting Labour?


Dawkins: Well, you can make---one can take more serious things like that. In a way, I'd rather not get into that, because I think there are better reasons for voting Labour than just slavish imitation of what other people do. Wearing a reverse baseball hat---as far as I know, there is no good reason for that.

One does it because one sees one's friends do or, and one thinks it looks cool, and that's all. So that really is like a measles epidemic, it really does spread from brain to brain like a virus.


McDonald: So voting intentions you wouldn't put into that bracket. What about religious practices?


Dawkins: Well, that's a better example. It doesn't spread, on the whole, in a horizontal way, like a measles epidemic. It spreads in a vertical way down the generations. But that kind of thing, I think, spreads down the generations because children at a certain age are very vulnerable to suggestion.

They tend to believe what they're told, and there are very good reasons for that. It is easy to see in a Darwinian explanation why children should be equipped with brains that believe what adults tell them. After all, they have to learn a language, and learn a lot else from adults. Why wouldn't they believe it if they're told that they have to pray in a certain way? But in particular---let's just rephrase that---if they're told that not only do they have to behave in such a way, but when they grow up it is their duty to pass on the same message to their children.

Now, once you've got that little recipe, that really is a recipe for passing on and on down the generations. It doesn't matter how silly the original instruction is, if you tell it with sufficient conviction to sufficiently young and gullible children such that when they grow up they will pass it on to their children, then it will pass on and it will pass on and it will spread and that could be sufficient explanation.


McDonald: But religion is a very successful meme. I mean, in your own structures the genes that survive---the ones with the most selfish and successful genes presumably have some merit. Now if religion is a meme which has survived over thousands and thousands of years, is it not possible that there is some intrinsic merit in that?


Dawkins: Yes, there is merit in it. If you ask the question, why does any replicating entity survive over the years and the generations, it is because it has merit. But merit to a replicator just means that it's good at replicating.

The rabies virus has considerable merit, and the AIDS virus has enormous merit. These things spread very successfully, and natural selection has built into them extremely effective methods of spreading. In the case of the rabies virus it causes its victims to foam at the mouth, and the virus is actually spread in saliva. It causes them to bite and to become aggressive, so they tend to bite other animals, and the saliva gets into them and it gets passed on. This is a very, very successful virus. It has very considerable merit.

In a way the whole message of the meme and gene idea is that merit is defined as goodness at getting itself spread around, goodness at self-replication. That's of course very different from merit as we humans might judge it.


McDonald: You've chosen an analogy there for religion which a lot of them would find rather hurtful---that it's like an AIDS virus, like a rabies virus.


Dawkins: I think it's a very good analogy. I'm sorry if it's hurtful. I'm trying to explain why these things spread; and I think it's like a chain letter. It is the same kind of stick and carrot. It's not, probably, deliberately thought out.

I could write on a piece of paper "Make two copies of this paper and pass them to friends". I could give it to you. You would read it and make two copies and pass them, and they would make 2 copies and it becomes 4 copies, 8, 16 copies. Pretty soon the whole world would be knee-deep in paper. But of course there has to be some sort of inducement, so I would have to add something like this "If you do not make 2 copies of this bit of paper and pass it on, you will have bad luck, or you will go to hell, or some dreadful misfortune will befall you".

I think if we start with a chain letter and then say, well, the chain letter principle is too simple in itself, but if we then sort of build upon the chain letter principle and look upon more and more sophisticated inducements to pass on the message, we shall have a successful explanation.


McDonald: But that's all it can be, I mean, sophisticated inducements or threats. I was only bothered that a successful meme may invoke something which has not yet been found in your universe by your methods.


Dawkins: The sophisticated inducements can include the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. I mean, they're pretty good stuff. They're very sophisticated and very, very beautiful---stained glass windows, Chartres Cathedral, they work and no wonder they work. I mean they're beautifully done, beautifully crafted.

But I think what you're asking is, does the success of religion down the centuries imply that there must be some truth in its claims? I don't think that is necessary at all, because I think there are plenty of other good explanations which do a better job.


McDonald: Does it exasperate you that people find more pleasure and inspiration in Chartres or Beethoven or indeed great mosques than they do in the anatomy of a lizard?


Dawkins: No, not at all. I mean, I think that great artistic experiences---I don't want to downplay them in any way. I think they are very, very great experiences, and scientific understanding is on a par with them.


McDonald: And yet, these great artistic achievements have been impelled by untruths.


Dawkins: Just think how much greater they would have been if they had been impelled by truth.


McDonald: But can the anatomy of a lizard provoke a great choral symphony?


Dawkins: By calling it the anatomy of a lizard, you, as it were, play for laughs. But if you put it another way---let's say, does geological time or does the evolution of life on earth, could that be the inspiration for a great symphony? Well, of course, it could. It would be hard to imagine a more colossal inspiration for a great piece of music or poetry than 2,000 million years of slow, gradual evolutionary change.


McDonald: But ultimately, there's no point beyond the personal celebration of each life, as far as you're able to. We hope that we're not born into a famine queue in central Africa. But that's not sufficient for people. Maybe they want [...]


Dawkins: Look, it may not be [...]


McDonald: But tough, you say [...]


Dawkins:Tough, yes. I don't want to sound callous. I mean, even if I have nothing to offer, that doesn't matter, because that still doesn't mean that what anybody else has to offer therefore has to be true.


McDonald: Indeed, but you care about it.


Dawkins: Yes, I do want to offer something. I just wanted to give as a preamble the point that there may be a vacuum which is left. If religion goes, there may well be a vacuum in important ways in people's psychology, in people's happiness, and I don't claim to be able to fill that vacuum, and that is not what I want to claim to be able to do. I want to find out what's true.

Now, as for what I might have to offer, I've tried to convey the excitement, the exhilaration of getting as complete a picture of the world and the universe in which you live as possible. You have the power to make a pretty good model of the universe in which you live. It's going to be temporary, you're going to die, but it would be the best way you could spend your time in the universe, to understand why you're there and place as accurate model of the universe as you can inside your head. That's what I would like to encourage people to try to do. I think it's an immensely fulfilling thing to do.


McDonald: And that will be a better world?


Dawkins: It will certainly be a truer world. I mean, people would have a truer view of the world. I think it would probably be a better world. I think people would be less ready to fight each other because so much of the motivation for fighting would have been removed. I think it would be a better world. It would be a better world in the sense that people would be more fulfilled in having a proper understanding of the world instead of a superstitious understanding.


McDonald: So here we are, in your truer world---except we're not, because for the reasons of juvenile gullibility you suggested the religion meme will continue to replicate itself around the world. For ever will it, or will we ever come to your world?


Dawkins: I suspect for a very long time. I don't know about for ever, whatever for ever is. I mean, I think religion has got an awful long time to go yet, certainly in some parts of the world. I find that a rather depressing prospect, but it is probably true.


McDonald: Isn't that to an extent because you've said yourself, what you have to say may not fill the vacuum which would be left if religion were discarded?


Dawkins: I feel no vacuum. I mean, I feel very happy, very fulfilled. I love my life and I love all sorts of aspects of it which have nothing to do with my science. So I don't have a vacuum. I don't feel cold and bleak. I don't think the world is a cold and bleak place. I think the world is a lovely and a friendly place and I enjoy being in it.


McDonald: Do you think about death?



Dawkins: Yes. I mean, it's something which is going to happen to all of us and [...]


McDonald: How do you prepare for death in a world where there isn't a god?


Dawkins: You prepare for it by facing up to the truth, which is that life is what we have and so we had better live our life to the full while we have it, because there is nothing after it. We are very lucky accidents or at least each one of us is---if we hadn't been here, someone else would have been. I take all this to reinforce my view that I am fantastically lucky to be here and so are you, and we ought to use our brief time in the sunlight to maximum effect by trying to understand things and get as full a vision of the world and life as our brains allow us to, which is pretty full.


McDonald: And that is the first duty, right, responsibility, pleasure of man and woman. Christians would say "love God, love your neighbor". You would say "try to understand".


Dawkins: Well, I wouldn't wish to downplay love your neighbor. It would be rather sad if we didn't do that. But, having agreed that we should love our neighbor and all the other things that are embraced by that wee phrase, I think that, yes, understand, understand is a pretty good commandment.

Richard Dawkins page

Home Page