Harris & Dawkins on Science and Morality

“If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence.

If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?”

                                                                     Sam Harris


Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss science and morality.
At The Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford.

An atheist at Christmas: Oh come all ye faithless

“If the nativity to you is nothing more than a fairytale, how do you handle Christmas?”

“Much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which predate the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.

Alain De Botton

Alain de Botton: Our youngest has proudly been playing the innkeeper in the school nativity play. Photograph: Franck Allais

Christmas is inevitably a rather problematic time for atheists. Does one sour the mood, somewhere between the turkey and the pudding, and overtly declare the entire festivity is built on the naivety and, if one’s feeling particularly spiky, the blatant stupidity of one’s ancestors? Or does one simply fill up the stocking, sing Away In A Manger and go with the occasion in a spirit of politeness?

In this area, I wasn’t reared for compromise. I was brought up in a devoutly atheistic household, by a father who made Richard Dawkins look open-minded on the matter of there perhaps being a supreme being. I recall him reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time. If any members of their social circle were discovered to harbour clandestine religious sentiments, my parents would start to regard them with the sort of pity more commonly reserved for those diagnosed with a degenerative disease and could from then on never take them seriously again.

Christmas was a particular testbed of loyalties. At its approach, my parents would go into overdrive, stressing the absurdity of all its rituals, art, songs and traditions. They weren’t so cruel as to deny their children presents – but to make the point, they insisted on giving them to us in August. This wasn’t a problem. It was rather special. I went through childhood feeling rather sorry for people vulgar enough to have Christmas trees and advent calendars: hadn’t they understood?

Then, in my mid-20s, I underwent a crisis of faithlessness. It began with a re-evaluation of Christmas – and gradually spread to religion as a whole. My feelings of doubt began one year when I was invited to spend Christmas at the home of a Christian friend. He had evidently taken pity on me. At the time, I was single, professionally adrift and obviously lonely – and when he suggested I might like to test my prejudices and come for a bit of lunch (playfully promising there would be no attempts to save my soul, or at least not till after the main course), I didn’t even pretend to put up a fight. Needless to say, the occasion was eye-opening in the extreme. I felt I was doing something very taboo simply by pulling a cracker. There was warmth, jollity, music, even moments of faith that no longer felt especially alien or daft. As lunch spread out across a lazy afternoon, I began to face up to the full scale of my ambivalence regarding the doctrinaire principles with which I had been inculcated in childhood. I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content.

Christams festivities

It should be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find occasions such as Christmas useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain religious ideas into the secular realm. The real issue is not whether God exists, but where one takes the argument to once one decides he evidently doesn’t. We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day: the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues that impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the five loaves and two fishes.

In turning our backs on all aspects of religion, we allow it to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience that should rightly belong to all mankind – and that we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm. Early Christianity was itself adept at appropriating the good ideas of others, aggressively subsuming countless pagan practices which modern atheists now tend to avoid in the mistaken belief that they are indelibly Christian. Much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which predate the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity. Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed of the particular tint given to them by religions – even if it is, paradoxically, the study of religions that often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation.

For an atheist to make friends with Christmas is likely to annoy partisans on both sides of the debate. Christians might take offence at the selective and unsystematic consideration of one of their holiest festivals. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. However, the downfall of many a faith has been its unreasonable insistence that adherents must eat everything on the plate. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in portraits of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation; admire Christianity’s emphasis on compassion, yet shun its theories of the afterlife? For someone devoid of religious belief, it may be no more of a crime to dip into aspects of faith than it is for a lover of literature to single out a few favourite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind may also feel outraged, in their case by an approach that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith. To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in a range of interests – education, fashion, politics, travel, publishing, art and architecture – which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and individuals in history.

At Christmas, without any naivety (without forgetting the Inquisition, the Crusades and those many very corrupt priests), it should be possible to sidestep religions’ more dogmatic aspects in order to be nourished by aspects of them that remain consoling to sceptical contemporary minds. I have tentatively been celebrating it for a number of years now. My wife (educated by nuns, theology degree from Oxford) and I began things very modestly indeed, with a metallic light-up “tree” from Habitat and a Marks & Spencer oven-ready turkey, sprouts and potato combo. The whole thing, with present swapping, was over in 40 minutes flat. We felt very special. But we’ve had children since and this brings atheists into line like nothing else. Our youngest has proudly been playing the innkeeper in the school nativity play. Both our children sing of Jesus’s love with gusto.

I don’t mind in the least. I’m interested in the emotions underneath these rituals, not the specifics, and really what is at stake is a celebration of family and of love. One would have to be truly unconfident about the human capacity to mature to be offended by the credulity Christmas provokes in people under 10. Given our kids also believe in ghosts and their father’s dexterity at football, there is plenty of time to sort things out down the line. I have resisted a Christmas tree, though. I stressed to my children that almost half of Christians celebrate Christmas during a warm season – and so, at the suggestion of our eldest son, our presents are now arranged around a Christmas cactus, richly decorated with cut-outs of the holy family.

For an atheist, one of the most interesting functions of Christmas is its fostering of a spirit of community. We live in a crowded but lonely world. The public spaces in which we typically encounter others – commuter trains, jostling pavements – conspire to project a demeaning picture of our identities, which undermines our capacity to hold on to the idea that every person is necessarily the centre of a complex and precious individuality. It can be hard to stay hopeful about human nature after a walk down Oxford Street. Locked away in our private cocoons, our chief way of imagining what other people are like has become the media, and as a consequence we naturally expect all strangers will be murderers, swindlers and paedophiles. Solitary though we may have become, we haven’t of course given up all hope of forming relationships. In the lonely canyons of the modern city, there is no more honoured emotion than love. However, this is not the love of which religions speak, not the expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind; it is a more jealous, restricted and ultimately meaner variety. It is a romantic love that sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person with whom we hope to achieve a lifelong and complete communion, one person in particular who will spare us any need for people in general.

The rituals of Christmas reflect a deep understanding of our loneliness. I am a great admirer of carol services, of being crammed together with strangers in a warm communal atmosphere akin to that of a pop concert or nightclub when people sway their arms to the music and (for a brief moment) it feels almost possible to love everybody without reserve. The composition of a typical congregation at a service feels significant. Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values. A service or mass actively breaks down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate, casting us into a wider sea of humanity. We are urged to overcome our provincialism and our tendency to be judgmental – and to make a sign of peace to whomever chance has placed on either side of us.

King's college chapel- East glass window

And it is one of the few times of the year that one can appreciate the sheer beauty of functioning ecclesiastical architecture. The crafted timber door and 300 stone angels carved around the porch signal to us that we have now stepped into a zone marked by relationships quite unlike those of the offices, gyms and living rooms of the secular world. I can never forget a carol service I attended at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge a few years ago: it was the closest I ever came to conversion. Until atheists learn to use architecture as well as religions, they will be missing a vital point about what seduces human minds. Books alone aren’t convincing objects, compared with a choir singing a Bach cantata in a gothic building.

It is no coincidence that food and its communal consumption looms so large in considerations of Christmas. Sitting down at a table with a group, some of whom will be strangers, has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a long meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment – disrupts our ability to cling to hatreds. Religions know enough about our sensory, non-intellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that at a meal they will have a captive audience who are likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment – and so they turn meals into disguised ethical lessons. They stop us just before we have a first sip of wine and offer us a thought that can be swilled down with the liquid like a tablet. They make us listen to a homily in the gratified interval between two courses.

The secular world often sees in rituals such as communal singing or eating a loss of diversity, quality and spontaneity. Religion seems bossy. But at its finest this ritual-based bossiness enables fragile but important aspects of life to be identified and shared. Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualised encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence. We need institutions that can mine, harvest and mould precious ideas for us, remind us that we need them and present them to us in beautiful wrappings – thus ensuring the nourishment of the most forgetful sides of ourselves.

The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and, throughout the liturgical year, deserves to be selectively reabsorbed. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion For Atheists, is published by Hamish Hamilton on 26 January at £18.99. To pre-order a copy for £14.24, including free UK p&p, visit the Guardian Bookshop.

Editor’s note:

 I find Botton’s argument very admirable and relevant not only for the atheists’ dilemma of how big a chunk of the religion cake they have to relinquish and leave behind, but also for the believers of all faiths who subscribe to their religions only for the sake of mere spiritual gratification even if it meant buying into the religious fairy tales. 

king Hassan II mosque in Morocco, The eastern glass window and door

From my first hand experience, I could attest to the fact that the majority of ordinary Muslims when listening to the Quran they don’t focus on interpreting its verses or validating their historicity, rather they dwell in the pleasing and somehow tuneful recitation by the sheikh.

 And likewise in Hij-annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a ritual that has been practiced for centuries of paganism before Islam- Muslim pilgrims are captivated by the dissolving of their egos into a bigger entity of millions who come from all corners of the world and from all ages and walks of life and experience maybe what the pagans felt when they used to perform the very same rituals  around Kabba.

And as botton put it “Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed of the particular tint given to them by religions – even if it is, paradoxically, the study of religions that often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation.”

Most Muslims are not experts on Sharia and many of them have no idea what the word means, but when it comes to celebrating the fasting month of Ramadan or Eid with all the entailed festivities and gatherings, something that all humans need and crave for, that is when they can unambiguously define and relate themselves to Islam.

Richard Dawkins’ New Children’s Book

Written by Raven Clabough/ New American  

Atheist Richard Dawkins has written a children’s book, entitled The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, which encourages the notions of atheism and evolution and describes Judeo-Christian beliefs as a myth. According to Dawkins, the work is intended for families to read together and “enjoy [his] take on the universe’s truths.”

Dawkins explains something of what motivated him to write the book:

I’ve had perfectly wonderful conversations with Anglican bishops, and I rather suspect if you asked in a candid moment, they’d say they don’t believe in the virgin birth. But for every one of them, four others would tell a child she’ll rot in hell for doubting.

NewScientist’s Andy Coghlan has this to say about the new book:

Dawkins has repackaged his passion for atheism — and for the capacity of science to deliver demonstrable truths about nature — in a book designed to appeal to teenagers.

The writing is also masterly, if a little waffly in places. From the strident polemics of The God Delusion, Dawkins has shifted into “wise grandad” mode. His strategy is laid bare in the list of chapters, a clear “scientific” rewrite of the contents of Genesis. The formula is simple: each chapter addresses a basic question: “Who was the first person?“ or ”When and how did everything begin?” Dawkins then supplies imaginative answers provided by ancient myths from around the world — among them prominent tales from the Bible. Finally, he demolishes these myths by supplying the “real” answers provided by science.

Dawkins worked with comic book artist Dave McKean to create a “graphic detective story” which asks and answers questions pondered by nearly everyone during the course of their lives. He believes his book will raise basic questions among children, helping them better understand the world around them by encouraging what he considers science instead of religious doctrine.

Still, Dawkins contends his book cannot be considered indoctrination. “I am almost pathologically afraid of indoctrinating children,” he claims. “It would be a ‘Think for Yourself Academy.’ ”

However, The Magic of Reality seems to reveal at least some attempts at indoctrination. According to Dawkins, children will have an easier time accepting evolution as a scientific truth because they are not “weighed down by misleading familiarity.” He adds:

When children ask “where did I come from” they are quite capable of understanding — and being taught evolution. Evolution could be taught in such a way as to make it easier to understand than a myth. That is because myths leave the child’s questions unanswered, or they raise more questions than they appear to answer. Evolution is a truly satisfying and complete explanation of existence, and I suspect that this thing is something a child can appreciate from an early age.

Regardless of how satisfying evolution may be for some, evangelist and geneticist Francis Collins asserts that the question of “What happened before that?” continues to plague scientific theories. The only way to answer those questions, asserts Collins, is through the recognition of a First Cause — a Creator: “A creator who is not limited by time, doesn’t need to have such a beginning,” notes Collins. “[Dawkins’] question doesn’t make any sense if you have a creator outside of time.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pyramidion’s editorial policy.

Exposé on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion


By Douglas Anele

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins admits, for example, that Jesus’ doctrine of “turning the other cheek was” way ahead of his time, and anticipated Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years. Yet the family values Jesus exhibited sometimes were not worthy of emulation: his brusqueness to his mother and prescription that his disciples must abandon their families and everything else and follow him are exemplary in this regard (p. 284).

The author highlights and correctly criticised absurdities in the doctrine of original sin, and described the Christian notion of atonement as “vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent” (p. 287). Dawkins reiterates the point, often deliberately ignored by Christian apologists, that much of the moral consideration for others advocated in The Holy Bible was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined group. He acknowledges that there is some improvement in moral values globally, but attributes it not to a single factor such as religion but to the complex interplay of disparate forces.

Chapter 7 ended with the observation that religion has motivated so many brutal wars, whereas atheism, or absence of belief, hasn’t, because a more plausible motive for waging war “is unshakeable faith that one’s own religion is the only true one, reinforced by a holy book that explicitly condemns all heretics and followers of rival religions to death, and explicitly promises that the soldiers of God will go straight to a martyrs’ heaven” (p. 316).

Chapter 8 has the interesting title “What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?” In it, Dawkins defends his anti-religious atheistic stance. He distinguishes between fundamentalism and passion. A genuine fundamentalist believes a proposition not on the basis of evidence but because the proposition in question is contained in a purported holy book. Dawkins attributes his passionate defence of evolution to the fact that religious fundamentalists are missing the impressive, awesome, evidence in favour of the theory because of blind adherence to antiquated ancient literature.

Moreover, anyone who accepts a proposition on the basis of scientific evidence knows what it would take to make him change his mind, and would readily do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming. But a genuine believer can never do that. Hard core fundamentalist religion is antithetical to scientific education of the youth, by teaching children right from the beginning that unquestioning faith is a virtue (p. 323). On the dark side of religious absolutism, Dawkins points out that in Muslim countries conversion to another religion or making statements which religious authorities consider “blasphemous” is punishable by death. He cites the case of Sadiq Abdul Karim Malallah who, in September 3, 1992, was publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia “after being lawfully convicted of apostasy and blasphemy” (p. 325).

Dawkins also acknowledges the existence of fundamentalist “Taliban mentality” in Christian countries, particularly the United States. He also refers to the fallacious arguments religious bigots marshal against homosexuality and abortion. One of such bad reasoning is the anti-abortionist argument (or Great Beethoven Fallacy) that abortion is wrong because it deprives a baby of the opportunity of a full human life in the future (p. 337).

According to Dawkins, Peter and Jean Medawar have blown the argument out of the water by arguing that, if taken to its logical conclusion, it means that we deprive a human soul of the gift of existence anytime we fail to seize an opportunity for sexual intercourse (p. 339). Dawkins condemned the so-called “moderates” in religion, on the ground that they see nothing wrong in teaching children the dangerous notion that believing certain propositions without question or justification but based solely on faith is good. He maintains, and I agree completely, that inculcating in children unquestioned faith primes them to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads, crusades and suicide bombers.

Having argued trenchantly in chapter 8 that indoctrination and brainwashing of children with dogmatic religious doctrines is a grievous wrong, Dawkins followed it up in chapter 9 with a dissection of religion-motivated child abuse and how the dangers associated with faith can be avoided. He tells the sad story of how, in 1858, a six-year old child of Jewish parents living in Bologna, Italy, named Edgardo Mortara was legally abducted by the papal police in accordance with orders from the Inquisition. The little boy was brutally taken away from his weeping mother and distraught father to the Catechumens in Rome and reared as a Catholic. Apart from occasional brief visits under close watch by priests he was never seen again by his parents (p. 349).

Dawkins highlights the physical and mental abuses children are subjected to in the name of religion, and decries the nonchalant attitude towards, and ignoble defence, by the clergy and some highly-placed individuals of those who committed atrocities against children in the name or religion (pp. 350-379). He criticises the hypocrisy of accommodating extremist religious absurdities and deadly practices such as human sacrifices in the name of “cultural and religious diversity”; he laments the wastage of human and material resources for religious purposes.

Dawkins highlights the dangers inherent in deliberately twisting ideas culled from science to suit preconceived religious beliefs. However, although he was highly critical of the complacency and mis-education of children in scientific knowledge by faith-based educational institutions, he acknowledges the educational benefits of studying comparative religion as a part of literary culture. On pp. 383-385, he lists some useful and handy phrases, idioms and clichés from the King James Authorised Version of The Holy Bible.

Surely, he says, “ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one’s appreciation of English literature.” Thus, he concludes that an atheistic world-view does not justify abolition of The Holy Bible and other sacred books from the educational system. According to Dawkins, “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (p. 387).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pyramidion’s editorial policy.