October 5, 2007

Religion scholar defends Delusion at I-House

This Thursday at International House, scientist Richard Dawkins said that God does not exist. Probably, that is.

Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of The God Delusion, a best-selling atheist manifesto published in 2006. He has gained a reputation for being both a passionate evolutionary biologist and a passionate atheist. “My passion is based on evidence,” Dawkins said to the crowd of over 200.

Both energetic and witty, Dawkins often made the crowd laugh at some of his atheist bon mots.

For Dawkins, supporters of religion and creationism should be given as much credence as a professor would get if he announced that it had been “privately revealed to him” that “asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs.” He argued that our beliefs should be based on evidence, not on what he sees as the highly improbable fiction of the Bible, the Koran, or other religious texts.

Religion for Dawkins has too many negative consequences, such as what he sees as “Islamic” terrorism or the hindrance of stem-cell research in America.

Dawkins aimed his PowerPoint presentation at those who criticize his book using sentences beginning with “I’m an atheist but.…” Dawkins described how he now sees those words as “ominous” because they inevitably preface some sort of critique of his arguments against religion. Dawkins claimed that many self-stated atheists think him disrespectful of religion and consider it important to respect others’ beliefs. Dawkins dislikes what he calls “belief in belief” because, he says, religion should not be given a sacred place in discourse.

To buttress this point, Dawkins noted that in restaurant reviews, one can say that a cook’s food is “the most disgusting thing I’ve put in my mouth since I ate earthworms at school,” yet his “relatively tame” arguments against God are perceived as “shrill, strident, impetuous, and intolerant.” Many would reply, according to Dawkins, that god is a sacred topic while cooks are not, to which Dawkins responded, “at least cooks exist.” Yet as a scientist, Dawkins admits that he cannot disprove anything and therefore can only say that God is supremely unlikely.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins elaborates on the idea that God is highly “improbable” and argues that to combat both belief and “belief in belief,” atheists must “raise consciousness.” Aware that his readership is often composed of those who are already atheists, Dawkins noted that he also sees many cases of “converts” and pointed those who think that he is “preaching to the choir” to look at the “converts’ corner” of his website.

Even among atheists, Dawkins said that “consciousness raising” is important to combat the idea that children inherit religion from their parents. To prove this necessary, Dawkins noted that people often say of a four- or five-year-old that he is a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child” because his parents were Christian or Muslim. Yet most would find it awkward to meet a “post-modernist child” or “Keynesian child,” who is a post-modernist or a Keynesian because his parents are. Dawkins argues that atheists must convince people that children can no more be religious at the age of four than they can be Keynesian.

If children were both given enough freedom to determine their own belief system and given enough education to understand their choices, Dawkins believes that religion would decline. He sees religious belief, especially creationism, as being an educational problem. He said that those who believe that the world is only 6,000 years old have “not been properly taught.”

Many members of the Chicago chapter of the Center for Inquiry, a national organization promoting “rational thought,” attended. Upwards of 40 people were turned away at the door because the venue was so full.

I-House and the Seminary Co-op sponsored the event, which included a book signing.