At CSICon 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Dawkins about the future of religion and skepticism. There is probably no better person to ask, as he has been at the forefront of both. The God Delusion marked a turning point when atheism entered the mainstream, and the merging of his foundation with the Center for Inquiry created the largest secular organization promoting science. I spoke with him about religion and pseudoscience, as well as what explains their persistence in the 21st century and what we can do about it. A transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity, follows.
A.D. When you were writing the book The Selfish Gene, did you anticipate the widespread adoption of the concept of memetics outside of the scientific community? Should we consider religion, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience as somewhat successful memes, which could explain their persistence?
R.D. I’m not sure about anticipate, but I thought it was an interesting way to put the point. My main purpose was to emphasize that genes are not the only potential replicators. I’m still not sure how convincing it is that memes are under natural selection. But the main purpose was to say that it doesn’t necessarily have to be just genes. I would agree that they are successful memes or meme complexes, although I’m not sure which, as what is a single meme is not an obvious question. Some might say a religion like Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam is a meme complex, a whole collection of memes, but clearly very successful.
A.D. Do you think religion is on the average, a neutral, positive or negative adaptation? We know that in nature negative adaptations are strongly selected against, yet religion still exists. What could that mean about us ever being able to relegate religion to the confines of history?
R.D. Well I find it negative in the sense, that I wish we didn’t have it, I think the world would be a better place without it. I wouldn’t use the word adaptation, as that is a Darwinian word and I don’t deny that there has probably been Darwinian selection in favor of it, but I now think that we would unequivocally be better off without it. We also have to remember that positive and negative in Darwinian terms refer only to gene survival. For positive and negative in social terms, what I was talking about, the question would be, what kind of society I wish to live in? And that is a very different question from what kind of adaptation is favored at the genetic level. You could well make a case that male dominance or aggression has Darwinian survival value, but that’s very different from saying that I like it or want to live in a society where males express aggression. I think that not only are they separate, they almost come to opposite conclusions. In fact, the society I wish to live in would be a very un-Darwinian society.
A.D. Coming back to another meme or meme complex, conspiracy theories, when we are looking at flat earthers I’m worried that we are just replacing old superstitions with new ones. As a society, we generally like to think that with each passing year, we improve our false belief detection and throw away obviously wrong beliefs. But with the resurgence of flat earth theory, have we really improved our thinking faculties or are we just jumping from one false belief to the next? Do you see the possibility of reaching a point where a new conspiracy theory rising will be quickly be understood to be false and rejected by the public?
R.D. Flat earth theory is a joke really; it can’t be easily equated with other mistaken beliefs. I would never have predicted a resurgence of flat earth — I wouldn’t even dignify it with the word theory. I can’t imagine anything much more absurd than that. So, if we debunk that, what else is there? Most of the things we are refuting at this conference have been around for a long time, although I suppose there is scope for new conspiracy theories like 9/11 or the moon landing. By definition, those had to be new because they referred to recent events. I guess there will always be some of those, so there will be an unending struggle against that kind of recurrent process.
A.D. We spend a lot of time refuting recurrent false claims like vaccines causing autism. Should we instead focus on a more general critical thinking framework that could simultaneously help us fight all these beliefs or is such a thing implausible? Do you think there is a chance we could do that in the coming decade? Could we introduce critical thinking in the classroom?
R.D. Interesting, yes I would hope that if you teach critical thinking, the rest would follow, but there may be some urgency on focusing on some particular false beliefs like global warming denial. I would like to teach critical thinking at all levels of schooling. Well, also who is “we”, you and I don’t have the power, but if we mean society then I would hope so.
A.D. Speaking of society as a whole, when looking at the current discourse we can see a lot of resurgent anti-intellectualism, but then again, meritocracy has never been more accepted. We acknowledge that the people who are most capable should rise to the top and be the experts whose opinions we trust. On the other hand, mistrust of experts seems to be at an all-time high — we only have to look at the elections of populist leaders, which have no political experience. In this paradoxical era where climatologists and immunologists are doubted on climate change and vaccines, but trust in scientists in general is going up, how do we restore expert confidence in practice and fix this?
R.D. I’m very disturbed by this, we saw it in Britain over the Brexit vote in 2016, where leading politicians made speeches saying things like: don’t trust the experts, you’re the experts! I deeply mistrust that. The analogy often behind made is, when you have an operation of your appendix, you want an expert surgeon to do it, or when you get on the plane you want an expert pilot to fly it. Thus, the mistrust of experts is extremely pernicious. We see it in America, and we see it in Britain, and we need to reëstablish trust in experts.
A.D. Do you think there is a way to do it, and if so, how? It is hard to convince someone to trust an expert if the sentiment itself is coming from an expert.
R.D. Well, if they had been taught to mistrust evidence, how can we use evidence to persuade them? I guess we have to use our ordinary powers of persuasion, to try and demonstrate the reason why some people have misconceptions. In essence, the sort of thing people are talking about at CSICON. In the long run, I think the trend is in the right direction, though at the moment we are at a temporary unfortunate reversal.
A.D. We have discussed several issues, but what do you believe is the biggest issue we are facing right now? What would be the most urgent challenge that science and reason must address right now, and why?
R.D. Global warming is perhaps the biggest one. Getting rid of superstition and religion would be the second one for me.