Professor Richard Dawkins, famous for his critique of creationism, has sold more than three million copies of his book, The God Delusion worldwide.
Here are some of the highlights from the Q&A with Pin Drop Founder, Simon Oldfield, at our event with Dawkins at Soho House.
Given developments in bio-engineering and artificial intelligence, are we entering an age of evolution via artificial selection?
Artificial selection is something that’s been going on in agriculture and animal breeding for centuries. The weird thing is that we haven’t done it to ourselves, thankfully – our bodies are pretty much as nature left them. The question now is about artificial mutation; artificially engineering our genes to be different from the way they are. You also have artificial intelligence and the possible usurping of human function by machines. This is happening to an increasing extent because we all carry iPhones, which are capable of answering our questions. In 200 years, it could be an extraordinary world that our descendants inhabit.
Can we trust human morality without the constraints of religion?
It would be a pretty depressing if we couldn’t; that would mean the only reason we’re not immoral is because we’re frightened of God. Having said that, I was once on a radio talk show in America, and a man from Texas rang in and said, ‘if I didn’t believe in God I would go straight out and murder my neighbour.’ If somebody told me the only reason they don’t go out and murder, rape and pillage is because of God, I’d edge away quietly.
Some people argue that even with evolution, there is still space for God as ultimate creator…
Yes, but that doesn’t leave God an awful lot to do. Peter Atkins wrote a lovely book called Creation Revisited, basing his plot on the idea of a very lazy God, who wanted to do as little as possible in order to bring everything into existence. So all he had to do was to make life was to set up the initial conditions for evolution to get started – the right chemical environment for DNA to pop up. Peter takes it back to the bare minimum that this lazy god has to do – strips it down until he has to do nothing. Maybe he is still there but does nothing. But why would you postulate a God if he does nothing? It’s an uneconomical theory.
If you don’t believe in God, what happens when we die?
It’s hard to believe in a life after death if you’re not religious. My scientifically-based view is that our consciousness and personality is so deeply bound up in the brain, that the only way it can survive the death of the brain would be some sort of sci-fi idea, where you download your memory banks into a computer. Maybe that will happen one day but that’s the only way you’ll achieve immortality.
What is the difference between spirituality and religion?
I’m happy to use the word spiritual, so long as people understand that I don’t mean supernatural. Stare down a microscope and you can have a spiritual experience marvelling at the complexity of a single cell, or look up at the stars and contemplate that the light left that star when the dinosaurs became extinct. It’s astonishing, but the beauty of the scientific worldview is that we do understand it. The religious approach seems to me to be a cowardly copout because you’re saying, ‘Well this is all marvellous but I don’t want to understand it.’ I prefer to marvel and then understand it. There’s a big difference.
If you look into the future, do you see the world as atheist?
There’s a trajectory in the direction of atheism. If you look at the stats, belief in God is declining all the time in Western nations. The countries in Europe that have the most provision for social welfare, where people feel most secure, where there is a national health service of some kind, tend to be the least religious. It’s an interesting correlation.
Taken from a live transcript.