Are Believers Delusional? (Part 1)

Richard Dawkins vs. David Quinn

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DUBLIN, Ireland, OCT. 23, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Differences over the existence of God, free will and the effect of religion on the world triggered a spirited debate recently on Irish public radio.



The debate between Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, took place Oct. 9 on "The Tubridy Show." The show was hosted by Ryan Tubridy and broadcast on radio station RTE Radio 1.

Here is the first part of a transcription of the show.

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Tubridy: Your most recent book is called "The God Delusion." Let's talk about the word delusion, just to put it into context. Why did you pick that word?

Dawkins: The word delusion means a falsehood which is widely believed, to me, and I think that is true of religion, it is remarkably widely believed.

It is as though almost all of the population, or a substantial proportion of the population, believe that they'd been abducted by aliens in flying saucers -- you'd call that a delusion. I think God is a similar delusion.

Tubridy: And would it be fair to say you equate God with, say, the imaginary friend, the bogeyman, or the fairies at the end of the garden?

Dawkins: Well, I think he is just as probable to exist, yes. And I do discuss all those things, especially the imaginary friend, which I think is an interesting psychological phenomenon in childhood. And that may possibly have something to do with the appeal of religion.

Tubridy: So take us through that a little bit, about the imaginary friend factor.

Dawkins: Many young children have an imaginary friend. Christopher Robin had Binker; a little girl who wrote to me had a little purple man. The girl with the little purple man actually saw him, she seemed to hallucinate him, and he appeared with a little tinkling bell, and he was very, very real to her, although in a sense she knew he wasn't real.

I suspect that something like that is going on with people who claim to have heard God, or seen God, or hear the voice of God.

Tubridy: And we're back to delusion again. Do you think that anyone who believes in God, anyone of any religion, is deluded? Is that the bottom line with your argument, Richard?

Dawkins: Well, there is a sophisticated form of religion. One form of it is Einstein's, which really wasn't religion at all.

Einstein used the word "God" a great deal, but he didn't mean a personal God, he didn't mean a being who could listen to your prayers or forgive your sins.

He just meant it as a kind of poetic way of describing the deep unknowns, the deep uncertainties of the root of the universe.

Then there are deists who believe in a kind of God, a kind of personal God who set the universe going, a sort of physicist God, but then did no more, and certainly doesn't listen to your thoughts, and has no personal interest in humans at all.

I don't think I would use a word like delusion for, certainly not for Einstein, and I don't think I would for a deist either. I think I'd reserve the word delusion for real theists, who actually think they talk to God and think God talks to them.

Tubridy: You have a very interesting description in "The God Delusion" of the Old Testament God. ... You described God as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Dawkins: Well, that seems fair enough to me, yes.

Tubridy: There are those who would say that's a little over the top.

Dawkins: Read your Old Testament if you think that. Just read it. Read Leviticus, read Deuteronomy, read Judges, read Numbers, read Exodus.

Tubridy: And is it your contention that these elements of the God as described by yourself are what has not helped matters in terms of, say, global religion and the wars that go with it?

Dawkins: Well, not really because no serious theologian takes the Old Testament literally, anymore, so it isn't quite like that.

An awful lot of people think they take the Bible literally, but that can only be because they've never read it, because if they ever read it, they couldn't possibly take it literally.

But I do think people are a bit confused about where they get their morality from. A lot of people think they get their morality from the Bible because they can find a few good verses -- parts of the Ten Commandments are OK, parts of the Sermon on the Mount are OK -- so they think they get their morality from the Bible. But actually of course nobody gets their morality from the Bible; we get it from somewhere else.

And to the extent that we can find good bits from the Bible, we cherry-pick them, we pick and choose them, we choose the good verses from the Bible and we reject the bad.

Whatever criterion we use to choose the good verses and throw out the bad, that criterion is available to us anyway, whether we're religious or not. Why bother to pick verses, why not just go straight for the morality?

Tubridy: Do you think the people who believe in God and in religion generally, who you think have -- you use the analogy of the imaginary friend -- do you think that the people who believe in God and religion are a little bit dim?

Dawkins: No, because many of them clearly are highly educated and score highly on IQ tests and things.

Tubridy: Why do they believe in something you think doesn't exist?

Dawkins: Well I think people sometimes are remarkably adept at compartmentalizing their mind, separating their mind into two separate parts.

There are some people who even manage to combine being apparently perfectly good working scientists, with believing that the Book of Genesis is literally true, and that the world is only 6,000 years old. If you can perform that level of double-think, then you could do anything.

Tubridy: But they might say that they pity you because you don't believe what they think is fundamentally true.

Dawkins: Well, they might, but we'll have to argue it out by looking at the evidence. The great thing is to argue it by looking at evidence, not just to say, oh well this is my faith, there is no argument to be had, you can't argue with faith.

Tubridy: David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, show us some evidence please.

Quinn: Well, I mean the first thing I'd say is that Richard Dawkins is doing what he commonly does, which is he's setting up straw men, so he puts God in the same -- he puts believing in God in the same -- category as believing in fairies.

Well, children stop believing in fairies when they stop being children, but they usually don't stop believing in God because belief in God, to my mind, is a much more rational proposition than believing in fairies or Santa Claus.

Tubridy: Do we have more proof that God exists than we do for fairies?

Quinn: I'll come to that in a second.

The second thing is that by compartmentalizing yourself, and he uses the examples of, well, you got intelligent people who somehow or other also believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and we have a young Earth, and they don't believe in evolution.

But again, that's a too stark an either-or. There are many people who believe in God, but also in evolution and believe the universe is 20 billion years old, and believe fully in Darwinian evolution, or whatever the case may be.

Now, in all arguments about the existence and nonexistence of God, often these things don't even get off the launch pad because the two people debating can't even agree on where the burden of proof rests. Does it rest with those who are trying to prove the existence of God? Or does it rest with those who are trying to disprove the existence of God?

But I suppose, if I bring this onto Richard Dawkins' turf, and we talk about the theory of evolution: The theory of evolution explains how matter, which we are all made from, organized itself into, for example, highly complex beings like Richard Dawkins and Ryan Tubridy, and other human beings. But what it doesn't explain, just to give one example, is how matter came into being in the first place.

That, in scientific terms, is a question that cannot be answered, and can only be answered, if it can be answered fully at all, by philosophers and theologians. It certainly can't be answered by science.

And the question of whether God exists or not, cannot be answered fully by science either. And commonly, and a common mistake that people can believe, is that the scientist who speaks about evolution with all the authority of science can also speak about the existence of God with all the authority of science -- and of course he can't.

The scientist speaking about the existence of God is actually engaging in philosophy or theology, but he certainly isn't bringing to it the authority of science per se.

Tubridy: Back to the first question, have you any evidence for me?

Quinn: Well I would say the existence of matter itself, I would say the existence of morality, myself and Richard Dawkins clearly have different understandings of the origins of morality, I would say free will.

If you're an atheist, logically speaking, you cannot believe in objective morality, you cannot believe in free will.

These are two things that the vast majority of humankind implicitly believe in. We believe for example that if a person carries out a bad action, we can call that person bad because we believe that they are freely choosing those actions. An atheist believes we are controlled completely by our genes and make no free actions at all.

[Part 2 of this debate will appear Tuesday]