What I Wish Richard Dawkins Would Have Told Jon Stewart

On tonight’s episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart asked Richard Dawkins the following question:

Do you believe that the end of our civilization will be through religious strife or scientific advancement? What do you think will, in the long term, will be more damaging to our prospects as a human race?

(***Update***: Mediaite has the video.)

Dawkins responded by saying “Both.” His argument was essentially that scientific advancement would give us weapons that, in the wrong hands, could be used for evil. And if religious fundamentalists ever got their hands on those weapons, we’re screwed.

That’s a fair point.

If Dawkins had the chance to elaborate, though, here’s what I wish he would’ve said:

Science can give us the opportunity to do amazing things — we can discover the secrets of the universe, we can fix the problems previous generations suffered from, and we can create technologies that have extraordinary power. For all the good scientists can do, we have to be aware that the same knowledge can be used for purposes we never intended. Still, we shouldn’t stop experimenting or researching because of the possibility of what someone might do with that knowledge. It’s hard to argue that scientific advancement has been a net loss for society, even if it’s had blips along the way.

Religion, with its ability to organize and inspire, can get people to do incredible things. Unfortunately, for all the charity work churches do and for all the donations churchgoers have given to worthy causes, we’ve seen too many instances of religion going the wrong way. Religion has been used to remove science from science classes, to withhold rights from gays and lesbians, to shame and silence women, to offer false hope to people who had other options available, to make people do the right things for the wrong reasons, and — to be blunt — to kill those who believe or act differently from you. Religion has told us to stop questioning and just have faith when an answer was ever in doubt. Yes, religion is capable of doing good, but we’ve seen it fail too often for us to treat religious beliefs with respect.

Unlike science, religion offers us a moral imperative for doing things that are bad for society. We can legitimize bad ideas by simply citing a holy text.

Expert scientists working on potentially dangerous experiments don’t bother me. Religious leaders preaching dangerous verses from a religious book do.

But with a British accent, of course.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Robster

    Poor Richard Dawkins, he responds to questions with an honest answer and up bubbles a current of misplaced concern. He’s correct of course and freethinkers need to be less judgemental on the man. He’ll get to the point that he’ll have to think about answers that won’t offend anyone before opening his mouth. Poor Richard Dawkins. give the man a break.

    • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

      Agreed its his opinion and that’s what they asked for. :)

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I can’t wait to watch the extended interview online. The one tonight was way to short. It would have been a lot nicer if he had more time to answer.

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    I disagree honestly. I think evil people will destroy the world not science not religion just evil people. Unfortunately religion gives people a moral right to be evil, and that’s why we can include religion as a cause.

    • Mr. Pantaloons

      That really doesn’t sound like you disagree with the revision at all, though, other than your vague label of “evil” for anyone who sets out to destroy the world. The problem with that reasoning is that evil people don’t destroy or conquer parts of the world with the mission specifically to do so in the name of evil. So simply labeling people “evil” as a personality type, irrespective of science or religion, doesn’t make sense and isn’t particularly useful. Good and evil are at least as much about motivation as they are about results. Outside maybe the most vocal representatives of the GOP, there’s a reason you don’t see Saturday morning cartoon villains in real life – evil for its own sake, as a purely destructive force, is impossible to market and even sustain for a long period. Pretty much every social evil we have today results from the authority figures prioritizing one group’s dignity and traditions as more inherently valuable than another group’s quality of life.

      All that’s needed for evil to be done is for the perpetrators to view their own actions as either good or at least morally acceptable, and while you definitely don’t NEED religion to do that, whatever reasoning people would use instead would take an inefficient amount of mental effort just to identify, let alone cling to en masse. Religion is accessible because it’s easy – literally the abdication of critical thought to someone else – and a LOT of evil has been done simply by those who honestly and sincerely thought they were doing other people a favor.

      • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

        Your pretty much said what I said. But disagree on what evil is, and I have to say that is a debate that could rage for hours or days as evil is truly subjective like morality. :)

      • Kitty

        Well, I don’t know that religion is a particularly more accessible way to justify evil. People who have a more “scientific/secular” bent can be prejudiced and are capable of doing really horrible things as well, just as much (in my opinion) as people who are more religious. Think the race to create nuclear bombs, eugenics, forced sterilizations, the massive sexism still alive in many scientific disciplines, rape and sexual assault being trivialized at universities, racism and sexism being justified by “scientific” studies, never mind that mass killings of people of particular belief systems have also been done by governments or people who themselves are not religious. You could also think of all the climate and environmental issues we are dealing with today precisely because of advancements in science (certainly, more scientific advancements could – and I believe will – solve these problems, but that just goes to show scientific advancement can have terrible consequences).

        This conversation (and I am being generous in my choice of words here) is worthless and will never reach a resolution. I get just as annoyed when religious people claim that there is nothing stopping atheists from doing “bad” things because they do not believe in objective moral standards (not necessarily true for all atheists – though there are definitely some atheist philosophers who take this point seriously). But you know what? People will justify their actions however they can. And even if no religion existed, and everyone believed the same thing as everyone else (ugh, what a boring world) there would still be wars, there would still be famine, there would still be murders, and there would still be ways of categorizing people so that we can justify our wrongs against them. People can become convinced of really terrible things by people who exploit or promote “religious” beliefs – but the same thing can happen with “scientific facts”, or any other type of propaganda/lies.

        • Bitter Lizard

          There will always be problems, so let’s not be critical of anything that’s wrong. And, um, diversity or something.

    • Paul Schmeer

      I agree “religion gives people a moral right to be evil”. I do believe that the bible followers have bastardized the intent of the 3rd Comandment “Do not take the lord’s name in vain” to mean “do not curse” when it should be “Don’t do something in name of what is Good when you are really doing it for your own vanity/ego/gain.” Most churches and religious leaders would fail.

    • JohnnyRelentless

      The problem is that with religion, good people will ‘destroy the world.’ Religion motivates otherwise good people to do evil deeds. They’ll probably use the tools and weapons of science to do it, but in the end do you blame the motivator and inspiration – religion – or do you blame the tools used – science?

      • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

        I disagree absolutely that religion motivates good people to do evil deeds. I think evil people are just looking for excuses and find them in religion. You can blame the motivator, but there are millions of theists that do not do bad things so we cant paint it with one brush.

        I will crtiticize religion however as it deserves criticism as it makes no sense.

        • JohnnyRelentless

          Just because all good people aren’t doing evil because of religion doesn’t mean that none are. That’s false logic. But I agree that many evil people use religion as an excuse. But many of those same evil people also use it to control others. That’s when otherwise good people do evil things.

          • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

            I agree that’s why I said we cant paint it with one brush.

      • vincent

        So true – see all the Jihadist using the “weapon of atheists” the AK-47 not only to kill people but even in their banners.

  • Deirdre Shaw

    There is, of course, no such thing as a “British accent”. Richard Dawkins has an English accent. I might as well say that people from Quebec have American accents

    • Heidi McClure

      There also a large number of “English accents,” and yet you seem comfortable lumping all those into one. I feel like that’s being a bit pedantic. Especially considering the fact that England is part of Britain, and Quebec is part of Canada, not America. If you mean *North* American, then you would be correct to say people from Quebec have a North American accent. But Quebec:North America :: England:Europe. So your analogy is false.

      • Deirdre Shaw

        There are a number of English accents but they are all based on the same language in the same country. Quebec is in the Americas. I know that North Americans like to think of their country as a continent but the Americas are comprised of Canada, the USA and numerous Middle and South American countries who have Spanish or Portuguese as their first languages. Great Britain and Northern Ireland (aka the United Kingdom) have, as their constituent parts countries, with different linguistic roots and four different languages: Gallic, Welsh, Erse and English. English has never been stated to be the official language of any of the four UK countries and, in Wales, at least, signs are bilingual and all civil servants have to be bilingual. Even when English is used in our three non-English countries, the accents and dialects are based on the original languages of those countries. It is quite wrong to speak, therefore, of a British accent because there is no such beast. It is not a case of my comfort, Ms McClure, it is a case of etymology and my analogy was spot on.

        • Brian Westley

          Here’s Peter Sellers doing various English accents on the set of Dr. Strangelove:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLsVh6Qrpew

        • cathouseumbrella

          “North Americans like to think of their country as a continent…”
          North America isn’t a country, it IS a continent.

          • brianmacker

            Yeah, I almost spewed my lunch on that one. Plus Americans (as used colloquially to mean US citizens) don’t in fact like to think of our country as a continent. We like to think of it as a country. To think of our country as a continent including other north american countries like Mexico and Canada would, frankly, be un-American. You’d have to be a Democrat to think like that. :)

            Why can’t certain people understand that sometimes words, as labels, are not necessarily descriptive. Antisemitism isn’t the hatred of Semites, but the hatred of Jews. In fact, many Palestinians are antisemitic while being Semites. Likewise, french fries don’t come from France, nor do people who call them that believe that is where they originated. Nor are hot-dogs made from dog.

            What is especially ironic is when some foreigner makes this mistake while correcting Americans for their stupidity.

    • James G

      You could if you want, but both factually and analogically, you would be incorrect. Any of the varieties of English spoken on the island of Great Britain are British accents. I might as well say that Matt Damon doesn’t have an American accent, because he has a Boston accent. But that would be silly, because he has both.

    • RichardSRussell

      Geez, I like ALL these comments, each adding a slightly different perspective to the conversation.

  • LesterBallard

    While at home, Ray Comfort cries to his wife, Richard Dawkins won’t talk to me.

  • Dan Weeks

    That would have been nice, but it’s not like he hasn’t been saying that many many times over the decades. This interview was a promotion for his book, which, as you’ve pointed out, is more about a chronology of his life rather than yet another stupendous attack against the forces of ignorance. I haven’t seen the rest of the interview yet, but perhaps we’ll see more there.

    I’m actually quite surprised that Jon Stewart asked some of the stupid questions he asked. I’m wondering if he was just baiting him to see if he would say some of the great points you did, Hemant. I don’t like the idea that someone like Jon Stewart is blind to the harm that faith does to our society, and instead fears the mishandling of science as the end of our species.

    • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

      But remember John Stewart is a comedian. He has even said if you get your news from me then something is wrong. Okay I am paraphrasing

      • Mackinz

        He said it in the midst of an interview on Fox News, no less, calling them out at the same time.

        It’s really sad that satirists have to be a bastion of actual news these days.

        • Dan Weeks

          It is my sincere hope that that’s what he was doing. It didn’t seem like it, he seemed genuinely inquisitive and ignorant to the differences between faith and science. I do very much hope that it was intentional, satire, and baiting.

          I have no evidence to believe that, however. It’s just a sincere hope that Jon Stewart isn’t that equivocal on this issue.

      • RichardSRussell

        I have a bumper sticker that reads “I get my humor from Fox News and my news from Comedy Central.” It’s uncomfortably close to true, too, except that it’s hard to laff at the Foxies when you realize that they’re either serious or too ethically bankrupt to feel bad about taking money for spouting their crap.

        • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

          But Fox News is comedy :) I am still in anguish that they lost their head line act “The incredible Beck”.

      • brianmacker

        Yeah, but then hypocritically he wants to be taken seriously. So which is it?

        • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

          I dont think he ever wants to be taken seriously he is a comedian. While I am sure he wants to make people think, he is not trying to be a news source. I mean it is Comedy Central.

    • http://danieltuttle.com/ Daniel

      For all the areas I love Stewart and the message he spreads about the irresponsibility of the main stream media, I detest how low he presents atheists and their viewpoints and position. Sometimes, its almost outright hostility.

  • Korihor DeZarahemla

    In “The Demon Haunted World”, it talked about how scientists have a moral/ethical responsibility to not create deadly things like hydrogen bombs and chemical/biological weapons. They have a responsibility to not cooperate with corrupt/evil governments and to make as much noise as possible to warn the public about potentially dangerous technologies.

  • Bill

    Grammar question: why isn’t the title, “What I Wish Richard Dawkins Had Told Jon Stewart” ?

    • Luciferadi

      That’s one of my grammar pet peeves, too.

    • guest

      Way to add to the discussion. You grammar Nazis are far more annoying than any slight grammatical error that may be present in any article. Take it up with your English lit. professor, but keep it off the message boards. SMH

      • Bill

        Dude, it’s an honest question. I’m not saying Hemant is incorrect, but I think my suggestion is better/more natural. And he’s a high school teacher, so… granted, he teaches math and not English, but still.

        And yes, I’m still curious, what is the difference and why do I like my suggested title better?

      • Charles

        Personally, although I seldom join it, I appreciate the “grammar Nazis” even when I am the one being corrected. Caveat: At least as long as they are being respectful rather than attacking.

    • Mr. Two

      I think this has something to do with active versus passive voice. For what it’s worth (which is zero, or perhaps negative worth), your active version sounds really awkward to me! I’m sure it has to do with what I’m accustomed to. I would have worded it exactly like Hemant.

      I don’t know the rules regarding times when passive may be preferred.

      • TCC

        No, this has nothing to do with the passive voice. Neither “had told” nor “would have told” is passive; both are in active voice, the former the past perfect tense and the latter that conditional perfect. (To make them passive, they would have to be “had been told” and “would have been told.”)

        • UWIR

          No, “had told” is a type of subjunctive mood that happens to be the same form as the past perfect (English doesn’t have very many different verb forms).

          • TCC

            Okay, granted, but my point about the voice stands.

            • Mr. Two

              Whatever it is, I knew even less about it than I thought I did! I should stick with Fortran and C++.

    • Ron

      You are correct, and here’s the reason why:

      http://data.grammarbook.com/blog/verbs/if-i-would-have-vs-if-i-had

      And although your comment was off-topic, I gave you an up-vote anyways because it motivated me to learn something new today—and that’s a good thing.

      • Bill

        Thanks for doing the legwork Ron, you’ve helped me learn something too.

  • evodevo

    “With
    or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and
    evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things,
    that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Laureate

  • Bitter Lizard

    I’d simply say this: the more power we have through scientific advancement, the more responsibility we have to be rational and not make decisions based on fairy tales that celebrate the death of humans and humanity.

  • RichardSRussell

    Let me introduce a phrase that’s become one of my faves due to its colorful etymology: l’esprit de l’escalier, literally “the spirit of the staircase”. It’s derived from the experience of having attended a cocktail party and then, on your way down the stairs afterward, thinking of all the pithy comments you should have made during the chatter but didn’t think of until just then.

    Anyone here who hasn’t had that experience? Anyone?

    I’m told that celebrated wits Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would spend hours in advance of their social gatherings trying to come up with “spontaneous” one-liners they could throw into the social banter as the opportunities arose.

    The point, of course, is that pretty much anyone reading this essay could, given the question in advance and sufficient preparation time, come up with a cogent, thoro, and well reasoned response to it. But could you do it off the top of your head, on the fly, under the lights, in front of the audience and cameras, as well as Richard Dawkins did? That’s the true standard of measurement here.

    • TCC

      There’s an equivalent German word: Treppenwitz.

    • brianmacker

      Yeah, except I immediately read the question and noticed it was loaded and ambiguous. So it’s not really something that needs deep reflection.

  • Don Gettys

    Science will happen anyway. Somebody will do it, it’s inevitable. Jon’s attempt to make a point that scientists are rushing into the unknown is pointless. Religion isn’t the imperative that science is, in that if you want to make medicine you NEED science. Religion is largely a mental construct that provides a simple illusion of security required by those who cannot or will not learn the science behind phenomenon. Talking about science over religion is pointless because there will ALWAYS be someone pursuing a goal. Ban cloning in the US? somebody will do it in Europe. Ban it worldwide? Someone will do it secretly. Frankenstein’s monster and Jurassic Park missed the point. Science will find a way to happen. It’s all about damage control after that. As it should be.

  • rg57

    I did read that in Dawkins’ voice. But I have reservations. Science has plowed ahead, with no regard for the consequences of discovery. It has been all too eager to sell out to the power-hungry and the ego-maniacal, on individual, and global scales.

    While it is conceivable that religion may yet one day wipe out every single human life, only science can wipe out ALL human-scale life on this planet. And for that, it ought to apologize.

  • Ajax Blackburn

    Their gold posts (or God posts) are a ghosted rouse between which you can’t punt anything. The least of all the pigskin of reason even though it is weathered, tried and tested.

    Both: religion is a concept that does not advance knowledge for either the pastor or the parishioner nor the fundamentalist participator . The ever nigh “end” will continue to be a target via political theology hijacking what others in the Sciences have discovered or formulated.
    Science and religion for all and none, Friedrich Nietzsche.
    “Religion, with its ability to organize and inspire, can get people to do incredible things” …Like 9/11. Nairobi mall. Sikh temple. 24hr Fox news cycle.
    Ergo: Both. Dawkins made no mistake.

  • brianmacker

    It’s a vague and loaded question. Our civilization? What do you mean by that? Why the false dichotomy? Maybe it will just wither away through gradual socialism?

  • http://danieltuttle.com/ Daniel

    I preferred Dawkins’ answer to be honest. It was a pretty sober assessment of the situation.

  • KEHalfaker

    I think part of why Dawkins didn’t elaborate is because Stewart has very pointed questions he wants answered during interviews. Also, the benefits of science are fairly obvious. Anyone who is alive at this point is surviving because of scientific advancements. Anyone who does not acknowledge that as a fact, or understand it to be a fact, would not readily change his/her mind just because of a science soap box moment.

  • DJ

    John Stewart, comedy’s greatest Green Lantern, was actually attempting to make a somewhat different point during this.

    That is, not that evil people will use a WEAPON science has made to some great horrible effect, but that GOOD people, for GOOD reasons, will use something that ISN’T a weapon but somehow behaves differently than predicted and destroys us all that way. He’s arguing for a horrible accident, not willful malice, and Dawkins failed to even realize that he was talking about something like that.

    Now of course, Crichton novels and scares about grey goo or mini-black holes are all fiction, but as we do more and more, there is potential for great disaster. We know of a few, in the form of deep drilling, nuclear power plants, and so on. Stewart didn’t convey this to Dawkins well enough, Dawkins didn’t “catch” that, and at no point was a rebuttal offered for THIS sort of horrible event.

    As for me, I am one of those science cheerleaders, but even though I advocated nuclear power in the past, I had to change my position when I realized that on a much larger time scale, things like disasters outside the scope of what a nuclear plant designer could imagine are almost inevitable, as well as the fallout from such disasters (literal in this case). It made me rethink such a thing, in that now I think we need to look at the worst thing that can happen should some horrible accident occur with a piece of technology, and let THAT guide us in our long-term decision making.


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