Last night, I had the chance to introduce and watch Richard Dawkins speak to a crowd at Northwestern University (with Jerry Coyne as his on-stage interviewer). I was expecting to hear Dawkins say a lot of things I’d heard before, but there were two particular ideas that I had to jot down because I’d never heard them put so elegantly.
The first came during a discussion over whether science and religion really had to be in a perpetual fight against each other.
Dawkins said (and I’m paraphrasing):
I kind of like, in a paradoxical way, that some people are brought up to believe that evolution is the enemy of religion.
Because it’s easy to prove that evolution is true.
In a sense, he’s suggesting, people like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and evangelical pastors everywhere are doing us a favor when they espouse Creationism. By tying that false belief to their faith, they’re tossing us a softball. If we can convince Christians that evolution has merit, their whole belief structure might collapse. (This could also work if we convince them that being gay isn’t a choice or that abortion can be a morally sound decision or that any of the other lies they hear in church have no basis in reality.)
I also appreciated what Dawkins said about the threat of Hell. I didn’t catch the entire thing, but I found a version of it online where it’s jokingly referred to as “Dawkins’ Law of Conservation of Terror”:
“Threats expand to fill the vacuum of their implausibility.”
The more implausible the threat, the more terrifying it has to be in compensation. A plausible threat, such as a teacher’s threat of punitive detention, doesn’t have to be very terrifying in order to be effective, because the child knows that it will probably be carried out. A very implausible threat is unlikely to be believed, so it has to be made very terrifying in order to have any hope of persuading the child. Now think about the most terrifying threat you have ever met, namely the threat of hell. What does that suggest to you about its plausibility?
There’s a reason Hell Houses pop up around Halloween. They’re supposed to go great lengths to frighten you into believing in Hell. If they didn’t make it that scary, you’d never take it seriously. The problem is that some people actually buy into the myth.