Has faith gone to the dogs?

Celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins reveals his respect for Darwin, his reasons fordisliking religion in any shape or form and why one percent of him still can’t let go

Joerg Rohleder
October 10, 2009

Celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins reveals his respect for Darwin, his reasons fordisliking religion in any shape or form and why one percent of him still can’t let go

For someone known as “Darwin’s rottweiler” Richard Dawkins is house-trained. He comes down to answer the door of his home near New College, Oxford. He then leaves me to the attentions of his staff and retires to his library without so much as a growl.  


The long march: Darwin’s theory still shocks some in the religious community
The long march: Darwin’s theory still shocks some in the religious community

The 67-year-old biologist owes the canine nickname to 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley – known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s then scandalous theories. Huxley was a prominent evolutionist and invented the term “agnostic” to describe his unfashionable set of beliefs. 

Dawkins has also researched Darwin for decades and has courted controversy with religious believers in a similar way. His most recent written work, a paean to modern-day atheism, is called The God Delusion. It has been translated into more than 30 languages and became an international bestseller. 

His attack-dog reputation is well-earned. While Darwin’s 150-year-old theory on the evolution of life is only a polemic to those who still believe in creationism, Dawkins courts controversy by having a go at the whole gamut of religious belief. 

Professor, you own an original edition of The Origin of Species, worldwide there are only 1,200 copies. How much did you pay for it?

Nothing at all. It was a present from my benefactor, Charles Simonyi.

When did you first hear about the principle of evolution?

As a child, my father explained it to me using garden plants as an example of natural selection.

Did you understand it?

I remember being sceptical at first, but that changed when I was 14 or 15.

What do you believe is the essence of Darwin’s theory?

Firstly, that there is evolution, which means that species are changing all the time. 

Secondly, that all species originate from one common ancestor. Thirdly, that the crucial mechanism of evolution is natural selection, which means the survival of species that have adapted themselves to their environment, and the extinction of those that haven’t. Finally, that most species produce more descendants than can survive. In the struggle for existence it isn’t the strongest that survives, just the best adapted.

Does that mean we are distantly related to sea horses and palm trees?

As comical as it may seem, it’s true.

Is the principle of natural selection as formulated by Darwin still valid today with the possibility of breeding spare parts from stem cells? 

Yes. Darwin wouldn’t have a problem with that, since this too is a form of evolution.

What if we can choose designer babies from a catalogue?

Darwin would have found that quite interesting, he was very interested in breeding. I don’t know, however, if he would have liked it from a moral standpoint. I personally don’t have any problems with it.

Evolution is also about adapting to certain environmental conditions. No species has endangered the balance of nature more than humans. Will nature punish us for this?

I refuse to make any predictions. I would only say: we exploit our planet, endanger our own and all other species and we don’t even understand what we’re doing. There’s no doubt that will come back to haunt us. But, throughout the history of evolution there were massive annihilations caused by environmental catastrophe. When oxygen first entered the atmosphere about two to three million years ago, it was a disaster for some species. At the same time, this transformation led to the process of photosynthesis. This created plants and ultimately ourselves. 

If you could travel back in time, what would you most like to ask Darwin?

I would like to know what he thought about religion.

Wasn’t Darwin interested in theology?

You don’t have to believe in God to like theology. Darwin referred to himself as an agnostic, in that he doubted the presence of God. But I don’t think it’s wrong to call him an atheist. 

In the beginning: Dawkins gets the spark of life from his god
In the beginning: Dawkins gets the spark of life from his god

In The God Delusion you explain in Darwinian terms why belief in a higher being is an illusion. Do you think he would have liked your book?

He wouldn’t have liked it as much as my other books on evolution. Darwin was a real gentleman, he wouldn’t have liked the fact that some parts of my book could hurt people’s feelings.

In your book you compare belief to a virus. Why are you so against religion?

Because it teaches us to be satisfied if we don’t understand the world. Besides that, I think it’s absurd if people are only believers because they are scared of going to hell after death. And if parents, out of fear of God, relate the same story to their children, it continues to be told forever. That is why I think belief spreads like a virus.

Where would people find the consolation many now find in religion?

I never found God very comforting. Read  the Old Testament or the Koran – its God is quite a monster. A jealous, spiteful, cantankerous old guy, probably the worst character in the history of fiction.

What do you feel about being nicknamed Darwin’s rottweiler?

I like rottweilers, they are beautiful dogs.

Natural selection: Darwin only began growing his famous beard in 1862 at the age of 53
Natural selection: Darwin only began growing his famous beard in 1862 at the age of 53

What would you have given Darwin for his 200th birthday?

A laptop with all the necessary biology programmes on it. The latest discoveries in biology would have excited him. He didn’t have a clue about things like DNA. Today, what we know about the human genome is the best proof of his theory.

Charles Darwin was 22, when he went on board the Beagle. Initially his father refused to let him go on the trip. Do you think that Darwin would have discovered the principle of evolution if he hadn’t gone on the expedition?

Probably not. He would have remained a happy country gent. But the fascinating thing with the theory of evolution is that you don’t actually have to leave your desk to arrive at its conclusion.

Was Darwin aware of the explosive force of his theory?

Absolutely. I suppose that is why he waited so long to write it down. He was a careful man who didn’t like hurting the feelings of others, especially those of his wife who was very pious. I doubt her priest was amused when “The Origins of Species” became a scientific sensation.

Is it sensible to use Darwin’s teachings in other areas, such as the world economy? In recent years there has been talk of predatory capitalism?

I assume that is now extinct after the events of 2008.

Can predators be badly equipped for the struggle for survival? 

Extinction is also a part of evolution.

And in our social lives. How does a Darwinist explain phenomena such as Paris Hilton or Big Brother?

It’s very simple. Evolution doesn’t mean progress, and the struggle for survival, which you witness in Big Brother, is not the highest of aspirations. 

But in general, I am not a fan of applying Darwin’s theory to everything. If you wanted to, I’m sure you could explain everything through Darwin.

Some people have used Darwin’s theories to justify the most inhuman of acts. Do you think Nazi Germany and its belief in a master race stemmed from Darwin?

Social Darwinism certainly has the potential to be abused by evil forces. But I don’t think Hitler and his followers were motivated by Darwin. They selected parts of his teachings in order to enhance their own image.

Darwin bred pigeons, Hitler bred humans. Is there a difference? 

Yes, Darwin realised during his pigeon breeding that natural selection works best without human interference. Hitler must have missed that proviso when he read Darwin’s work.

Which other books have influenced the world as much as Darwin’s’?

You would have to say the Bible – though not always in a positive way. And the same for the Koran.

In 2008, the Anglican church apologised for not having recognised Darwin’s work. What do you think of that?

Too little, too late. But better than the competition, the Catholic Church has only just apologised for the 1633 trial of Galileo [who was convicted of heresy for claiming the Earth went round the Sun].

The God Delusion has been translated in over 30 languages and was an international best seller. How do the representatives of the religious right react to your work?

With predictable outrage.

You write that you are only ninety-nine percent atheist. Why not one hundred percent?

Because nobody so far has been able to prove scientifically that God does not exist. I find it pretty implausible that he does.

When did you stop believing in God?

When I was nine years old I realised that different religions believed different things. I thought that was strange. When I was 14 or 15 I was sure that God couldn’t exist.

What would you say to God if he did exist after all?

I would ask him which of the many gods in history he actually is. And I’d be interested to know why he never reveals himself to the world.

Would the world be a better place without religion?

I think it would be. There would be no suicide bombers, no September 11, no crusades, no witch hunts, no war between Israelis and Palestinians, no bloodbath between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, no persecution of Jews as ‘assassins of Christ’, no ‘honour killings’ and no TV preachers in glittering suits.

London’s buses have displayed a series of advertisements with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” By supporting the campaign do you think some may take you to be the Antichrist?

I hope not! I don’t want to be the leader of a cult. I write books and am glad if I can help to sharpen the views of some people.

But aren’t you advertising your atheism like Paul heralded the gospel?

But with a different message: I am asking people to use their own brains and to ask for proof. Paul told people what to think. There is a huge difference.

For many people, isn’t atheism kind of a religion, too?

It is if you want it to be. An acquaintance of mine always claims that a bald head is still a hairdo.

Did you marry in church?

Only the first time.

You dedicated “The God Delusion” to your friend, the author Douglas Adams. If Adams, like his character Ford Perfect from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, one day arrived at your door and suggested you board his spaceship because the Earth was about to be destroyed, would you board?

Absolutely. I can’t think of anything more exciting.

Richard Dawkins, 67 Born on March 26, 1941, in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father served as a soldier in the British Army.  Completed a doctorate in zoology at Oxford, where he now lives and works. Married to the actress Lalla Becoming (his third wife).  Best known for his books on evolution and the debunking of creationism. His 2006 novel The God Delusion claims that belief in a deity is not only wrong, it’s potentially harmful. 

Read more articles