Between them, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss are among the most outspoken scientists who say the world would be a better place if religion were relegated to the dustbin of history – or at least taken out of action as a political and social force. In best-selling books and numerous media appearances, both have repeatedly made the case for the scientific worldview as an alternative to faith, sometimes to the discomfort of fellow scientists.
Starting in 2003, the scientists began teaming up in public talks in which they lay out their arguments in the form of a conversation. Filmmaker Gus Holwerda picks up this evolution as the pair take their skeptical show on the road, tangling with religious leaders, talk-show hosts and several thousand years of cultural inertia. The result is the feature-length film The Unbelievers, which had its world premiere in Toronto at the Hot Docs festival on Monday night.
Before the screening, Dr. Dawkins, a professor emeritus at Oxford University, and Dr. Krauss, who is director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, sat down to talk about science and religion with The Globe and Mail.
Is there a risk that by challenging religion head-on you galvanize your opposition?
LK: At some level that may be true, but what it does do is point out a key fact: that religion shouldn't have a free ride. Somehow people get the sense that religion is sacred – if you'll forgive the pun – and nothing should be sacred. Everything is subject to discussion and that's what makes life worthwhile.
Aren't there important things that we can all draw from religion, like a sense of community or consolation in difficult times?
RD: We can find fellowship and community in other settings, of course. I think it's an odd thing to encourage people to get consolation from something for which there's no evidence. Science, of course, provides it's own consolation – the consolation of knowing what it's all about. This is something uplifting.
LK: People are programmed to think that reality isn't uplifting and that it takes away from things to understand perhaps that the universe isn't made for us. But I think what we need to do is encourage people to recognize that that doesn't make your life less meaningful. You make the meaning in your own life.
Religion exists in all cultures and throughout human history. Is it a product of natural selection?
RD: In an indirect sense. Religion is a product of brains and brains are a product of natural selection. But you can also say there are psychological predispositions which are understandable on Darwinian grounds. A predisposition to obey authority, for example, which might be very valuable for survival, especially for children. And that predisposition is automatically available to be parasitized by nonsensical ideas of superstition and religion.
How does tackling the topic as a conversation help?
RD: I think a conversation between two people who each have something to learn from each other is a good way of communicating to an audience, because the audience can learn from them at the same time. It's a very good format.
LK: It's kind of like listening in. It makes people feel closer and then when we go out to the audience for questions, it becomes a conversation between all of us.
Do you foresee a time when the conversation will be over?
LK: I think it's frustrating. When I was a kid in the '60s, I was sure that by now there would be no religion. In a way it's very surprising that there are these momentary resurgences. I think it's going to be a long road.
RD: If you look at the broad sweep of history, then clearly we're on the winning side. I think things are moving in the right direction, probably not as fast as I would like to see.