Thursday, March 06, 2008

Richard Dawkins lecture at ASU

Tonight we attended Richard Dawkins' lecture (first stop of a 2008 college tour) at ASU's Grady Gammage auditorium on "The God Delusion," which was the 2008 Beyond Center lecture, introduced by Paul Davies. The lecture was accompanied by a giant screen on which the words of the lecture appeared for the hearing-impaired, apparently based on voice recognition. I was pretty impressed--it was far more accurate than the typo-laden closed captioning that you can see on television, and kept up pretty closely with him, but it did make errors from time to time (some of which it corrected). My favorite uncorrected error was early on, when Dawkins was making the point that atheists disbelieve in just one more god than the countless gods that theists disbelieve in, and listed Zeus and Wotan among them. When Dawkins said "we don't worship Wotan," the captioner said "we don't worship Voltaire."

Dawkins began by saying that "this is the largest audience I have ever addressed." Originally ASU just asked people to submit a form on a web page to indicate desire to attend, but they had such great response that they had to issue tickets through Ticketmaster. There were more people who didn't get tickets who also showed up, and some of them were able to be seated in empty seats which were held for ticket holders who didn't show up by 7:15 p.m. (the lecture started at 7:30 p.m.). The auditorium was very nearly full to its capacity of 3,017 seats.

I still haven't yet read Dawkins' The God Delusion, but I believe most of his lecture was drawn from the book's content, accompanied by a slide presentation. At the end, he showed some twenty books that have been published in response to the "new atheists," most of which were directed at his book. For good measure, he included a picture of the cover of a book titled The Dog Allusion.

He also responded to those atheists who have criticized him for intemperate and inflammatory language directed at religion, pointing out that far more inflammatory language may be found in London restaurant reviews (with several hilarious examples). He disagreed with the idea that religion deserves special treatment to be exempt from criticism, and quoted a passage from his book describing the God of the Bible which could be considered intemperate and inflammatory (e.g., God is "a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully"), but which he characterized as less inflammatory than the restaurant reviews. I think it was quite similar in character to the restaurant reviews he quoted, only less hyperbolic and more accurate.

He ended with some "consciousness-raising," showing a photograph of three four-year-olds taken at a Christmas pageant play published in a British newspaper, along with its caption, which described them as "Muslim," "Sikh," and "Christian." Dawkins asked us to imagine instead that they were labeled "conservative," "liberal," and "socialist," or "atheist," "agnostic," and "secular humanist," observing that these are all equally absurd. While it would be accurate to describe them as children of parents who are Muslim, Sikh, and Christian, a four-year-old is not old enough to have considered opinions on cosmology or anything approaching a critical world view. (My thought was that this is somewhat agist, and there are many adults haven't given their religious views much more thought than most four-year-olds. But I think his basic point is sound.) During the Q&A, he was asked if he thought four-year-olds could be atheists, and he said he thought the same point applied--it's not accurate to describe a four-year-old as an atheist, either.

In another question, someone asked whether Dawkins had a background in theology, to which he referred the audience to P.Z. Myers' "The Courtier's Reply" at Pharyngula, which he recommended that everyone Google and read as he didn't think his paraphrase did it full justice.

One individual asking a question said that he is an atheist with a friend who is a very intelligent Mormon who he frequently converses with and believes he has helped lead to some mutual understanding and perhaps even some change in his views. He questioned Dawkins' approach. Dawkins responded that "seduction" is not his style, but commended the questioner and stated his approval for different styles of atheism, comparing it to a "good cop, bad cop" methodology.

I found little to disagree with in Dawkins' presentation (and little of which I've described above, due to lack of note-taking). There were perhaps a few points where he presented metaphysics as science, but I agree with his point that science and religion are not "non-overlapping magisteria" (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) and that religions do make empirical claims and are criticizable when they contain false, ridiculous, unsupportable, and immoral statements.

UPDATE (March 7, 2008): John Wilkins has posted some critical comments about Dawkins' lecture, which may be a topic of discussion when I meet him on Saturday for beer and conversation with John Lynch.

John Wilkins writes that:
In particular I was annoyed that those of us who do not condemn someone for holding religious beliefs were caricatured as "feeling good that someone has religion somewhere". Bullshit. That is not why we dislike the Us'n'Themism of TGD. We dislike it because no matter what other beliefs an intelligent person may hold, so long as they accept the importance of science and the need for a secular society, we simply do not care if they also like the taste of ear wax, having sex with trees, or believing in a deity or two. Way to go, Richard. Good bit of framing and parodying the opposition. Real rational.
While I agree with Dr. Wilkins that the particular beliefs he lists are not objectionable, I very much do care if people hold beliefs which cause them to engage in political actions such as denial of rights to homosexuals, female genital mutilation, honor killings, issuing of fatwas, suppression of factual information and dissemination of misinformation about evolution, and so forth, which I believe is the primary concern of Dawkins, as well. The mere belief in God is not a problem (as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg"), it's all the additional baggage that religion typically brings along that causes the problems. (Likewise, mere lack of belief in God is not a problem, but it also seems to frequently be accompanied by political baggage.)

Wilkins writes as though the majority of religious believers in the world fall under 100-200 on the scale in this video for calculating your "God Delusion Index," while I suspect Dawkins' (and I know that my) concerns are primarily with those who score much higher than 100. (My own score was not zero--it was 45.)

A few other blog posts reacting to Dawkins' lecture:

Labyrinth: A Maze of Ramblings
Lone Locust Productions
A post at the Motley Fool atheist forum

I also should mention that Dawkins used one of my favorite arguments for the falsity and social transmission of religion, which is that people tend to believe the religions of their parents (and this is still the case despite the fact that in the U.S. a large minority of people tend to change religious sects within a religious tradition). Dawkins showed a map of the world displaying large geographic areas as represented by adherents of particular religions, and commented on how odd that fact is, if religion is supposed to be true. For contrast, he showed the same map, with the names of religions replaced with various scientific theses, and observed that that doesn't happen. (In actuality, it does happen from time to time in science--some scientific disputes have divided upon regional lines, though typically evidence on the dispute builds and the regional division goes away, replaced by consensus.)

John Wilkins is unhappy about Dawkins' advocacy of truth as something that we care about from science, stating that we only care about good enough (pragmatism), not truth. I disagree--I don't think that even "good enough" can be talked about without reference to true predictions, at the very least, and I think Dawkins is quite right to care about truth. Certainly it can be hard to establish what is true (it's often easier to establish what isn't true), and it's a mistake to become wedded to a particular theory as true if that causes you to ignore anomalies and contrary evidence, but I likewise think it's a mistake to say that science doesn't care about getting true explanations.

I'd also like to add a comment about one of the exchanges in the Q&A that came from a religious believer (of whom there were many in the audience--I was coincidentally seated a few seats away from a gentleman who is in my parents' Bible study class, who had with him a worn and heavily annotated copy of Dawkins' book as well as a copy of one of the critiques published, The Dawkins Delusion). That person suggested that Dawkins was mistaken to assert (which he didn't, at least not at the lecture) that religion was the primary cause of war without providing empirical evidence. He stated that this is certainly something that can be empirically studied, and that he doubts that it is true. He also stated that studies have shown that religious believers tend to be happier, are more likely to give to charitable causes, even non-religious charitable causes, than the secular, and so forth. (I've previously blogged about studies which show that religious believers are more generous than the secular, and conservatives more generous than liberals.) Dawkins' response was that he didn't say what the questioner thought he did, and also observed that the two largest wars in the world's history (WWI and WWII) were not about religion, and that the studies referred to by the questioner may be correct, but that they miss the point. For Dawkins, having better social consequences is not a reason to believe in religion if the religion is not true--it's truth that is the closest thing to sacred for Dawkins.

UPDATE: P.Z. Myers takes issue with John Wilkins' criticisms of Dawkins.

A poor quality video of the lecture (via cell phone?) is on Google Video.

UPDATE (March 13, 2008): Chris Hallquist reports on Dawkins' appearance in Madison, Wisconsin.

UPDATE (March 24, 2008): Near the end of Dawkins' talk, he showed this YouTube video of a Marcus Brigstocke rant about religion. (Thanks for the link, Tim K.)


Michael said...

It sounds like an interesting evening. Thanks for sharing your experience

RBH said...

Much as they do with The Selfish Gene, people read into Dawkins' The God Delusion notions that simply aren't in the book. Dawkins once characterized a review of The Selfish Gene as having been written by someone who apparently got no further in reading it than the title, and recommended reading the actual book, "an extended footnote to the title."

In particular, the questioner who objected that Dawkins attributed WWI and WWII to religion cannot have read the book.

Dawkins' core argument is that both atheists and religionists do evil things, but religious people often do evil things precisely on account of their religiousity. The same is not true (he argues) of atheists (e.g., the usual suspects -- Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot). While they did evil, it was not (Dawkins argues) on account of their (purported) atheism; atheism was incidental to the evil they did. The same cannot be said of, say, the Inquisition; religion was central to that evil.

Lippard said...

RBH: Good to see you here. Dawkins made exactly the point you describe in his lecture.

Out of fairness to the questioner, he did not say anything in particular about WWI or WWII, or attribute claims about those wars to Dawkins. Rather, he attributed to Dawkins the view that religions are a primary cause of wars (and perhaps implicitly that if we abandoned religion we wouldn't have as many wars), and argued that this is a question that can be studied and answered empirically, and we might find that religion is not a significant cause of wars. It was Dawkins who brought up WWI and WWII in his response to the questioner, in agreement that wars and killing can occur independently of religion motivation. I also agree with the questioner on that point, while also agreeing, but not completely, with Dawkins. Where I disagree is that religion can often be an *excuse* or a *rallying cry* for bad acts which in fact have other motivations, such as political power grabbing. In such cases it isn't the *real* cause of the bad acts.

Lippard said...

RBH: I see that it was my poor wording that caused you to attribute the WWI/II claims to the questioner--I've slightly changed the wording to eliminate that source of confusion.

Brother Richard said...

I was hoping that Dawkins would travel through Atlanta this time. We really need him.

Did anyone video the event? I would love to see it on YouTube.


Lippard said...


The event was videotaped, presumably by the Beyond Center.

Hume's Ghost said...

Tangential, but I've got a copy of I don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges (whose previous book American Fascists argued that Christian Domininionists are nascent totalitarians) on hold at my local library. In it he argues that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are atheist fundamentalists and what not.

I tend to disagree although I noticed that some of the same things that bothered me about Harris are what bothered him; I find the charges towards Dawkins and Hitchens more absurd....

Servetus said...

I thoroughly enjoyed spending my evening with Richard Dawkins last night

I brought a friend that's evolving out of his religious mentality and slowly emerging into a freethinker.
Dawkins helped him in the evolution last night.


Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

For Dawkins, having better social consequences is not a reason to believe in religion if the religion is not true--it's truth that is the closest thing to sacred for Dawkins.

As it is for me. One approach to getting across this point would be to ask: if the questioner considers social consequences to be an important benefit of religion, would he switch to a different religion if it were proven to have better social consequences?

Because everyone knows that "Jainism is the best religion."

Steven said...

Theist or Atheist denotes belief or lack of belief. Gnostic or Agnostic denotes knowledge or lack of. You can be an agnostic atheist. In other words you don't know there is no god(it is impossible to know even every definition of that word) but you just don't believe there is. I haven't visited everyone planet(or even one) in the Andromeda galaxy so I don't know there isn't an alien with 25 arses in the shape of my head that lives on one of those planets. However I don't believe there is.

I am an agnostic atheist when it comes to a deistic type of god.

I am a gnostic atheist when it comes to the Abrahamic gods because they actually posit claims about that god and they are easy to debunk.

Lippard said...


Your definitions aren't universally accepted (and usually "gnostic" means something quite different), but I think your position given your definitions is quite reasonable and quite similar to my own.

There might be other ways to disprove the existence of an alien with 25 asses in the shape of your head other than actually visiting all potential inhabited planets, though.

See my brief article about proving negatives, as well as the links in it to others.

Hume's Ghost said...

George Smith uses similar definitions in Atheism: The Case Against God, though Smith argues that agnosticism is not a philosophically tenable position.

Mike said...

Um, sorry to burst your bubble regarding voice recognition... But that was a person typing. I go to ASU, and I was at the Beyond Center Lecture 2 previous, in which they first introduced the feature upon request. It's a person, same type that do court reporting, and although he was plainly in sight for the past 2 lectures, he/she was not for Richard Dawkins. I'm guessing that the person was having problems due to Richard Dawkins accent. Keep in mind that a recorder's keyboard is not Qwerty, but one based upon phonetic sounds....

Regarding commenters... The Beyond center will post video of the lecture on their site when it becomes available... Otherwise, many presentations similar are on YouTube and Google Video.

Lippard said...

Mike: Thanks for the info about the typist... do you know if the system uses software to convert the phonetics to normal English spelling? It seemed to frequently start to write out one word and then change the spelling, and it was remarkably good at spelling some pretty long and unusually spelled names, which suggested to me that there was a system that had been pre-loaded with a dictionary of words likely to occur in the talk.

BTW, I'd still call it voice recognition, just using traditional wetware...

Mike said...

The system, as it were, is known as a stenotype, manufactured by a company known as stenograph. I wouldn't exactly call it a system, because it's basically a keyboard that inputs to paper, or a laptop. I couldn't tell you much more than that, I'm not an expert on the machines, but knowing the names should allow you to find some information to satisfy your curiosity.

Regarding Dawkin's talk, it was entirely out of the God Delusion. But even then, in 1996 he made a speech that basically laid out the God Delusion, so it's not like he's restricting his remarks to the book, he's just making his argument as always.

If you want to hear more from Dawkins, you should check out his site, or do a Google Video search for him. There is a lot of information specifically because he's trying to get it out there. He's doing this not to sell books, but to motivate change.

Here's one of Dawkins reciting the preface to the paperback edition. I would recommend listening to the audio book version of "The God Delusion," because there's so much tone of voice that you just don't get from reading. He reads the book himself, along with his wife.