Dawkins, Religion, Morality, and the Importance of Being Informed
In a video interview on Al Jazeera English, the well-known Professor Richard Dawkins is asked why murder is wrong if life isn’t sacred (about 29:45 into the video). “Where do we get the notion of morality,” a caller asks, “from physics or from God?”
It’s an excellent question.
Unfortunately, Dr. Dawkins — usually known for using evidence to support his positions — here essentially reprimands the caller for asking a stupid question: “I cannot believe you’re suggesting” that there could be morality only with God. “Do you seriously think,” he continues mockingly, that people didn’t know that killing was wrong until Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and told the people “thou shalt not kill.”
To me (as I said at the very start of my TEDx presentation), this is like saying that of course we don’t need farmers any more because we can get food from supermarkets. I might equally ask Dr. Dawkins, “do you seriously believe that we need people to grow fruits and vegetables when they’re available at any supermarket?”
More specifically, Dr. Dawkins’ response is troubling for three reasons:
- I think he’s misunderstood the role of religion.
- I know he’s misquoted the Bible.
- I think he’s wrong.
The Role of Religion
Dr. Dawkins seems to be missing the essential point. He says that everyone knows murder is wrong, that there are certain evolutionary reasons to come to abhor murder, that it’s better to live in a society where people don’t kill for no reason, and so forth. But even if all of that is true, it’s religion that encodes this important information, and it’s religion that brings the message to people who are trying to decide how to live their lives.
In other words, even if Dr. Dawkins is right that God has nothing to do with morality because some things are immoral simply because they are immoral, it’s still religion that occupies itself with pushing people toward doing what’s right.
The Importance of Being Informed
Ironically, just before the question about morality, Dr. Dawkins stresses that “people who don’t know what they’re talking about should keep quiet,” yet then minutes later he misquotes the Bible to make his point about religion.
It’s well know that the translation “thou shalt not kill” is inaccurate. (I go through all of the evidence in chapter 7 of my And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. The short version is that the commandment only applies to illegal killing, and the point is that laws about killing, unlike some other laws, are both matters of law and of morality.) In other circumstances, Dr. Dawkins might be forgiven for relying on a mistranslation, but here he’s trying to speak to the very nature of religion and he’s asserting that he knows what he’s talking about.
The point of the Ten Commandments is that some things are not only illegal but also immoral, and illegal killing is one of those things. (Again, I go into more detail in my TEDx presentation, starting around 15:20 into the video.) So it’s important to distinguish between “kill” and “kill illegally” (“murder” is pretty close, though a little too narrow, because some killing is illegal but not murder).
More generally, Dr. Dawkins seems not to understand the role of religion that he is attacking. He seems to think that, according to the Ten Commandments and religions based on them, the only reason not to murder is that God might catch you and punish you. Some people believe this. But another religion-based approach is that these things are wrong because God doesn’t want us to do them, even if God doesn’t actually punish us.
This is no different than making murder illegal — a step that probably makes sense even though most people wouldn’t murder even if it were legal, and some murderers don’t get caught.
Perhaps most importantly, I think Dr. Dawkins is wrong.
I imagine a thought experiment. You’re a sharpshooter and you’re flying over an island in international waters. As it happens, two people are living on the island. No one (except, now, you) knows they’re there. They have no living relatives. And they’re too old to have children. Because you enjoy your craft you take aim and shoot them both dead. Have you done anything wrong?
My answer is yes, because it displeases God.
My question is whether Dr. Dawkins thinks it’s wrong, and, if so, why? After all, no one suffers. No one is around to mourn their death, and (because Dr. Dawkins admits no afterlife of any sort) they themselves don’t care that they’re dead. Because the island is in international waters, it’s not even clear that any laws have been broken. In fact, the world may be better off, because you’ve had a fun day, there’s a tiny bit more oxygen left for the rest of us, and you’ve improved your skills, which you can now put to good use.
I suppose Dr. Dawkins would mock me, as he did the caller, for asking, but I’ve been asking this question for 20 years, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer other than, “it’s wrong because of some external determination.”
I call that God.