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Richard Dawkins on board with a pro-atheist message

'The God Delusion's' author, a backer of a British Humanist Assn. bus ad campaign, talks about the collision of science and religion.

January 12, 2009|Henry Chu

OXFORD, ENGLAND — All they are saying is give atheism a chance.

This month 800 buses rolled out of depots across Britain plastered with advertisements cheerfully informing people that "there's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Sponsored by the British Humanist Assn., the campaign is the brainchild of a comedian who had seen Christian messages on buses, looked up the websites of the organizations behind them and found warnings that, as a nonbeliever, she was destined to go to hell.

The new ads have attracted little controversy in Britain, a secular country that finds religious fervor a tad awkward. Perhaps the biggest kerfuffle has been over the word "probably" in the slogan, which the British advertising authority said should be thrown in to keep the ad from being potentially misleading, on the grounds that no one can say with 100% certainty that God does not exist.

The campaign's highest-profile backer is Richard Dawkins, a biology professor at Oxford University and the author of "The God Delusion," a defense of scientifically based atheism that became a bestseller in Britain and the U.S. Dawkins pledged to match donations to the campaign up to $8,250 -- a figure that was quickly reached.

Passionate but gentlemanly, Dawkins spoke recently with The Times in Oxford. A longer version of the interview is on

Were you surprised that so many individual donors responded to the campaign to mount bus advertisements?

I'm surprised and delighted but also somewhat embarrassed. The original target was 5,500 pounds [about $8,250], which I offered to match and we thought that we'd be lucky to get. . . . It would have been enough for buses for a brief period in London.

What happened was huge numbers of people gave small sums -- 10 pounds, 15 pounds. . . . The final figure is something like 130,000. That's why I said I was embarrassed, because that is too much money to spend on a bus campaign. . . . I was actually in favor of diverting the money to something else, which I thought the donors would approve. But other members of the group felt that [as] the money had been given for the bus campaign they were legally obliged to spend it on that campaign.

Does having to stick in the word "probably" to conform with advertising regulations bother you? Doesn't that make it more an agnostics campaign?

I argued against that. I wanted a stronger statement. However, I've come around to it now, partly because a complaint has now been made to the Advertising Standards Agency, which suggested that the word "probably" was necessary. . . .

But I also quite like it now because it's got a sort of quirky humor about it. It recalls the Carlsberg lager advertisement: "Probably the best lager in the world." . . . It encourages people to start talking.

The campaign's website quotes you in "The God Delusion" as saying that even the declaration "There is no God" is a statement of faith, and that "reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist." Doesn't that make you more of an agnostic than an out-and-out atheist?

I don't think that total atheism is a totally rational position. Anyone that definitely says there is no God -- you can't rationally say that any more than you can say there are definitely no unicorns, there are no dragons, there are no fairies. . . .

To the extent that I'm an "a-fairyist" or an "a-unicornist," I am an atheist.

The bus advertisements tell people to "relax" because there is no God. But now is a time of economic stress for a lot of people who might derive some comfort from their religious beliefs. Isn't this an insensitive moment to deprive people of that comfort?

Yeah, it probably is. When this slogan was dreamed up, not by me, . . . that was before this economic crisis. I wasn't happy even then with the slogan because it seemed to me to have a whiff of hedonism about it.

I think I'd have preferred something like, not "Enjoy your life," but "Spend your life doing good," or something more high-minded.

Do you see any redeeming values in religion or a belief in God?

You can find individuals who are religious who are also good people, and even people who do good things motivated by religion. I suspect you'll find a lot of missionaries all over Africa and New Guinea and places who are doing good in one form or another. But I don't think there's any general reason, any logical pathway, that goes from being religious to being good.

For those people who are willing to give up religion and belief in God, what would you recommend as a substitute worldview?

As a worldview, scientific rationalism.

As also a way of answering moral questions?

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