Richard Dawkins interview: Science, religion, irrationality, group selection, and his new memoir.


Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Dawkins is emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. His most recent is An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, part one of a two-part memoir. He has inspired millions with his popular science books, yet also drawn fire for controversial remarks—particularly on religion. Rowan Hooper wanted to know how he feels about his public image and if, at 72, he worries his role as the world's most famous atheist will eclipse his scientific legacy.


Rowan Hooper: You have just published part one of your memoir. Is it intended as a humanizing exercise, to show you're not a mean, nasty baddie?
Richard Dawkins: I don't know how many people think I'm mean. I'm certainly not and I didn't consciously set out to do any image-cleaning or anything. I like to think it's an honest portrayal of how I really am. And I hope it is human, yes.

RH: Nevertheless, there's a gulf between the real you and the caricature Richard Dawkins. How has that come about?
RD: I have two theories which are not mutually exclusive. One is the religion business. People really, really hate their religion being criticized. It's as though you've said they had an ugly face, they seem to identify personally with it. There is a historical attitude that religion is off-limits to criticism.

Also, some people find clarity threatening. They like muddle, confusion, obscurity. So when somebody does no more than speak clearly it sounds threatening.

RH: You definitely polarize people. How do you feel about the hate mail you get?
RD: I did a film that's on YouTube of me reading hate mail with a woman playing the cello in the background. Sweet strains to contrast with this awful, "you fucking wanker Dawkins" and so on. Making comedy of it is a pretty good way of absorbing it.

Written By: Rowan Hooper
continue to source article at


  1. “People really, really hate their religion being criticized. It’s as though you’ve said they had an ugly face, they seem to identify personally with it.”

    That’s so true.

  2. I think that the more illiterate and ignorant Fox News viewers, teapublicans and other religious conservative Americans (the ones who write those loving, Christ-like emails to Richard) tend to regard anyone with a British accent as snobbish or condescending…also, knowing the really looooooong grudge-holding abilities of some of our southern Bible-Belt sorts, I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t still pissed off at the British over the Revolutionary War. Lots of them still wave their Confederate flags and pretend the North never won the Civil War, and they’re not long on logic, so I really wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. I quite like this theory:
    “… that the risks we faced in our natural state often came from evolved agents like leopards and snakes. So with a natural phenomenon … the prudent thing might have been to attribute it to an agent rather than to forces of physics. It’s the proverbial rustle in the long grass: It’s probably not a leopard, but if it is, you’re in for it. So a bias towards seeing agency rather than boring old natural forces may have been built into us.”

    It certainly explains prayer. Most people who pray do not expect miracles, but better to cover that base in case there IS someone listening.

    That may take quite a lot of overcoming. Even though we no longer need to fear leopards, we inherit the instincts of those who did. Seeing agency where there isn’t any is something that may have been programmed into our brains.

  4. I don’t like that statement in third question – “You definitely polarize people”. If someone feels that, or if someone think that Dawkins is mean than that is their problem isn’t it? I mean don’t they ask themselves why do they feel so? 🙂
    But I find the last question rather interesting,… the one about basis of irrationality. It is very hard to me to see how that can be, because humans have consciousness and they learn they behavior since the day they are born. From early days we can be successfully taught to be liars, mean, evil, open minded, etc. Human beings are manageable. But I would like to read more about that basis of irrationality.

  5. In reply to #3 by justinesaracen:

    Well, Daniel Dennett wrote in his book “Breaking the spell.Religion as a natural phenomenon”, that people prayed and started with these rituals because they did not know what are the intentions of people. What is intentional subject going to do in relation to them. And it was important regarding survival to know that. 🙂 I can not remember exactly, but if you are interesting you can read about it it there. 🙂

Leave a Reply