Margot (midnight_birth) wrote in margot_quotes,

The Four Horsemen by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.


Title: The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution.
Author: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett (foreword by Stephen Fry).
Genre: Non-fiction, debate, religion, philosophy.
Country: U.K.
Language: English.
Publication Date: Conversation 2007, transcribed into this volume and essays added in 2019.
Summary: At the dawn of the new atheist movement, the thinkers who became known as “the four horsemen,” the heralds of religion's unraveling, sat down together over cocktails. What followed was a rigorous, path-breaking, and enthralling exchange. This is the transcript of that conversation, augmented by material from the living participants. These 3 essays, followed by the discussion (and introduced by Stephen Fry), mark the evolution of their thinking and highlight particularly resonant aspects of this epic exchange. Each man contends with the most fundamental questions of human existence while challenging the others to articulate their own stance on God and religion, cultural criticism, spirituality, debate with people of faith, and the components of a truly ethical life. The Foreword by Stephen Fry introduces the four main personages and the contribution they have made, together and individually through their books, on the debate of how religion affects our lives - from policy making to personal integrity. In The Hubris of Religion, The Humility of Science, and the Intellectual and Moral Courage of Atheism by Richard Dawkins, the author highlights the amount of made-up inaccuracies in religion as contrasted to science, which loves and strives to answer the mysteries of the world through scientific process and logic, and the moral courage one must possess to be a true atheist. Letting the Neighbours Know by Daniel D. Dennett encourages people to let others in on their beliefs, and while arguing against illuminating churches and houses of worship, proposes to re-purpose and bring them about to a more truthful and logical "dogma". In In Good Company by Sam Harris, Harris talks about the passed-on Christopher Hitchens, as well as the other Horsemen, and their legacy of truth, and underlines the courage and moral fortitude that an atheist possesses when he lives an honourable and honest good life.

My rating: 8/10.
My review:

♥ Richard Dawkins sets the context of this meeting of the Horsemen very well indeed in his new contribution to this book, but it is worth recalling how the Four had, between them, broken new ground in the English-speaking world, opening up debate everywhere, empowering humanism and secularism for a new generation, and giving voice to the always lurking and now growing suspicion that the worst aspects of religion, from faith-healing fakery to murderous martyrdom, could not be separated from the essential nature of religion itself.

♥ This does not cast the New Atheist as a cold, unfeeling Mr Spock. Reason and experience recognize that many pious adherents are sincere in their faith. While it is honourable and legitimate to speculate as to the truth of the tenets of religious faith, there is no call to mock to undermine the individually devout. Flaubert's Coeur simple, the old servant Félicité on her knees, telling the rosary and looking up with reverent wonder at the stained-glass window above the altar, is not ripe for scorn; but the dogma relayed from the Vatican by the cardinal in his palace, dogma that keeps Félicité on her knees, the palace stocked with wine, and the populace plied with nonsensical edicts and eschatological threats... well, that is fair and necessary game. Enquirers into the legitimacy of claims that spill out into the public arena and influence education, law-making and policy have no obligation to consider bruised feelings.

~~from Foreword by Stephen Fry.

♥ Religion, for its part, stands accused of conspicuous overconfidence and sensational lack of humility. The expanding universe, the laws of physics, the fine-tuned physical constants, the laws of chemistry, the slow grind of evolution's mills - all were set in motion so that, in the 14-billion-year fullness of time, we should come into existence. Even the constantly reiterated insistence that we are miserable offenders, born in sin, is a kind of inverted arrogance: such vanity, to presume that our moral conduct has some sort of cosmic significance, as though the Creator of the Universe wouldn't have better things to do than tot up our black marks and our brownie points. The universe is all concerned with me. Is that not the arrogance that passeth all understanding?

♥ The precision of "five" feedings is typical of these kind of religious control-freakery. It surfaced bizarrely in a 2007 fatwa issued by Dr Izzat Atiyya, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University in Cairo who was concerned about the prohibition against male and female colleagues being alone together and came up with an ingenious solution. The female colleague should feed her male colleague "directly from her breast" at least five times. This would make them "relatives" and thereby enable them to be alone together at work. Note that four times would not suffice. He apparently wasn't joking at the time, although he did retract the fatwa after the outcry it provoked. How can people bear to live their lives bound by such insanely specific yet manifestly pointless rules?

♥ Ignorance, to a scientist, is an itch that begs to be pleasurably scratched. Ignorance, if you are a theologian, is something to be washed away by shamelessly making something up. If you are an authority figure like the Pope, you might do it by thinking privately to yourself and waiting for an answer to pop into your head - which you then proclaim as a "revelation". Or you might do it by "interpreting" a Bronze Age text whose author was even more ignorant than you are.

♥ Comparable accuracy is achieved in experimental tests of quantum theory. And here there is a revealing mismatch between our human capacity to demonstrate, with invincible conviction, the predictions of a theory itself. Our brains evolved to understand the movement of buffalo-sized objects at lion speeds in the moderately scaled spaces afforded by the African savanna. Evolution didn't equip us to deal intuitively with what happens to objects when they move to Einsteinian speeds through Einsteinian spaces, or with the sheer weirdness of objects too small to deserve the name "object" at all. Yet somehow the emergent power of our evolved brains has enabled us to develop the crystalline edifice of mathematics by which we accurately predict the behaviour of entities that lie under the radar of our intuitive comprehension. This, too, makes me proud to be human, although to my regret I am not among the mathematically gifted of my species.

♥ A computer "prints" a solid object, say a chess bishop, by depositing a sequence of layers, a process radically and interestingly different from the biological version of "3D printing" which is embryology. A 3D printer can make an exact copy of an existing object. One technique is to feed the computer a series of photographs of the object to be copied, taken from all different angles. The computer does the formidably complicated mathematics to synthesize the specification of the solid shape by integrating the angular views. There may be life forms in the universe that make their children in this body-scanning kind of way, but our own reproduction is instructively different jobs, incidentally, is why almost all biology textbooks are seriously wrong when they describe DNA as a "blueprint" for life. DNA may be a blueprint for protein, but it is not a blueprint for a baby. It's more like recipe or a computer program.

♥ Again, emotion screams: "No, it's too much to believe! You are trying to tell me the entire universe, including me and the trees and the Great Barrier Reef and the Andromeda Galaxy and a tardigrade's finger, all came about by mindless atomic collisions, no supervisor, no architect? You cannot be serious. All this complexity and glory stemmed from Nothing and a random quantum fluctuation? Give me a break." And again, reason quietly and soberly replies: "Yes. Most of the steps in the chain are well understood, although until recently they weren't. In the case of the biological steps, they've been understood since 1859. But more important, even if we never understand all the steps, nothing can change the principle that, however improbably the entity you are trying to explain, postulating a creator god doesn't help you, because the god would itself need exactly the same kind of explanation." However difficult it may be to explain the origin of simplicity, the spontaneous arising of complexity is, by definition, more improbable. And a creative intelligence capable of designing a universe would have to be supremely improbable and supremely in need of explanation in its own right. However improbable the naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, the theistic alternative is even more so. But it needs a courageous leap of reason to accept the conclusion.

This is what I meant when I said the atheistic worldview requires intellectual courage. It requires moral courage, too. As an atheist, you abandon your imaginary friend, you forgo the comforting props of a celestial father figure to bail you out of trouble. You are going to die, and you'll never see your dead loved ones again. There's no holy book to tell you what to do, tell you what's right or wrong. You are an intellectual adult. You must face up to life, to moral decisions. But there is dignity in that grown-up courage. You stand tall and face into the keen wind of reality. You have company: warm, human arms around you, and a legacy of culture which has built up not only scientific knowledge and the material comforts that applied science brings but also art, music, the rule of law, and civilized discourse on morals. Morality and standards for life ban be built up by intelligent design - design by real, intelligent humans who actually exist. Atheists have the intellectual courage to accept reality for what it is: wonderfully and shockingly explicable. As an atheist, you have the moral courage to live to the full the only life you're ever going to get: to fully inhabit reality, rejoice in it, and do your best finally to leave it better than you found it.

~~The Hubris of Religion, The Humility of Science, and the Intellectual and Moral Courage of Atheism by Richard Dawkins.

♥ Some of your best friends may be atheists, and you may know that, but now almost everybody knows that almost everybody knows that some of almost everybody's best friends are atheists - which makes it much less daunting and dangerous to "come out" as an atheist. There is strength in numbers, but much more strength when the numbers know roughly how numerous they are. It permits a measure of coordination, which doesn't even have to be carefully reasoned out. It has recently been shown that bacteria - which are about as uncomprehending as a living thing can be - engage in quorum sensing, delaying their commitment to a new simple strategy until they have detected enough allies in the neighbourhood to mount a mass action.

There is another relatively subtle effect that can be achieved by everyday folks. You don't have to be politically powerful or famous or eloquent or even notably influential in your community: you can be a sacrificial anode. The term sounds both dangerous and religious, but it is neither. It is well know among sailors and fishermen and others who work on boats and ships, and it goes by other names: cathodic protection system, or just zink, or sometimes - a term I like because it conjures up such shocking images - sacrificial plate. (Did you just picture the head of John the Baptist on Salome's serving platter?)

When a steel boat or ship with a bronze or brass propeller sits in salt water, a battery of sorts is created, with electrons flowing spontaneously from steel to the alloy, eating it away at an alarming rate. A brand new solid-brass propeller can become pitted in a few days and destroyed in a few months; painting it with some protective shield is ineffective. The solution: boot a small piece of zinc (other metals will work, but zinc for various reasons is best) to the steel (alternatively, thread a zinc nut of sorts on to the stainless steel propeller shaft) and your problem is solved. The modest piece of zinc, being galvanically more active than the brass or bronze alloy, "takes all the heat" (the current) and allows itself to be sacrificed in order to protect the part that needs to do the heavy work. Once a year, you can easily replace the almost-depleted piece of zinc with a new sacrificial abode.

The political moral to be drawn from this analogy is obvious. If you are, say, a US senator or representative, or other official whose effectiveness would be seriously diminished by a reputation for extremism (in any dimension or direction), it helps mightily to have others a little further out there, visible and undaunted, who can tolerate being seen as "too radical" because their livelihoods ans security don't depend (much) on such a reputation. Since those on either side of any political divide are motivated to caricature and exaggerate the opinions of the opposition, effective political advocacy depends on being able to disavow slightly more galvanically active opinion held by some of the folks on one's own side of things.

There are limits, to be sure. As in any other arms race, there is a dynamic interplay, and if polarization becomes too extreme - with many people all too willing to be sacrificial anodes for their favourite politicians - the value of the strategic principle evaporates. But here is where the frank and open expression of one's actual views - however boring and middle-of-the-road they seem to you to be - can do some valuable work. Just calmly letting the neighbours know that you are in favour of x, disapprove of y, think z is not to be trusted - in short, being not just an informed citizen by an informing citizen - can substantially contribute to the reduction of polarization and the gradual displacement of received opinion in the directions you favour.

♥ Many things are quite harmless in moderation and poisonous only in quantity. I understand why Hitch emphasized this view; as a foreign correspondent he had much first-hand, dangerous experience with the worst features of religion, while I know of all that only at second hand - often from his reportage. I, in contract, have known people whose lives would be desolate and friendless if it weren't for the nonjudgmental welcome they have received in one religious organization or another. I regret the residual rationalism valorized by almost all religion, but I don't see the state playing the succouring, comforting role well, so until we find secular successor organizations to take up that humane task, I am not in favour of ushering churches off the scene. I would rather assist in transforming these organizations into forms that are not caught in the trap of irrational - and necessarily insincere - allegiance to patent nonsense.

♥ Any who search the transcription of our discussion for either a monolithic shared creed or a contradiction suppressed for political reasons will come up empty-handed. It is always amusing to hear us accused of having our own "faith", our own "religion" - as if to say: "You atheists are just as unpresentable as we religionists are!" - when the only shared dogma they can point to is our trust in truth, evidence and honest persuasion. That is not blind faith but just the opposite: faith continually tested, corrected and provisionally defended by the testimony of our senses and our common sense. Unlike proselytizers for any religion, we gladly accept the burden of proof for the positions we defend, and we never retreat to any holy texts or ex cathedra pronouncements.

~~Letting the Neighbours Know by Daniel D. Dennett.

♥ Christopher died in 2011, which gives this record a special poignancy. There is no question that his absence has been keenly felt in recent years. More times than I can count, strangers have come forward to say, "I miss Hitch." Their words are always uttered in protest over some fresh crime against reason or good taste. They are spoken after a bully passes by, smirking and unchallenged, whether on the left or on the right. They have become a mantra of sorts, intoned without any hope of effect, in the face of dangerous banalities or lies. Often, I hear in them a note of reproach. Sometimes it's intended.

I, too, miss Hitch. But I will resist the temptation to offer further eulogy here. After all, the time will come when the rest of us have also left the stage. However, it seems that a record of our conversation will remain. We filmed it almost as an afterthought. I'm glad we did.

♥ What are the faithful to believe at this point? One suspects they know that their God isn't nearly as attentive as he would be if he actually existed.

♥ In the absence of God, we find true sources of hope and consolation. Art, literature, sport, philosophy - along with other forms of creativity and contemplation - do not require ignorance or lies to be enjoyed. And then there is science - which, apart from its intrinsic rewards, will be the true source of mercy in the present case. When a vaccine or a cure for Zika is finally found, preventing untold misery and death, will the faithful thank God for it?

No doubt they will. And so these conversations must continue...

~~In Good Company by Sam Harris.

HARRIS: I think our criticism is actually more barbed than that. We're not merely offending people, we're also telling them they're they're wrong to be offended.

ALL: Yes.

HARRIS: Physicists aren't offended when their view of physics is disproved or challenged. This is just not the way rational minds operate when they're really trying to get at what's true in the world. Religions purport to be representing reality, and yet there's this peevish, and tribal, and ultimately dangerous response to having these ideas challenged.

..HITCHENS: I used to run into this when I was younger, in arguments with members of the Communist Party. They sort of knew that it was all up with the Soviet Union. Many of them had suffered a lot and sacrificed a great deal and struggled manfully to keep what they thought was the great ideal alive. Their mainspring had broken, but they couldn't give it up because it would involve a similar concession. But certainly, if anyone had said to me, "How could you say that to them about the Soviet Union? Didn't you know you were going to really make them cry and hurt their feelings?" I would have said, "Don't be ridiculous. Don't be absurd." But I find it in many cases almost an exactly analogous argument.

DENNETT: When people tell me I'm being rude and vicious and terribly aggressive in a way, I say, "If I were saying these things about the pharmaceutical industry or the oil interests, would it be rude? Would it be off limits? No."

DAWKINS: Of course it wouldn't.

DENNETT: Well, I want religion to be treated just the way we treat the pharmaceuticals and the oil industry. I'm not against pharmaceutical companies - I'm against some of the things they do - but I just want to put religions on the same page with them.

HITCHENS: Including denying them tax exemptions, or, in the English case, state subsidies.

DENNETT: What's particularly amusing to me, finally - and at first it infuriated me, but now I'm amused - is that they've managed to enlist legions of non-religious people who take offence on their behalf.

DAWKINS: Exactly my experience.

DENNETT: In fact, the most vicious reviews of my book have been by people who are not themselves religious but they're terribly afraid of hurting the feelings of the people who are religious, and they chastise me worse than anybody who's actually religious.

DAWKINS: Exactly my experience.

HARRIS: ..There's one answer to that question which may illuminate a difference I have with, I think, all three of you. I still use words like "spiritual" and "mystical" without furrowing my brow too much, to the consternation of many atheists. I think there is a range of experience that's rare and is only talked about - without obvious qualms - in religious discourse. And because it's only talked about in religious discourse, it is just riddled with superstition, and it's used to justify various metaphysical schemes - which it can't reasonably do. But clearly people do have extraordinary experiences, whether they have them on LSD or they have them because they sat alone in a cave for a year, or because they just happen to have a nervous system that's especially labile. People can have self-transcending experiences, and religion seems to be the only game in town when talking about those experiences and dignifying them. So this is one reason it's taboo to criticize it, because we're talking about the most important moment in people's lives and we appear to be trashing them, at least from their point of view.

HITCHENS: ..You, Sam, had a marvellous quotation in your blog from Francis Collins, the genome pioneer, who said whilst mountaineering one day he was just overcome by the landscape and then went down on his knees and accepted Jesus Christ. A complete not-sequitur.

HARRIS: Exactly.

HITCHENS: It's never even been suggested that Jesus Christ created that landscape.

HARRIS: A frozen waterfall in three streams put him in mind of the Trinity.

HITCHENS: Absolutely! We're all triune in one way or another. We're programmed for that. That's very clear. It wouldn't ever have been a four-headed God. [Laughter] You know that from experience.

But that would be an enormous distinction to make, and I think it would clear up a lot of people's confusion - that what we have in our emotions, the surplus value of our personalities, aren't particularly useful for out evolution. Or we can't prove they are. But they do belong to us, all the same. They don't belong to the supernatural and are not to be conscripted or annexed by any priesthood.

DENNETT:It's a sad fact that people won't, in a sense, trust their own value of their numinous experiences. They think it isn't really as good as it seems unless it's from God, unless it's some kind of proof of religion. No, it's just as wonderful as it seems. It's just as important. It is the best moment in your life, and it's the moment when you forget yourself and become better than you ever thought you could be, in some way, and you see, in all humbleness, the wonderfulness of nature. That's it! And that's wonderful. But it doesn't add anything to say, "Golly, that has to have been given to me by Somebody even more wonderful."

HITCHENS: It's also, I think, a deformity or shortcoming in the human personality, frankly. Because religion keeps stressing how humble it is, and how meek it is, and how accepting, almost to the point of self-abnegation it is. But actually it makes extraordinarily arrogant claims for these moments. It says, "I suddenly realized that the universe was all about me. And felt terrifically humble about it." Come on! We can laugh people out of that, I believe. And I think we must. ..They shove one aside saying, "Don't mind me, I'm on an errand for God." How modest is that?

HITCHENS: Would you mind if I disagree with you about that?


HITCHENS: It's my impression that a majority of the people I know who call themselves believers, or people of faith, do that all the time. I wouldn't say it was schizophrenia; that would be rude. But they're quite aware of the implausibility of what they say. They don't act on it when they go to the doctor, or when they travel, or anything of this kind. But in some sense they couldn't be without it. But they're quite respectful of the idea of doubt. In fact they try and built it in when they can.

HARRIS: ..And it's a kind of kindling phenomenon: once you say it's good to start without evidence, the fact that you can proceed is a subtle form of evidence, and then the demand for any more evidence is itself a kind of corruption of the intellect, or a temptation, to be guarded against, and you get a kind of perpetual motion machine of self-deception, since you can get this thing up and running.

HITCHENS: But they like the idea that it can't be demonstrated, because then there'd be nothing to be faithful about. If everyone had seen the Resurrection and we all knew that we'd been saved by it, well, the we would be living in an unalterable system of belief, and it would have to be policed. Those of us who don't believe in it are very glad it's not true, because we think it would be horrible. Those who do believe it don't want to to be absolutely proven so there can't be any doubt about it, because then there's no wrestling with conscience, there are no dark nights of the sound.

HARRIS: This was a review of one of our books, I don't remember which, but it made exactly that point: what a crass expectation on the part of atheists that there should be total evidence for any of this. There would be much less magic if everyone was compelled to believe by too much evidence.

HITCHENS: ..And I didn't expect Mother Teresa to come out as an atheist. [Laughter] But reading her letters, which I now have, it's rather interesting. She writes that she can't bring herself to believe any of this. She tells all her confessors, all her superiors, that she can't hear a voice, can't feel a presence, even in the Mass, even in the sacraments. No small thing. They write back to her, saying, "That's good, that's great, you're suffering, it gives you a share in the Crucifixion, it makes you part of Calvary." You can't beat an argument like that. The less you believe it, the more it's a demonstration of faith.

DENNETT: ..we can say, "Look at this interesting bag of tricks that have evolved. Notice that they are circular, that they're self-sustaining, that they could be about anything." And then you don't argue with them, you simply point out that these are not valid ways of thinking about anything. Because you could use the very same tricks to sustain something which was manifestly fraudulent.

And in fact, what fascinates me is that a lot of the tricks have their counterparts with con artists, who use the very same forms of non-argument, the very same non sequiturs, and they make, for instance, a virtue out of trust. And as soon as you start exhibiting any suspicion of the con man, he gets all hurt on you and plays the hurt-feelings cards, and reminds you how wonderful taking it on faith is. There aren't any new tricks; these tricks have evolved over countless years.

HITCHENS: And one could add the production of bogus special effects as well. One of the things that completely convicts religion of being fraudulent is the belief in the miraculous. The same people will say, "Well, Einstein felt a spiritual force in the universe," when what he said was the whole point about it is that there are no miracles. There are no changes in the natural order, that's the miraculous thing. they're completely cynical about claiming him.

HARRIS: ..We make a very strong case when we point that out, and point out also that whatever people are experiencing in church or in prayer, no matter how positive, the fact that Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and Christians are all experiencing it proves that it can't be a matter of the divinity of Jesus or the unique sanctity of the Qur'an.

HITCHENS:'s useful to bear in mind that when you get, as I did this morning on ABC News, the question, "Well, wouldn't you say religion did some good in the world, and there are good [religious] people?" - and you never don't get that argument, and by the way there's no reason you shouldn't - you say, "Well, yes, I have indeed heard it said that Hamas provides social services in Gaza." [Laughter] And I've even heard it said that Louis Farrakhan's group gets young black men in prison off drugs. I don't know if it's true - I'm willing to accept it might be. It doesn't alter the fact that the one is a militarized terrorist organization with a fanatical anti-Semitic ideology and the second is a racist, crackpot cult. I have no doubt that Scientology gets people off drugs, too. But my insistence, always, with these people is that if you will claim it for one, you must accept it for them all. Because if you don't, it's flat-out dishonest.

HITCHEMS: On that point, which I was wanting to raise myself, about our own so-called fundamentalism, there's a cleric in Southwark, the first person I saw attacking you [Richard] and me in print as being just as fundamentalist as those who blew up the London Underground. ..He's a very senior Anglican cleric in the Diocese of Southwark. "How can you call your congregation a flock? Doesn't that say everything about your religion? That you think they're sheep?" He said, "Well, actually I used to be the pastor in New Guinea, where there aren't any sheep." Of course, there are a lot of places where there are no sheep - the Gospel's quite hard to teach as a result. [Laughter] His new congregation.

But this is a man who deliberately does a thing like that. That's as cynical as you could wish, and as adaptive as the day is long. And he says that we who doubt it are as fundamentalist as people who blow up their fellow citizens on the London Underground. It's unconscionable. Thus, I don't really mind being accused of ridiculing or treating with contempt people like that. I just, frankly, have no choice. I have the faculty of humour, and some of it has an edge to it. I'm not going to repress that for the sake of politeness.

DENNETT: Would you think it woulds be good to make a distinction between the professionals and the amateurs? I share your impatience with the officials of the churches - the people who have this as their professional life. I seems to me that they know better. The congregations don't know better, because it's maintained that they should not know better. I do get very anxious about ridiculing the belief of the flock, because of the way in which they have ceded to their leaders, they've delegated authority to their leaders, and they presume their leaders are going to do it right. Who stands up and says, "The buck stops here"? Well, it seems to me it's the preachers themselves, it's the priests, it's the bishops. And we really should hold their feet to the fire.

For instance, just take the issue of creationism. If somebody in a fundamentalist church thinks that creationism makes sense because their pastor told them so, well, I can understand that and excuse that. We all get a lot of what we take to be true from people whom we respect and whom we view as authorities. We don't check everything out. But where did the pastor get this idea? And I don't care where he got it. He or she is responsible because their job is to know what they're talking about, in a way that the congregation is not.

..HITCHENS: ..Because I'll take things that you and Richard say on human natural sciences - not without wanting to check, but I'm often unable to - but knowing that you are the sort of gentleman who would have checked. But if you say, "The bishop told me it so I believe it," you make a fool of yourself, it seems to me - and one is entitled to say so. Just as one is entitled, when dealing with an ordinary racist, to say that his opinions are revolting. He may know no better, but that's not going to save him from my condemnation. And nor should it. And exactly, I think it's condescending not to confront people, as it were, one by one or en masse. Public opinion is often wrong. Mob opinion is almost always wrong. Religious opinion is wrong by definition. We can't avoid this -

I wanted to introduce the name the name "H.L. Mencken" at this point, now a very and justly celebrated American writer. Not particularly to my taste - much too much of a Nietzschean and what really was once meant by "social Darwinist" at one stage. But why did he win the tremendous respect of so many people in this country in the 1920s and '30s? Because he said that the people who believe what the Methodists tell them, and what William Jennings Bryan tells them, are fools. They're not being fooled; they are fools.

DAWKINS: I was once asked at a public meeting, "Don't you think that the mysteriousness of quantum theory is just the same as the the mysteriousness if the Trinity or transubstantiation?" And the answer of course is, [it] can be answered, in two quotes from Richard Feynman. One, Richard Feynman said, "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory." He was admitting that it's highly mysterious. The other thing is that the predictions in quantum theory experimentally are verified to the equivalent of predicting the width of North America to the width of one human hair. And so, quantum theory is massively supported by accurate predictions, even if you don't understand the mystery of the Copenhagen interpretation, whatever it is. Whereas the mystery of the Trinity doesn't even try to make a prediction, let alone an accurate one.

HITCHENS: It isn't a mystery, either.

DENNETT: I don't like the use of the word "mystery" here. I thin there's been a lot of consciousness-raising in philosophy about this term, where we have the so-called new mysterians. These are people who like the term "mystery." Noam Chomsky is quoted as saying there are two kinds of questions - problems and mysteries. Problems are solvable, mysteries aren't. First of all, I just don't buy that. But I buy the distinction, and say there; nothing about mystery in science. There are problems; there are deep problems. There are things we don't know; there are things we'll never know. But they aren't systematically incomprehensible to human beings. The glorification of the idea that these things are systematically incomprehensible I think has no place in science.

DAWKINS: I want to come back to the thing about mystery in physics. Because isn't it possible that with our evolved brains - because we evolved in what I call Middle World, where we never have to cope with either the very small or the cosmologically very large - we may never actually have an intuitive feel for what's going on in quantum mechanics. But we can still test its predictions. We can still actually do the mathematics and do the physics to actually test the predictions - because anybody can read the dials on an instrument.

DENNETT: Right. I think what we can see is that what scientists have constructed, over the centuries, is a series of tools - mind tools, mathematical tools and so forth - that enable us to some degree to overcome the limitations of our evolved brains. Our Stone Age, if you like, rains. And overcoming those limitations is not always direct. Sometimes you have to give up something. Yes, you'll just never be able, as you say, to think intuitively about this. But you can know that even though you can't think intuitively about it, there's this laborious process by which you can make progress. And you do have to code a certain authority to the process, but you can test that. And it can carry you from A to B in the same way that if you're a quadriplegic an artificial device can carry you from A to B. It doesn't mean you can walk from A to B, but you can get from A to B.

HITCHENS: ..But what Haldane, I think it was, said is that the universe is not just queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose. We know there'll be great new discoveries. We know there'll be great new discoveries. We know we'll live to see great things. But we know there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty. That's the whole distinction. The believer has to say, not just that there is a God - the Deist position that there may be a mind at work in the universe, a proposition we can't disprove - but that they know that mind. ..And can interpret it. They're on good terms with it. They get occasional revelations from it. They get briefings form it. Now, any decent argument, any decent intellect, has to begin by excluding people who claim to know more than they can possibly know. You start off by saying, "Well, that's wrong to behind with. Now, can we get on with it?" So, theism is gone in the first round. It's off the island. It's out of the show.

DENNETT: ..I think strikes terror, strikes anxiety, in a lot of religious hearts. Because it just hasn't been brought home to them that this move of theirs is just off limits. It's just not the game; you can't do that. And they've been right all their lives that you can do that - that it's a legitimate way of conducting a discussion. And here suddenly we're just telling, "I'm sorry, that is not a move in this game. In fact, it is a disqualifying move." ..Somebody plays the faith card. They say, "Look, I am a Christian, and we Christians, we just have to believe this, and that's it." At which point - and I think this is the polite was of saying it - you say, "Well, OK, if that's true, you'll just have to excuse yourself from the discussion, because you've declared yourself incompetent to proceed with an open mind." ..If you really can't defend your view, then, sorry, you can't put it forward. We're not going to let you play the faith card. Now, if you want to defend what your Holy Book says in terms that we can appreciate, fine. But because it says it in the Holy Book - that just doesn't cut any ice at all. And if you think it does, you're clearly - first of all, that's just arrogant. It is bullying move, and we're just not going to accept it.

HITCHENS: ..My view has always been that since we have to live with uncertainty, only those who are certain [should] leave the room before the discussion can become adult Victor Stegner seems to think that now we've got to the safe where we can say with reasonable confidence that it is disproved. Or that it's not vindicated. I just thought it would be an interesting proposition. Because it matters a lot to me that our opinions are congruent with uncertainty.

HARRIS: ..If the Bible isn't a magic book, Christianity evaporates. If the Qur'an isn't a magic book, Islam evaporates. And when you look at the books and ask yourself, "Is there the slightest shred of evidence that this is the product of omniscience? Is there a single sentence in here that couldn't have been uttered by a person for whom a wheelbarrow would have been emergent technology?" you have to say no. If the Bible had an account of DNA and electricity and other things that would astonish us, then OK, our jaws would drop and we'd have to have a sensible conversation about the source of this knowledge.

DENNETT: ..Not so much in Breaking the Spell, but when I was working on my book on free will, Freedom Evolves, I kept running into critics who were basically expressing something very close to a religious view - namely, free will is such an important idea that if we gave up the idea of free will, people would lose the sense of responsibility and we would have chaos. And you really don't want to look too closely. Just avert your eyes; do not look too closely at this issue of free will and determinism. And I thought about that explicitly in the environmental-impact category. OK, could I imagine that my irrepressible curiosity could lead me to articulate something, true or false, which would have such devastating effects on the world that I should just shut up and change the subject? I think that's a good question, which we all should ask - absolutely! I spent a lot of time thinking hard about that, and I wouldn't have published either of those two books if I hadn't come to the conclusion that it was not only, as it were, environmentally safe to proceed this way but obligatory. I think you should ask the question. I do.

HARRIS: ..I think it was an op-ed in the L.A. Times - I could be mistaken. But someone argued that the reason the Muslim population in the US isn't radicalized the way it is in western Europe is largely the result of the fact that we honour faith so much in our discourse that the community has not become as insular and as grievance-ridden as it has in western Europe. Now, I don't know if that's true, but if it were true, that could give me a moment's pause

HARRIS: Two issues converge here. One is the question, "What do we want to accomplish?" What do we reasonably think we can accomplish? And then there's this article of faith that circulates, unfortunately, even among people of our viewpoint, that you can't argue anyone out of their beliefs.

So is this a completely fatuous exercise? Or can we actually win a war of ideas with people? Judging from my e-mail, we can. I'm constantly getting e-mail from people who have lost their faith and were, in effect, argued out of it. And the straw that broke tat camel's back was either one of our books, or some other process of reasoning, or the incompatibility between what they knew to be true and what they were told by their faith. I think we have to highlight the fact that it's possible for people to be shown in the contradictions internal to their faith, or the contradiction between their faith, and what we've come to know to be true about the universe. The process can take minutes or months or years, but they have to renounce their superstition in the fact of what they now know to be true.

DAWKINS: I was having an argument with a very sophisticated biologist who's a brilliant expositor of evolution and still believes in God. I said, "How can you? What's this all about?" And he said, "I accept all your rational arguments. However, it's faith." And then he said this very significant phrase to me: "There's a reason that it's called faith!" He said it very decisively, very - almost - aggressively: "There's a reason that it's called faith." And that was, to him, the absolute knock-down clincher. You can't argue with it, because it's faith. And he said it proudly and defiantly, rather than in any sort of apologetic way.

HARRIS: I think we have a cultural problem here. This was brought home to me at one talk I gave. A physics professor came up to me at the end of the talk and told me that he had brought one of his graduate students who was a devout Christian and who was quite shaken by my talk, and all I got of this report was that this was the first time his faith had ever been explicitly challenged. So it's apparently true to say that you can go through the curriculum of becoming a scientist and never have your faith challenged, because it's taboo to do so.

And now ewe have engineers in the Muslim world who can build nuclear bombs and who still think it's plausible that you can get to paradise and get seventy-two virgins. And we have people like Francis Collins who think that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you're in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist.

DENNETT: I think it may be easier than we're supposing to shake people's faith. There's been a moratorium on this for a long time. We're just the beginning of a new wave of explicit attempts to shake people's faith, and it's bearing fruit. And the obstacles, it seems to me, are not that we don't have the facts or the arguments. It's the strategic reasons for not professing it, not admitting it, not admitting it to yourself, not admitting it in public because your family's going to view it as a betrayal. You're just embarrassed to admit that you were taken in by this for so long.

It takes, I think, tremendous courage to just declare that you've given that all up. And if we can find ways to help people find that courage and give them some examples of people who have done this and they're doing just fine - they may have lost the affections of a parent or something like that. They may have hurt some family members - but still I think it's a good thing to encourage them. I don't think we should assume that we can't do this. I think we can

HARRIS: You don't want it to go on with the jihadists?

HITCHENS: No, but I don't have a difference of opinion with the jihadists.

HARRIS: Well, you do, in terms of the legitimacy of their project.

HITCHENS: No, not really. There's nothing to argue about with that. I mean, there it's a simple matter: I want them to be extirpated. That's a purely primate response with me - recognizing the need to destroy an enemy in order to assure my own survival. I have no interest at all in what they think. We haven't yet come to your question about Islam, but I have no interest at all in what jihadists think. I'm only interested in refining methods of destroying them. A task for which, by the way, one gets very little secular support.

HITCHENS: ..But I'd love to hear: would you like to say that you look forward to a word where no one has any faith?

DAWKINS: Yes, I want to answer this. Whether it's astrology or religion or anything else, I want to live in a world where people think sceptically for themselves, look at evidence. Not because astrology's harmful; I guess it probably isn't harmful. But if you go through the world thinking that it's OK to just believe things because you believe them without evidence, then you're missing so much. And it's such a wonderful experience to live in the world and understand why you're living in the world, and understand what makes it work, understand about the real stars, understand about astronomy, that it's an impoverishing thing to be reduced to the pettiness of astrology.

DENNETT: ..Let's look at Islam. And let's look at Islam as realistically as we can. Is there any remote chance of a reformed, reasonable Islam?

DAWKINS: Well, the present savage Islam is actually rather recent, isn't it?

DENNETT: You have to go back quite a way, I think, to get the—

HARRIS: Only yo to a point. And again, whether or not we're equipped to deliver it, we're not the most persuasive mouthpieces of this criticism. It takes someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or a Muslim scholar someone like Ibn Warraq, to authentically criticize Islam and have it be heard by people, especially the secular liberals of the sort who don't trust our take on this. But it seems to me that you have distinct historical periods in the history of Islam. You have a caliphate, or a Muslim country where Islam reigns and is unmolested from the outside, and then Islam can be as totalitarian and happy with itself as possible, and you don't see the inherent liabilities of its creed. The political scientist Samuel Huntington said, "Islam has bloody borders." It's at the borders that we're noticing this problem; it's at the borders of Islam and modernity. There is a conflict between Islam and modernity. But, yes, you can finds instances in the history of Islam where people weren't running around waging jihad, because they had successfully waged jihad.

HITCHENS: That is the worst thing in our world. In our world, surely the worst thing that anyone can say is, "No further inquiries needed. You've already got all you need to know. All else is commentary." That is the most sinister and dangerous thing, and that is a claim Islam makes that others don't make in quite the same way. ..There's no regard for Islam in Christianity or Judaism, but there is [regard for these other faiths] in Islam. They accept all the bits of Judaism. They love Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son. They love all that. They absolutely esteem the Virgin Birth, the most nonsensical bits of Christianity. They think all that is great. "You're all welcome to join, but we have the final word." That's deadly. And I think our existence is incompatible with that preaching.

DENNETT: Let me just play devil's advocate for a moment, so at least we're clear what the position is.

HITCHENS: I'd rather speak for the devil pro bono myself. [Laughter]

HARRIS: ..But, actually, you brought up something which I think is crucial here. Because it's not so much the spread of seditious truths to Islam or to the rest of the world that I think we're guilty of in the eyes of our opponents. It's that we don't honour facts that aren't easily quantified or easily discussed in science. The classic retort to all of us is, "Prove to me that you love your wife" - as though this were a knock-down argument against atheism; you can't prove it. Well, if you unpack that a little bit, you can prove it. You can demonstrate it. We know what we mean by "love". But there is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by science, and scientific discourse has ceded it it to religious discourse.

DENNETT: Well, and artistic discourse.


DENNETT: Which is not religious, necessarily.

HARRIS: But I would argue it's not even well captured by art, in the same way that love is not well captured by art. And compassion isn't. You can represent them in art, but they're not reducible to art. You don't go into the museum and find compassion in its purest form. And I think there's something about the way we are, as atheists, merely dismiss the big claims of religious people that convinces religious people that there's something we're missing. And I think we have to be sensitive to this.

HARRIS: ..If there had been a secular patronage of the arts at that point, then (1) we can't know that Michelangelo was actually a believer, because the consequences of professing your unbelief back then was death. And (2), if we had a secular organization to commission Michelangelo, we would have all that secular artwork.

HITCHENS: I didn't actually say that the corollary held.

HARRIS: Which?

HITCHENS: I think it's true that we can't know, with devotional painting and sculpture, whether the patronage did or didn't have a lot to do with it. But I can't hear myself saying, "If only you had a secular painter, he would have done work just as good." I don't know why - and I'm quite happy to find that I don't know why - I can't quite hear myself saying it.

DAWKINS: What? That Michelangelo, if he'd been commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, wouldn't have produced something just as wonderful?

HITCHENS: In some way, I'm reluctant to affirm that, yes.

DAWKINS: Really? I find it very, very easy to believe that.

HITCHENS: That could be a difference between us. I mean, with devotional poetry - I don't know very much about painting and architecture, and some of the devotional architecture, like, say, St Peter's, I don't like anyway and knowing that it was built by a special sale of indulgences doesn't help, either. With devotional poetry, like, let us say, John Donne or George Herbert, I find it very hard to imagine that it's faked or done for a patron.

DAWKINS: Yes, I think that's fair enough.

HITCHENS: It would be very improbable that people wrote poetry like that to please anyone.

DAWKINS: But in any case, what conclusion would you draw? If Donne's devotional poetry is wonderful, so what? That doesn't show that it represents truth in any sense.

..DENNETT: I don't see how this is anything other than a special case. Other special cases of which would be that you just couldn't - I can't think of a perfect example - Only by being lost at sea for two years in a boat, say, and surviving, that's the only way you could conceivably write an account of that. It could not be fiction. And it's glorious, wonderful art. And it's right. That can be true, and we just accept it. That's true. And Donne's poetry: only very extreme circumstances could make it possible, and we can be grateful, perhaps, that those extreme circumstances existed and made it possible.

HARRIS: In his case, yes. But you wouldn't recommend being lost at sea to everyone.

HARRIS: You raised this issue, though, of whether or not we would wish the churches empty on Sundays, and I think you were uncertain whether you would. And I think I would agree. I would want a different church. I would want a different ritual, motivated by different ideas. But I think there's a place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construct that doesn't presuppose any bullshit. I think there's a usefulness to seeking profundity as a matter of our attention.


HARRIS: And our neglect of this area, as atheists, at times makes even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are. And it takes someone like Sayyid Qutb, who is as crazy as it gets - he was Osama bin Laden's favourite philosopher. He came out to Greeley, Colorado, around 1950 and spent a year in American and noticed that his American hosts were spending all their time gossiping about movie stars and trimming their hedges and coveting each other's automobiles, and he came to believe that America, or the West, was so trivial in its preoccupations and so materialistic that it had to be destroyed. Now, this shouldn't be construed as my giving any credence to his worldview, but he had a point. There is something trivial and horrible about the day-to-day fascinations of most people, most of the time. There is a difference between using your attention wisely, in a meaningful way, and perpetual distraction. And traditionally only religion has tried to enunciate that difference. And I think that's a lapse in our—

DAWKINS: I think you've made that point, and we've accepted it, Sam. Going back to the thing about whether we'd like to see churches empty: I think I would like to see churches empty. What I wouldn't like to see, however, is ignorance of the Bible.

HITCHENS: ..I haven't been tempted to go to church since I was a very small boy, but one reason that makes it very easy to keep me out of church is the use of the New English Bible.

DAWKINS: Oh, and how! Yes! [Laughter]

HITCHENS: There's really no point in going. I can't see how anyone does go, and I can see why people stay away. They've thrown away—

HARRIS: All the poetry. Yes.

HITCHENS: —a pearl richer than all their tribe.

..DENNETT: But now, seriously: Do you therefore delight in the fact that churches are modernizing their texts and using the—

DAWKINS: No, I don't. It's an aesthetic point. No, I don't.

HITCHENS: That's the worst of both worlds.

DENNETT: That's what it seems to me. Yes.

HITCHENS: And we should be grateful for it. [Laughter]

DENNETT: That's right. We didn't impose this on them, they did it to themselves.

HARRIS: We weren't clever enough.

HITCHENS: We don't blow up Shia mosques, either. We don't blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas. We don't desecrate. We would, for the reasons given by Sophocles in Antigone, have a natural resistance to profanity and desecration. We leave it to the pious to destroy churches and burn synagogues or blow up each other's mosques. And I think that's a point that we ought to, we might, spend more time making. Because I do think it is feared of us - which was my point to begin with - that we wish for a world that's somehow empty of this echo of music and poetry and the numinous, and so forth. That we would be happy in a Brave New World. And I don't think it's true of any of us— ..I think it's a point we might spend a bit more time making. That the howling wilderness of nothingness is much more likely to result from holy war or religious conflict or theocracy than it is from a proper secularism, which would therefore I think, have to not just allow or leave or tolerate or condescend to our patronize but actually, in a sense, welcome the persistence of something like faith. I feel I've put it better now than I did at the beginning.

HARRIS: Well, what do you mean by "something like faith"?

DENNETT: How like faith?

HITCHENS: Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know.

DAWKINS: I was once a guest on a British radio programme called Desert Island Discs, where you have to choose the eight records which you'd take to a desert island and talk about them. And one of the ones I chose was Bach's Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. Wonderful, wonderful sacred music.

DENNETT: Beautiful.

DAWKINS: And the woman questioning me couldn't understand why I would wish to have this piece of music. Beautiful music, and its beauty is indeed enhanced by knowing what it means. But you don't actually have to believe it; it's like reading fiction.

DENNETT: Exactly.

DAWKINS: You can lose yourself in fiction, and be totally moved to tears by it, but nobody would ever say you've got to believe that this person existed or that the sadness you feel really reflected something that actually happened.

HITCHENS: ..Clearly, we're not cultural vandals, but maybe we should think about why so many people suspect that that's what we are. If I were to accept one criticism that people make, or one suspicion that I suspect they harbour, or fear that they may have, I think that that might be the one: that it would be all chromium and steel and—

DENNETT: And no Christmas carols and no menorahs and no—

DAWKINS: Anybody who makes that criticism couldn't possibly have read any of our books.

DENNETT: Well, that's another problem, too. And of course it isn't just our books, it's so many books. People don't read them. They just read the reviews, and they decide that's what the books is about.

HITCHENS: We're about to have the Christmas wars again, of course; this being the last day of September. You can feel it all coming on. But whenever it comes up, when I go on any of these shows to discuss it, I say it was Oliver Cromwell who cut down the Christmas trees and forbade... It was the Puritan Protestants, the ancestors of the American fundamentalists, who said Christmas would be blasphemy.

..HARRIS: We were all outed with our Christmas trees last year.

..DAWKINS: I have not the slightest problem with Christmas trees.

DENNETT: We had our Christmas card, with out pictures of—

HITCHENS: It's a good old Norse booze-up. And why the hell not?

DENNETT: Well, but it's not just that.

HITCHENS: I like solstices as much as the next person.

DENNETT: We have an annual Christmas carol party, where we sing the music. And all the music with all the words, and not the secular Christmas stuff.

DAWKINS: And why not?

DENNETT: And it's just glorious stuff. That part of the Christian story is fantastic - it's just a beautiful tale! And you can love every inch of it without believing it.

DAWKINS: Rabbi Neuberger. And she asked me whether I said grace in New College when I happened to be senior fellow. And I said, "Of course I say grace. It's a matter of simple courtesy." And she was furious that I should somehow be so hypocritical as to say grace. And I could only say, "Well, look, it may mean something to you, but it means absolutely nothing to me. This is a Latin formula which has some history, and I appreciate history." Freddie Ayer, the philosopher, also used to say grace, and what he said was, "I won't utter falsehoods but I have no objection to uttering meaningless statements." [Laughter]

HITCHENS: I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false. And for that reason: because they're false in preferring faith to reason. And latently at least, they're equally dangerous.

DAWKINS: Equally false, but surely not quite equally dangerous. Because—

HITCHENS: No. Latently, I think so.

DAWKINS: Latently, maybe. Yes.

HITCHENS: Because of the surrender of the mind. The eagerness to discard the only thing we've got that makes us higher primates: the faculty of reason. That's always deadly. ..Yes, but over space and time, all that, I think, tremendously evens out. I mean, I didn't expect, and I'm sure neither did you, that in the sixties there would be such a threat from Jewish fundamentalism. Relatively small numbers, but in a very important place, a strategic place, in deciding to try and bring on the Messiah by stealing other people's land and trying to bring on the end. It's numerically extremely small, but the consequences that it's had have been absolutely calamitous. We didn't use to think actually that Judaism was a threat in that way at all, until the Zionist movement annexed the Messianic, or fused with it - because the Messianists didn't use to be Zionists, as you know. So you never know what's coming up next.

HARRIS: Well, that I certainly agree with.

HITCHENS: And I agree that I'm not likely to have my throat cut at the supermarket by a Quaker. But the Quakers do say, "We preach non-resistance to evil." That's as wicked a position as you could possibly have.

HARRIS: Given the right context, yes.

HITCHENS: What could be more revolting than that? Saying you see evil and violence and cruelty and you don't fight it.

DENNETT: Yes, they're free riders.

HITCHENS: Yes. Read Franklin on what the Quakers were like at the crucial moment, in Philadelphia, when there had to be a battle over freedom, and see why people despised them. I would have then said that Quakerism was actually quite a serious danger to the United States. So, it's a matter of space and time. But no, they're all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, honourless and dangerous, in the last analysis.

HITCHENS: I feel myself on the losing side politically and on the winning side intellectually.

DENNETT: You don't see anything to do?

HITCHENS: In the current zeitgeist, I don't think we would be accused of undue conceit if we said of ourselves, or didn't mind it being said of us, that we've been opening and carrying forward and largely winning an argument that's been neglected for too long. And that's certainly true in the United States and Britain at this moment, it seems to me. But in global terms I think we're absolutely in a tiny, dwindling minority that's going to be defeated by the forces of theocracy.

HARRIS: So you're betting against us?

HITCHENS: I think they're going to end up by destroying civilization. I've long thought so. But not without a struggle.

~~The Four Horsemen: A Discussion by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.
Tags: 1st-person narrative non-fiction, 2000s, 2010s, 21st century - non-fiction, american - non-fiction, anti-theism, art, british - non-fiction, debate, essays, ethics, music, non-fiction, philosophy, politics, religion, religion - christianity, religion - islam, religion - judaism, science, social criticism

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