Five years ago this month, Richard Dawkins was interviewed on RTE’s Late Late Show about his then new book The Greatest Show on Earth. It is fascinating look at Irish television when Atheist Ireland was less than a year old.
It was a time when host Ryan Tubridy could interview Richard Dawkins about a book on evolution and science, ask him mostly questions about religion and atheism, say that pretty much everyone watching would say God is very much in their thesis, invite a Catholic priest to make the only audience contribution, and ask for a show of hands of audience members who believe in God.
Also note how Ryan asks Richard two provocative questions: “So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?” and “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?” Richard responds that the Vatican is an expensive waste of time, and the amount of evidence for God and the Easter Bunny is equally sparse.
Having himself introduced the provocative phrases Toy Town and Easter Bunny, Ryan then says: “I want to talk to a member of the audience here, Father Brendan Purcell, a man of the cloth. Brendan, the Vatican is Toy Town, God is the Easter Bunny, and you as a priest have been wasting your time.”
Here is a transcript of the interview.
Why did Richard write this book?
Ryan Tubridy: My next guest is a man known for his controversial views. He says for example that if you believe in God you may as well believe in fairies. His latest book is about evolution, which he calls not only the only show in town but also the Greatest Show on Earth…. Richard Dawkins, welcome to the Late Late Show. Another book, another day, another chat show. Why did you write this one?
Richard Dawkins: It’s about just about the most important thing you could imagine a book being about. It’s about why we are all here, why we exist, why animals and plants, just about everything we see, exists. That’s the most rivetingly exciting subject. It could have been written at any time. I take it, though, that you mean why write it now?
Tubridy: Why now?
Dawkins: Less interesting question.
Tubridy: Well I’ll take the answer, and if you can make it interesting I’d appreciate it.
Dawkins: Well, it is true that there is poll information which suggests that in the United States, somewhat more than 40% of the population thinks that the entire world is less than 10,000 years old. Now that is a bizarre circumstance, that 40% of the population of the major industrial nation in the world should have a view which is so incredibly out of tune with reality. And that is one reason I felt it was necessary to write the book.
Tubridy: What would they feel about your writing? Do they think its just that you’re being unfair to them, that you have it wrong?
Dawkins: They think that everything in the book of Genesis is literally true, if science contradicts the book of Genesis, science must be wrong and Genesis must be right.
When did humans arrive on earth?
Tubridy: What’s your take on what happened vis-a-vis humans arriving on the scene in the state that we’re in? When did that happen?
Dawkins: When did humans arrive on Earth? Well, it was a gradual process. It’s a bit like saying when does a child become an adult? You know, by convention we say that happens on the stroke of midnight on the 18th birthday, but we know that it’s actually a gradual process. So there never was a moment when the first human was born. The first human looked exactly like the last ape, so to speak. But if you put a figure of about 100,000 years, by about then you would be getting humans that looked exactly like us, as far as their anatomy was concerned, but probably not as far as their culture was concerned. They didn’t have painting and things like that.
Tubridy: And how different are we from other animals then, broadly?
Dawkins: We are hugely different from other animals in that we have language, we have art, we have mathematics, philosophy. We have all sorts of emotions that other animals probably don’t have.
Where does God fit into all of this?
Tubridy: And what about the notion of God? where does God fit into all of this?
Dawkins: Well, God as I see it has very little to do any more. There was a time when God had a lot to do in people’s minds. He made to the world, he made a life, he made humans. That’s all out now. We don’t need God any more to explain anything. And I think that pretty much means we don’t need God at all.
Tubridy: Yes, but who are ‘we’? Because pretty much everyone watching the, well, many people watching the tv, watching us tonight would say I don’t belong to that ‘we’. That God is very much in their thesis.
Dawkins: No doubt it is. And no doubt there are people who get plenty of consolation from the idea of God, and there are people who think they talk to God, and who think God talks to them, but that doesn’t mean he’s really there.
Tubridy: So where is he?
Dawkins: He doesn’t exist.
Tubridy: Not in the slightest?
Dawkins: I would have thought not. There’s certainly no evidence that any sort of god exists, no.
Tubridy: So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?
Dawkins: Yes. A gigantic and very expensive and very rich waste of time.
Tubridy: There will be many people watching tonight who will say that much of their lives have been lived based on a belief system that involves God very much being in existence, and that this is what they’ve lived their life based on. What do you say to them?
Dawkins: But that of course is true. There are many people who think exactly that. It doesn’t mean that they are right.
Tubridy: And your thoughts on their beliefs?
Dawkins: Well, they are misguided. Mistaken.
Tubridy: Do you feel sorry for them?
Dawkins: Well, because if people have really sincerely lived their lives under a delusion, and feel that they needed it for support and for living a full life, if you suddenly pull it out from under them they are naturally going to feel somewhat bereft.
Tubridy: Where does the notion of God come from them?
Dawkins: Oh, well, I think it goes back a very long way. I think it partly comes from the desire to understand. We look around the world and we see what an incredibly elaborate and complicated place that it is. We’re used to the idea that complicated things must be made by something or someone. So it’s very easy to see why the idea of God should have grown up. And it took a very long time, it took until the middle of the 19th century, until people realised that there was another, better, more economical explanation for all that.
Tubridy: Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?
Dawkins: Pretty much, yes.
Tubridy: Would you equate them?
Dawkins: Yes, pretty much. That sounds facetious, because of course nobody believes in the Easter Bunny, and lots of people believe in God, but if you actually examine the amount of evidence there is for either, it’s equally sparse.
Tubridy: God fills a space for a lot of people in their lives, as you probably know from talking to people who believe in God. I mean spiritual, soul and so on. And people who have religion and believe in God might believe that the road you travel is a very lonely one.
Dawkins: Not at all lonely. I have great friends and I have a wonderful life with human companionship. That’s real. Warm human companionship, it’s really there. That’s not imaginary. That’s really there. By the way, this has nothing to do with the new book. You’re asking me questions about the previous book, the God Delusion.
What happens when we die?
Tubridy: I’m also asking questions that are interesting to us. I’m not being smart about it, I’m just telling the truth. So what happens, as you see it, when we die?
Dawkins: Well, some of us get buried, and some of us get cremated.
Tubridy: And where do we go, as you see it? If that is? Game over?
Dawkins: Game over, but the game while it lasts is pretty wonderful. I mean, what happens when we die is the same as before we were born. We didn’t know anything about it when Henry VIII was alive, and we won’t know anything about it in 500 years time.
Tubridy: Do you fear death?
Dawkins: No. I fear dying.
Dawkins: Because I’m not, unlike my dog, allowed to go to the vet and be painlessly put to sleep. Because I belong to this privileged species, Homo Sapiens, which is the only one that is not allowed to be painlessly put out of its misery. I would like to die under a general anaesthetic, just as I would like to have my appendix out under a general anaesthetic.
Tubridy: Have you thought about, at the risk of being morbid about you, have you thought about your own funeral?
Dawkins: Yeah, I have. I thought I might like to ask for the music from the, you know, the Elephant March from Aida… do do do do, di di di do do do, di di di do do do… very triumphant trumpet music to see me out.
Dawkins: A triumphant exit?
Tubridy: But why do you want a ceremony to see you off?
Dawkins: Well, I have organised ceremonies for deeply loved colleagues, funeral ceremonies. I have organised readings of their favourite poetry, their favourite music, eulogies from friends who have known and loved them. I think it is important. I think that humans do need rituals, they do need rites of that sort, and when somebody dies I think it’s right to give them a proper sendoff, some sort of a wake which remembers them, and which makes you feel that you’ve somehow fulfilled something.
Audience contribution from Father Brendan Purcell
Tubridy: I want to talk to a member of the audience here, Father Brendan Purcell, a man of the cloth. Brendan, the Vatican is Toy Town, God is the Easter Bunny, and you as a priest have been wasting your time.
Father Purcell: Well, I wouldn’t exactly put it like that. I would go back to the things that Richard was saying earlier. I have no problem with science. I mean my mother left school at 16, and she read the origin of species at breakfast time. It was the only time she had free in the morning. And she followed that by reading the Bible, things she had never done in her life. I think in Ireland we don’t have the problem that you mentioned in the States. In my first year at university we did a book I’m sure you’re familiar with, All John Maynard Smith’s theory of evolution. That was taught by a priest. in other words, it isn’t a problem in Ireland, the reason that you wrote that book. I mean we never thought, I never thought there was any conflict between science and evolution and my belief at all. But I do feel, I’ve read a lot of your work and I have to say that my favourite book of yours is The Ancestor’s Tale. I think it’s totally brilliant.
Tubridy: Do you like what he writes?
Father Purcell: I like some of what he writes more than others.
Tubridy: What is your contention with what he writes?
Father Purcell: The contention I would have is, I have two or three of them, but the first and most obvious one would be science. I think, I’m not trying to annoy you, Richard, but I think he believes in science, in the sense that he thinks that science explains everything. But I mean the one thing that science doesn’t explain is science itself. I’m talking about the natural sciences, including biology. So I think there really is a problem here because the word science comes from the Latin word meaning knowledge, and I think there are other forms of knowledge that are just as well grounded as the knowledge from the natural sciences. There are questions that are not asked by the natural sciences. So I’ve always felt, in a certain sense, that you shouldn’t give answers to questions you haven’t asked.
Tubridy: Richard Dawkins, you might argue that with your theory and evolution and so on, there’s evidence to look at, to point to. Brendan, what do you point to when it comes to God?
Father Purcell: I would say that one of the good things when it comes to his book, I’ve read the reviews but they haven’t had time to read it yet, but one of the good things is that part of it is written like a detective story, and there’s clues, and you’re spotting the clues. And I would say one of the obvious clues to the existence of God, remember we’re not talking about the God of Christianity, of the Old Testament, we’re talking about a God at the level of pure reason. Effectively, the fact that you have a reality, namely the big bang, you have a question there that cannot be answered by physics or astronomy. And if you read the big guys, like Stephen Hawking, the famous guy, you’ve seen him in his wheelchair, a book that he wrote with another guy way back in the 70s, George Ellis, it’s quite clear, he said we have come to a singularity here, a singularity is a thing that we can’t repeat again and again. It’s the start of everything, which we cannot explain by physics or astronomy. and is not to jump in and say now we have a challenge. I think the classic question to ask here, which I’m sure Richard has been asked many times, is why have we something rather than nothing? And biology isn’t meant, my equivalent of biology is something like, if I can make a parallel between a farmer and a supermarket, a farmer produces the stuff, the supermarkets are selling it, the biologist deals with the stuff as its presented, it doesn’t explain where the blinking fruit came from.
Who in the audience believes in God?
Tubridy: Anyone else want to come in here on what Richard Dawkins is saying? because I would be curious to know, just looking at the audience here, hands up everyone here in the audience who believes in God. Okay, Richard what would you call that, about 50, 60, 70%?
Dawkins: I would say more, if anything.
Dawkins: Let’s see those who don’t.
Tubridy: Hands up those who do not believe in God? it’s just a sprinkling. Which is quite interesting. I mean what you think of that?
Dawkins: Oh yeah, I mean that’s the kind of result I would have expected.
Tubridy: So are all the hands who went up the first time deluded?
Richard responds to Father Purcell
Dawkins: Look, why don’t I just come back and answer that? (referring to Father Purcell’s comments) First, I’m glad you brought the subject back in a way to the topic of this book, rather than the previous book, which was the God Delusion. Now, when you say that I believe in science, and, you know, why do I believe in science, it’s really because it works. I mean, the evidence is there. It’s a kind of self validating process, because as a result of science, these television cameras work. Planes fly. Cars go. Day after day we see that the evidence of our eyes is that science works. Now when you are asked about the evidence for God, you used my analogy of the detective coming on the scene of the crime, and you infer it from all the clues that are lying around. That’s what I use to say how we know how evolution happened, because we can’t see it, because it happened mostly before we were born. But I don’t actually think it’s right to say that the world is littered with evidence for God. I think when you look at it carefully, it turns out that this particular detective has got it wrong. You think that the evidence is there, but I think if you look is really carefully… I mean, before Darwin came along, you would, as any intelligent theologian would, believe in evolution, but, before Darwin came along, most people didn’t. Now, Darwin changed our mind on that. And I suspect that we will find that other people are going to come along and change our minds about the other clues that you think you’ve seen.
What is the future of humans?
Tubridy: Okay. Let’s talk about, another element of the book that I would like to ask you about, is the future of evolution. Where do we go from here? What is the future for humans as you see it?
Dawkins: In evolution?
Tubridy: Yes, where do you see it?
Dawkins: Well, remember that when we’re thinking about the future, we are used to thinking in a historical timescale, which is centuries. You’re not going to see much evolution in centuries. So we’ve got to look forward, say, a couple of million years in order to give that question an interesting answer. In a couple of million years, the chances are we’ll be extinct, because most species do go extinct. But, on the other hand, there is something rather special about the human species. If any species could protect itself against going extinct, the way that the dinosaurs did, it might be ours, because we do have the technology to do that. So let’s suppose that we do manage to survive through 10 million years, what are we going to look like then? Nobody has the faintest idea. But in order for any particular hypothesis to be true, like you might say perhaps the brain will go on getting bigger. The dominant trend in the last 3 million years of our evolution is that the brain has swollen up from the size of a chimpanzee’s brain about 3 million years ago, Lucy’s brain was about the size of chimpanzees brain, to now, is it going to be much bigger again In 10 million years time? Well, only if it is true that the cleverest or the brainiest, or the individuals with the biggest brains, are the ones who have the most children. So is there any evidence that the people have the most children are the brightest or the cleverest or the ones with the biggest brains? I don’t think so. But it would have to be so in order for natural selection to favour the enlargement of the brain. It must have been so during the last 3 million years, otherwise brain size would not have increased the way that it has since the time of Lucy 3 million years ago.
Tubridy: Okay, well, thank you for coming to see us this evening.
Dawkins: Thank you very much.
Tubridy: The book, by the way is there. It’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Nice to talk you. Richard Dawkins, ladies and gentlemen.