National Press Club

Religious Beliefs Are "Totally Arbitrary," Author Dawkins Tells Club

October 2, 2013 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver |

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ponders a question at the Club's Book Rap.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ponders a question at the Club's Book Rap.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Most people believe the religion of their parents and that is “totally arbitrary,” Richard Dawkins told a Club Book Rap Sept. 30.

Dawkins was at the Press Club promoting his new book, ``An Appetite for Wonder.'' The book is part one of his autobiography. Part two should be available in a couple of years, he said.

Sally Quinn, editor-in-chief of the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Blog, interviewed Dawkins. Quinn said she decided she was an atheist at age 5. It took Dawkins a bit longer, until the age of 17 to reach the same conclusion, she said.

Dawkins dismissed as “exceptions” Quinn’s remark that some people leave their faith and then return to it. “The great majority of the world follows the religious tradition of their parents and that is totally arbitrary,” he said.

Most people turn to religion to understand things that are not yet understood scientifically, Dawkins said. “You would have to be pretty dead intellectually to not want to know where we came from,” he said.

People are drawn to religion from “wishful thinking” that they will see their deceased loved ones again, Dawkins said.

“It might be comforting to believe that you are going to survive your own death,” he said, but “just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it true.”

Since humans cannot prove the existence of God, all believers should label themselves as agnostics, both Dawkins and Quinn said but Dawkins said he is an atheist because that means “you live your life on the assumption that there is no Zeus, that there is no Thor, that there is no Jehovah.”

Morals should not come from scripture because it is full of contradictions, Dawkins said. “We have to pick among the verses of scripture for those that we accept,” he said.

Since morality shouldn’t be based on scripture, it also should not be based on religion, Dawkins said. “One of the great myths that I wish we could dispel is that you must believe in religion to be good,” he said.

Humans learned that it was better to be nice to their fellowmen when they lived in small clans and had to react on a regular basis with the same people, Dawkins said. Just as the lust for sex was necessary to procreate and still survives in the age of contraception, “the lust to be nice was selected in our ancestral past when it had survival value [and it] remains even though we now live in large cities.”

Quinn said she and Dawkins led parallel lives in many respects, noting they were the same age, their parents married in the same year, both went to boarding school and they were both “Elvis freaks.”

Jan King of the Club’s Book and Author Committee introduced Dawkins and Quinn.