Can We Live by Reason Alone? Debate with Richard Dawkins

What a great interview this one was.

Steve Paikin:

People who believe, believe they get their moral values from religion. Where do atheists get their moral values from, if not religion?

Richard Dawkins:

I very much hope that religious people don’t get their moral values from religion. […] if they did, then they’d be stoning people to death for showing an inch of skin. i mean they do not get their morals from religion if they’re the kind of people you want to know. if you have ever read many of the books of the Old Testament you would not wish to get your moral values [from there].


You’re only talking about the Old testament, here.


Well, why not? If you’re going to say “I get my morals from the New Testament and not the Old Testament”, you’re picking and choosing. you’re picking and choosing on the basis of a modern contemporary view of what’s moral. And where you get that modern view from- you get it something other than religion- you get it from the same place I get it from. You and I- I’m willing to bet- pretty much share our views on the world: we don’t believe in slavery, we believe in the emancipation of women, we don’t believe in cruelty, we don’t believe in torture, these are all things which have come about in relatively recent years. they’ve come about not through religious influence. so wherever people get the modern criteria for picking and choosing those bits of the Bible that they decide to follow and those bits that they don’t, wherever the religious people get it you and i can get it as well.


Okay but what about… [he lists some of the ten commandments]


well you’re picking out particular nice bits of the bible. they happen to be in the bible they’re in moral philosophy . there are all sorts of ways in which you could justify that and atheists don’t, as a matter of fact, kill more than anybody else. they do honor their parents as much as anyone else . there’s absolutely no reason to think that religion comes from scripture. the other way in which religion might give you your morals would be if you were moral because you were frightened of God- which is a pretty contemptible reason for being moral.

i was actually on an American radio show and a man phoned in and said if he didn’t believe in God he would murder his neighbor. there are actually people who think that the only reason they are moral is that they are frightened of being punished by God. what a dreadful reason for being moral. That’s not being moral at all.


Ok but let me get back to my original question which was if people see religion as their source of morality, assuming that they get it from “the good portions of the bible”, where do atheists find their moral code from?


I have denied to you that religious people get their morals from religion- they get it from the same place atheists get it. now it’s quite a difficult answer to say where we get all our morals from. but wherever else it is it isn’t religion. if you ask where do we get our condemnation of slavery from well that’s certainly not from religion it’s from somewhere else. Where do we all get it from- I’m not going to answer “where do atheists get it from”- i’m going to answer where we all get it from.

…Now check out Dawkins’ well thought-out and worded answer to this complicated question:

I think where we get it from is from a steadily shifting consensus of moral philosophy, of legal judgments, of parliamentary votes, of journalistic editorials, of dinner party conversations, there’s a whole zeitgeist which is steadily moving- and you can tell it is moving because the moral outlook of today is actually quite different from what it was a hundred years ago and even more different from two hundred years ago. There’s a steadily shifting moral zeitgeist which is fed by this complicated interplay of all the things I just mentioned and it is across all of society (different in different societies) but it tends to move it on a broad front and with hindsight you can pick out bits of the bible- or the Qu’ran or whatever your holy book happens to be – with hindsight you can pick out parts of the Bible that fit with the moral consensus of the century in which you happen to live.


But the consensus apparently evolves…


I think it moves, that’s right. And you can kid yourself that it has something to do with your holy book- because if you search hard enough you can find verses of the holy book that agree with it. you have to ignore all of the other verses of the holy book that most emphatically do not agree with it. You don’t, therefore, get it from the holy book, you get it from this moral consensus, this modern consensus, and modern consensus shifts steadily and its only with hindsight you are able to graft it on to particular cherry-picked parts of your holy book.

You can watch the whole interview by going here or just click play below.  Questions? Comments?  I’d like to know what you think!

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:


3 thoughts on “Can We Live by Reason Alone? Debate with Richard Dawkins

  1. Pingback: Informed Empathy « Sailing to Byzantium

  2. Richard Dawkins proves once again that when it comes to the origins of our morals, however you word it, religious people will never get it or refuse to get it.

  3. Dawkins in my peronal hero, his replies can be barbed as razor wire.

    Religion is just stupid its superstition and still millions of people run around proclaiming how fantastically superstitious they are! they even invent ceremonies to demonstrate how far off into cloud coco land they really are.

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