Ain’t Superstitious

It is a poorly kept secret that I am deeply skeptical of religious beliefs and institutions. The empirical question of whether their net effect is a boon or a blight upon our wretched species is, one could conceivably argue, still an open one, and I do acknowledge that religion provides a harmless existential anodyne for many people, one that it might indeed be cruel to deny them. But every glance at the news — not only the rivers of blood spilled each day over religious disputes worldwide, but also the cheap and tawdry spectacle of US politicians, their eyes glinting with ambition, elbowing one another out of the spotlight to bray about their “faith” — inclines me toward the view that civilization as a whole would be far, far, better off if we could somehow just be shut of the whole sodding mess once and for all.

A little while back the polymath Jonathan Miller presented on the BBC The Atheism Tapes, a series of interviews with some very intelligent and articulate unbelievers, along with, for balance, a prominent theologian. Like almost every other video clip in existence, these conversations have found their way to YouTube. Below is a list of the people Miller spoke with, and links to the interviews.

Physicist Steven Weinberg: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
(An outstandingly thoughtful and articulate discussion by Weinberg; please don’t miss this one.)

Philosopher Daniel Dennett: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Philosopher Colin McGinn: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Biologist Richard Dawkins: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Playwright Arthur Miller: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Theologian Denys Turner: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

– A hat tip to BV for finding these clips.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Malcolm, please don’t allow the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Miller to confuse the logical mind you must possess in order to do the work you do. It is not religion, or capitalism, or even Marxism, let alone any other of the myriad *. Were you, somehow, to abolish all religious faith, my guess is that the same old smelly stuff would hit the same old fan with much the same frequency. ‘The fault, dear Malcolm, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves’. I suppose one could try and abolish people, but now I come to think about it, that’s been tried already!

    Posted July 15, 2007 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  2. Andrew says

    Mr Duff,

    This is my interpretation of your position:

    We as a species have a tendency to accept supernatural explanations for things we are unable to explain by other means (ie. we are superstitious). Because this is such an ingrained tendency it out not be resisted. Therefore, there is no point in questioning any particular strain of superstition no mater how prevalent in our society or how much harm it causes.

    Red herring?

    Posted July 15, 2007 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Gentlemen, I suppose another post is in order. I in no way endorse a campaign to abolish religion; such a bullying approach would be morally wrong, I think, even if it were possible, which I don’t for a moment suppose it is. But one can certainly express the hope that we might be able to outgrow it.

    Andrew, the fact that you and I already manage to live morally informed, meaningful lives without reliance upon religion is already proof that the tendency toward superstition is not so ingrained that it is an insuperable obstacle for our species, no?

    Posted July 15, 2007 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  4. How irritating! I left an enormously wise and witty comment which got lost in the ether. I will try to resurrect I from my gin-soaked memory banks.

    My answer to Andrew is, no, I do not think humans “have a tendency to accept supernatural explanations for things we are unable to explain”, but I do believe we have an absolute imperative to theorise! The sum total of human knowledge a few thousand years ago (even 500 years ago) was tiny compared to today, and our inability to test theories added to a world in which a supernatural agent as an explanation of the otherwise inexplicable was really rather a sensible theory. Such a practice had other benefits, too. But today we can test, and thus the Intelligent (or Incompetent!) Designer, has been forced back from some areas – but, note well, not all.

    However, all of that fails to alter the fact that were you to pick ten men from any age, and of any belief, three of them (I’m feeling benevolent today) are likely to be A1 shits!

    Posted July 15, 2007 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    David, the point you make is well taken. As Daniel Dennett points out in the linked discussion with Miller, before Darwin, the argument from design was an awfully good one; it challenged anyone to come up with an alternative: if a bird’s wing wasn’t designed by God, then where did it come from?

    It was only after a good answer to that challenge came along — one that showed how you could indeed get all that design without needed a Designer — that it was no longer necessary to invoke the miraculous intervention of (and therefore to give credence to the existence of) a supernatural Being.

    You say that the Intelligent Designer has still not been forced out of every corner. You are, perhaps thinking of questions of ultimate origin? But even positing God for those remote acts settles nothing, as we are still left with the question of why God did what he did, rather than something else — which is to ask why God’s own nature is what it is.

    As for Andrew’s remark, I think he is right that we do have an innate (and evolutionarily adaptive) tendency to detect agency and intentionality in everything; what links your two comments is that what qualifies as “supernatural” varies according to what we know about the natural world.

    Posted July 15, 2007 at 4:28 pm | Permalink