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About this episode:
Is religion an evolutionary adaptation that has helped the human species to thrive? Or is there a basis to belief in God that goes beyond biological explanations? In a post-Christian age what will replace the repository of wisdom that religion has offered?
Filmed in front of a live audience in London, Bret Weinstein and Alister McGrath address the relationship between religion, evolution, morality and culture. These two videos include the main conversation and subsequent audience Q&A.
Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist and one of the leading voices in the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’. As a non-believer he says religion is a product of evolution, but it has been good for humanity. As such it is ‘metaphorically true but literally false’.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. A leading British theologian with a background in biochemistry, he believes Christianity is not merely a ‘useful fiction’ but grounded in evidence and the ultimate truth of God.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1 | Part 2: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 2: The Universe: Where did it come from and why are we part of it?
- Episode 3: The story of Jesus: Can we trust the historical reliability of the Gospels?
- Episode 4 | Part 1: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 4 | Part 2: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 5: Did Christianity give us our human values?
- Episode 6: Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?
Justin Brierley (JB), Alister Mcgrath (AM) & Bret Weinstein (BW)
JB: Welcome to today’s live audience edition of The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is: Religion: useful fiction or ultimate truth? The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Alister Mcgrath and Bret Weinstein.
Alister Mcgrath is Andreas Idreos professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. As a Christian theologian with a background in bio-chemistry, Alister is well known for his writing and speaking on the subject of science and faith. He is the author of many books including last year’s title, ‘The Great Mystery: Science, God and the Human Quest for Meaning’.
Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist who, until 2017, was professor of Biology at Evergreen State College in the USA. Now there’s an interesting back story about how exactly he is no longer in that position and we might get some of that tonight. But since then Bret has been an active participant in a lively public conversation on science, culture, faith and freedom of speech. Now Bret is an atheist but he’s not anti-religion. Rather, he says that religion is literally false but metaphorically true. We’re going to dig into that tonight. As such, if you like, religion is a beneficial adaptation produced by evolution, what I’ve termed a ‘useful fiction’, if you like.
Now Alister also believes in the benefits of religion, of course, but not just as a product of evolution. Christianity is not only good for us but also ultimately true in its claims about God and Jesus.
So tonight is very much an open-ended conversation exploring what science, faith, evidence and experience tell us about humanity’s search for ultimate meaning.
So will you give a great round of applause to Alister and Bret?
I’ve really been looking forward to this evening, gents. This is a great way, I think, to begin this series, The Big Conversation. To have, what I think, is a really important discussion, one that has been going on for some time but where the landscape, I think, has changed a bit in recent years.
Let’s do some introductions first. Bret, not many people may have heard of you here in the UK but I know you’ve sort of become better known in recent years in the US especially. It’s interesting, I note on your Twitter account you describe yourself as a ‘professor in exile’. Why is that?
BW: Well, it’s almost a literal description; I was a professor at the Evergreen State College. A protest was cooked up by some of my faculty colleagues. They sent students that I had never met to my classroom to protest my employment and demand that I be fired or that I resign. I thought this was preposterous, that there was no way they could bring that about. I was very popular as a professor and I had many students, all of whom remained loyal to me throughout the protest but I had not counted on the partnership of the protestors and the college president.
And the college president arranged a situation in which it was no longer tenable for me and for my wife – who also taught at Evergreen, was literally Evergreen’s most popular professor – it was no longer tenable for us to stay. At the height of the protest, protestors were actually searching vehicles coming on to and leaving campus for me. The president had told the police who reported to him as the college police that they were not to intervene and effectively a band of anarchists were meting out justice on the campus. And this was no way to continue teaching. So, anyway we left after setting up to sue the college and then finally negotiating our way out and we’ve been living on the outside of the academy ever since.
JB: Obviously your role has changed a great deal because of that in the last couple of years. What new opportunities, though, would you say that that change has afforded you?
BW: Heather and I were teaching in a very unusual way, one that is not typically evoked when people hear about college professors. Evergreen was a radical experiment in alternative education and that had many features to it. The most important ones for us were the complete freedom of professors to teach what they wanted to teach in whatever way they wished to teach and full-time programmes where students and professors each participated in one class at a time that could go on for a full year.
And that created a landscape for us where we could explore revolutionary biology in great depth and we could teach to every individual in the room because we knew them very, very well and they knew us. So we could establish a kind of trust. We could explore evolutionary biology in a kind of depth that just can’t be done four credits at a time.
But that happened at a certain scale, you know. There were 25 students in the room at a time, maybe 50 if two of us were teaching together. And what has happened since we’ve left is we’ve been able to take that material to a much larger audience. The interest that was generated in what happened to us turned into an opportunity to share insights about evolution that people are fascinated by with a much larger audience.
JB: Tell us a little bit about your own background. Was there ever any sort of religious inclinations or upbringing in your own life, Bret?
BW: Well I do want to correct one thing. You introduced me as an atheist and although I do not believe that there is anything supernatural taking place in the universe I don’t call myself an atheist. And there’s a reason for that but probably most of you would regard me as one.
I was raised in a household that was quite secular; we did celebrate traditional holidays but the deity was never invoked in earnest. And so that was my background and when I got to college – I should say, I did feel a kind of sense that I might be missing something as a child as some of my friends were being Bah Mitzvahed and the like and I did actually request to go to a Hebrew school. And when I attended Hebrew school I was very disappointed because the culture was not welcoming of questions. It shut down exactly the kind of questions I wanted to ask about what was being presented. And so I abandoned it and I figured that was the end of the story – and then when I went to college and started becoming fascinated by evolutionary biology I realised that there was something wrong with the evolutionary story as it fails to account for religion. That in some sense religion is every bit as demanding of an evolutionary explanation as a wing or an eye or any other intricate structure that we find in nature. And I began to pursue what that explanation might be and I think, in some sense, that’s what leads me here today.
JB: Well I’m really looking forward to having the dialogue with you tonight, Bret, thanks for coming over and sharing it with us.
Some introductions to you, Alister. I imagine a number of people may be familiar with you and your large body of work that you’ve put out there. Tell us a little though of your own story and background because you actually began in biochemistry but as an atheist as an undergraduate.
What caused you to change? Why are you now a theologian?
AM: Well I think the roots of my change of mind really happened when I was at school when I was studying science as an atheist. Very, very clear, you know, science entails atheism. And then, knowing I was going to Oxford to study chemistry, having some time at my disposal I thought I’d read the literature about the history and philosophy of science which up to that point I’d ignored. And after reading it you began to realise that the kind of scientific positivism I’d imbibed; science proves everything, it’s absolutely secure knowledge, actually was rather more complicated than that.
And so I began to realise, look, the history of science is saying, this is what people used to think, now they think this. And you began to just get this idea that maybe this is what we think now but what will people think in 50 years’ time? How can we be secure because it’s a moving landscape? It didn’t convert me or anything but it did make me think, this is rather more complicated than I’ve been told.
And I think in many ways that that probably was the end of my love affair of atheism because I felt it was hopelessly simplistic, or at least the forms I knew. And I think what really drew me to Christianity was this deep sense that actually it offered me, if I can put it like this, a bigger picture of things. A way of making sense of myself, of our world, and also providing conceptual space for science. In other words, I continue to love science and feeling this was something that really mattered but having a sort of framework into which I could fit it. So I’m not in any way hostile towards atheism but I do feel that… kind of when there are questions one wants to have in discussion which is why I think tonight’s conversation could be very interesting.
JB: Good. You’ve obviously done a lot of work in recent years engaging atheism, the New Atheism, particularly of people like Dawkins and Dennet and Hitchens and co. Do you feel like, you know, in the decade or more since books like, ‘The God Delusion’ came out, we’re any further along in this conversation? That people are more willing to look at things from your perspective?
AM: Well I don’t know if people want to look at it from my perspective or not. But I think there is this feeling that actually it’s just not that simple; that there has to be something better than this. And I think we could say that the New Atheism is waning and something else seems to be coming in its place. But I would be hesitant to say what that something else is because I can see various possibilities.
What I do think is that New Atheism is a very good example of the law of unintended consequences. Because, in effect, the movement that wanted to shut down the discussion about religion has actually opened it up. And I think that is quite remarkable in many ways. I think people like the questions that are being asked but weren’t sure about the answers being given and the questions are still there on the table which is why we are having this conversation.
JB: Alister says that there has, in his view, been a waning of the New Atheism. As someone who doesn’t particularly like the label ‘atheist’ what’s been your perspective on that? And I know you actually recently did a discussion with Dawkins as well?
BW: Yea, I’ve done a discussion with Dawkins in October and I had the privilege of moderating a debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Petersen which I think is also relevant to that question – Sam Harris being one of the foremost new atheist apocalypse.
But, in any case, I have kind of a mixed sense about New Atheism. I was always frustrated with it. I thought it was over simplistic, it did not acknowledge the obligation that science has to treat religion carefully, it was too dismissive. On the other hand, I do think – and this may be part of my experience as an American and it may or may not translate to the UK – but there was a sort of a pressive sense in the US that you couldn’t afford to acknowledge in public that you had no faith. That would be, for example, a deal killer in an election and it shouldn’t be. So there is a way in which I think the New Atheists were necessary; that they carved out territory in which perspectives that were not legitimate are suddenly mainstream and that’s good. On the other hand, it did a real disservice to the relationship between people of faith and people of materialist science because it essentially labelled those who have faith as suffering from some kind of a disorder or a delusion or a pathology and it can be none of the above. So I’m glad the question is open but I think it’s time we become more sophisticated about what really is under discussion.
JB: And obviously I want this to be a discussion where you both feel free to engage each other; I don’t have to be the go between. But Alister did talk about this idea that Christianity, for him, became a lens through which he made sense of himself and the world around him. Is there anything that functions in that way for you, Bret? Is it the evolutionary paradigm for instance or something like that?
BW: Well, I will say it is the evolutionary paradigm but it’s probably not the one that you encountered in bio 101. That evolutionary paradigm is incapable of addressing the nuances of being human and as such it leaves you with a kind of a cartoon. That cartoon may function, if we’re talking about insects or something but it is inadequate to dealing with human beings and the way they evolve.
Once one figures out how human beings do evolve, though, it is, I think, a fully satisfying rubric, a fully satisfying lens through which to view human complexity and it does not force you to caricature. So, for me, I do find that that lens is good enough and where it doesn’t quite work it needs to be elaborated rather than supplemented.
JB: I mean, when it comes to evolution specifically, Alister, you are obviously someone who embraces an evolutionary account of how life came to be and so on?
Why, for you… because presumably, though, it’s not all all-encompassing account of what makes humans, humans in that sense?
AM: No, I mean, for me, if you like, it’s part of the picture. And a welcome part of the picture. But there is an awful lot more to be said about who we are.
I think, for me, I mean if I look at Richard Dawkins, he developed this idea he calls, ‘universal Darwinism’ and really, for me, it’s about taking provisional scientific theory – which is open to correction and development – and actually inflating it into a metaphysical world-view. And I think that does a disservice to Darwin I have to say, who was always very cautious about these things.
Going back to New Atheism, I think, for me, there are three real concerns about New Atheism which worried me; one was that there…I don’t mind people attacking religious ideas, that gets a good discussion in a way, but no, they attack religious people and said, these are fools. They are mentally ill. And you know that’s just not acceptable. We are very, very sensitive about hate crime these days, we need to be careful about this. They weren’t.
We also need to be aware that actually they almost seem to have this habit of using intellectual criteria to critique others but they don’t use to evaluate their own positions. And really I think that’s something that really needs to be looked at. This idea, if you like, what you might call ‘epistemic virtue’. In other words, you use the same criteria to judge yourself as you use to judge other people. That’s a level playing field and I’m very happy about that.
But, as I was saying earlier, I do think things are moving on. I think there is a growing realisation that what was being presented as something that’s very simple and hence right is actually rather more complicated. And that I think that once we start complexifying things, saying it’s not that simple, then actually that’s when the really interesting conversations begin. The difficulty is that we’re up against the media who are looking for simplistic approaches and I’m afraid the complex nature of these things just doesn’t work at that level.
BW: If I might jump in – I think from where I sit the problem is that people have a very clear sense of what it is about their perspective that’s being excluded by the other side. But if one steps back it appears to me that each perspective has a kind of validity that was not recognised by the other but that that validity comes along with what I would call a ‘bitter pill’.
And so the question really is how many of us a ready to recognise that there is a vindication for us and a bitter pill and that they cannot be taken a la carte, you get them both. And, in some sense, what I’m hoping will emerge from discussions like this is a new – I hesitate to say – an adult conversation about the status of these questions and what it implies for us going forward where really the question of whether or not you can be in the adult conversation is whether you’re ready to accept the downside that comes along with your perspective.
JB: Well let’s get into some of the meat of what we’re talking about tonight.
I wonder if you could maybe give us a brief and hopefully lay person friendly account of how you imagine religious belief arose in a strictly evolutionary paradigm, Bret?
BW: Sure. So the first thing I would say is what we don’t tend to understand when we take a strict, classic Darwinian perspective about humans is that human beings are the far end of a continuum. Most creatures have essentially one mode of inheritance and it is genetic. We have a second mode and it is cultural and we are not completely alone. All of the other mammals have a cultural mode and almost all of the birds have it, but that’s a tiny fraction of the biota. But for those creatures that do have this second mode, what you have is a locale where information can be stored in a non-genetic form and it can be acted upon by the very same kinds of Darwinian forces that shape genes.
So, in one sense, Dawkins introduced this idea with the concept of memes. It became clear in my conversation with him in October though that he didn’t take the concept of memes very seriously; that he thought it was loosely analogous to the genetic Darwinian process but it didn’t have important consequences. What I would argue to you is that we humans have off-loaded a large fraction of the adaptive landscape to what I would call the software layer, right? Our genomes do not create a functional creature, we are utterly helpless at birth and our very long childhoods are a time period in which one can discover and basically self-programme the software necessary for life.
Now, what we do during that time is we largely pick up the wisdom of our immediate ancestors who we meet and then we augment it with things that we discover that they didn’t know, which is a very small fraction of what we come to understand. So if you take that paradigm what you’ll realise is that we get handed a belief system; those individuals whose belief system is a better match for the world have advantages. People whose belief systems are a poor match for the world have disadvantages and over time those belief systems, the narratives that we hand off, will be refined by this process.
And so this is so certain – once you accept that we have these cultural traits and the better ones will inherently be passed on more often than worse ones – it is so certain that effectively we are talking about a tautology. When we talk about, for example, the narratives that go along with the life of Jesus, how is it possible that those narratives were not shaped by the fact that some versions of the story were more compelling, some versions of the story lead to alterations in behaviour that led populations to out compete their rivals? These things effectively have to be true.
And so therein lies the explanation for all of the belief systems that we find different populations having on earth. They are not inherently in competition with each other. They are adaptations to different times and different places, different obstacles. Sometimes a belief system replaces another, sometimes we have a process analogous to speciation where you’ll get, you know, a division for example between Catholics and Protestants where both continue on adapted to slightly different parameters.
JB: I was going to say – I’d be interested in Alister’s response in a moment – but what you’ve described there, in a sense, is this idea that religious beliefs, like perhaps all beliefs of one kind or another, we receive them because of their value that’s been handed down by the evolutionary process. This adaptive, if you like, benefit that it confers on the people who hold it together perhaps in the community?
But in that sense it doesn’t have much to say as to whether those beliefs are true in a kind of objective way, it’s more about their usefulness in that way?
BW: Well I would argue that this is not really an obstacle. That, in a sense – so what I’ve defined as something I call a metaphorical truth. A metaphorical truth is a belief that if one acts according to the idea that it is true, will out compete somebody who will act according to the fact that it is false.
JB: Give an example of what that might look like?
BW: So in order to maybe make this more concrete and to compel you that I’m talking about something very serious and not a nuance I’ll give you my favourite example which is a belief of the Moken people of the Andaman Sea. These are the sea gypsies who live effectively their entire lives either on wooden boats or within a hundred metres of the shore, who were in the path of the Boxing Day tsunami that hit Indonesia so hard.
And it was imagined that because this entire population lived on the sea and on the shore that they would have been essentially near wiped out by the tsunami. And it turned out not a single member of this community, as far as anyone knows, was injured. The villages were completely levelled but every single person had been upslope at the point that the tsunami hit. Why? Because they had a belief in something called, ‘the lavoon’ (? 27:54) which is a spirit of the ancestors. And the spirit of the ancestors apparently becomes hungry periodically to taste human flesh and it rises up out of the sea and wipes the world clean. That’s a metaphorical belief. It saved every member of this population because at the point that the sea receded, just prior to the tsunami, the point at which people who had recently moved to the coast in Indonesia walked out into the newly opened landscape to see the fish flopping about, the Moken people were running upslope because they knew to be terrified, right? That is a belief. It’s not literal. There is no spirit of the ancestors that lives in the sea. What there are, are tectonic plates that slide violently against each other. But this belief that some ancestral spirit lives in the water and that you can recognise that it’s about to come on land because the sea suddenly recedes from you is sufficient. So that would be my…
JB: That’s a really interesting and helpful example.
So, Alister, a lot to think about and respond to there. But I suppose maybe where I’d like to begin is Bret’s general way of looking at the way religious beliefs might have come about through this adaptive value that they have and so on.
What’s your thought on that?
AM: Well my thought is that this is really interesting but obviously I want to ask Bret for some clarification. I mean, religion is not an empirical notion; it is a cultural notion. And what I’m wondering is how one might distinguish, for example, between a religious belief and an ethical belief, both of which might have pro-social outcomes, but it does seem to me that, in effect, in using the word ‘religion’ you are almost asking the question, well, what definition of religion are we actually using because it is not an empirical notion?
And if you look at the history of Western culture it is very, very clear that our understanding of what religion is has shifted over time. So I am assuming you are using a sort of generic understanding of what religion is but it would be good to interrogate that because one of the things I am wondering is whether actually a lot of what you are talking about could be morphed into a discussion of ethics? And that, to me, would be a very interesting point at which to begin the conversation.
I’m also very interested in this idea of a useful fiction. Because, again, if you study the history or philosophy of science, you are very familiar with this idea. For example, Earnst Mach in the 1890s, atoms are a useful fiction; they provide us with a sort of intellectual framework for thinking about things. Now, they are not really there but this is a useful, heuristic way of thinking about this. Or, again, thinking of Einstein and photoelectric effect in 1905. He just said, look, it’s almost as if light is like bundle of waves, almost like a particle and he’s very, very careful with his language; he is not saying it is, it’s a kind of, as if it were. It’s a kind of fiction but actually it is quite a useful fiction.
And my interesting point here – which may take us nowhere but might take us somewhere interesting -is actually the history and philosophy of science very often shows that useful fictions become real things. In effect, they solidify. And so that’s a very interesting question for me, how one begins to determine whether something actually is a useful fiction, what criteria might one use to do that? And obviously I would want to say that I fully understand where Bret is coming from, he has raised some very good questions.
But there is this issue of whether, in effect, one is making a decision to buy into something because you almost have a moral sense this is right. And I’m under a moral obligation to choose what is right and clearly that raises questions. But it’s, in effect, about truth, not so much as utility but as this is where I think things are. And if things are like this then I need to behave in this way to respond to this. And that seems to me to raise a question of what criteria one might use to evaluate this to decide whether it’s a fiction, whether there might actually be something in it. So it seems to me it’s opening up some really interesting questions for further discussion.
JB: Plenty there to respond to, Bret, where do you want to begin?
BW: Well I would start by saying I’m not so concerned about the definition of religion. I don’t really care one way or the other whether the beliefs that we are talking about fall inside the boundary or outside. My feeling is human beings have beliefs, you are absolutely correct that those beliefs hover somewhere between literal descriptions and useful fictions, and that’s the bitter pill for those of us with a scientific materialist perspective is that there is a little bit of faith required to do science as well. And that manifests…
JB: What do you mean by that? Because for many people that would be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Surely there is no faith involved in a project like science?
BW: It’s funny how often a scientist will tell me they actually do their work with zero faith. But, not possible. Because how do you know, for example, that you are not stark raving mad and that this room is not a fiction created by some part of your brain, right? If that were true, if the universe was something you couldn’t observe because you were either comatose and this was some sort of a dream state or if you were the object of some sort of experiment where somebody was piping perceptual information into your jar in order to figure out what you would think in response, then you can’t do science because the only thing you have to perceive is what’s being piped into your jar, right?
So in order to do science you have to make the assumption; I am real, this is real, I can run experiments on it, I can evaluate what I see. And, you know, you can either chose, are you going to resist any faith at all and spend your entire life on the quest of how do I know I exist or are you going to accept Descartes bogus proof I would argue and say, well I’m going to assume that I exist and having assumed that I exist I am going to go on and do useful work. And if it turns out I don’t exist or I’m not where I think I am then no harm, no foul, right?
So there is faith there. There has to be. And really the objective, I would argue, for us scientific materialists is to minimise the amount of faith which sometimes is quite great; if you have a model of the atom that’s very crude, an early model of the atom, then there’s a lot of kind of interstitial stuff that isn’t quite right but is good enough to ask the next question. Eventually you get to, you know, a periodic table that’s highly predictive of what happens when you put two atoms together in certain conditions and so the amount of faith and the amount of metaphorical belief that’s in there is very small relative to what I would call factual information. But it never gets to zero. Our models get better.
JB: In a sense it sounds like you are saying, okay, science does have to, at some level, involve a little bit of faith and there’s these analogies that we have to go with to a certain degree but we are moving towards a more and more objective picture of reality with the scientific project.
Now, when it comes to religion – and Alister, I think, raised the important question of how much that ties in with an ethical question – do you find us moving towards more and more truth, let’s say, about right and wrong? About what we’re supposed to be here for, what the purpose of our existence and the things we do here is for? Are those the kinds of things that also get laid down at some level the more we know about life through the materialistic process of science?
BW: Well very often what I find is that we rediscover things that we knew in some sort of metaphorical narrative sense. So, for example, Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work on how populations can protect a commons, is a rediscovery of folk wisdom that protected many commons before anybody knew anything about game theory. So that’s very frequently the case except there’s a good underlying explanation for why some pattern exists. Very often people don’t have access to it and so they have to… well, here’s an example from Judaeo-Christian theology; if you look up the word ‘filth’ in the bible you will find that the deity is pretty upset about it and he has specific rules about where filth can be and shouldn’t be. And this is thousands of years before the germ theory of disease. So there’s a very good reason that one should avoid having faeces in camp and it has to do with microbes that we weren’t even able to understand until 1859 but thousands of years ahead of time people had good advice and it had to do with believing that some deity cared where it was.
JB: And in that sense, even as someone who is a non-believing Jewish person yourself, Bret, you’d say, yes, you can look at why some of those ancient laws in the Old Testament are there, they had a practical purpose even if it was invested with a spiritual dimension in their eyes?
Again, where would you take this, Alister?
AM: This is very, very interesting. Let me just go back one step; I mean, this point about faith and science, that’s so good. Because you’ve mentioned some people, Max Planck, for example, has this very famous quotation that the portals of the temple of science have, ‘you must have faith’ written all over them, because you have to have. When you are trying to assess whether it’s theory A or theory B very often it’s trying to adjudicate which is the better of two possible theories.
I think it’s very important that… I mean, I dislike Richard Dawkin’s portrayal of science as absolutely robust and so on because at times it is very provisional and tentative and you have to say, well it could be this, it could be this. I’m going to choose that one but I am not absolutely sure but I’m not doing something that’s wrong either because I’m saying I think on balance this is right but I can’t prove that’s right. And that’s why I think your bitter pill – I like that phrase a lot – for me, I think, one of the bitter pills all of us have to swallow is this; that, actually, as human beings, we have to learn to live with the fact that whatever our most cherished beliefs are they are going to lie beyond proof. That is really… it’s not a new insight on that; Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which is going back to the 17th century, but basically it is this realisation which I think is very, very important that you can hold that something is right while being aware you cannot prove it is so. And that, I hope, would encourage a degree of graciousness in our conversations because, in effect, as I was hinting, I think some of the New Atheists think they can prove what they believe. Actually, I think it’s a kind of faith. When I moved away from atheism I think I was always conscious that I was giving up on one faith and moving to another. So that’s an area of conversation.
But I think a really interesting question you’re opening up – which I think might be interesting and we’ll see where it takes us – is we are often told we live in a post-truth generation. Now I’m not quite sure what that means, but I think people think it means that you believe whatever you like. And what I want to know is how we rein that in a bit and say, look, you can’t just believe what you like you have to have reasons for it. Richard Dawkins and I disagree on an awful lot of things but actually on this one point I think he is quite right. You have to be able to show reasons for saying, I think this is right. And that’s why I think it’s very interesting just to see how you can negotiate this to, in effect, recognise that very often we cannot prove what’s right.
But we still feel we are entitled to hold these beliefs but at what point do you have to say, well, actually, that’s not good enough to allow you to do that with integrity. For me, that’s a really interesting question.
JB: What do you make of the question?
BW: Well, I love this and the word ‘integrity’ is great because it also contains the root of ‘integral’ and part of the problem with this modern fascination with believe what you like is that people have this sense that they can dine a la carte and that they can adhere to this principle over here and this principle over there and there is no magic by which that should work.
The fact is a religious tradition is a set that goes together. And we have reason to believe that that set functions together or it would not have come through to the present. Nothing guarantees the going forward from here in the 21st century that it’s still relevant, it may even be very dangerous. But we do know that at some point in the past those ideas fit together. But if you want to pick one from here and one from there the chances that you come up with a coherent set of beliefs and principles is pretty close to zero which begins to raise questions which is; if you are going to adhere to a kind of faith are you not then obligated to take on all of the edicts that come along with it? And what do we do if some of those, or in some cases all of them, are now in conflict with the realities of the modern world? And what do we do about the fact that different traditions will be absolutely incompatible in a way that makes it difficult for us to get along in civilisation? This is really the pickle and it’s… I think if there is a bitter pill for all of us it is that once we come to realise that there is wisdom in these traditions we also have to come to realise that it is not one wisdom and it won’t all fit together easily and work itself out.
JB: It strikes me as well, though, that that movement that you’ve sort of come to be associated with, the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, who are asking these big questions in the secular world about purpose and meaning, and what are we here for, and can we have morality through science or is there something else going on?
That’s a result of the fact that we are increasingly living in a post-religious, post-Christian West where people no longer have the ability to draw necessarily on the religious traditions and communities that once would have informed their story of who they are and what they are here for. And we are entering this more grab-bag kind of culture of, well I’ll have this and that and the other.
But, for you, that’s… people are struggling, obviously, and it’s provoking these big questions for people of; who am I? And, what am I here for? And, what do I do in the absence of one of those grand narratives, if you like?
BW: Well I would argue that actually we are in a crisis in part because these religious texts are, in general, not really designed – when I say ‘designed’ I mean in the evolutionary sense – they are not designed to be coherent. You can’t read the bible one end to the other and say, oh, I understand the meaning because it self-contradicts. It’s dependent on having a clergy who deploys this passage this week, that passage the next week in light of what’s going on inside the community and all sorts of things. So it’s sort of like a… it’s actually a lot like a genome. If you had all your genes transcribed at once you’d just be a puddle of mush, right? It’s dependent on knowing which genes to transcribe where and when. And so what has happened is that the mechanism that has people attending their religious services has broken down so people are, in general, left with a kind of vague relationship to their faith and that is resulting in them picking a la carte and I see no way that this ends well.
JB: What’s your take on the post-Christian, people looking for the answers and everything, Alister, but perhaps they don’t have the Judaeo-Christian narrative that once informed most people’s…?
AM: Well I think we begin by saying that questions of meaning, and identity, and purpose, and agency actually really matter to people. And we also, I think, said that traditionally these have been answered by religion. And we are moving into a situation where the questions remain on the table but they aren’t always answered with…
JB: We’ve got an issue here, the cameraman has been taken ill, I think…
JB: This question, then, of what do we do, I suppose, Alister, in a post-Christian West; people looking for some over-arching narrative not necessarily being provided anymore by a traditional Judaeo-Christian framework that many people have lived in for so long?
Bret sees that it’s not going to end well at this point with the way people are searching and looking to grab onto things. What’s your take? And obviously there are some interesting things Bret had to say there as well about, even with something like the Bible, we are kind of treating it like an organic thing, genomes and so on, I’d be interested in your response to that.
AM: Well I think Bret has raised some really good questions. And certainly we are living in a situation where questions of meaning and identity and purpose remain important. And, of course, they are engaged by religion but people are actually looking elsewhere for those answers. I think it’s a very important point to make.
So, for me, I think we recognise how important these questions are. I think religious people have to ask the question; how do we reconnect with this discussion? Of course, this does raise the question of, for example, whether Christianity is indeed a big picture? And I personally think it is although I’m sure there will be some listening to this who will say, well, no, it’s not really, you are not quite on target here.
But, for me, responding to some of the issues that Bret is raising, for me you have the Bible and the Bible, if you like, can be read in a very incoherent way. Or you can say, is there some way in which we can stand back and allow, in effect, the big picture behind the text to come into focus? In other words, it’s not simply this text or this idea it’s in effect taking them and weaving them together and getting this bigger picture. And so, for me, what you have is, in effect, if you like, something which is based on the bible but nevertheless gives you a way of reading the Bible which, in effect, discloses coherency and uniformity or something like that. And actually gives you this way of looking at things. That would be the approach I would take.
So if I develop it in response to the questions Bret is asking – which I’d say are very good questions – I would say that, in effect, we need to realise that every reading of the Bible is embedded in the cultural context. In other words, Augustine in the 5th century’s reading of the Bible and seeing the collapse of the Roman Empire and is making connections. And those connections are very interesting but actually they don’t necessarily speak to us very well today. So we need to keep re-reading, in effect with our questions in mind, but in dialogue with those who have read it in the past and asking how we can learn from what’s there. So that, to me, seems to be part of the answer to a very good question.
JB: Obviously one of the big differences between you and Bret is that you do believe there’s ultimately a divine hand that works behind something like the Bible, behind Christianity. You don’t simply believe there’s an evolutionary explanation alone, if you like?
So what, for you, are some of the things you would bring to bear to say, interesting theory, Bret, about the way in which beliefs arise and why we hold them. What would you say, but you also need to consider…?
AM: What I would say is that it’s very, very good to be able to identify possible influence and possible causes. But we live in a universe in which there are multiple causes. In effect, it’s not simply a sort of mono-causal system its actually lots of things coming together. And I want to explore what else is there in the mix.
I think you can say this is part of a picture but there is more that needs to be said. Again, this emphasis on complexification. So, again, I speak as Christian, but I don’t speak for all Christians, I need to make that clear. But, for me, the capacity of Christianity to make sense of things; my own personal experience, what I see in the world, creating space, valued space for natural sciences really matters to me. And that’s one of the reasons why I actually quite like C S Lewis because he takes a very similar approach. You may remember that very famous quote from the end of a lecture he gave at Oxford: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun is risen. Not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’. That’s kind of where I’m coming from.
And, obviously, if you take a scientific theory one of the key questions is; how do you check this out? It’s a very good question. And one answer is the extent of which it maps naturally on to what is observed. In other words, what’s the correlation between the theory and observation? And if it’s not good you’ve got to do some rethinking. And that, to me, is a very important thing.
So, for me, if you were to say to me, well, Alister, tell me a point of tension for you – it’s the problem of suffering. That is one area when the theory doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to. But I’m just being very honest about that because I think in other ways it’s quite good. But what Bret is saying – and I think I resonate with what he’s saying – is, actually, we’re moving into territory where maybe we do need to keep re-thinking. And, of course, the New Testament is always saying, put everything to the test and hold on to what is good. So I think we really do need to make sure we’re not locked into a way of reading scripture or a way of expressing a Christian idea that is locked into a by-gone age. It traps us and makes us unable to respond to what we are now experiencing. So I think we have to say somehow we can be rooted in the past, yes, but still find a way to engage the present.
JB: I suppose what I do want to draw out before bringing Bret in again is this question of… Bret says metaphorical truth I’ll give you but literal truth, no. Evolution seems to provide an all-encompassing explanation for why we are here and how we came to believe what we believe.
What factors would you bring to bear to say, actually, I think there are other reasons to believe there is actually a God behind this universe? That there is this sort of – obviously we’ve only got a few minutes…
AM: Obviously I’d want to say that evolution, to me, helps understand how we came to be here. And that’s great and actually it helps to understand a lot of things about ourselves to do with, for example, medical issues and so on which we could easily follow through on.
But then we’re also going back to these deeper questions; why am I here? What’s it all about? And actually these are slightly different questions. And, for me, the ideal situation is to have a resource which helps you with how. And a resource which helps you with why. And so the question, therefore, is the trustworthiness of the resource you bring to bear on why. And so, for me, I have to say I can give you reasons why I believe Christianity to be right. But you would oppress me very hard, as I think you would and rightly so. I would not be able to say, but I can prove that this is right. But I would then just add the rider which is I think we are all in the same boat. Actually, we all live with this dreadful tension, this bitter pill of very often having these deep moral or political or social or religious convictions which actually animate our lives and yet, when you say, show me you are right, actually I can give you give reasons but I can’t prove.
JB: Yea. Bret, where do you want to take it from there?
BW: Well I’m beginning to fear that we may not be able to wrap up this God question tonight…
JB: I was hoping we would have a definitive answer by the end of the evening!
BW: I’m beginning to let go of that goal. Now I’m just hoping not to be struck by lightning.
What I would say is there’s a way in which I think this discussion could lead to a sense that there’s a matter of taste; whether you want to take an admittedly very sober view of religion and the way it interfaces with science or you want to take a bit more radical view and come at it from an evolutionary perspective. But the thing we have to look at is, let’s say that this evolutionary perspective is actually right or substantially right. If it is, we have a new problem which is that those books are full of wisdom that is not up to date. And what we know beyond a shadow of any doubt is that we are playing with tools that are very unlike the tools that the ancestors who refined these texts had at their disposal.
And so what – and I’ve had this argument with Jordan Petersen too – the problem with recognising that these are compendiums of some kind of wisdom, well, there are a couple problems. One, some of the wisdom is itself immoral. If you look at the Old Testament and you look at Deuteronomy, you will find rules for war that are absolutely abhorrent; basically advice on genocide. You’ll find rules for how to properly keep slaves and things like this.
So those are bits of wisdom from the point of view of how to advance your populations interests but they are not ethical advice in any decent sense of the term. That’s one thing. But the other thing is, because these texts are products of evolution the are only relevant to the circumstances in which they evolved. So the fact that the Bible provides no guidance whatsoever on the enrichment of uranium is a problem because really we ought to know not to enrich it. What happens when you enrich it is you create a whole bunch of problems that would be paramount on any actual deity’s mind. There would be wisdom about what to do about it but it’s not in there. And so… maybe the last piece of that puzzle is not only is it not in there but we don’t have time for it to be generated through the normal evolutionary process. We don’t have 1,000 years to figure out what the wisdom for our new tools is. We have to figure that out in some other way.
And so somehow we have to recognise there is wisdom, some of that wisdom remains relevant and honourable, some of it is no longer relevant. Some of it was never honourable and we need a mechanism to add to it in a non-religious framework. And I don’t know how we’re going to get there but I do have the sense that that is the adult conversation.
JB: What’s your take on that way of looking at the wisdom that is, as Bret sees it, limited now in our current situation?
AM: I think Bret is accentuating something very important which is what seems to be the accelerating pace of development which means that the process of reflection and engagement which might have led to gradual transformation actually, if I can put it like this, is being out-paced by what’s happening on the ground.
I think that is a genuine issue. I mean, you and I probably both quite like E. O. Wilson’s, ‘Consilience’. And you remember in that he talks about drowning in information that’s starved of wisdom. And he raises the question of how we are going to get the wisdom and I personally didn’t find his answer very persuasive but I could see where his heart was. He was saying, we’ve got to think about this. And he also says – and this, in effect, involves people who wouldn’t normally talk together to talk together and see if there is any way in which, for example, science and religion, to give two of the partners he mentions can help figure this out. And I think in these situations we really do have to think about this. But the accelerating phase, the pace of things is a real problem.
The other thing which I think is relevant here is this; I mean, if you look at human history, once you understand something, you don’t just say, oh that’s nice, we understand it. You say, right, now we can use it, we can make it do something for us. And we understand how evolution works and the issue is, are we now moving to take control of the process? And, actually, I can see some ways in which that might be beneficial. I can see also some ways in which it frightens me very, very much. And we need wisdom to know which is which.
JB: But does the Bible, for instance, give us wisdom on that? I mean, Bret says it doesn’t have much to say on whether we enrich uranium or not. What’s your view?
AM: The Bible does not give us detailed prescriptions on a context it could not imagine. But it gives the toolkit which we are invited to apply to these new situations. And that’s why I think this process of, in effect, saying, right, here are these basic ideas. Here is this situation, maybe we haven’t been here before. What do we do? How to we hold on to what we think are important and valuable principles but now we are facing this? And there is a sense in which you have the sense you are entering unchartered territory. But, nevertheless, you feel that you might not have a map but you have a compass which might guide you a little bit as you go.
JB: Is your point that you fear whether religion can continue to provide the kind of stability it maybe once provided because we are in these unchartered territories that Alister speaks of?
BW: I don’t say this to be dramatic but I think we know that it can’t. And that is not to say that given many earths or somehow a mechanism for surviving future millennia that we wouldn’t get to a new kind of wisdom that was relevant but I think we know that our problem is too dire. And what I fear is that if science caricatures religion and does not give religion it’s due for being honest to goodness wisdom handed down through time, that religious people will rightly reject its ability to speak about more difficult issues that we face and that no ancestor has wisdom with which to help us.
So my sense of urgency is about putting that battle to an end so that those of us who are ready to confront the problems of the 21st century can do it. And that’s going to involve, you know, some things… there are ethical principles that we know are, if not timeless, close enough to it that we should treat them that way. And then there are other places where we’re going to have to avail ourselves of new tools and not – I guess what I am really getting at is we are going to have to violate the sacred in order to do the job that we need to do. And that means that religious people who can see that problem are going to have to bring their communities along, right? There’s a reason that we hold things sacred but at this moment we actually can’t afford it.
JB: Give us some concrete examples there because I think I understand what you are saying but what might be one of those sacred areas where religious people are going to have to learn to let go for the sake of the future?
BW: Well, we have a problem which is that, interwoven into, I believe, every one of these religious texts, is a plan for completing against other populations. And if we continue to compete population against population we will destroy ourselves.
What we have to do is figure out how we can stand that competition down and replace it with some sort of agreement on who we are to interact with each other, which in some cases will be easier than others. It will be easier to have that conversation with Buddhism than it will to have that conversation between Christendom and Islam, for example. But, nonetheless, we all have to find our way there. In the case of Islam in particular we have an obstacle which is that they are forbidden, there can be no new prophets. Well, without new prophets how do you update the code about how you incorporate new wisdom? That particular – what I would say is virus protection – that thing which protects the tradition from being corrupted is now going to be an obstacle to it progressing into the 21st century. Somebody has to navigate that and I don’t know how we find them.
AM: Well, that’s very interesting. If I can engage with this, I think it’s so interesting.
First of all I think you are absolutely right. Richard Dawkins just demonises religion and I’m afraid that’s lead some religious people to demonise science. Well, we cut this nonsense. You can’t weaponise science against religion or vice versa and I’m sure you’re right to say there needs to be a sort of hospitable environment where we can talk to each other. I think that’s very important.
And yes, of course, religion can be a force for division, that’s absolutely right. But then tribalism, nationalism, a whole series of narratives come into play which complexify this. But I think you are right to say we have to find some way of beginning to engage this real concern we have. And I think if you take all the work that’s being done, for example, on the role of tradition and human culture the difficulty is there is no universal way of thinking, no universal… science is the nearest thing we come to that. And even then there’s a long way to go, I think. But I think the difficulty really is finding a common language or a common framework in which we can do this. I think in many ways because we are all embedded in traditions of one sort or another the question is going to be how we remain in one but develop tools to be able to talk to and appreciate others and not necessarily see them as competitors.
JB: And Bret’s point seems to be that he’s worried that the texts that form the basis of many of the world religions aren’t in a position to take us where we need to go next in terms of being able to ensure that we don’t wipe each other out and so on?
AM: There is always an interaction between the text and its reader. And we need to bear in mind that perhaps some times in the past texts have been read inappropriately, for example, to justify slavery.
I think what we need to do is this constant process of vigilance whereby we continually read and interrogate and ask, have we really got that right? Or is this new challenge saying to us, look you need to come back to this and rethink? And that, to me, is something we need to do even though it’s uncomfortable.
JB: It made me wonder hearing that though whether maybe the wisdom of Jesus still has a place in today’s culture? Love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute?
AM: I was thinking as both of you were speaking of C S Lewis’s, ‘Abolition of Man’, which came up in 1943. And in many ways in there what Lewis is saying is that there’s a danger we are going to abolish ourselves – he’s thinking of the Second World War – and saying, look, there is something that holds us together. He calls it the, ‘Tao’, and what he really means is a kind of basic ethic that he sees as going across things as basically the teaching of Jesus but also wider than that. And so, again, maybe Lewis is pointing towards something; a willingness to talk about this, not giving up on your distinctiveness but trying to work some way that your distinctiveness enables you to find something in common with others. And I’m certainly up for that.
JB: What’s your feeling? To some extent, I feel like you are saying we are at a point now where we have to find a way forward in ways that religion, that maybe did bind us together and gave us a way of surviving if you like, in the world today no longer applies?
It seems that you are aware that there are ethical absolutes, things that we should be aiming towards, and that if our evolutionary impulses are no longer fit for purpose in that sense we can recognise that. That we need to take command of the process and come up with… I suppose the big question for me that is hanging over all of this is that ethical one which Alister raised earlier which is, you do seem to believe, Bret, that there is an oughtness about how we should behave, this idea that there is a fundamental rightness about the way humans treat each other, and the common purposes we should have. Some might say, there’s the faith, if you like. That’s the religious impulse again, there is something beyond just the material world, there is actually something that undergirds it.
What would you say to that idea?
BW: I would say that the problem is that when you study evolution you respect the products that it produces but you also come to understand that the universe is an immoral or an amoral place. And that there’s no justice in nature. Humans have invented justice and that it is precious and it is easily destroyed. And the problem is, to the extent that these traditions, which contain ethics within them, are products of evolution, they are potentially very valuable but that ability to cooperate, which is really what those ethical principles are about, is for a purpose: Cooperate to compete.
Now, if we keep playing that game it will end very soon. So, how do we abstract that idea that we can cooperate and come to a new agreement about how to leave essentially an equilibrium, a sustainable human population in which – and this would be my highest ethical principle – how can we give the maximum number of humans the experience of living on a beautiful planet as possible? It is not going to involve packing the largest number of people on the planet at once. It’s going to involve somehow backing away from what we call ‘caring capacity’ and leaving a population that cannot destroy as it continues to live on the earth. And in that way humanity can become indefinite inhabitants.
So, how do we get from a bunch of traditions that were evolved in the context of competing with each other and driving out another population as your population flourished? How can we step away from that competition and replace it with something that is enlightened with respect to human well-being and the ethics that exist within each of these traditions?
JB: I suppose the questions, again, it raises for me though is, you speak of a highest ethical principle. Now, did evolution give you that ethic or is it something that you actually believe goes beyond any kind of evolutionary explanation? That there is this thing that we should aim at regardless of where evolution took us in the past?
BW: I have a feeling the answer to that is going to sound a little bit like nonsense. But every creature that has ever existed on this planet has had the identical purpose, right? And that purpose has to do with propagating its particular genetic spellings into the future. That purpose is served by creating larger numbers of offspring but that’s not the only way it’s served. The idea is getting genes into the future, right? Living to compete in future rounds of the game. It’s a very stupid game. It is the cosmic spelling bee that ends in genocide.
And so what I believe is that we humans are among the most amazing creations of that process that have ever been. We have an absolutely stunning capacity for compassion and decency and empathy and our ability to comprehend allows us to take those capacities and to recognise that what we are actually designed to do and what our traditions are designed for and facilitate is not defensible. And we must take evolution out of the driver’s seat and we must put ourselves, our best ethical selves, in the driver’s seat if we’re to survive. And the bitter pill, for me, is I don’t know whether that’s even possible but I do think there’s nothing else worth pursuing. Either we do that or it’s just a question of watching how it comes apart.
JB: What do you think about the way Bret has arrived at this place, ethical principle, to which any evolutionary process is ultimately…
AM: Well clearly I’m going to take what he says with great seriousness and indeed his views with the greatest respect. But I am going to just make two points which I think just to show that there’s a great discussion to be had here.
Number one, this does sound just like utilitarianism. The language you used is very much along those lines. I don’t object to that in many ways but why that theory choice? There is that issue. And also, I mean, I admire this noble aspiration to find the highest possible ideal and I like that. But evolution doesn’t really allow you to talk about the highest possible. I mean, I’m just worried about that. And also I think David Hume is coming back to haunt us a bit; you cannot move from the empirical to the normative. And so how on earth do we get this? And, actually, if I may say it – and this is simply me responding to what I think is a very interesting point from you – it’s almost as if you are proposing a new religion to meet this new challenge. And I think that’s very interesting but I think you may find some people will disagree with that.
BW: People hate it. But I would be careful. It’s not a new religion. What it is, is something that sits in the same place. It addressing some of the same needs but it is not founded on the same principle. It’s founded on an understanding that what we are wired for is not a good match for what we are capable of.
So I do think – and I know I have to say it gently because of the sacred, because of people’s, what would up until very recently, have been a necessary resistance to new ideas corrupting the compendiums of wisdom that they’ve been handed – but we can all see that we live in circumstances that we have no wisdom for. I mean, in fact, even the world that we were each born into is now gone. Things are changing so rapidly that we couldn’t possibly have wisdom that would keep up.
So what are we going to do about that question? Can we do something about it while we are fighting each other? I don’t think so. So in some sense there’s a kind of utilitarianism here. I’m not a narrow utilitarian, it would have to be an enlightened utilitarian for me to sign up for it otherwise you can justify things like slavery and the like. But I do think, whether it is unseemly or not, we actually have to contemplate coming up with something novel enough to have a prayer of being up to the challenge of dealing with our problems.
JB: That’s an interesting phrase to use. Perhaps that’s a good place to begin to draw our dialogue between the three of us to a close so that we can make some time for some audience questions. So, be thinking about what questions you’d like to ask Alister and Bret in a moment.
There was one question we didn’t get to which I really wanted to make sure we covered, though, and that is given that you do think, Bret, there are social benefits to religion and you’re not willing to go down the Dawkins, you know, it’s just a mind virus, a mental illness or whatever. What about you personally, have you sort of actually… do you continue in any way to sort of hold on to any religion, tradition, ritual that perhaps your forebears would have treated obviously with a spiritual dimension but you see still as having some kind of social benefit?
BW: Yea. Let me answer that as a father. I have two boys, 15 and 13, and we have been experimenting with new traditions; taking traditions that matter and trying to update them. And we recognise that this is a kind of heresy that we are engaged in consciously but the idea is there are things we can say now that we know aren’t in the traditions that we came from. And I should say, my wife is not Jewish – her dad was a Catholic. But we have, for example, for Hanukah, we have eight principles and we go through one principle per night and we talk about them with the kids. We talk about why the principle is arguably in the top eight. We talk about what the hazards that come along with the principle might be; how you can take a principle and you can instantiate it too narrowly to be useful or in some way that it becomes dangerous. And our hope is as the boys grow up, that revisiting these things yearly will create models in their minds that will allow them to actually bring things to the table that we can’t provide them. So, in a sense, arming them to have discussions about the central questions of how to be human and how civilisation should function. So that maybe when a conversation happens twenty years from now it has elements that this one can’t.
JB: And Alister, as we draw to a close, do you think that even non-religious people can in that sense benefit from the meaning and ritual that religion does offer and Christianity specifically I suppose?
AM: I suppose one thing that Christianity offers which is relevant here is the – this is the thing I will focus on, there are many others – is this long tradition of wrestling with questions from within the tradition and realising how, in effect, the base of the tradition is very, very rich and sometimes it only finds limited application here, limited application there and the resources left over to look at other things.
And that’s why I hear Bret’s very rightly saying, look, we’ve got a lot of rethinking to do. And, therefore, I mean, for a Christian theologian the classic thing to do is to reinvestigate the tradition to say; is there something in there that we’ve been overlooking or supressing? And is this the time to reach into the treasure chest and bring out something that is perhaps neglected but actually might be something that could inspire us to do this?
I think Bret is right. I think there’s a real problem here and the thing I find difficult, which is maybe a reflection on me, is this; I recognise the challenge, I know many will. It’s how on earth we motivate people to do something about it? In other words, do we have to change ourselves so we can respond to this? And that, for me, is an open question. I mean, Richard Dawkins – I know we’ve made some very good criticisms of him – but at the end of, ‘The Selfish Gene’, he in effect says, look, we alone can rise above our genetic purposes, we can do something. And yet I always got the impression that what he said before that actually made that rather difficult. And that my concern is that maybe there is something flawed about it which means that even when we see a real challenge that somehow we’re drawn down by tribalism or by self-interest and, in effect, don’t rise to what the challenges are…
JB: If I may, presumably that’s where you do believe there is an ultimate truth available that actually allows people to live beyond their DNA in that sense?
AM: I think we have to transcend the limits of our DNA and that’s what Bret is saying as well. But I think I am also saying the dreaded word ‘sin’ might come into this because there is something about us which means we are very good at making problems and then not being able to clear up the mess afterwards. And I think that’s where we are at the moment.
JB: Okay. Good place to draw together the discussion so far, thank you very much Bret and Alister. Can we have a round of applause?