I came upon this video today, Russell Brand interviews Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t have a date, but Dawkins mentions that it is one year after the release of The God Delusion, so that would put it at late 2007 or early 2008. And what’s remarkable about it is just how reasonable it all it. I think that both men left that discussion thinking that they actually had a lot of shared ground. Obviously, Brand is being silly — especially about ancient aliens.
The truth is that I know a lot of people like Russell Brand. They are some of my favorite people. So when Russell Brand talks about ancient aliens, he is being serious in the sense of this: it is a wonderfully fun and interesting concept. People like Brand are the living embodiment of my philosophy that the greatest sin in the normal world (apart from real crime and political power) is to be boring. Brand is interesting when he’s being serious and when he’s being silly.
But the discussion is not about ancient aliens. Brand brings that up just to get a reaction out of Dawkins. And Dawkins is well aware of this. Richard Dawkins is also an interesting guy who at least understands silly, even if he isn’t a practitioner of it. They really do get into some interesting issues. Brand says that he thinks that “salvation through love” has replaced “salvation through God.” Dawkins says that he finds that an attractive idea. And they go back and forth about that.
And then Brand says, “But do you not think that then that God is just a signifier really for oneness and truth and eternity — that exist beyond our plane of understanding.” And then they are off to the races in a theological discussion. Dawkins points out (quite rightly) that if that’s the case, there is no point of praying to it. So Brand notes that Richard Dawkins’ real problem is the personification of God and Dawkins agrees with that.
Then they get into talking about eastern religions and that’s where Brand and Dawkins seem to have a disagreement. Russell Brand thinks there is something that we might be able to tunnel into and Richard Dawkins thinks that it is just a reflection of our extremely complex brains. What I love about this is that this is a sensible debate to be having. This isn’t some kind of straw man argument where the silliness of a Bible passage proves that there is no God.
Now on this issue, I’m with Richard Dawkins. It seems pretty simple. If you look at the universe the way I do, our universe is a subset of the signifier God. All our axioms are based on this universe. There is no trick to getting outside that system to the larger system. In fact, Brand is making the same mistake that a lot of atheists make when they claim that using some (presently unknown) trick we will be able to learn all the secrets of existence. This isn’t going to happen. There is no one weird trick to unlocking the mystery of existence — through mysticism or science.
But these are the kind of conversations that atheists should be having — not just with theists (and I don’t really think that Brand is a theist) but with themselves. Because what comes out of way too much New Atheist talk is just how hollow it is as a belief system. It does atheism no good at all to arguing with Pat Robertson. Clearly, we as a people need to argue with Pat Robertson. But that isn’t the business of atheists, because most religious people should (And do!) find him repulsive. He isn’t awful because he’s religious. If he had been alive in the Soviet Union under Stalin, he would have been a high party official — a true believer in the party and a denier of God.
I don’t know if Brand and Dawkins could have the same conversation today. I tend to think they could, because when he’s outside the insular world of the New Atheists, he often says sensible things. But as with most issues, the problem isn’t so much that you can be sensible on occasion. Sam Harris tends to be reason when talking about some forms of Buddhism. But both Dawkins and Harris spend most of their time talking about ridiculous things like Islam causing people to be violent.
We could use more conversations between atheists and non-theistic religious people. Then we might gain some understanding of what religion actually is to people. We might all end up more enlightened.