In 2003 Richard Dawkins gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University. I spent most of the afternoon today listening to these lectures. Richard Dawkins is one of the many contemporary scientists I admire a lot. I have read many (if not all) of his books, including the most recent one - The God Delusion. I admire Dawkins primarily because of his knack of explaining complex ideas in a clear and logical fashion. I admire him even more for his polite yet forceful arguments against religious extremism, in fact religion itself and against irrational, non-scientific ideas like 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'.
In the first of the two lectures, Dawkins talks about the science of religion. The Darwinian framework of evolution through variation and natural selection is the most elaborate explanation we have to explain the evolution and diversity of life on earth. Any phenomena that have survived for millennia in human populations therefore beg an evolutionary explanation. Religious beliefs have appeared and continue to appear independently in human societies across ages in all parts of the world. The ubiquity of religious beliefs in human society makes it imperative to explore the evolutionary origins of such beliefs. Dawkins focuses exclusively on this topic in the first of the two lectures. Dawkins has devoted a full chapter of his latest book - The God Delusion - to this topic. I would urge anyone who is interested in this subject to listen to this lecture.
In my opinion this topic is of utmost importance today. Religious zealots are wrecking havoc in every part of the world. Islamic extremists in the middle east, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world; fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the USA, fundamentalist Jews in Israel, fundamentalist Hindu groups in India all want to impose their particular religious world view and way of life upon the society at large. Many, if not all of them are using violence to terrorize people into submission. Only by understanding the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs can we begin to treat the virus of religious extremism and perhaps some day cure ourselves of all faith based propositions.
In the second lecture, Dawkins talks about the Religion of Science. A common retort of people of faith against science is that science itself is a form of religion. They point out that the core hypothesis of science, that the universe is governed by a set of laws which we can reveal through careful investigation, is a faith based proposition in itself. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." There is profound mystery, wonder and awe in the universe. There are befuddling questions such as why are the laws of that govern the universe the way they are? Why do the fundamental constants of physics have the peculiar values they have? Dawkins draws out the stark contrasts between the scientific, - evidence based - world view and the religious - faith based - world view. He concedes that there may be questions which science in principle cannot answer but he lands firmly against the proposition that the scientific world view IS in itself some sort of religious world view.
The whole series is available in mp3 format on Dawkins's website which is a worthwhile place to visit for anyone interested in evolution, reason, atheism etc. There is also a seminar with Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Keith DeRose as a follow up to the lectures.