The Religious Impulse

David: You wrote about your worries concerning people who are very, very certain. I wonder if you can tell us about that because it's something I share?

FdW: Yeah, in my book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, I talk about dogmatism, and so I felt that the neo-atheists were dogmatic. Now I'm saying that being from a country – I'm from the Netherlands – where more than 50% of the people are atheist, or say they are atheist. And so if you say you are atheist, it's no big deal. No one blinks an eye if you say that. And so I grew up in an environment where whether you're religious or not religious really doesn't matter that much. It's completely up to you.

Then I come here in the US, and all of a sudden I'm surrounded by fanatical atheists who are certain that either God doesn't exist, or God doesn't matter, or we don't need religion, or religion is entirely bad and responsible for everything that's bad in the world. And I can't get used to that kind of atheism, and so I wonder where does their certainty come from that religion is so bad?

For me the question, as a biologist, is if all humans in the world have religions – which is true, there are no exceptions – if all of them believe in the supernatural or have some sort of grand-scale ritual religion, there must be a reason for that. It must be doing something for the human species, and I don't know what that is exactly. I don't think it is the source of human morality. I think religion may play a role and add to it, and that's all possible, but I don't think religion invented morality, so to speak.

But I'm more puzzled by religion, like why do we have it and what is it good for? Because it must be good for something than that I'm so certain that God doesn't exit. Now I'm personally not religious: I don't find the question of God's existence particularly interesting because it's an unanswerable question. But I do think that religion is an interesting phenomenon, and I meet so many religious people who are not dogmatic about it. They believe this, but they don't believe that, and they have a disagreement with other people in their own religion about this or that. And so a lot of people are not fundamentalist Protestant or fundamentalist Catholic or Islam, necessarily. There are a lot of moderates in the world, and that's actually the more typical religious person that I meet. And for the atheist also, I would prefer them to be a little bit less dogmatic and be more open too.

David: Well we've encountered people who have said you cannot be a scientist and believe in science but also be religious and believe in God and...

FdW: Why would that be?

David: I don't know.

Ard: Well, I don't know.

David: But they're very certain about it.

FdW: It's true if you use God to explain certain phenomena, then you're in trouble as a scientist. Let's say I see my chimpanzees do something, and I said, ‘Well, I really don't know what, it must be God who's doing it.’ And then people would, of course, say, ‘Well you're giving up on the problem,’ which is true. I'm giving up on the problem, and that's something as a scientist we should never do: we should never give up on a problem. And so if we want to explain certain things, we don't want to involve God as an explanation.

But I think religion is much broader than just an explanatory system. That's part of what religion does for some people who read the Bible literally and take that as the explanation of the world. But a lot of people don't look at religion, necessarily, that way as an explanation of phenomena. They look at religion more as a guideline: how should I lead my life? Now, science has nothing to tell you about that. Science doesn't give you much guidance in your life. What is a good life? What is a bad life? How should I live my life? That's not an answer that you will get from science.