If you’re curious, in an interview lasting just over four and a half minutes, Bill O’Reilly uttered 609 words, while Dawkins uttered a mere 342. Considering the way O’Reilly usually treats his guests, that’s a pretty good ratio.
At the start of every show, O’Reilly gives the headlines of the major stories he will be discussing. But there was no teaser for his interview with Dawkins. Likewise, when he goes to a commercial break he tells you what is coming up later in the show. But there was no mention of Dawkins until the commercial break right before that segment (which came roughly half way through the show). It sure seems to me that O’Reilly was downplaying the interview, perhaps knowing that he pretty much rolled over for Dawkins. Usually the guests offering viewpoints different from O’Reilly’s get browbeaten and yelled out and basically deluged with irrefutable stupidity. But there was none of that tonight.
If you don’t believe me, consider the following exchange which took place the last time O’Reilly discussed evolution. The guest was biologist Michael Grant:
O’REILLY: OK. But science is incomplete in this area of creationism, is it not?
GRANT: Science is always incomplete in all areas.
O’REILLY: Well, I don’t agree with that. Science is not always incomplete and I’ll give you an example. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Alright. That’s science. And there are four seasons. That’s science. So you can state things with certainty in biology or any other science you want. However, if I’m a student in your class and you’re telling me, well, there might have been a meteor or big bang or there might have been this or there might have been that, I’m going to raise my hand like the wise guy I am and say “Professor, might there be a higher power that contributed to the fact that we’re all here?” And you say – what?
GRANT: I say that’s something you need to discuss with other people. You need to do that in the proper class. In the biology class we deal with science, with the natural world and what fits our conventional concepts of science.
O’REILLY: But, what if it turns out there is a God and He did create the universe and you die and then you figure that out? Aren’t you going to feel bad that you didn’t address that in your biology class?
GRANT: Well, to quote a famous quote…
O’REILLY: Because then it would be science, wouldn’t it? You know, if tomorrow the deity came down and proved himself, then it would be science, wouldn’t it, sir?
See what I mean? O’Reilly said some dopey things during his interview with Dawkins, but nothing to rival the heights he attained in that excerpt.
I was surprised that O’Reilly would describe his Catholicism as true for him but not necessarily true for anybody else. That’s precisely the sort of relativistic nonsense conservatives are usually keen to avoid. (Yes, yes, I know O’Reilly says he’s an independent.) I was also surprised that his main argument in favor of religion was not that it’s claims are true, but rather that society is better off when everyone believes in God. He also had no answer to Dawkins’ point that not being able to prove something false is not much of a reason to believe that it is true. O’Reilly’s crack about Apollo not looking too good was a rather weak attempt at humor.
For Dawkins’ part I thought he acquitted himself rather well. I was worried that Dawkins’ civility would get washed away in a torrent of O’Reillian stupidity, but as already noted O’Reilly was on his best behavior tonight. I thought Dawkins was at his best when he was talking about the absurdity of saying something was true for one person but not true for someone else, and when he emphasized the importance of the separation of church and state. The only time I was a little disappointed was when he emphasized the importance of humility in discussing what science has figured out. I agree with the basic point of course, but he dwelled a bit too much upon it. Sounded weak.
The discussion about whether it is religion or atheism that is a bane on civilization was not very helpful. It seems to me that in discussion of this topic the focus is always on the big things. Stalin and Mao on the one hand versus Crusades and Inquisitiions on the other. What seems far more relevant to me are the more petty cruelties that people perpetrate against one another in day to day life. I don’t know if religion has a moderating influence on people’s behavior (it seems to me for some people it has that effect and for other it does not), but it is definitely one of the main engines of xenophobia and hatred for those that are different for you. Small towns with a heavily dominant religion are not known for their tolerance of diversity. After all, in our highly religious country polls show that 63% of people feel no shame in admitting to being unwilling to vote for an atheist for public office. A non-Christian who steadfastly refused to vorte for a Christian would quite rightly be regarded as a bigot.
These are the sorts of things that need to be considered in deciding whether it is religion or atheism (or both or neither) that is a bane on society. The aberrations where fanatics attain great power and provide nonsensical reasons for perpetrating great evil are not very informative. But the fact remains that there are rather large regions of this country where you face the rankest bigorty and prejudice if you admit to being an atheist. By contrast there is no place in this country where you face anything comparable for admitting you are a Christian.