Richard Dawkins letter to his 10 year old daughter (how to warn your child about this irrational world)

The following is a letter that Richard Dawkins wrote to his daughter when she turned 10. Richard is one of the worlds most renowned scientists who is known for speaking out against the dangers of religion.



To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists – the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe – often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called ‘tradition’, ‘authority’, and ‘revelation’.

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about 50 children. These children were invited because they’d been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by ‘tradition’. Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like, ‘We Hindus believe so and so.’ ‘We Muslims believe such and such.’ ‘We Christians believe something else.’ Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn’t all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite proper, and he didn’t even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn’t the point I want to make. I simply want to ask where their beliefs came from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over any number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptized into the Church of England, but this is only one of many branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other often go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily into Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about her much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the ‘Queen of Heaven’. The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not a very old one. The Bible says nothing about how or when she died; in fact the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’s time. At first it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the Pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are old men with beards called Ayatollahs. Lots of young Muslims are prepared to commit murder, purely because the Ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950 the Pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The Pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that Pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the Pope, you should believe everything he said, any more than you believe everything that lots of other people say. The present Pope has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow his authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like ‘authority’. But actually it is much better than authority because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called ‘revelation’. If you had asked the Pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been ‘revealed’ to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling ‘revelation’. It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, ‘Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?’ Now suppose I answered: ‘I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.’ You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside ‘feeling’ on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’.
But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish are built to be good at surviving in fresh water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of … other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters, we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ‘swim’ through a ‘sea of people’. Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English but your friend speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘swim about’ in your own separate ‘people sea’. Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more truer than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at ‘swimming about in their people sea’, children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if its completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever.
Could this be what happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers, Mormons or Holy Rollers, and all are utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and someone speaks German.

Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in the Catholic Republic but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,

Daddy




To Vastet:  Your comments

To Vastet:  Your comments have caught my eye.  Reading them has made me believe (perhaps erroneously) that you are a very angry person.  In fact, many of the comments posted here and in other places make me think there are some very angy people out there.  If a person wishes to believe in God, why does that bother you so much?  How are they hurting you?  I fully admit that I am not a scientist, and do not fully understand some of the arguments put forward here.  But I will say this:  I would rather be a "ignorant" religious person than follow what you hold to, because there is nothing about you (at least from your comments) that would make me want to be like you.  Your beliefs do not appear to have made you a better person, but an angry one.  I don't have time to be that angry.

Two things for you to consider: 

1)  In the movie entitled "Expelled", Ben Stein sits down with Richard Dawkins and asks him about how life started.  Dawkins gives a couple of answers of how life evolved, but Mr. Stein brings him back to the original question as to how life started.  His answer was to suggest that perhaps another, highly advanced, civilization planted the seed from which life on this planet came.  In short, Dawkins suggested that ALIENS did it.  Now, you can get a copy of "Expelled" and watch the last 20 minutes to see the interview.  However, the bottom line was this:  Dawkins doesn't know how it started, but BELIEVES that perhaps it was [insert suggestion here] (I'm not going to get on him for the alien suggestion, he could have been just giving an example).  But Dawkins, at the end of the day, has to BELIEVE something that cannot be proven.  All atheists, and theists, at the end of the day, have to BELIEVE something because it cannot be proven (you can't prove God doesn't exist because it's a null hypothesis, but you BELIEVE God doesn't exist).  At the end of it all, we all BELIEVE something, but that something differs from person to person.

2)  You state "All religion can accomplish is cliquism and ignorance".  Hmm.  That's a pretty major assertion.  It suggests that there is no other possible outcomes of religion, and so therefore there should be NO other accomplishments that can be observed.  I'm sure the people who benefited from Mother Theresa would love to know that all she accomplished is cliquism and ignorance.  In fact, I'm sure that many places in Africa would love to know that the mission stations set up to help the people only accomplished cliquism and ignorance rather than bringing medical treatment to hurting people.  I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.  You jump on people, such as theists, for making statements like this, however I hope you're big enough to admit that perhaps this statement was a little too broad sweeping.  BTW - before you write back about how religion is the reason for all the violence and killing in the world, you might want to read this study: 


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http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills

The point of the study was to show that the more totalitarian the government, the more likely it was to commit genocide, political murder, mass killings, etc. (a term which the study author collectively calls Democide).  The question of religion did not come into play.  However, what the author found was that, in fact, his hypothesis was correct.  But for this discussion, what was interesting was that it was NOT religious governments doing most the killing, but those that were openly ATHEISTIC (such as USSR, People's Republic of China, etc.).  What he also concluded was the the more free a county, the less likely it was to commit these crimes.  I suggest that if you do a study of the most free countries in the world (freedom of speech, freedom of ideas, freedom of religion, etc.), you'll find that most of them have religious (probably Christian mostly) roots.  So the assertion by you and fellow atheists that religion is a major source of violence and killings is completely false.  In point of fact, the argument could be made that it is ATHEISTIC beliefs (remember above) that are far more dangerous to humanity.  I am not saying that is true, but nor can atheists such as yourself suggest that religion is the culprit.  The empirical evidence, of which you are so fond, clearly shows that to be completely false.

Of course, you haven't made the statement that religion is the cause of all the violence and killings in the world, so no doubt you're wondering why I've answered a question you haven't asked.  The reason is that very often this is the charge laid against religion by atheists, and I'm sure one of those reading my comments has brought it up in their mind.  So, my apology to you for answering a question you did not ask.  But, given the way forums like this seem to go, this question will undoubtedly be raised by someone at some point reading this forum.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reply, I'm sure you don't agree, but I appreciate you reading the whole post (assuming you have if you've got this far.  =)  )

 

Vastet's picture

I tried to fix your

I tried to fix your formatting. Froze my PS3 both times. Maybe someone else will be nice enough to fix it.

"Reading them has made me believe (perhaps erroneously) that you are a very angry person."

Erroneous indeed, though you can take comfort in the fact that you are by no means the first to make this accusation.
I suspect it's because people can't watch me as I respond with a stupidly large grin and excess energy. I'm simply a passionate person. I don't get angry very often. I don't make sense and do stupid things when I get angry, so I've learned to take a breather and play some games and smoke some weed to calm down before trying to post a topic or response.

"If a person wishes to believe in God, why does that bother you so much?  How are they hurting you?"

Two very good questions.

First, I don't care. Religion will never die, and trying to change that will only get your name slapped down beside Hitler and Stalin. It'd be a fools errand to attempt to wipe out a religion. I don't try.
~Continues...

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Vastet's picture

... You will never see me in

...
You will never see me in a religious institution arguing that the believers are deluded. Never.
I don't bring the fight to theists, they bring it to me, as you have. They've always brought it to me. One of my earliest memories is of some psycho bitch (excuse the language please, but it is necessary to convey my memories accurately) trying to force out of me a belief in a higher power. I didn't have a clue what a higher power was at the time, and my confusion merely brought her to levels of rage I've not seen since, except maybe on a Jerry Springer episode.
By the time I figured out that nature would be an acceptable answer, I was scared witless of this crazy lady, and would have done anything to get away from her.

That is the kind of thing that needs to END. Yesterday. Last millennia. It has gone WAY too far when someone is allowed to scare a little kid almost to the point of peeing themselves just because he wasn't raised in a evangelical christian home.
~ continues..

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Vastet's picture

... It has gone WAY too far

...
It has gone WAY too far when a moslem can be taken seriously for making threats because someone drew a picture. It has gone WAY too far when a christian blows up a hospital. It has gone WAY too far when a theist demands that government require everyone be a theist, which would be the case if the tea party had its way.

You keep your religion private, and you'll never know I was there. You broadcast it to the world and try to force everyone to believe as you do, and you'll run right into my spear.

1) I think Dawkins gave a stupid answer. The correct answer is simply that we don't know. I don't hold any beliefs on the subject, only maybe's. Maybe it was chemical soup. Maybe it was aliens. Maybe it was god. I don't know. Nobody does.

I don't disbelieve in gods, I simply don't believe in them. Maybe there is one. Maybe there is a million of them.

I don't know. I'm not afraid to admit it.

~ continues...

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Vastet's picture

... 2) "You state "All

...
2)
"You state "All religion can accomplish is cliquism and ignorance".  Hmm.  That's a pretty major assertion."

Yes, it is. And it's wrong. But I don't claim to be perfect, so hopefully you won't hold it against me.

Re: the study, it is faulty. The USSR wasn't atheist, it was statist. It replaced faith in gods with faith in the state and its leaders. Faith is not something to run a government with, no matter what the faith is.

The concurrent problems pointed out can be more easily explained by the flaws in dictatorships than any flaws with atheism.

And the greatest wars/upheavals in history were religiously motivated. WW2, the crusades, the inquisition, etc.
Probably a lot more, but I don't have time to study every conflict in history. I'm satisfied with the fact that every conflict I have studied was at least partially religiously motivated.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Vastet's picture

Which doesn't necessarily

Which doesn't necessarily mean that religion was the sole cause. In fact, it was never the sole cause of a conflict I studied. But it was always a factor which increased the animosity between the involved parties, and always made peace harder to achieve. And in some cases, impossible to achieve.

I'm glad you wrote this response, and hope you read my response as well. It's always nice to converse with a theist who doesn't start off with threats and insults.

Sorry there were so many responses, my PS3 has a text limit. Sad

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Re:Fallibility

Dick - It is not the case the "agnosticism" is a rational stance, it is merely hedging your bets because (probably) childhood conditioning makes you feel anxiety around the idea of dismissing stories about gods as folklore. As others have pointed out, the non-existence of gods is the null hypothesis, as is the non-existence of any phenomenon. If you are not prepared to seek out or present any evidence for the existence of gods then you must accept the null hypothesis in the meantime. It is not a rational position to metaphorically tap the side of your nose and say "Ah, well, you never know". This is exactly what every modern person does who has irrational beliefs. They know its silly, so they try to dress it up as rational, just like the intelligent design crowd.
Its like dreams - you make them all up yourself. When you're having a vivid dream it doesn't feel like you're just making it up, but you are. Religion is just the same.
There are a lot of good stories, that address a lot of different issues - just like the Greek or Norse myths. No-one believes in the ancient Greek or Norse pantheon any more, but the stories live on, because they resonate with ideas & feelings common to most of humanity.
The Judao-Christian myths are the same. They are all myths & legends like Jonah or Odysseus or Job or Thor or Jesus or Satan or fairies or elves.

@butterbattle

You win the internet by using the phrase "begging the question" in its correct way. Thank you.
It scares me that even quite bright people are using expressions which used to describe a particular concept, and are now being used either literally(commonly misused itself) or to express a far simpler, less subtle and far more obvious concept than they did before.
Its not that I believe in prescriptive English, there's nothing wrong with language evolving - its the loss of information & also intelligence that worries me. Similarly, chronically bad spelling is a problem because it increases the noise level - you have to put more brain "CPU cycles" into processing the signal & removing the noise, and not (just Smiling) because I'm pedantic.
"Begging the question" is perhaps the poster child for this phenomenon and has even got its own website -here's the link - http://begthequestion.info/

How do you know?

Where is your evidence for even one of your absurd claims, such as "God loves you?"  You cannot even produce an iota of evidence of any god, much less one that "loves" us.  I can produce plenty of evidence that your "god" hates us and willingly destroys entire civilizations on a whim.  Until you can produce evidence, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt."

iwbiek's picture

Vastet wrote:The USSR wasn't

Vastet wrote:
The USSR wasn't atheist, it was statist. It replaced faith in gods with faith in the state and its leaders. Faith is not something to run a government with, no matter what the faith is.

sorry, but this argument always sets my teeth on edge, and i have a couple reasons why.

1.  the soviet union wasn't "statist" at all.  the state apparatus was nothing but furniture.  the party was what was in control.  i know that sounds like an academic distinction, but a little rudimentary 20th century political theory (hannah arendt's the origins of totalitarianism, for example) will show you that it's an extremely important distinction, and basically the reason why countries like the USA or canada can't become stalinist societies. 

2.  even if the soviet union had been statist, "statist" is not an antonym for "atheist."  a person can be an atheist and a statist, if he or she doesn't believe in anything commonly conceived of as a "god."  if we start taking "theist" as meaning anyone who believes in anything irrational or any kind of objective truth or ideology, then we muddle up the meaning of "atheist" in the same way we accuse theists of doing.  if we want to insist on atheism meaning "absence of a belief in god," and nothing more (and i think we bloody well should), then we should stick to that and hold to a traditional conception of "god," i.e., a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient being who created and/or rules the universe, etc., etc. 

"I asked my father,
I said, 'Father change my name.'
The one I'm using now it's covered up
with fear and filth and cowardice and shame."
--Leonard Cohen