BELLEVUE, WA -- Famed British bioethicist Professor Richard Dawkins, a leader of the New Atheism movement, encouraged a crowd of almost 1,200 people gathered at Newport High School on Sunday to "take back American values" and become a more influential force of American culture.
“True American Values. The values of Jefferson and Madison … Let’s intelligently design our morality rather than trying to read what’s right and wrong in a 3,000-year-old book. Religion has hijacked morality for centuries," Dawkins told an audience that ran the gamut of ages from pre-teens to senior citizens.
The event, “Cornwell, Faircloth, Dawkins: Working Together for a Secular Society, A Celebration,” also included presentations by Dr. R Elisabeth Cornwell, executive director of the U.S. branch of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Sean Faircloth, director of Strategy & Policy at the foundation and a former Maine state legislator.
The event was part of the , though the talk and book signing at Newport High School was a public event.
Dawkins, the author of books including “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion,” was philosophical and spoke with a droll English accent fitting of his former professorship at Oxford University. The main theme of his presentation was reclaiming the phrase “Intelligent Design” -- a term championed by the Seattle old-earth creationist think-tank The Discovery Institute -- and applying it to secular ethics and living.
“It’s a reprehensible and deplorable fact that many people buy into the preposterous idea that you actually need religion in order to be good,” Dawkins said.
Dawkins' ideal of a moral foundation without reliance on a god is something that many people think can't work.
Gabriella van Breda, the Executive Director at the international aid organization World Impact Network, based out of the Foursquare Community Church in Bellevue, said that although she believes the United States has a legislative separation of church in state, she believes that humans must rely upon God for a moral foundation. Van Breda, who did not attend Dawkins' talk, was interviewed regarding New Atheism before the event.
“If man didn’t have a moral compass and did what was right in his own eyes, we would be in not only a strange society, but a scary society,” she said. “We have seen what happens. When you look around the world you see how governments in Syria and Sudan act as cruelly as is possible.”
But at Sunday's event, Dawkins described what an "intelligent design" for morality might look like.
Dawkins said he rejects the claim that morality originates from religion, and said that one’s moral values are more a result of the culture and century in which one grows up than they a result of scripture.
Dawkins said he prefers consequentialist morality over the absolutist morality of religion.
“Compare absolutist morality, which is not intelligently designed, with what can be called consequentialist morality, which is intelligently designed. The absolutist will say, ‘It’s just wrong. End of story. I believe it’s wrong. My religion tells me it’s wrong. It’s just plain wrong.’ The consequentialist never says anything so absolute. The consequentialist will say, ‘Well, it does wrong if it does harm to somebody or some sentient being. It does wrong if it causes pain.’”
Dawkins considers it morally acceptable to perform an early abortion, to sacrifice an embryo for stem cell research, and to allow assisted suicide. The first two actions do not harm a being with a nervous system, but all three actions have the consequence of benefitting fully developed human beings with minds and the ability to feel pain. An argument against these actions requires the religious assumption that both embryos and adults have souls.
He raised one of many rounds of laughs from the audience when he said the absolutist would consider killing embryos as morally bad as, say, shooting an abortion doctor.
The audience laughed most frequently when Dawkins poked fun at brutality within Biblical Law
"The Bible is our [atheists’] most powerful weapon. If we could get people to read Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers, Exodus, they’d soon get off. So anyone who’s read the Bible will not want it to get their morality -- at least from the Old Testament.”
Faircloth and Cornwell also presented different focus areas of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes secularism.
Cornwell detailed the work of the foundation’s Out Campaign, which supports clergy who are closeted atheists.
Faircloth the author of “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All —and What We Can Do About It,” focused on his “Ten Point Vision of a Secular America," which included examples of how religion was harmful in American society now, because of the many legal privileges that shelter religious organizations from public oversight.
For example, Faircloth said that the state of Alabama exempts religious childcare facilities from random state inspections and does not require employee background checks for those facilities. He expressed even more outrage over state laws that grant leeway to parents who refuse medical intervention to their children.
He recounted the story of a 15-year-old girl in the state of Tennessee who died with a basketball-sized tumor on her shoulder because her mother believed in healing through the Epistle of James rather than through medical science.
“Over 35 states have some variation in their law for so called faith healing. Except it’s not faith healing … It’s faith harming and sometimes faith killing … Where are the right-to-life groups on this one?” Faircloth asked to huge applause, before he asked rhetorically: "Where are we?"
Faircloth's Ten Point Plan addresses high-profile issues, such guaranteeing women access to emergency contraception and abortion regardless of medical providers’ beliefs, and allowing gays to marry. It also includes issues currently not making headlines, such as not privileging churches in land use and development, electing secular representatives to Congress, and protecting children from religious abuse.
“There are  areas we discuss, where there’s religious bias in law, where people are tremendously harmed, and we want to establish it on the public record,” Faircloth said in a video interview that same day.
Faircloth had some praise for secularism in the Pacific Northwest. Washington state has been called part of the “Unchurched Belt,” with 32 percent of the population attending church weekly.
Washington and Oregon have adopted some of Faircloth's same political focuses, such as right-to-die laws in both states and legalization of same sex marriage by the Washington legislature.
“Here in the Pacific Northwest, where occasionally there are actually politicians who will listen to you on these issues, go and organize and have statewide [secular] organizations. A statewide organization in Oregon, a statewide organization in Washington,” he said.
Editor's note: the crowd count was updated from an original version of this story.