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Bioethicist Richard Dawkins: Morality, Society Can Be "Intelligently Designed"

Author Richard Dawkins was the featured speaker at a Bellevue event that promoted secularism to a crowd that included attendees from the Northwest Free-thought Alliance's annual convention.

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 [10] 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.

Venice Buhain April 04, 2012 at 11:35 PM
We received a total count of the crowd, and the total crowd count is 1,200. This story was changed to reflect that.
Sean P April 05, 2012 at 05:05 AM
Superb summary of a very cool event. Thank you, Sean!
Scott Leopold April 05, 2012 at 05:28 AM
Outstanding event; great coverage. Professor Dawkins reminded us that we not only don't get our morals from religion; rather it is the other way around: Religion evolves with the changing moral Zeitgeist; we can and must establish true separation of church and state if we are to reach our potential and achieve an intelligently designed morality - one of our choosing, rather than one imposed by religious bigots and bullies.
Sean DeButts April 05, 2012 at 08:57 AM
Sean and Scott, thank you for your praise! Venice Buhain also deserves huge props for her editorial work on the article, and her stewardship of Bellevue Patch. The article also got featured on Richard Dawkins' Website: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/645517-bioethicist-richard-dawkins-morality-society-can-be-intelligently-designed
Jim Gregory April 05, 2012 at 09:14 AM
Please explain?
A nonymous April 05, 2012 at 12:59 PM
Very odd that Gabriella van Breda's examples of governments 'acting as cruelly as is possible' use two countries ruled with religious ideology, when she was attempting to argue that countries ruled on religious grounds are better than secular ones. Maybe she considers all non christians, whether of different religion or none to be equally without morals. Of course her biggest mistake is to imply that people who don't happen to believe the same thing she happens to believe didn’t have a moral compass. That is clearly wrong. To try and get this across to people someone should put up a quiz about morality and after answering each question show them what the bible (and optionally other religions) say about that issue. When they see how often they differ they might start to understand their morality does not come from their religion.
Venice Buhain April 05, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Jim Gregory: That means that 1,200 people attended this event, which was more people than the number that was reported in this story originally. I think that answers your question?
Venice Buhain April 05, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Thanks for the link and the shout-out, Sean!
Jim Gregory April 05, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I see; not having read the original I wondered why the story had been changed.
Jim Gregory April 05, 2012 at 04:47 PM
A nonymous- true and I'd make the point that her claim of moral superiority is both arrogant and insulting. How the religious mind betrays the smugness of its owner...
Barbara Necker April 07, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Remember, some of the cruelist atrocities were and are carried out in the name of religion -- think 9/11, the inquisition, the Salem witchcraft trials, etc., etc., etc.
WendyB December 28, 2012 at 02:44 PM
"How the religious mind betrays the smugness of its owner." Well put!!
WendyB December 28, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Oh!! I would have given my eye teeth to be at this speech. I <3 Richard Dawkins. Truly an awesome mind!

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