Richard Dawkins explains reasons to believe things

Richard Dawkins - excellent author and scientistRichard Dawkins is a great author and evolutionary biologist – I have several of his books at home. Dawkins is also well known as a vociferous atheist which means many people blindly reject what he says. I recently read a letter that he apparently wrote to his 10 year old daughter back in 1995 about belief. It makes for excellent reading – very easy to understand which is important.

Basically, he is writing about why she (and people in general) should believe things. The GOOD reason for believing in things is evidence:

  • Direct evidence. For instance astronauts have been out into space and seen that the earth is really round. That is a good reason to believe that it really is round.
  • Indirect evidence. Where direct observation is not possible we can still find evidence that an idea is right. Dawkins gives the example of a detective at a murder scene. He can still work out who did it, even though nobody actually saw the crime.

Dawkins then goes on to describe BAD reasons for believing something:

  • Tradition. Beliefs are often passed down through generations. Just because they are old beliefs doesn’t make them true. As Dawkins says “No matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was”. Tradition is a bad reason to believe something.
  • Authority. Just because somebody tells you to believe something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes I do take somebody’s word on something – like the speed of sound. The difference is that there is evidence that I can look at if I wanted. I have taken a shortcut, but I can do that because there is evidence available.
  • Revelation. Dawkins defines revelation as when people have a “feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true”. Unless there is actually evidence (a good reason) which agrees with your gut feeling then it is a bad reason to believe something.

The last bit of the letter is what I am increasingly finding crucial. People need to learn to think a little:

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.