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The universe is queerer than we can suppose: Richard Dawkins on

The universe is queerer than we can suppose: Richard Dawkins on

That splendid music, the coming in music- the elephant march from Aida- is the music I’ve chosen for my funeral. And- you can see why. It’s triumphal. I am- I will, I won’t feel anything. but If I could, I would feel triumphal at having lived at all, and at having lived on this splendid planet, and having been given the opportunity to understand something about why I was here in the first place, before not being here.

Can you understand my quaint English accent?

Like everybody else, I was entranced yesterday by the animal session. Robert Full and Frans Lanting, and others- the beauty of the things that they showed. The only slight jarring note was when Jeffrey Katzenberg said of the mustang “the most splendid creatures that God put on this earth.” Now of course we know he didn’t really mean that- but in this country at the moment you can’t be too careful.

I’m a biologist, and the central theorem of our subject- the theory of design- Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection- in professional circles everywhere, it’s of course, universally accepted. In non-professional circles outside America, it’s largely ignored. But in non-professional circles within America,

(slide, from anti-evolution website: “Handy Dandy evolution Refuter”)

it arouses so much hostility that it’s fair to say that American biologists are in a state of war.

The war is so worrying at present, with court cases coming up in one state after another, that I felt I had to say something about it. If you want to know what I have to say about Darwinism itself, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look at my books, which you won’t find in the bookstore outside. (laughter)

Contemporary court cases often concern an allegedly new version of creationism, called intelligent design, or ID. Don’t be fooled. There’s nothing new about ID. It’s just creationism under another name. Re-christened- I choose the word advisedly (laughter)- for tactical political reasons. The arguments of so-called ID theorists are the same old arguments that have been refuted again and again since Darwin down to the present day.

There is an effective evolution lobby coordinating the fight on behalf of science, and I try to do what I can to help them, but they get quite upset when people like me dare to mention that we happen to be atheists, as well as evolutionists. They see us as rocking the boat. You can understand why.

Creationists, lacking any coherent scientific argument for their case, fall back on the popular phobia against atheism. Teach your children evolution in biology class, and they’ll soon move on to drugs, grand larceny, and sexual ‘preversion’ (sic).

(slide: website for National Center for Science Education)

(slide: book cover, Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, caption: “Educated Christians are Evolutionists too”)

In fact, of course, educated theologians from the Pope down are firm in their support of evolution. This book, Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller, is one of the most effective attacks on intelligent design that I know, and it’s all the more effective because it’s written by a devout Christian. People like Kenneth Miller could be called a ‘godsend’ to the evolution lobby (laughter)- because they expose the lie that evolutionism is, as a matter of fact, tantamount to atheism. People like me, on the other hand, rock the boat.

But here I want to say something nice about creationists. It’s not a thing I often do, so listen carefully. (laughter) I think they’re right about one thing- I think they’re right that evolution is fundamentally hostile to religion. I’ve already said that many individual evolutionists, like the Pope, are also religious, but I think they’re deluding themselves. I believe a true understanding of Darwinism is deeply corrosive to religious faith.

Now it may sound as though I’m about to preach atheism, and I want to reassure you that that’s not what I’m going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as that- as this one- that would be preaching to the choir. No, what I want to urge upon you- (laughter)- Instead, what I want to urge upon you, is militant atheism. (loud laughter & applause)

But that’s putting it too negatively. If I wanted to- If I was a person who was interested in preserving religious faith, I would be very afraid of the positive power of evolutionary science, and indeed science generally, but evolution in particular, to inspire and enthrall precisely because it is atheistic.

Now, the difficult problem for any theory of biological design is to explain the massive statistical improbability of living things. Statistical improbability in the direction of good design. Complexity is another word for this. The standard creationist argument- there is only one, they all reduce to this one- takes off from statistical improbability. Living creatures are too complex to have come about by chance, therefore they must have had a designer.

This argument, of course, shoots itself in the foot- any designer capable of designing something really complex has to be even more complex Himself. And that’s before we even start on the other things He’s expected to do, like forgive sins, bless marriages, listen to prayers, favor our side in a war, disapprove of our sex lives, and so on. Complexity is the problem that any theory of biology has to solve. And you can’t solve it by postulating an agent that is even more complex thereby simply compounding the problem.

Darwinian natural selection is so stunningly elegant because it solves the problem of explaining complexity in terms of nothing but simplicity. Essentially it does it by providing a smooth ramp of gradual step by step increment. But here I only want to make the point that the elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion precisely because it is so elegant. So parsimonious. So powerful. So economically powerful. It has the sinewy economy of a beautiful suspension bridge. The “God theory” is not just a bad theory, it turns out to be in principle incapable of doing the job required of it.

So returning to tactics and the evolution lobby, I want to argue that “rocking the boat” may be just the right thing to do. My approach to attacking creationism is- unlike the evolution lobby- my approach to attacking creationism is to attack religion as a whole. And at this point I need to acknowledge the remarkable taboo against speaking ill of religion. And I’m going to do so, in the words of the late Douglas Adams, a dear friend who, if he never came to TED, certainly should have been invited.
(voice offstage: “He was.”)
He was- good. I thought he must have been.

He begins this speech, which was tape recorded in Cambridge shortly before he died- he begins by explaining how science works, through the testing of hypotheses that are framed to be vulnerable to disproof. And then he goes on. I quote-

“Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy. What it means is- here is an idea or emotion that you are not allowed to say anything bad about. You’re just not. Why not? Because you’re not.” (laughter) Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the universe began, about who created the universe- no, that’s holy. So we’re used to not challenging religious ideas. And it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it.” He meant me, not that one. “Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it. Because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally, there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other. Except that we’ve agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.”

That’s the end of the quote from Douglas.

In my view, not only is science corrosive to religion, religion is corrosive to science. It teaches people to be satisfied with trivial, supernatural, non-explanations, and blinds them to the wonderful real explanations that we have within our grasp. It teaches them to accept authority, revelation, and faith, instead of always insisting on evidence.

(photo of Douglas Adams)

There’s Douglas Adams, magnificent picture from his book Last Chance to See.

(photo, cover shot of The Quarterly Review of Biology)

Now there’s a typical scientific journal, The Quarterly Review of Biology, and I’m going to put together as guest editor a special issue on the question “Did an Asteroid Kill the Dinosaurs?” And the first paper is a standard scientific paper presenting evidence (reading list of paper descriptions from a fake “Contents” page): “Iridium layer at K/T boundary and potassium argon dated crater in Yucatan indicate that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” Perfectly ordinary scientific paper. Now the next one: “The president of the royal society has been vouchsafed a strong inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “It has been privately revealed to professor Huckstain (sp?) that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “Professor Haldley was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “Professor Hawkins has promulgated an official dogma, binding on all loyal Hawkinsians, that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter)

That’s inconceivable, of course. But suppose-

(photo of George Bush Sr., w/ caption “Supporters of the Asteroid Theory cannot be patriotic citizens”)

(laughter & applause)

In 1987, a reporter asked George Bush, Sr. whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who were atheists. Mr. Bush’s reply has become infamous- “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens. Nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation, under God.”

Bush’s bigotry was not an isolated mistake, blurted out in the heat of the moment, and later retracted. He stood by it in the face of repeated calls for clarification or withdrawal. He really meant it. More to the point, he knew it posed no threat to his election. Quite the contrary. Democrats, as well as Republicans, parade their religiousness if they want to get elected. Both parties invoke “One Nation, Under God.” What would Thomas Jefferson have said?

(photo of engraving of Jefferson, caption: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty”-Thomas Jefferson)

Incidentally, I’m not usually very proud of being British-

(photo: backs of English pound and US dollar, Darwin’s picture highlighted on the pound, “In God We Trust” highlighted on the dollar)

-but you can’t help making the comparison.

(laughter and applause)

In practice, what is an atheist? An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor, or Baal, or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one God further.

(laughter and applause, cheers)

And however we define atheism, it’s surely the kind of academic belief that a person is entitled to hold without being vilified as an unpatriotic, unelectable non-citizen. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable fact that to own up to being an atheist is tantamount to introducing yourself as “Mr. Hitler” or “Miss Beelzebub.” And that all stems from the perception of atheists as some kind of weird, way-out minority. Natalie Angier wrote a rather sad piece in the New Yorker, saying how lonely she felt as an atheist. She clearly feels in a beleaguered minority.

But actually, how do American atheists stack up numerically? The latest survey makes surprisingly encouraging reading. Christianity, of course, takes a massive lion’s share of the population, with nearly 160 million. But what would you think was the second largest group? Convincingly outnumbering Jews, with 2.8 million, Muslims with 1.1 million, Hindus, Buddhists and all other religions put together? The second largest group, with nearly 30 million, is the one described as ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’.

(pie chart showing statistical breakdown of religions circa 2001)

You can’t help wondering why vote-seeking politicians are so proverbially over-awed by the power of, for example, the Jewish lobby- the state of Israel seems to owe its very existence to the American Jewish vote- while at the same time, consigning the ‘non-religious’ to political oblivion. This secular non-religious vote, if properly mobilized, is 9 times as numerous as the Jewish vote. Why does this far more substantial minority not make a move to exercise its political muscle?

Well, so much for quantity. How about quality? Is there any correlation, positive or negative, between intelligence and tendency to be religious?

(series of photos of George W. Bush, one with balloon saying “Them folks misunderestimated me”, caption “Is religion correlated with IQ?”)


The survey that I quoted, which is the Eris (sp?) survey, didn’t break down its data by socioeconomic class, or education, or IQ, or anything else. But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in the MENSA magazine provides some straws in the wind. MENSA as you know is an international organization for people with very high IQ. And from a meta-analysis of the literature, Bell concludes that, I quote,

(chart: “Is Religion Correlated with Educational Ability?”)

“of 43 studies carried out since 1927, on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection.”

That is, the higher one’s intelligence or educational level, the less one is likely to be religious. Well, I haven’t seen the original 42 (sic) studies and I can’t comment on that meta-analysis, but I would like to see more studies done along those lines. And I know that there are- if I can put a little plug here- there are people in this audience easily capable of financing a massive research survey to settle the question. And I put the suggestion out for what it’s worth.

But let me now show you some data that have been properly published and analyzed on one special group, namely top scientists. In 1998, Larson and Witham polled the cream of American scientists, those who’d been honored by election to the National Academy of the Sciences, and among this select group, belief in a personal god –

(chart: NAS religious breakdown, caption: EJ Larson & L Witham (1998) Leading scientists still reject God, Nature 394, 313)

-dropped to a shattering 7 percent. About 20% are agnostic, and the rest could fairly be called atheists. Similar figures obtain for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists the figure’s even lower, 5.5% only believe in God. Physical scientists it’s 7.5%. I’ve not seen corresponding figures for elite scholars in other fields, such as history or philosophy, but I’d be surprised if they were different.

So we’ve reached a truly remarkable situation. A grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia, and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists, and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I’m right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it. The intelligentsia. Unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs. To put it bluntly, American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest. (applause)

I’m not a citizen of this country, so I hope it won’t be thought unbecoming, if i suggest that something needs to be done. (laughter) I’ve already hinted what that something is. From what I’ve seen at TED, this may be the ideal place to launch it. Again, I fear it will cost money.

We need a consciousness raising coming out campaign for American atheists. This could be similar to the campaign organized by homosexuals a few years ago, although heaven forbid that we should stoop to public outing of people against their will. In most cases, people who out themselves will help to destroy the myth that there is something wrong with atheists. On the contrary, they’ll demonstrate that atheists are often the kinds of people who could serve as decent role models for your children. The kinds of people an advertising agent could use to recommend a product. The kinds of people who are sitting in this room.

There should be a snowball effect, a positive feedback such that the more names that we have, the more we get. there could be non-linearities, threshold effects, when a critical mass is obtained, there’s an abrupt acceleration in recruitment. And again, it’ll need money.

I suspect that the word atheist itself contains- or remains- a stumbling block, far out of proportion to what it actually means. And a stumbling block to people who otherwise might be willing to out themselves. So what other words might be used to smooth the path? Oil the wheels? Sugar the pill?

Darwin himself preferred ‘agnostic’, and not only out of loyalty to his friend Huxley, who coined the term.

(slide: caricature of T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), agnostic, caption “I took thought…”)

Darwin said, “I have never been an atheist, in the same sense of denying the existence of a god. I think that generally an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” He even became uncharacteristically touchy with Edward Aveling. Aveling was a militant atheist who failed to persuade Darwin to accept the dedication of his book on atheism.

(photo: Edward Aveling, 1851-1898, caption: “Agnosticism writ aggressive”)

-Incidentally giving rise to a fascinating myth that Karl Marx tried to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, which he didn’t, it was actually Edward Aveling. What happened was Aveling’s mistress was Marx’s daughter, and when both Darwin and Marx were dead, Marx’s papers became muddled up with Aveling’s papers, and a letter from Darwin saying “My dear sir, thank you very much but I don’t want you to dedicate your book to me” was mistakenly supposed to be addressed to Marx. And that gave rise to this whole myth which you’ve probably heard- it’s sort of urban myth, that Marx tried to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin.

Anyway, it was Aveling, and when they met, Darwin challenged Aveling- “Why do you call yourselves atheists?” “‘Agnostic’,” retorted Aveling, “was simply ‘atheist’ writ respectable, and ‘atheist’ was simply ‘agnostic’ writ aggressive.” Darwin complained, “but why should you be so aggressive?” Darwin thought that atheism might be well and good for the intelligentsia, but ordinary people were not, quote, “ripe” for it. Which is, of course, our old friend the ‘don’t rock the boat’ argument. It’s not recorded whether Aveling told Darwin to come down off his high horse. But in any case, that was more than 100 years ago. You think we might have grown up since then.

Now, a friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew, who incidentally observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity,

(slide: drawing of teapot orbiting Mars, with ringed planet in background, caption: “You cannot disprove God. So atheism is exactly as irrational as theism.”)

-describes himself as a “tooth fairy agnostic.” He won’t call himself an atheist because it’s in principle impossible to prove a negative. But ‘agnostic’ on its own might suggest that God’s existence was therefore on equal terms of likelihood as His non-existence. So my friend is strictly agnostic about the tooth fairy, but it isn’t very likely, is it? Like God. Hence the phrase, “tooth fairy agnostic.”

Bertram Russell made the same point using a hypothetical teapot (cut back to drawing above) in orbit about Mars. You strictly have to be agnostic about whether there is a teapot in orbit about Mars, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as on all fours with its non-existence.

The list of things which we strictly have to be agnostic about doesn’t stop at tooth fairies and teapots, it’s infinite. If you want to believe one particular one of them, unicorns, or tooth fairies, or teapots, or Yahweh, the onus is on you to say why. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why not. We who are atheists are also “a-fairy-ists,” and “a-teapot-ists.” (laughter) But we don’t bother to say so. And this is why my friend uses “tooth fairy agnostic” as a label for what most people would call atheist.

Nonetheless, if we want to attract deep-down atheists to come out, publicly, we’re going to have to find something better to stick on our banner than “tooth fairy” or “teapot agnostic.” So how about humanist? This has the advantage of a worldwide network of well organized associations and journals and things already in place, my problem with it is only its apparent anthropocentrism. One of the things we’ve learned from Darwin is that the human species is only one among millions of cousins, some close, some distant. And there are other possibilities like “naturalist”, but that also has problems of confusion because Darwin would have thought “naturalist” – “naturalist” means of course as opposed to “supernaturalist” and it is used sometimes- Darwin would have been confused by the other sense of “naturalist”, which he was, of course, and- I suppose- there might be others that would confuse it with “nudism”. Such people might be those belonging to the British lynch mob which last year attacked a pediatrician in mistake for a pedophile. (laughter)

I think the best of the available alternatives for “atheist” is simply “non-theist.” It lacks the strong connotation that there’s definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embraced by “teapot” or “tooth fairy agnostics.” It’s completely compatible with the God of the physicists, the- when people like- when atheists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein use the word “god” they use it of course as a metaphorical shorthand for that deep mysterious part of physics which we don’t yet understand. Non-theist will do for all that, yet unlike “atheist” it doesn’t have the same phobic, hysterical responses.

But I think actually the alternative is to grasp the nettle, of the word “atheism” itself, precisely because it is a taboo word, carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve with the word “atheist” than with the word “non-theist,” or some other non-confrontational word, but if we did achieve it, with that dread word “atheist” itself, the political impact would be even greater.

Now I said that if I were religious, I’d be very afraid of evolution, I’d go further- I would fear science in general if properly understood. And this is because the scientific world view is so much more exciting, more poetic, more filled with sheer wonder than anything in the poverty stricken arsenals of the religious imagination.

As Carl Sagan, another recently dead hero, put it:

(photo: Carl Sagan, 1934-1996, with quote below):

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Now, this is an elite audience, and i would therefore expect about 10% of you to be religious. Many of you probably subscribe to our polite cultural belief that we should respect religion. But I also suspect that a fair number of those secretly despise religion as much as I do. If you’re one of them- and of course many of you may not be- but if you are one of them, I’m asking you to stop being polite- come out and say so. And if you happen to be rich, give some thought to ways in which you might make a difference. The religious lobby in this country is massively financed by foundations- say nothing of the tax benefits- by foundations such as the Templeton Foundation, and the Discovery Institute. We need an anti-Templeton to step forward. If my books sold as well as Stephen Hawking’s books, instead of only as well as Richard Dawkins’ books, I’d do it myself.

People are always going on about “How did September the 11th change you?” Well, here’s how it changed me: Let’s all stop being so damned respectful. Thank you very much.