Militant atheism | Richard Dawkins


That splendid music, the coming-in music, “The Elephant March” from “Aida,”
is the music I’ve chosen for my funeral. (Laughter) And you can see why. It’s triumphal. 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? (Laughter) 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
that he didn’t really mean that, but in this country at the moment,
you can’t be too careful. (Laughter) 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, it arouses so much hostility — (Laughter) 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, rechristened —
I choose the word advisedly — (Laughter) for tactical, political reasons. The arguments of so-called ID theorists are the same old arguments
that had 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 all 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,
and 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 “pre-version.” (Laughter) 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 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. (Laughter) (Applause) But that’s putting it too negatively. If I was a person who were 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’re all reduced to this one — takes off from
a 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 — (Laughter) disapprove of our sex lives, and so on. (Laughter) 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. (Richard Saul Wurman: He was.) Richard Dawkins: 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 a notion that you’re 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 furor 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’s 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.” And 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. There’s Douglas Adams, magnificent picture
from his book, “Last Chance to See.” 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, “Iridium layer at the 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 Huxtane that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (Laughter) “Professor Hordley was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith” — (Laughter) — “that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” “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 — [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 are 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? [In every country and in every age,
the priest has been hostile to liberty] Incidentally, I’m not usually
very proud of being British, but you can’t help making the comparison. (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) (Applause) 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 at 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. You can’t help wondering
why vote-seeking politicians are so proverbially overawed 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 nine 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? [Them folks misunderestimated me] (Laughter) The survey that I quoted,
which is the ARIS survey, didn’t break down its data
by socio-economic class or education, 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 —
“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 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 could 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 up,
for what it’s worth. But let me know 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 Sciences, and among this select group, belief in a personal God dropped
to a shattering seven percent. About 20 percent are agnostic;
the rest could fairly be called atheists. Similar figures obtained
for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists,
the figure is even lower: 5.5 percent, only, believe in God. Physical scientists, it’s 7.5 percent. 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. (Laughter) (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) And I’ve already hinted
what that something is. From what I’ve seen of TED, I think 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. (Laughter) 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
we have, the more we get. There could be non-linearities,
threshold effects. When a critical mass has been obtained, there’s an abrupt
acceleration in recruitment. And again, it will 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
happy 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. 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
tetchy with Edward Aveling. Aveling was a militant atheist who failed to persuade Darwin to accept the dedication
of his book on atheism — 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 that 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 a sort of urban myth, that Marx
tried to dedicate “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 that 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. (Laughter) But in any case,
that was more than 100 years ago. You’d 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, 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.” Bertrand Russell made the same point using a hypothetical teapot
in orbit about Mars. You would 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-fairyists and a-teapotists. (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 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
who would confuse it with “nudism”. (Laughter) 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. 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 worldview 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, “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 prophet 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 percent 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. (Laughter) 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 —
to say nothing of all 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. (Applause)

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *