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 triumphalat having lived at all, and at having livedon this splendid planet, and having been giventhe opportunity to understand something about why i was herein the first place, before not being here.
can you understandmy quaint english accent? like everybody else, i was entrancedyesterday 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 whenjeffrey katzenberg said of the mustang, "the most splendid creaturesthat god put on this earth." now of course, we knowthat 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 theoremof our subject: the theory of design,
darwin's theory of evolutionby natural selection. in professional circles everywhere,it's of course universally accepted. in non-professional circlesoutside america, it's largely ignored. but in non-professionalcircles within america, it arouses so much hostility -- it's fair to say that american biologistsare in a state of war. the war is so worrying at present, with court cases comingup in one state after another, that i felt i had to saysomething about it.
if you want to know what i haveto say about darwinism itself, i'm afraid you're goingto have to look at my books, which you won't findin the bookstore outside. contemporary court cases often concern an allegedlynew 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 --
for tactical, political reasons. the arguments of so-called id theorists are the same old argumentsthat had been refuted again and again, since darwin down to the present day. there is an effective evolution lobby coordinating the fighton behalf of science, and i try to do all i can to help them, but they get quite upsetwhen people like me dare to mention that we happen to be atheistsas well as evolutionists.
they see us as rocking the boat,and you can understand why. creationists, lacking any coherentscientific argument for their case, fall back on the popularphobia against atheism: teach your childrenevolution in biology class, and they'll soon move on to drugs,grand larceny and sexual "pre-version." in fact, of course, educatedtheologians from the pope down are firm in their support of evolution. this book, "findingdarwin's god," by kenneth miller, is one of the most effective attackson intelligent design that i know
and it's all the more effective becauseit's written by a devout christian. people like kenneth miller could be calleda "godsend" to the evolution lobby, because they expose the liethat evolutionism is, as a matter of fact, tantamount to atheism. people like me, on the otherhand, rock the boat. but here, i want to say somethingnice about creationists. it's not a thing i often do,so listen carefully. 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 individualevolutionists, like the pope, are also religious, but i thinkthey're deluding themselves. i believe a trueunderstanding of darwinism is deeply corrosive to religious faith. now, it may sound as thoughi'm about to preach atheism, and i want to reassure youthat that's not what i'm going to do. in an audienceas sophisticated as this one, that would be preaching to the choir.
no, what i want to urge upon you -- instead, what i want to urgeupon you is militant atheism. (applause) but that's putting it too negatively. if i was a person who were interestedin preserving religious faith, i would be very afraid of the positivepower of evolutionary science, and indeed science generally,but evolution in particular, to inspire and enthrall,precisely because it is atheistic. now, the difficult problemfor any theory of biological design
is to explain the massive statisticalimprobability of living things. statistical improbabilityin 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 froma statistical improbability. living creatures are too complexto 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 designingsomething really complex has to be even more complex himself, and that's before we even starton the other things he's expected to do, like forgive sins, blessmarriages, listen to prayers -- favor our side in a war -- disapprove of our sex lives, and so on. complexity is the problemthat any theory of biology has to solve, and you can't solve it by postulatingan agent that is even more complex, thereby simply compounding the problem.
darwinian natural selectionis so stunningly elegant because it solves the problemof explaining complexity in terms of nothing but simplicity. essentially, it does itby providing a smooth ramp of gradual, step-by-step increment. but here, i only want to make the point that the elegance of darwinismis corrosive to religion, precisely because it is so elegant,so parsimonious, so powerful, so economically powerful.
it has the sinewy economyof 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 tacticsand 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 creationismis to attack religion as a whole. and at this point i needto acknowledge the remarkable taboo against speaking ill of religion, and i'm going to do so in the wordsof 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 scienceworks through the testing of hypotheses that are framed to be vulnerableto disproof, and then he goes on. i quote, "religion doesn'tseem 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 allowedto say anything bad about. you're just not. why not?because you're not." "why should it bethat it's perfectly legitimate
to support the republicans or democrats, this model of economics versus that, macintosh instead of windows, but to have an opinionabout how the universe began, about who created the universe -- no, that's holy. so, we're used to notchallenging religious ideas, and it's very interesting how muchof a furor richard creates when he does it." --
he meant me, not that one. "everybody gets absolutelyfrantic about it, because you're not allowedto say these things. yet when you look at it rationally, there's no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as opento debate as any other, except that we've agreedsomehow between us that they shouldn't be." and that's the endof the quote from douglas.
in my view, not only is sciencecorrosive to religion; religion is corrosive to science. it teaches peopleto 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 acceptauthority, revelation and faith, instead of always insisting on evidence. there's douglas adams, magnificent picturefrom his book, "last chance to see."
now, there's a typical scientific journal, the quarterly review of biology. and i'm going to puttogether, as guest editor, a special issue on the question,"did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs?" and the first paperis a standard scientific paper, presenting evidence, "iridium layer at the k-t boundary, and potassium argon datedcrater in yucatan, indicate that an asteroidkilled the dinosaurs."
perfectly ordinary scientific paper. now, the next one. "the president of the royal society has been vouchsafeda strong inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." "it has been privatelyrevealed to professor huxtane "professor hordley was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith" -- (laughter) --
"that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs." "professor hawkins haspromulgated an official dogma binding on all loyal hawkinsians that's inconceivable, of course. but suppose -- [supporters of the asteroid theorycannot be patriotic citizens] in 1987, a reporter asked george bush, sr. whether he recognizedthe equal citizenship and patriotism of americans who are atheists.
mr. bush's reply has become infamous. "no, i don't know that atheistsshould be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. this is one nation under god." bush's bigotrywas not an isolated mistake, blurted out in the heatof the moment and later retracted. he stood by it in the face of repeatedcalls for clarification or withdrawal. he really meant it. more to the point, he knewit posed no threat to his election --
quite the contrary. democrats as well as republicansparade 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 usuallyvery proud of being british, but you can't help making the comparison. in practice, what is an atheist?
an atheist is just somebodywho feels about yahweh the way any decent christian feelsabout thor or baal or the golden calf. as has been said before, we areall atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. some of us just go one god further. and however we define atheism,it's surely the kind of academic belief that a person is entitledto hold without being vilified as an unpatriotic,unelectable non-citizen. nevertheless, it's an undeniable factthat to own up to being an atheist
is tantamount to introducing yourselfas mr. hitler or miss beelzebub. and that all stemsfrom the perception of atheists as some kind of weird, way-out minority. natalie angier wrote a rathersad piece in the new yorker, saying how lonely she felt as an atheist. she clearly feelsin a beleaguered minority. but actually, how do american atheistsstack up numerically? the latest survey makessurprisingly encouraging reading. christianity, of course, takes a massivelion's share of the population,
with nearly 160 million. but what would you thinkwas the second largest group, convincingly outnumbering jewswith 2.8 million, muslims at 1.1 million, hindus, buddhists and all otherreligions put together? the second largest group,with nearly 30 million, is the one describedas non-religious or secular. you can't help wonderingwhy vote-seeking politicians are so proverbially overawed by the powerof, for example, the jewish lobby -- the state of israel seems to owe its veryexistence to the american jewish vote --
while at the same time, consigning the non-religiousto political oblivion. this secular non-religious vote,if properly mobilized, is nine times as numerousas the jewish vote. why does this far moresubstantial minority not make a move to exerciseits political muscle? well, so much for quantity.how about quality? is there any correlation,positive or negative, between intelligenceand tendency to be religious?
[them folks misunderestimated me] the survey that i quoted,which is the aris survey, didn't break down its databy socio-economic class or education, iq or anything else. but a recent article by paul g. bellin 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-analysisof the literature,
bell concludes that, i quote --"of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationshipbetween religious belief, and one's intelligenceor educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. that is, the higher one's intelligenceor educational level, the less one is likely to be religious." well, i haven't seenthe original 42 studies, and i can't comment on that meta-analysis, but i would like to see morestudies 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 massiveresearch 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 properlypublished and analyzed, on one special group --namely, top scientists. in 1998, larson and withampolled the cream of american scientists, those who'd been honored by electionto the national academy of sciences,
and among this select group, belief in a personal god droppedto a shattering seven percent. about 20 percent are agnostic;the rest could fairly be called atheists. similar figures obtainedfor 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 correspondingfigures for elite scholars in other fields,such as history or philosophy,
but i'd be surprisedif they were different. so, we've reached a trulyremarkable situation, a grotesque mismatchbetween the american intelligentsia and the american electorate. a philosophical opinionabout the nature of the universe, which is held by the vast majorityof top american scientists and probably the majorityof the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the american electorate that no candidate for popular electiondare 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 peoplebest qualified to hold it -- the intelligentsia -- unless they are preparedto lie about their beliefs. to put it bluntly:american political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneouslyintelligent and honest. i'm not a citizen of this country,so i hope it won't be thought unbecoming
if i suggest that somethingneeds to be done. and i've already hintedwhat that something is. from what i've seen of ted, i think thismay 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 campaignorganized by homosexuals a few years ago, although heaven forbidthat we should stoop to public outing
of people against their will. in most cases, people who out themselves will help to destroy the myth thatthere is something wrong with atheists. on the contrary, they'll demonstrate that atheistsare often the kinds of people who could serve as decentrole models for your children, the kinds of people an advertising agentcould use to recommend a product, the kinds of peoplewho are sitting in this room. there should be a snowball effect,a positive feedback,
such that the more nameswe have, the more we get. there could be non-linearities,threshold effects. when a critical mass has been obtained, there's an abruptacceleration in recruitment. and again, it will need money. i suspect that the word "atheist" itself contains or remains a stumbling block far out of proportionto what it actually means, and a stumbling block to people
who otherwise might behappy to out themselves. so, what other words mightbe used to smooth the path, oil the wheels, sugar the pill? darwin himself preferred "agnostic" -- and not only out of loyaltyto his friend huxley, who coined the term. darwin said, "i have never been an atheist in the same sense of denyingthe existence of a god. i think that generally an 'agnostic'
would be the most correctdescription of my state of mind." he even became uncharacteristicallytetchy with edward aveling. aveling was a militant atheist who failed to persuade darwin to accept the dedicationof his book on atheism -- incidentally, giving riseto a fascinating myth that karl marx tried to dedicate"das kapital" to darwin, which he didn't, it wasactually edward aveling. what happened was that aveling'smistress was marx's daughter,
and when both darwin and marx were dead, marx's papers became muddledup with aveling's papers, and a letter from darwin saying,"my dear sir, thank you very much but i don't want youto dedicate your book to me," was mistakenly supposedto be addressed to marx, and that gave rise to this wholemyth, which you've probably heard. it's a sort of urban myth, that marxtried to dedicate "kapital" to darwin. anyway, it was aveling, and whenthey met, darwin challenged aveling. "why do you call yourselves atheists?"
"'agnostic, '" retorted aveling, "wassimply 'atheist' writ respectable, and 'atheist' was simply'agnostic' writ aggressive." darwin complained, "but whyshould you be so aggressive?" darwin thought that atheism might bewell and good for the intelligentsia, but that ordinary people werenot, quote, "ripe for it." which is, of course, our old friend,the "don't rock the boat" argument. it's not recorded whether aveling tolddarwin to come down off his high horse. but in any case,that was more than 100 years ago. you'd think we might havegrown up since then.
now, a friend, an intelligent lapsed jew, who, incidentally, observes the sabbathfor reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himselfas 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 mightsuggest that god's existence was therefore on equal termsof likelihood as his non-existence. so, my friend is strictlyagnostic 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 teapotin orbit about mars. you would strictly have to be agnostic about whether there is a teapotin orbit about mars, but that doesn't mean you treatthe likelihood of its existence as on all fours with its non-existence. the list of things which we strictlyhave to be agnostic about
doesn't stop at tooth fairiesand teapots; it's infinite. if you want to believeone particular one of them -- unicorns or tooth fairiesor teapots or yahweh -- the onus is on you to say why. the onus is not on the restof us to say why not. we, who are atheists, are also a-fairyists and a-teapotists. but we don't bother to say so. and this is why my frienduses "tooth-fairy agnostic"
as a label for what most peoplewould call atheist. nonetheless, if we want to attractdeep-down atheists to come out publicly, we're going to have findsomething better to stick on our banner than "tooth-fairy" or "teapot agnostic." so, how about "humanist"? this has the advantage of a worldwidenetwork of well-organized associations and journals and things already in place. my problem with it is onlyits apparent anthropocentrism. one of the thingswe'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 havethought naturalist -- "naturalist" means, of course,as opposed to "supernaturalist" -- and it is used sometimes -- darwin would have been confusedby the other sense of "naturalist," which he was, of course,
and i suppose there might be otherswho would confuse it with "nudism". such people might be thosebelonging to the british lynch mob, which last year attacked a pediatricianin mistake for a pedophile. i think the best of the availablealternatives for "atheist" is simply "non-theist." it lacks the strong connotationthat there's definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embracedby teapot or tooth-fairy agnostics. it's completely compatiblewith the god of the physicists. when atheists like stephen hawkingand albert einstein use the word "god,"
they use it of courseas a metaphorical shorthand for that deep, mysterious part of physicswhich we don't yet understand. "non-theist" will do for all that,yet unlike "atheist," it doesn't have the samephobic, hysterical responses. but i think, actually, the alternative is to grasp the nettleof the word "atheism" itself, precisely because it is a taboo word, carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. critical mass may be harderto achieve with the word "atheist"
than with the word "non-theist," or some other non-confrontational word. but if we did achieve itwith that dread word "atheist" itself, the political impactwould 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 sciencein general, if properly understood. and this is becausethe scientific worldview is so much more exciting, more poetic, more filled with sheer wonder
than anything in the poverty-strickenarsenals of the religious imagination. as carl sagan, another recentlydead hero, put it, "how is it that hardly any majorreligion has looked at science and concluded, 'thisis better than we thought! the universe is much biggerthan 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 magnificenceof the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forthreserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths." now, this is an elite audience, and i would therefore expectabout 10 percent of you to be religious. many of you probably subscribeto our polite cultural belief that we should respect religion. but i also suspectthat a fair number of those
secretly despise religion as much as i do. if you're one of them, and of coursemany 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 waysin 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 templetonfoundation and the discovery institute. we need an anti-templeton to step forward. if my books sold as wellas stephen hawking's books, instead of only as well asrichard 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.