Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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.