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  • 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.