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Annotated captions of Richard Dawkins on militant atheism in English

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That splendid music, the coming-in music --

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"The Elephant March" from "Aida" -- is the music I've chosen for my funeral --

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(Laughter)

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-- and you can see why. It's triumphal.

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I won't feel anything, but if I could,

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I would feel triumphal at having lived at all,

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and at having lived on this splendid planet,

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and having been given the opportunity to understand

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something about why I was here in the first place, before not being here.

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Can you understand my quaint English accent?

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Like everybody else, I was entranced yesterday by the animal session.

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Robert Full and Frans Lanting and others --

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the beauty of the things they showed.

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The only slight jarring note was when Jeffrey Katzenberg said of the mustang,

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"the most splendid creatures that God put on this earth."

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Now of course, we know that he didn't really mean that,

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but in this country at the moment, you can't be too careful.

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(Laughter)

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I'm a biologist, and the central theorem of our subject: the theory of design,

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Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

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In professional circles everywhere, it's of course universally accepted.

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In non-professional circles outside America, it's largely ignored.

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But in non-professional circles within America,

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it arouses so much hostility --

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(Laughter)

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-- that it's fair to say that American biologists are in a state of war.

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The war is so worrying at present,

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with court cases coming up in one state after another,

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that I felt I had to say something about it.

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If you want to know what I have to say about Darwinism itself,

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I'm afraid you're going to have to look at my books,

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which you won't find in the bookstore outside.

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(Laughter)

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Contemporary court cases

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often concern an allegedly new version of creationism,

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called "Intelligent Design," or ID.

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Don't be fooled. There's nothing new about ID.

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It's just creationism under another name,

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rechristened -- I choose the word advisedly --

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(Laughter)

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-- for tactical, political reasons.

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The arguments of so-called ID theorists

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are the same old arguments that had been refuted again and again,

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since Darwin down to the present day.

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There is an effective evolution lobby

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coordinating the fight on behalf of science,

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and I try to do all I can to help them,

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but they get quite upset when people like me dare to mention

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that we happen to be atheists as well as evolutionists.

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They see us as rocking the boat, and you can understand why.

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Creationists, lacking any coherent scientific argument for their case,

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fall back on the popular phobia against atheism.

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Teach your children evolution in biology class,

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and they'll soon move on to drugs, grand larceny and sexual pre-version.

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(Laughter)

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In fact, of course, educated theologians from the Pope down

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are firm in their support of evolution.

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This book, "Finding Darwin's God," by Kenneth Miller,

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is one of the most effective attacks on Intelligent Design

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that I know, and it's all the more effective

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because it's written by a devout Christian.

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People like Kenneth Miller could be called a "godsend" to the evolution lobby --

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(Laughter)

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-- because they expose the lie that evolutionism is, as a matter of fact,

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tantamount to atheism.

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People like me, on the other hand, rock the boat.

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But here, I want to say something nice about creationists.

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It's not a thing I often do, so listen carefully.

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(Laughter)

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I think they're right about one thing.

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I think they're right that evolution

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is fundamentally hostile to religion.

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I've already said that many individual evolutionists, like the Pope,

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are also religious, but I think they're deluding themselves.

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I believe a true understanding of Darwinism

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is deeply corrosive to religious faith.

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Now, it may sound as though I'm about to preach atheism,

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and I want to reassure you that that's not what I'm going to do.

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In an audience as sophisticated as this one,

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that would be preaching to the choir.

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No, what I want to urge upon you --

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(Laughter)

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-- instead what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism.

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(Laughter)

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(Applause)

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But that's putting it too negatively.

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If I was a person who were interested in preserving religious faith,

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I would be very afraid of the positive power of evolutionary science,

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and indeed science generally, but evolution in particular,

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to inspire and enthrall, precisely because it is atheistic.

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Now, the difficult problem for any theory of biological design

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is to explain the massive statistical improbability of living things.

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Statistical improbability in the direction of good design --

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"complexity" is another word for this.

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The standard creationist argument -- there is only one; they all reduce to this one --

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takes off from a statistical improbability.

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Living creatures are too complex to have come about by chance;

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therefore, they must have had a designer.

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This argument of course, shoots itself in the foot.

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Any designer capable of designing something really complex

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has to be even more complex himself, and that's before we even start

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on the other things he's expected to do,

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like forgive sins, bless marriages, listen to prayers --

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favor our side in a war --

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(Laughter)

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-- disapprove of our sex lives and so on.

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(Laughter)

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Complexity is the problem that any theory of biology has to solve,

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and you can't solve it by postulating an agent that is even more complex,

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thereby simply compounding the problem.

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Darwinian natural selection is so stunningly elegant

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because it solves the problem of explaining complexity

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in terms of nothing but simplicity.

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Essentially, it does it by providing a smooth ramp

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of gradual step-by-step increment.

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But here, I only want to make the point

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that the elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion

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precisely because it is so elegant, so parsimonious, so powerful,

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so economically powerful.

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It has the sinewy economy of a beautiful suspension bridge.

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The God theory is not just a bad theory.

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It turns out to be, in principle, incapable of doing the job required of it.

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So, returning to tactics and the evolution lobby,

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I want to argue that rocking the boat may be just the right thing to do.

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My approach to attacking creationism is unlike the evolution lobby.

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My approach to attacking creationism is to attack religion as a whole,

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and at this point I need to acknowledge the remarkable taboo

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against speaking ill of religion,

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and I'm going to do so in the words of the late Douglas Adams,

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a dear friend who, if he never came to TED,

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certainly should have been invited.

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(Richard Saul Wurman: He was.)

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Richard Dawkins: He was. Good. I thought he must have been.

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He begins this speech which was tape-recorded in Cambridge

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shortly before he died.

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He begins by explaining how science works through the testing of hypotheses

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that are framed to be vulnerable to disproof, and then he goes on.

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I quote, "Religion doesn't seem to work like that.

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It has certain ideas at the heart of it, which we call 'sacred' or 'holy.'

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What it means is: here is an idea or a notion

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that you're not allowed to say anything bad about.

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You're just not. Why not? Because you're not.

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(Laughter)

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Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Republicans or Democrats,

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this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows,

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but to have an opinion about how the universe began,

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about who created the universe -- no, that's holy.

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So, we're used to not challenging religious ideas

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and it's very interesting how much of a furor Richard creates

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when he does it." He meant me, not that one.

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"Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it,

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because you're not allowed to say these things, yet when you look at it rationally,

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there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate

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as any other, except that we've agreed somehow between us

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that they shouldn't be." And that's the end of the quote from Douglas.

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In my view, not only is science corrosive to religion;

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religion is corrosive to science.

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It teaches people to be satisfied with trivial, supernatural non-explanations

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and blinds them to the wonderful real explanations that we have within our grasp.

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It teaches them to accept authority, revelation and faith

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instead of always insisting on evidence.

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

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Now, there's a typical scientific journal, the Quarterly Review of Biology.

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And I'm going to put together, as guest editor,

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a special issue on the question, "Did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs?"

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And the first paper is a standard scientific paper

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presenting evidence, "Iridium Layer at the K-T Boundary,

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Potassium-Argon Dated Crater in Yucatan,

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Indicate That an Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs."

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Perfectly ordinary scientific paper.

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Now, the next one, "The President of The Royal Society

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Has Been Vouchsafed a Strong Inner Conviction" -- (Laughter) --

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"... That an Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs."

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(Laughter)

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"It Has Been Privately Revealed to Professor Huxtane

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That an Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs."

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(Laughter)

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"Professor Hordley Was Brought Up

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to Have Total and Unquestioning Faith" --

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(Laughter) --

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"... That an Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs."

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"Professor Hawkins Has Promulgated an Official Dogma

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Binding on All Loyal Hawkinsians

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That an Asteroid Killed the Dinosaurs."

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(Laughter)

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That's inconceivable, of course.

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But suppose --

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(Applause)

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-- in 1987, a reporter asked George Bush, Sr.

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whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism

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of Americans who are atheists.

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Mr. Bush's reply has become infamous.

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"No, I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens,

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nor should they be considered patriots.

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This is one nation under God."

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Bush's bigotry was not an isolated mistake,

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blurted out in the heat of the moment and later retracted.

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He stood by it in the face of repeated calls for clarification or withdrawal.

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He really meant it.

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More to the point, he knew it posed no threat to his election, quite the contrary.

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Democrats as well as Republicans parade their religiousness

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if they want to get elected. Both parties invoke "one nation under God."

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What would Thomas Jefferson have said?

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Incidentally, I'm not usually very proud of being British,

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but you can't help making the comparison.

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(Applause)

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In practice, what is an atheist?

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An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh

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the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf.

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As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods

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that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

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(Laughter)

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(Applause)

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And however we define atheism, it's surely the kind of academic belief

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that a person is entitled to hold without being vilified

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as an unpatriotic, unelectable non-citizen.

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Nevertheless, it's an undeniable fact that to own up to being an atheist

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is tantamount to introducing yourself as Mr. Hitler or Miss Beelzebub.

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And that all stems from the perception of atheists

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as some kind of weird, way-out minority.

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Natalie Angier wrote a rather sad piece in the New Yorker,

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saying how lonely she felt as an atheist.

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She clearly feels in a beleaguered minority,

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but actually, how do American atheists stack up numerically?

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The latest survey makes surprisingly encouraging reading.

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Christianity, of course, takes a massive lion's share

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of the population, with nearly 160 million.

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But what would you think was the second largest group,

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convincingly outnumbering Jews with 2.8 million, Muslims at 1.1 million,

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and Hindus, Buddhists and all other religions put together?

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The second largest group, of nearly 30 million,

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is the one described as non-religious or secular.

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You can't help wondering why vote-seeking politicians

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are so proverbially overawed by the power of, for example, the Jewish lobby.

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The state of Israel seems to owe its very existence

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to the American Jewish vote, while at the same time

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consigning the non-religious to political oblivion.

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This secular non-religious vote, if properly mobilized,

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is nine times as numerous as the Jewish vote.

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Why does this far more substantial minority

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not make a move to exercise its political muscle?

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Well, so much for quantity. How about quality?

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Is there any correlation, positive or negative,

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between intelligence and tendency to be religious?

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(Laughter)

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The survey that I quoted, which is the ARIS survey,

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didn't break down its data by socio-economic class or education,

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IQ or anything else.

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But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in the Mensa magazine

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provides some straws in the wind.

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Mensa, as you know, is an international organization

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for people with very high IQ.

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And from a meta-analysis of the literature,

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Bell concludes that, I quote, "Of 43 studies carried out since 1927

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on the relationship between religious belief and one's intelligence or educational level,

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all but four found an inverse connection.

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That is, the higher one's intelligence or educational level,

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the less one is likely to be religious."

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Well, I haven't seen the original 42 studies and I can't comment on that meta-anaysis

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but I would like to see more studies done along those lines.

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And I know that there are, if I could put a little plug here,

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there are people in this audience

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easily capable of financing a massive research survey to settle the question,

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and I put the suggestion up -- for what it's worth.

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But let me know show you some data

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that have been properly published and analyzed

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on one special group, namely, top scientists.

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In 1998, Larson and Witham

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polled the cream of American scientists,

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those who'd been honored by election to the National Academy of Sciences,

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and among this select group,

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belief in a personal God dropped to a shattering seven percent.

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About 20 percent are agnostic, and the rest could fairly be called atheists.

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Similar figures obtained for belief in personal immortality.

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Among biological scientists, the figures are even lower:

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5.5 percent, only, believe in God. Physical scientists: it's 7.5 percent.

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I've not seen corresponding figures for elite scholars

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in other fields, such history or philosophy,

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but I'd be surprised if they were different.

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So, we've reached a truly remarkable situation,

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a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia

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and the American electorate.

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A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe,

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which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists

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and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally,

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is so abhorrent to the American electorate

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that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public.

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If I'm right, this means that high office

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in the greatest country in the world

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is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it -- the intelligentsia --

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unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs.

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To put it bluntly, American political opportunities

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are heavily loaded against those

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who are simultaneously intelligent and honest.

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(Applause)

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I'm not a citizen of this country, so I hope it won't be thought unbecoming

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if I suggest that something needs to be done.

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(Laughter)

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And I've already hinted what that something is.

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From what I've seen of TED, I think this may be the ideal place to launch it.

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Again, I fear it will cost money.

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We need a consciousness-raising,

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coming-out campaign for American atheists.

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(Laughter)

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This could be similar to the campaign organized by homosexuals

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a few years ago,

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although heaven forbid that we should stoop to public outing

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of people against their will.

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In most cases, people who out themselves

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will help to destroy the myth that there is something wrong with atheists.

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On the contrary,

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they'll demonstrate that atheists are often the kinds of people

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that could serve as decent role models for your children,

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the kinds of people an advertising agent could use to recommend a product,

tedtalks 19:34
19:38

the kinds of people who are sitting in this room.

tedtalks 19:38
19:41

There should be a snowball effect, a positive feedback,

tedtalks 19:41
19:44

such that the more names we have, the more we get.

tedtalks 19:44
19:47

There could be non-linearities, threshold effects.

tedtalks 19:47
19:49

When a critical mass has been attained,

tedtalks 19:49
19:52

there's an abrupt acceleration in recruitment.

tedtalks 19:52
19:55

And again, it will need money.

tedtalks 19:55
19:59

I suspect that the word "atheist" itself

tedtalks 19:59
20:02

contains or remains a stumbling block

tedtalks 20:02
20:06

far out of proportion to what it actually means, and a stumbling block to people

tedtalks 20:06
20:09

who otherwise might be happy to out themselves.

tedtalks 20:09
20:12

So, what other words might be used to smooth the path,

tedtalks 20:12
20:19

oil the wheels, sugar the pill? Darwin himself preferred "agnostic" --

tedtalks 20:19
20:25

and not only out of loyalty to his friend Huxley, who coined the term.

tedtalks 20:25
20:27

Darwin said, "I have never been an atheist

tedtalks 20:27
20:31

in the same sense of denying the existence of a God.

tedtalks 20:31
20:33

I think that generally an 'agnostic'

tedtalks 20:33
20:37

would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

tedtalks 20:37
20:42

He even became uncharacteristically tetchy with Edward Aveling.

tedtalks 20:42
20:44

Aveling was a militant atheist

tedtalks 20:44
20:46

who failed to persuade Darwin

tedtalks 20:46
20:49

to accept the dedication of his book on atheism --

tedtalks 20:49
20:52

incidentally, giving rise to a fascinating myth

tedtalks 20:52
20:55

that Karl Marx tried to dedicate "Das Kapital" to Darwin,

tedtalks 20:55
20:57

which he didn't. It was actually Edward Aveling.

tedtalks 20:57
21:02

What happened was that Aveling's mistress was Marx's daughter,

tedtalks 21:02
21:05

and when both Darwin and Marx were dead,

tedtalks 21:05
21:09

Marx's papers became muddled up with Aveling's papers

tedtalks 21:09
21:14

and a letter from Darwin saying, "My dear sir, thank you very much

tedtalks 21:14
21:16

but I don't want you to dedicate your book to me,"

tedtalks 21:16
21:19

was mistakenly supposed to be addressed to Marx,

tedtalks 21:19
21:22

and that gave rise to this whole myth, which you've probably heard.

tedtalks 21:22
21:24

It's a sort of urban myth,

tedtalks 21:24
21:27

that Marx tried to dedicate "Kapital" to Darwin.

tedtalks 21:27
21:35

Anyway, it was Aveling, and when they met, Darwin challenged Aveling,

tedtalks 21:35
21:42

"Why do you call yourselves atheists?"

tedtalks 21:42
21:46

"'Agnostic,'" retorted Aveling, "was simply 'atheist' writ respectable,

tedtalks 21:46
21:50

and 'atheist' was simply 'agnostic' writ aggressive."

tedtalks 21:50
21:54

Darwin complained, "But why should you be so aggressive?"

tedtalks 21:54
21:57

Darwin thought that atheism might be well and good for the intelligentsia,

tedtalks 21:57
22:02

but that ordinary people were not, quote, "ripe for it."

tedtalks 22:02
22:06

Which is, of course, our old friend, the "don't rock the boat" argument.

tedtalks 22:06
22:11

It's not recorded whether Aveling told Darwin to come down off his high horse.

tedtalks 22:11
22:13

(Laughter)

tedtalks 22:13
22:15

But in any case, that was more than 100 years ago.

tedtalks 22:15
22:18

You think we might have grown up since then.

tedtalks 22:18
22:23

Now, a friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew,

tedtalks 22:23
22:25

who incidentally observed the Sabbath

tedtalks 22:25
22:27

for reasons of cultural solidarity,

tedtalks 22:27
22:31

describes himself as a "tooth fairy agnostic."

tedtalks 22:31
22:33

He won't call himself an atheist

tedtalks 22:33
22:37

because it's, in principle, impossible to prove a negative,

tedtalks 22:37
22:40

but agnostic on its own might suggest that God's existence

tedtalks 22:40
22:44

was therefore on equal terms of likelihood as his non-existence.

tedtalks 22:44
22:49

So, my friend is strictly agnostic about the tooth fairy,

tedtalks 22:49
22:54

but it isn't very likely, is it? Like God.

tedtalks 22:54
22:56

Hence the phrase, "tooth fairy agnostic."

tedtalks 22:56
22:58

Bertrand Russell made the same point

tedtalks 22:58
23:02

using a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars.

tedtalks 23:02
23:04

You would strictly have to be agnostic

tedtalks 23:04
23:06

about whether there is a teapot in orbit about Mars,

tedtalks 23:06
23:09

but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence

tedtalks 23:09
23:12

as on all fours with its non-existence.

tedtalks 23:12
23:15

The list of things which we strictly have to be agnostic about

tedtalks 23:15
23:19

doesn't stop at tooth fairies and teapots. It's infinite.

tedtalks 23:19
23:21

If you want to believe one particular one of them --

tedtalks 23:21
23:26

unicorns or tooth fairies or teapots or Yahweh --

tedtalks 23:26
23:28

the onus is on you to say why.

tedtalks 23:28
23:32

The onus is not on the rest of us to say why not.

tedtalks 23:32
23:37

We, who are atheists, are also a-fairiests and a-teapotists.

tedtalks 23:37
23:39

(Laughter)

tedtalks 23:39
23:42

But we don't bother to say so,

tedtalks 23:42
23:45

and this is why my friend uses "tooth fairy agnostic"

tedtalks 23:45
23:48

as a label for what most people would call atheist.

tedtalks 23:48
23:54

Nonetheless, if we want to attract deep down atheists to come out publicly,

tedtalks 23:54
23:56

we're going to have find something better

tedtalks 23:56
24:01

to stick on our banner than "tooth fairy" or "teapot agnostic."

tedtalks 24:01
24:04

So, how about "humanist"?

tedtalks 24:04
24:09

This has the advantage of a worldwide network of well-organized associations

tedtalks 24:09
24:11

and journals and things already in place.

tedtalks 24:11
24:14

My problem with it only is its apparent anthropocentrism.

tedtalks 24:14
24:16

One of the things we've learned from Darwin

tedtalks 24:16
24:18

is that the human species is only one

tedtalks 24:18
24:22

among millions of cousins, some close, some distant.

tedtalks 24:22
24:25

And there are other possibilities like "naturalist,"

tedtalks 24:25
24:27

but that also has problems of confusion,

tedtalks 24:27
24:29

because Darwin would have thought naturalist --

tedtalks 24:29
24:32

"naturalist" means, of course, as opposed to "supernaturalist" --

tedtalks 24:32
24:34

and it is used sometimes --

tedtalks 24:34
24:37

Darwin would have been confused by the other sense of "naturalist,"

tedtalks 24:37
24:41

which he was, of course, and I suppose there might be others

tedtalks 24:41
24:43

who would confuse it with nudism.

tedtalks 24:43
24:45

(Laughter)

tedtalks 24:45
24:52

Such people might be those belonging to the British lynch mob

tedtalks 24:52
24:57

which last year attacked a pediatrician in mistake for a pedophile.

tedtalks 24:57
25:02

(Laughter)

tedtalks 25:02
25:07

I think the best of the available alternatives for "atheist" is simply "non-theist."

tedtalks 25:07
25:10

It lacks the strong connotation that there's definitely no God,

tedtalks 25:10
25:16

and it could therefore easily be embraced by teapot or tooth fairy agnostics.

tedtalks 25:16
25:20

It's completely compatible with the God of the physicists.

tedtalks 25:20
25:24

When atheists

tedtalks 25:24
25:28

like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein use the word "God,"

tedtalks 25:28
25:31

they use it of course as a metaphorical shorthand

tedtalks 25:31
25:36

for that deep, mysterious part of physics which we don't yet understand.

tedtalks 25:36
25:42

"Non-theist" will do for all that, yet unlike "atheist,"

tedtalks 25:42
25:49

it doesn't have the same phobic, hysterical responses.

tedtalks 25:49
25:51

But I think, actually, the alternative

tedtalks 25:51
25:54

is to grasp the nettle of the word "atheism" itself,

tedtalks 25:54
25:57

precisely because it is a taboo word

tedtalks 25:57
26:01

carrying frissons of hysterical phobia.

tedtalks 26:01
26:05

Critical mass may be harder to achieve with the word "atheist"

tedtalks 26:05
26:06

than with the word "non-theist,"

tedtalks 26:06
26:08

or some other non-confrontational word.

tedtalks 26:08
26:12

But if we did achieve it with that dread word -- "atheist" itself --

tedtalks 26:12
26:16

the political impact would be even greater.

tedtalks 26:16
26:20

Now, I said that if I were religious, I'd be very afraid of evolution. I'd go further.

tedtalks 26:20
26:23

I would fear science in general if properly understood.

tedtalks 26:23
26:27

And this is because the scientific worldview

tedtalks 26:27
26:30

is so much more exciting, more poetic,

tedtalks 26:30
26:33

more filled with sheer wonder than anything

tedtalks 26:33
26:39

in the poverty-stricken arsenals of the religious imagination.

tedtalks 26:39
26:44

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

tedtalks 26:44
26:48

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science

tedtalks 26:48
26:53

and concluded, 'This is better than we thought!

tedtalks 26:53
26:55

The universe is much bigger than our prophet said,

tedtalks 26:55
27:01

grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no!

tedtalks 27:01
27:06

My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.'

tedtalks 27:06
27:08

A religion, old or new,

tedtalks 27:08
27:11

that stressed the magnificence of the universe

tedtalks 27:11
27:13

as revealed by modern science

tedtalks 27:13
27:16

might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe

tedtalks 27:16
27:21

hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."

tedtalks 27:21
27:24

Now, this is an elite audience,

tedtalks 27:24
27:31

and I would therefore expect about 10 percent of you to be religious.

tedtalks 27:31
27:38

Many of you probably subscribe to our polite cultural belief that we should respect religion,

tedtalks 27:38
27:42

but I also suspect that a fair number of those

tedtalks 27:42
27:46

secretly despise religion as much as I do.

tedtalks 27:46
27:47

(Laughter)

tedtalks 27:47
27:50

If you're one of them, and of course many of you may not be,

tedtalks 27:50
27:53

but if you are one of them, I'm asking you to stop being polite,

tedtalks 27:53
27:57

come out and say so, and if you happen to be rich,

tedtalks 27:57
28:02

give some thought to ways in which you might make a difference.

tedtalks 28:02
28:05

The religious lobby in this country

tedtalks 28:05
28:10

is massively financed by foundations -- to say nothing of all the tax benefits --

tedtalks 28:10
28:15

by foundations such as the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute.

tedtalks 28:15
28:21

We need an anti-Templeton to step forward.

tedtalks 28:21
28:24

If my books sold as well as Stephen Hawking's books,

tedtalks 28:24
28:30

instead of only as well as Richard Dawkins' books, I'd do it myself.

tedtalks 28:30
28:39

People are always going on about, "How did September the 11th change you?"

tedtalks 28:39
28:41

Well, here's how it changed me.

tedtalks 28:41
28:46

Let's all stop being so damned respectful.

tedtalks 28:46
28:48

Thank you very much.

tedtalks 28:48
28:53

(Applause)