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Atheism and the Quest for Moral Clarity


Well, let me begin by thanking all of you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming. By thanking you, Christopher, for that suspiciously terse, grudging introduction. And by confessing that I’ll have difficulty when I get back to the North. Persuading my smart friends in New York that there’s a Socratic society in Birmingham, Alabama at all. I mean, I told my publishers when I started, I want to begin in Dixie. I don’t want to do the usual book tour. I want to take the campaign through the South. And they said, but why would you want to do that? I mean, who doesn’t know that it’s one long white sheet toga party. Crosses crackling merrily on the lawn in the night breeze. Later on, they repair to an illegal still or hooch. To reflect gloatingly on their multiple offenses against chastity. Particular emphasis on the loss of virginity with domestic or even semi-wild animals.

So it’s always a pleasure for me to go back to the, the liberal consensus and say to them, you know, you’d be surprised by how quite a lot of that isn’t really true. stick up for you guys when I can, I really do. Now, I’m guessing that tonight I’m not speaking to a largely or predominantly Muslim or Jewish audience. If I was, believe me, I would find, try and find a way of unsettling you. I’m guessing that those of you who are believers are probably of the Christian kind.

As you know, the atheist position is the following. That of the many hundreds, if not thousands of gods and religions that humanity has invented in its time, we have three, roughly, and only three, not roughly, only three alternatives in considering them. One is that all of them are true. One is that all of them are false. And the other is that only one of them is true. The first proposition is self-evidently absurd. They can’t all, they can’t conceivably all be true. Indeed, there are mutually exclusive forms of Christianity. As, just to take only one religion. That all are false seems at least possible. That only one is true is the position, say, of my opponent, Dr. Lennox, I think must be the hardest single position to take.

But, in the spirit of it, I’ll assume Christianity, and I’ll just remind you of a novel that probably most of you won’t have heard of, but was once very famous. It was called When It Was Dark. Has anyone heard of it or read it? It was a huge bestseller just before the First World War. It was by a man called Guy Thorne. And the mise en scene of the novel is this, that news comes from Palestine that a grave has been opened. And in this grave, the stone rolled away from the tomb. On a stone inside is the body of a man who’s been scourged, crucified, had a crown of thorns pressed down on his head, and has a terrible wound in his side, an almost perfectly preserved cadaver. And on the news of this, on the news of this terrible archaeological discovery, the world undergoes a complete moral collapse. Because without the resurrection, or rather with definite proof that there was no such thing, that the resurrection was a fabrication, there’s no further moral restraint on humanity. People are coupling like beasts in the streets.

They give themselves up to plunder and theft and rape and murder and perjury without conscience. The midnight of civilization falls upon an unhappy world until it’s finally discovered that the whole thing was a fabrication put around by sinister Jewish people and journalists and other untrustworthy riffraff as a stunt. And then people can go back to being moral again. Well, you see where, perhaps you can guess where I might be headed with this.

In my view, if every one of the gods that have been discredited, instead of only the two or three left to us that haven’t yet been completely shown up as man-made fabrications and joined Thor and Ashtaroth and Hutzpothel and the Aztecs and all the others, if all of these were proven to be fraudulent and false and man-made, I believe our moral dilemmas would be exactly the ones we face now, all of us, atheists, agnostic, philosophical, Socratic or true believer. We would still have to wonder about the purpose of our existence here. We would still have to wonder about the origins of the cosmos and of nature. We would still have to wonder about our duties to one another. We would still have to wonder about how to build the just city, how to reflect on truth and on beauty.

All of these dilemmas would remain exactly the way they are, unaltered by any supernatural dimension. And our subject tonight is the supernatural dimension itself, the chieftain of that dimension, the concept of God. So I want to begin by clarifying why it is that I believe there is no such entity or person. And I want to go on to say why I’m relieved when I reflect that this is so, why I think it would be horrible if it were true or otherwise. And I think I’d have to begin with the distinction between theism and deism. Even Thomas Aquinas’ famous five proofs of the existence of God, for example, are, strictly speaking, hardly theological at all. They’re essentially only deistic. They’re about first causes or uncaused potential or latent causes.

They derive the idea of a creator from various gaps and from observation of the rhythms and the patterns of nature and the cosmos. And they postulate that these rhythms and patterns would make no sense without a first cause. In short, they postulate nothing more than the argument from design, which as you all know, is subject to a refutation that says, well, if there was a designer, then the designer must himself have been designed and threatens those who offer the case with an infinite regression into a chaos. However, I would say it’s not possible to refute this argument conclusively or utterly or finally. Only one can point out, as I will, some gross absurdities and inconsistencies in it. But for this evening and for the purposes of tonight, why don’t I simply grant that it could be true, that there was an original creator and that that’s a good and elegant explanation for how at least the cosmos and the process of life on earth, two quite different things, got started. Why don’t I just grant the deist his point?

After all, in the time that I’ve written the most about, at the time of Thomas Jefferson and the time of Thomas Paine, both of those gentlemen deists, an intelligent person would probably have had no choice but to believe something very like that. There’s no superstition to it. There’s nothing supernatural about it. But it leaves the theist, like my learned opponent, with all– if I make this concession, it leaves him with all his work still to come. He still has to show somehow not only that there is a God, but that he himself understands the mind of that God, knows the will or can interpret the will and wishes of that deity on such weighty questions as what is good, what is evil, what foods may be requisite or what foods may be profane, what sexual partnerships are allowed, what sexual positions indeed are licit or legitimate, what days of the week are holy or otherwise, when or whether it is requisite to mutilate the genitals of children. Major questions where someone has to say, yes, I know we must do this because I happen to know what God wants us to do.

Now it’s my submission, ladies and gentlemen, and I think it’s a fairly modest one, that brilliant as a mathematician, Dr. Lennox may be, no person, no other human being, no other primate, no fellow mammal of mine, however clever they may be, is in any position to say that they know God’s will or God’s word or God’s desire or intention. This information is not accessible to human beings. And therefore my first statement is this, those who do claim that they know are already in a sense discredited. They are deluded and in a sense they are the first ones who have to concede that the argument goes on without them because we have to be awed, all of us, more and more all the time, more and more awed at that as we discover how much more there is to know by how little of it we do know or can know. It’s only those who say that they know they are certain who we have to distrust, a priori, if I can use that expression.

Very well, hoping I’ve established that point just for the sake of the debate.

We don’t have a word adeist, though I think we should. I would say I was an adeist as well as an atheist. I don’t believe there was a prime mover. I don’t believe there was a first cause of a divine kind. I think we have better and further and brighter explanations for the origins of things than the idea of a supernatural first cause. But some also would say we don’t even really need the word Atheist because after all I don’t require a special term. When I tell you I don’t believe in a tooth fairy, you don’t say, “well, what’s the word for someone who doesn’t do that?” When I say I don’t believe in witches and I don’t believe in the biblical injunction to kill them either, they don’t say, what is it to be a non-believer in witches and witchcraft? When I say to a Muslim, your prophet believes in dust devils and djinns and the haunting spirits of the desert, I think it shows what nonsensical peasant superstition is involved in the Muslim profession of faith. No one says to me, what word are you using to say you don’t believe in dust devils and djinns?

I think I can be generally credited with having good reasons for my doubt. However, I think that the challenge is a fair one because I think we are divided as between those of us who attribute our presence here to the laws of biology and the laws of physics and those of us who, and we are modest in doing that I think, we say we submit ourselves to the evidence and even if it comes up with conclusions that aren’t very welcome to us, we will accept them if they’re well founded and those who are conceited enough I would say, arrogant enough in fact, to think that they are here as the consequence of a divine design. There’s all the difference in the world between those two world views and the big difference is one of them has evidence for it and the other doesn’t. And one of them will say in advance what would refute it. I can tell you if you ask me what evidence if presented would mean I’d have to change my mind and the theist will never do that. He will never tell you in advance show me this and I’ll stop believing in it.

There’s always an infinite replenishment of the infinitely renewable resource of faith going on. In fact, it’s the humility of it that makes me laugh at it in a way the most. They say that they’re humble, these believers in God. They want to be written up as modest because they think that of course that God tells them they’re worms, originally sinful, ingrates, incurable, made out of dust in one narrative, out of a clot of blood in the Quranic narrative, bad off to a pretty shaky start, condemned since an original fall of man, nonetheless cheer up. The universe is designed with you in mind. This is a depraved form of sadomasochism in my view. It’s not good for you to go from this terrible abjection and serfdom in the one instance to this belief that you are the center of creation and the object of the cosmos in the other. It’s a terrible alternation, a neurotic alternation between being much too servile and much too arrogant. But just locally what would it be to believe this? Because you did believe that everything that brought us here was by design.

We know that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed just on this planet have become extinct. So heaven has already watched almost 100% of its creation die off, often in very unpleasant callous circumstances with folded arms. That’s billions of years of geological time. Some people say the Homo sapiens has been around for 100,000 years, some for as long as a quarter of a million. No one says less than 100,000. Francis Collins, the great Christian believer who did the Human Genome Project says certainly 100,000. I’ll take 100. Richard Dawkins thinks it’s more. I’ll take 100. What does it mean if we’re divinely supervised and divinely created and what looked out for? It means that for 98 or so thousand of those years humans, Homo sapiens, were being born, dying, half of them in childbirth I would think, life expectancy maybe of 20 years, maybe 30, people dying essentially of their teeth out of hideous diseases, living in permanent fear. Where are the earthquakes coming from? Where are the lightning strikes coming from? Why is all this? What are these diseases that hit us? We don’t know about microbes. We have no idea. That’s to say nothing about the fights with neighboring tribes over women, over land, over meat, over subsistence, the torture, the violence, the cruelty that goes on. I don’t need to underline all of it I hope. You can picture it for yourself.

The first 98,000 years heaven watches this going on with perfect insouciance. Something like 2,000 to 3,000 years ago decides right, we have to intervene now. We have to do something about this. What would be the best way of intervening to try and redeem this rather bleak picture? What about having somebody tortured to death in an obscure part of the Middle East? That ought to cure it. Or if you’re a Muslim, what about getting an illiterate epileptic shepherd to start babbling and saying that he’s been talking to an archangel? Or what about inventing the figure of Moses in a mountain that’s never yet been found by any geographer in Mount Sinai? That’s what you’d have to believe. I’ve got a minute, right? That’s what you’d have to believe and that’s why I ask myself, why do the worshipers of this God want to convict him of being such a crummy designer? Most of his creations die off and the rest suffer miserably and the redemptive offers just don’t somehow take, of being cruel and capricious and bungling and incompetent. Why and callous as a father. And so since this is as far as I can get now, I have to tell you why I don’t think the idea of an eternal father is a good one in any case when I next get the chance to draw breath. But thank you for staying with me this far.

Challenging Certainty: A Discourse on Knowledge, Science, and Religion


Well, let me do this in reverse order and see if I have enough time left over to complete my first burst, as it were.

I think I gave you fair warning, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, that Dr. Lennox would have to claim to know more than he can possibly know. And he by no means let me down. He knows that he’s saved. He knows who’s saved him. He even knows who hung the stars in the sky. How he knows this, I don’t know. It was a bravura performance in its way, but I don’t think if you’re going to claim to know who put the stars up there, that you should be citing Albert Einstein.

If there’s a copy of my portable atheist on sale afterwards, and I hope there is, if it isn’t, it is available at fine bookstores everywhere. I have several pages of painstaking denials by Albert Einstein that he had had or ever had had any belief at all of any sort in a personal god or a savior or a divine revelation. He was at pains to repudiate this. He thought it was both sinister and childish, as well as unscientific. The furthest he would go would be an illustration of the distinction I labored in vain to make between deism and theism, between a name you might give to a process or an order or a law of nature and the idea of an intervening, vengeful, supervising, caring God, a personal one. That’s the only distinction I hoped to make, and it was one that Dr. Lennox treated as if it was nonexistent, as you may have noticed. Einstein may not be used by those who believe in revelation or personal God.

Now, okay, on the something and nothing question, let’s stay with science for a moment. Edwin Hubble noticed a few years ago, as many of you will know, that the universe was continuing to expand and at quite a rapid rate away from itself. But it was thought by people who were still thinking in what you might call Newtonian terms, that though that rate of expansion was remarkable and rather alarming, it would obviously have to start slowing down, decelerating at a certain point. To the contrary, it had recently been discovered by a very brilliant physicist, Lawrence Krauss, that in fact the rate of expansion is increasing and quite rapidly.

The universe is expanding very, very fast. Very soon, if we hadn’t been around at this particular point in time, there wouldn’t be enough evidence left around in the red light shift for us to know that the Big Bang had ever even taken place. We’re only picking that up from signals from a long time ago, which will soon be unintelligible. I’m saying soon, using billions of years as an index of time, of course, light years, if you will. Not light years, distances. You know what I mean. Distances and times that are rightly called astronomical. What does this mean? It means that though there is now something, after all, I am here, I do firmly believe. I’m very happy to see all of you here too, especially those of you who paid for your tickets. It means that very soon there will be nothing. A lot of nothingness is headed our way. It’s going to be all over quite soon. You can see it coming.

Read Lawrence Krauss over at Hubble’s office. It’s going to explode away. It’s going to fall apart. If that is a couple of things don’t happen sooner than that, we can already see the Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky. You can actually see it some nights without really the aid of a telescope. Headed directly on collision course for our own. We have an appointment, ladies and gentlemen, with the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s going to crash right into ours. There’s something now. Enjoy it while you can. Nothing is coming. Whose design is that? May I inquire?

Or perhaps before that, it’s very possible that before any of this happens, we won’t have to worry about it because our sun will simply swell up into a red dwarf. Our oceans will boil. Life on this planet will become extinct and then the sun will collapse into itself and go the way that millions and millions and millions of other stars have. We can see them imploding and exploding and shooting themselves to death all over the sky as it is. Nothingness. There’s a lot of nothingness. So those who want to claim the credit for the something, what deity is going to claim the credit for the nothingness? And who went to all this trouble, this fantastic explosion of nothingness, these infinite spaces of nothingness, and with the destiny of destruction written in every galaxy in order to create this one privileged planet with this one very shivering, uncertain, vulnerable primate species on it that’s only been here for 100,000 suffering years and has only been offered redemption for 2,000? Look first upon this picture and on that.

Look at the absolute extraordinary scale that’s proposed on the one hand and the absolutely not even microcosmic on the other. And I don’t believe you can possibly take any claim of religion seriously here. Whatever is the explanation for this, people who say, “Well, since we don’t know, we may as well say it’s God,” are simply drumming their fingers. They’re wasting their time and they’re trying to waste yours. Now on this question of who’s boss and why I don’t think the eternal father idea is a good one, I’m sure I’m not the only father here. I have three children. My job as a father is to get out of their way, is to do my best for them and then make room for them. What if I was to say to them, “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll always be here. ” Not as in, “I’ll always be here for you,” as in, “I’m never going away. You’ll never see the back of me. You’ll never get to say goodbye, daddy. ” No, no, I’ll always be here. In fact, I’ll be here long after you’ve died. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to that because then I can sit in judgment on you. This is not even a benevolent form of despotism, is it, when you allow yourself to think about it? It’s somewhat worse than I was saying before about the way that religion makes people first be terribly abject and then terribly solipsistic and arrogant and conceited. If it were true that all these things are attributable to an eternal father who is unknowable except by those who claim, as Dr. Lennox does, sources of information denied to me and many other people, what would it mean at the minimum?

It would mean we were living under an unalterable, unchallengeable dictatorship, which might or might not be benign. We have no assurance it would be benign. In my view, benign dictatorships are the worst, but that’s another story. It would mean we were subjected to everlasting round-the-clock surveillance, waking and sleeping. We would never have a private moment. Everything we did and thought would be known and supervised and invigilated and either rewarded or punished. Even Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 couldn’t be absolutely sure what all his subjects were thinking. But there was the crime of thought crime. You could be charged with it under the divine dispensation, no problem. You’re convicted of thought crime before you even had the thought, because everything is knowable. And how would the God who convicted you know? Because he’d already created you full of dirt and sin and wickedness. That’s part of the design. And the horror of it, the fascistic element of it is this. You’re created sick, and then you’re ordered to be well. So you’re created full of dirty thoughts and wickedness and wrong ambitions and impure and foul nature, and then you’re told, “You’d better cure yourself pretty fast. Otherwise, I won’t be answerable for the consequences.” This is the worst imaginable kind of unfreedom. And I have to say I just trust those who wish that it were true. In my opinion, the first of the original emancipation, the first emancipation that humans must undergo is the freeing of themselves from this man-made and mind-forged manacle. It might be asked, “Why don’t I want it to be true? Why don’t I wish it to be true? ” Well, I’ll tell you, because once you admit that this despot exists, you will find yourself in the real world, in the here and now, subjected to the rule of man-made power, purely man-made power, ruled by other primates and other mammals who claim the right to do anything they want with you because they have God on their side and because their rule is divine. This is not a theoretical danger.I’ll illustrate it in a different way if you like and take up Dr. Lennon’s point about the origins of morality.

If you think that we wouldn’t know right from wrong, we’d have no concept of good and evil or the right action or the wrong action or the right thought or the wrong thought, if we didn’t have the permission of a supernatural celestial dictator, if that’s where our ideas of good and evil come from, then let me ask two questions of you first. Okay, I’ll ask the questions and I’ll leave it with the questions. And I hope I’ll get a response later.

You must now, ladies and gentlemen, if you believe this, you must tell me of a right action performed or a right statement, moral statement made by a believer such as Dr. Lennox that I could not make myself or couldn’t state myself, something that only he could do as a believer that was right and moral and I could not do because I’m not a believer. I’ve asked this question in a lot of places now and to a lot of people, including senior bishops and archbishops and others, I have not yet had an answer to it. And there must be a good answer if they are to make the claim that faith licenses morality and ethics.

And then my second question, corollary question, much easier. Please think of a wicked action done by someone purely because they are a person of faith. Think of an evil thing said or an evil thing done that is only done because the person is religious. You’ve already thought of one. The suicide bombing community is entirely religious, faith-based. The genital mutilation community is entirely faith-based. You know how it goes. While these two questions hang in the air, I will bow out, let you brood on them. I hope you’ll feed some of them back to me. And once again, my thanks.

Transcript currently under construction and may contain slight errors.

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