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Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for that suspiciously terse but delightful introduction. Thank you for what appears to be some kosher ale with which to wet the whistle. Happy New Year, Shalom to all those who believe that’s how time is allocated. Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades. How I’m going to use up 20 minutes for this argument, I do not yet know. It’s more or less a 5-minute job, I think, to demolish the deadly virtues before getting on to the sins. But I suppose we can’t hop over the ontological question, can we? In other words, one must begin by saying, is there any truth to any of this at all? Any ground for rational or humane belief? There are some well-known objections to this which I won’t over-rehearse. But all arguments for the existence of God, certainly for a God who has an ethical property – but for a God at all, I must add and stipulate, are essentially arguments from design. There appears to be some sort of order to the universe, some kind of rhythm to the seasons. There appears to be some point, indeed, at least from our point of view in our nature. How could this happen purely by accident?

It was Bishop Paley, I think, in his natural philosophy who first said, if you find, if you’re a cannibal, or a savage – I excuse the expression, I hope you will too – an ignoramus, a peasant, you find a watch on a beach. You may not know what the watch is for but you can tell it’s not a rock or a vegetable. It’s for something, and somebody made it. Who is this watchmaker? The objection, I daresay, is equally well-known to all of you. It leads to an infinite regression. Who designed the watchmaker then, and who designed the watchmaker’s watchmaker? It gets you actually nowhere at all. Even if you do believe, it will only take you further back into what is mysterious. I’m going to stress this point more than once, I think. What is essentially unknowable about the cosmos and the origin, not just of species and of life, but of matter itself.

And in this journey, the search for the infinite regression, for the watchmaker’s watchmaker, the origins of watchmaking and watchmakers, we are, I think, permanently in danger of surrender and solipsism. How can anything that leads to ourselves, our wonderful selves, be pointless or random? How can that be? The resistance to this has taken many forms. It used to take the form of the simple proposition that the sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way around – excuse me, not a simple opposition to this, a simple affirmation of it. Of course, the Earth is the center, and man is the center of that. How could it be otherwise? We are God’s children. He wouldn’t arrange for us to speculate on anything as cruel as the possibility that it wasn’t all on our behalves.

But increasingly, we aren’t even in the lucky position of those who condemned and threatened to torture Galileo. We don’t even have an idea of who this watchmaker might be. We’re being asked, in effect, to surrender ourselves permanently to someone whose identity we can’t even speculate about. And that’s why it annoys me, and I hope some of you too, that those who say they have faith so often present themselves with modesty, with humility. Pardon me, don’t mind me at all. I’m just doing God’s will. I’m on an errand for the Creator. Just… I just invite you to consider carefully, ladies and gentlemen, comrades, how modest is that? Not terribly. And is there not, therefore, a moral flaw as well as the self-evident scientific and logical ones at the very beginning of the argument of those who say that faith is something worth having, instead of what I maintain it to be: the surrender of the only thing, our curiosity, our irony, our skepticism, our willingness to inquire, our willingness to doubt ourselves, our willingness to come to conclusions that are not welcome to us – the only faculty, in other words, that distinguishes us from those beasts who can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw or a watch from a turnip.

More recently, the arguments have become, I hope I don’t patronize you with the obvious, rather more complex. What design exactly? We used to think we knew, roughly. You can tell what the solar system is like. You can predict its movements. It has some kind of organization to it. Fine. Can this be for nothing? Good question. Who’s going to say this about what we now know about the cosmos? All we know – now, the most we know – is how little we know about it. It doesn’t act in a predictable way. How does curved time, how does the black hole, how does the Event Horizon fit into this argument from design? The answer is plain: it doesn’t fit at all. It’s completely incongruent with it.

Everything we know, in other words, is arranged against the way we feel. Which is going to give way? The thought or the feeling, the emotion or the intellect? The religious have their answer already made. I don’t. That’s the big difference between us. I submit, in Genesis – which is a book held in common for no reason I can understand by all monotheisms – there are, for example, no microorganisms when the non-human kingdom is created. There are no microorganisms in it. Microorganisms, very important. They can kill you, for one thing. They’re very intricately designed, for another.

Religious belief went through various phases about this when no one knew they were there. They used to say, well, if there’s plague, God must want people to die, except why don’t they all die? Or why do some good people die and some bad people not? As an epidemiological observation, not very brilliant. Sometimes, in bad moments, they say, well, the plague, obviously, this plague, because the Jews are putting poison in the water. Rabbi knows this history very well, as no doubt some of you do too. There are no marsupials in Genesis. They didn’t even know what animals there were in Australia. There are no dinosaurs in Genesis. It’s just that they are in creation.

What am I making by way of an observation here? The simplest possible one. What are the odds that God created man when stacked against the odds that man created God? I submit that there is only one possible answer to that question. Of the millions and millions of false gods that have been created, is it likely that they were all equal perceptions of the same truth?

There’s no possible way of disputing that proposition and making it seem equal. There is a very, very small outside chance that of all these gods, one – only one – could be the correct one. This actually is the view of all true adherents of monotheism. The other ones, no, they’re a bit fraudulent, but ours – ah, now this is something to kill for. Or perhaps, let’s say, make it more compassionate to die for. You can work out the difference there.

We’re living at a time, speaking at a time, and studying and reflecting at a time, ladies and gentlemen, when a page of Stephen Hawking is far more awe-inspiring than anything in Genesis or Exodus. Think about what is involved in the event horizon – the point where time begins and ends, the point where the black hole starts, the point where matter and light disappear. Consider it carefully. One of Hawking’s friends says if he knew he was going to die and he knew when, he would want to die by going to the edge of the Event Horizon and tipping over because, in theory, then you could see the past and the future. Except, of course, you wouldn’t have enough time, but that’s innate in physics, not inherent in the unfairness of life. Think about that and compare it to the burning bush or some other sinister fairy tale. Of course, we don’t live without awe, we don’t live without a sense of the majesty and tremendousness of our universe, and nor do we live in contempt for ourselves. But we don’t mistake the fairy tale for the real inspiring stuff. We don’t throw away the truffle and chew on the wrapper till our mouths go dry, in other words.

So, there’s no reason to make any assumption about God or His existence, or His design, or His will. It’s neither a necessary assumption nor a useful one, nor, I think, a moral one. And this means, if I’m correct and if you follow me this far, that a very important conclusion follows. I stand before you, I just have, and say there are things I can’t know and don’t know. There is awe-inspiring and majestic stuff going on where I don’t presume to pronounce or to know. I’m happy with this conclusion. I don’t mind not knowing. I don’t mind submitting it to curiosity and inquiry and skepticism.

But what can we say of those who do say they know? Who say they know not just who God is, but what His will is, and not just in the big stuff about the non-creation of marsupials, for example, but in what to eat and on what day, and what to wear, and what tactics to adopt between the sheets? This is what the holy believe they are entitled to do to you with this warrant from the unknowable divine. The one group that loses this argument before it begins must be those who say they know. They can be dispensed with. We can begin only from those who are willing to survive, subject themselves to uncertainty and to skepticism. And the religious rule themselves out of that argument as it were – a priori.
(Background music plays.)

The phrase “mind-torched wack jobs” that’s in the introduction to this paper this evening naturally upset me very much. I hate to be offensive or to see religion ruined. That’s why I didn’t call my book on Mother Teresa “Sacred Cow”, though I’ll always somehow be sorry. There’s something in me; you will always feel sorry. I didn’t do that.

But why is it, maybe we should ask ourselves, belief in religion does not make you a mind-torched whack job. But the appeal of this extraordinary pressure from the supernatural and the unknowable and the numinous and the distortions it imposes does seem to have a tremendous influence on mind-torched wack jobs. It’s very seldom you come across a mind-torched wack job who isn’t hearing voices and claiming to have instructions from God.

Now, here’s what I submit to you, and I do it un-cynically, I hope. How can we tell that they’re not telling the truth? How can we sort out their claim to have heard voices and been given divine instructions from anyone else’s? Mr. Abu Mad Al-Zaka, who’s currently trying to take a very important country into a spiral of misery, poverty, and shame and fascism, has, I was thrilled to see, renamed his jihad organization “Monotheism and Jihad.” How can I tell? How can anyone in this room tell whether his claim to be speaking Quranic truth is any better or any worse than anyone else’s? For me, it’s an open question. It’s unverifiable, unprovable, unfalsifiable. These are all tests of the weakness of an argument, of course. But anyone who grants the first premise, that it may be known, that it may be argued from holy books, that we may have divine instructions, is in no position to tell him that they’re right and he’s wrong.

The only way of winning this argument is to consider all those claims on the same footing and the same basis and reject them, not in turn, but collectively seriatim. How much am I trespassing on my allotment of time? “You’re great, you have ten minutes.” That’s very good, if you say so, and the ten-minute bit is good too. There’s the masochistic element in religion, in other words, and the masoelement, if you will. I’ll start with the masochistic – who wouldn’t? They say the Muslim says, “Islam means surrender.” It says, “I feel just lucky to be able to say to God, ‘Do what you will with me, I’m unworthy. You were good enough to create me from a clot of blood. I am less than the dust. I surrender to your will.”

They say the Christians admire themselves and attempt to admire others in a swamp of guilt and shame. They apologize for their existence, born in sin, wretched sinners to begin with, no invention, no quality, no rights of independence, no triumph of standing on two feet and using the brain. No, no, wretched scum, condemned, born into a losing struggle, riffraff groveling, saying, “Thank God someone was nice enough to be tortured to death 2,000 years ago without my permission so that I will live forever, abject surf.” Inviting self-hatred, misery.

Judaism rending the clothes, asking to atone, groveling, heaping dust on the shoulders, and indeed, praying with thanks. If you’re a male Jew, that you’re not a female one. Abject, isn’t it true? That’s the masochistic bit. I find it more unattractive than I’ll have time to say, but I hope you’ll get a rough idea of how I feel about it.

Okay, suppose someone thinks, “Okay, someone was good enough to die for me. I owe him. I’ll live this abject, shuffling life.” Fine. Wouldn’t it make you happy if you thought that someone had gone to all that trouble to save you, and you were saved? Wouldn’t you feel it? I don’t know what it’s like to think this nonsense. But suppose I did. I suppose it would be like being in love, that it would be a wonderful secret that you had, that even if the IRS came for you or whatever it might be, they couldn’t take this away.

You would be happy with it. It would be something to you. It would be real. Does it make them happy? Question answers itself. They can’t be happy. Everyone else believes it too. Is this a sign of moral security or insecurity, would you say? To what length will they go or not go to make sure that everyone else believes it? Because then they feel perhaps if everyone believed it, I might be right. Any length is the answer to that. Ask any of them, any length. And by their deeds, you can know them.

This is dangerous stuff. In other words, it’s not just foolish or untrue; it’s positively dangerous. There’s an attractive bit but it’s cynical. When they don’t do the argument from design, they do the wager. That’s Pascal, as I’m sure some of you know. We can’t know if it’s true or not. He’s right about that. It’s the only religious or ontological proposition that does begin from a correct premise. As a matter of fact, we don’t know. But look, what if you bet it’s true and you win? You might get, who knows what? If you bet it’s true and it’s not true, what if you lost? Fine. This is the origin, as often with theological, theocratic argument. It’s the origin of secularism.

Let me put it to you generously then, the other way around. Suppose I think it is true. Suppose I do believe there’s a divine creator and supervisor. Wouldn’t I expect that he would approve of me more if, when I was confronted with him, I said, “Well, you didn’t seem to provide any very persuasive evidence, and I didn’t want to join the toadies and the serfs who just bet on you in the hope of winning the lottery.” So, I don’t. I shouldn’t. I expect, if any of your ethics as alleged are slightly preferential treatment.

I’m already beginning of course to cringe and groan a bit, but you see what I’m doing with it. This is my response to Pascal, which is better than Bertrand Russell’s much more pragmatic response. He was asked, well, what will you do if you rush to the pearly Gates and he’s really there? Instead of saying what I would say, which is I don’t believe in him to begin with, he said he’d say, “Oh Lord, I don’t think you quite gave us enough evidence.” This, I think, would not cut it in the case of either a compassionate or an uncompassionate God. But if you don’t do the argument from design and the self-evident nonsense of that, you have to do the self-evident immorality of the wager. In other words, this is not a reinforcement of Ethics at all, it’s an appeal to immorality or at least immorality at its most, immorality. I would say it is an appeal to the most base self-interest and it doesn’t deserve to be called by any other name. Now, I take a different position from all of these and I’ll briefly summarize it.

I don’t wish it was true. Many people, including many of my atheist friends, say it would be nice if it was true, but I just don’t believe it. There’s no evidence for it. Sometimes that position is also called agnostic, we can’t know. I say, thank God it isn’t true. What if it was? What if it were true that you were born, lived your entire life, died, and carried on living under a permanent, inescapable, cradle to grave and beyond, round-the-clock surveillance? Who wants this to be true, that’s what I want to know. Who wishes this was true, who desires that to be the case? What could be more hellish? It’s the definition of unfreedom, it’s the origin of totalitarianism.

I’ve been to North Korea, for example, where you have the right as a North Korean to get up in the morning and go to bed at night praising the leader all day, just like it says in the Bible, endless praise for the Lord all the time. We only get this at Christmas, and not so bad, well, sometimes, good time, but there’s no escaping. But you can die in North Korea and get out of it that way. If you’re very brave and very lucky, you can defect from North Korea. And if you are believing in Christian or Jew or Muslim, you can’t. You want it to go on, you want it never to stop, the chance to abase yourself at the feet of someone who only it seems to me in a fit of absence of mind created you. All what kind of horror is this? So the only argument that I think…one is left with, the only argument a self-respecting person can actually give his endorsement to, is that of anti-theism. Or one might say misotheism, as opposed to the celestial Pyongyang that’s offered us, even by the most gentle of our Shepherds or would-be Shepherds.

Two minutes is all I need to round up.

Some people will say, well, it’s all nonsense and so on, and some of it’s rather sinister, and some of it is a bit dangerous, but look, it’s people often behave better because of it, it’s a way of inculcating Ethics. Not everyone’s going to do philosophy, not everyone’s going to do physics, you know, if they go to church, they’ll all right then. This is probably not the worst place to suggest the current example that exercises us all. I just take the one case, the Holy Land itself, the land of Palestine-Israel. I once heard Abba Eban make a speech in this very City, he’s then Israel foreign minister, saying the great thing about this dispute, it’s easy to solve. You don’t always hear that, but it’s true. Ever since the Balfour Declaration, and before, it’s very clear there are two populations, roughly equivalent in size, not exactly in the same territory, with good claims to it. Partition, share it, it could be done easily. Most Jews support it in America, and in Israel. It is officially, at least, this is open to doubt in some ways, the view of the PLO, it’s the view of the International Community, it’s certainly the view of many Palestinians, a two-state solution. Why is that impossible? A group of Messianic settlers who believe that if they can pull all Jews into Palestine from around the world and make them all convert to the right Orthodoxy, the Messiah will come. They are opposed by a group of people who say, “You’re quite wrong in thinking God gave this land to the Jews, it’s absolutely untrue. In fact, we know to the contrary, he gave it to the Muslims, and you must all get out, and your people must all either die or go home.” They make progress difficult too. And I don’t need to tell you what the other faces of Islamic Jihad are like. And then this country naturally compromising group of fundamentalist Christians who say, let us prevent the Israelis from making the compromise they want, because if Armageddon comes, then the Messiah, our Messiah, will come, and he’ll convert the Jews and murder all those who don’t convert and all others who won’t convert either.

That’s the ideal solution these three monotheisms have made life unbearable, unlivable, in this small territory they claim is holy. This must be the most prayed over, the most religious territory in our history. See what religion has done to that and quite willing to have the life destroyed of everyone in this room on this proposition, anyone of the three, or in combination, not only willing to do it but eager to do so. I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, with a record like this, we have to begin using our brains a bit more. And we have to conclude, I think we’re left with no other conclusion that human emancipation, the story of human freedom, the story of our becoming upright and thoughtful, and courageous, begins where religion leaves off. And the sooner we outgrow it, the better, and the more we organize to defeat it, the healthier we shall be. So I invite you to join me in this struggle, which I promise you will last the rest of your lives, but will be worthwhile. Thank you.

Notable Quotes

“The only argument that I think…one is left with, the only argument a self-respecting person can actually give his endorsement to, is that of anti-theism. Or one might say misotheism, as opposed to the celestial Pyongyang that’s offered us, even by the most gentle of our Shepherds or would-be Shepherds.”

“The story of human freedom, the story of our becoming upright and thoughtful, and courageous, begins where religion leaves off. And the sooner we outgrow it, the better, and the more we organize to defeat it, the healthier we shall be.”

Debating Evolution, Creationism, and Ethics: A Rebuttal from Rationality


Yes, by all means, if I’m inaudible, please let me know. I am bound to say that it seems it’s been a bit of a collapse of standards at my old University. It was actually in Oxford in the late 19th century where the first-ever debate between evolution and creationism was held between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce. Bishop Wilberforce was one of those who thought he knew actually how old the Earth was, so the Christians had a rather more primitive position than we’re now living in. The point where you notice the religious no longer demand that only creationism be taught in school, as they used to. They now demand equal time. It’s another sign of their lack of confidence, but I feel I have to insist on a certain proposition: Reason has no dogma. Reason doesn’t tell you you have to believe anything. It says your mind must be open to reason. We know that evolution has occurred because we have the record of molecular biology, and it’s in the record. We cannot be certain how it occurred, and there certainly are major differences between doctors Dawkins and Gould, as there were between both of them and Charles Darwin, and the theory of natural selection. Natural selection is not the theory of evolution, it is a theory of evolution. If distinctions like this need to be made at this late date in a hall like this, ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in more trouble than I had suspected. Either that, or that beer, which I noticed is called The Chosen Ale, has had a better effect on the rabbi than it has on me.

Now just on a couple of clean-up points, the author of the Declaration of Independence is well known to have been one Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had nothing but contempt, never expressed anything but contempt for the churches, for organized religion. He had a respect for faith, though none of his own, and a disbelief in the supernatural. And you can buy at any Unitarian bookstore to this day the Jefferson Bible, which is what he found, was left if he took a pair of scissors and cut out everything in the Bible that could not by any intelligent person be believed. It makes for a slender, convenient read. I recommend it. To say that he is a voter of Genesis, I’m sorry, that’s an insult, not to me, but to you. It’s not true. It’s true that genocide isn’t recommended in Genesis. You have to read several books before you are commanded to leave not one child of the Amalekites behind. And the rabbi knows this to be true, and some of you may know it to be true as well. There are learned debates between rabbis in Israel today, including rabbis of the Israel Defense Forces, on whether or not that commandment is still extant. In other words, whether the fact that there are no more Amalekites means that the commandment doesn’t work anymore. Learned commentaries are published on the possible applicability of this genocidal commandment to present-day conditions.

To know this is to tremble at the effect of religion on a people who the rabbi and I both have a share in, who are not supposed to have a reputation for bovine stupidity, let alone for racism, let alone for superstition. I’m forced to take this seriously given what I’ve just had to hear. I personally think I probably could overthrow the arguments for National Socialism in a fairly short time. And I had great difficulty persuading myself that its founder and leader was a rational person. I wouldn’t have declared war on the Soviet Union and the British Empire and the United States in the same year myself, hoping to have a Thousand-Year Reich. It wouldn’t be the right way to go about it. He wouldn’t be the first person to say that the unfit should be killed. The rabbi is perfectly correct in saying that many humanists… Margaret Sanger was the one who flirted with it, one of the founders of the family planning movement, that there was a belief that the unfit didn’t deserve a chance. But there’s nothing secular about it. It is a barbarous superstition. It is an inheritance from our primitive, fearful past. There’s no secular case to be made for genocide. Indeed, the whole point about… Excuse me, not genocide, for eugenics. The whole point about outside is that we revere the brain. If Hawking had no limbs at all and only a brain, we’d like him better for it, but we wouldn’t say we would have something to ask, perhaps, about the person who designed him like that. The chances anyone would ever notice that Hawking had a brain were very slight. And I noticed that when people say, “Well, look at all we have to be thankful for, or look at what’s so wonderful,” they mean when the baby falls out of the window and bounces on the roof of a soft car, don’t they? They say God had it in his hands. They have nothing to say when the ditches are full of dead babies and no one did a thing. Look at the beauty of the design of the plague, all the incredible eagerness and hunger and ruthlessness and beauty of the cancer cell or the cobra. Who created all this is what I want to know. If someone wants to take credit for this creation, let them take credit for the whole thing, and for all the despair and misery that goes with it, for the babies that are born without brains at all or with cancer or with no chance of living beyond a day. Who’s responsible for that? In what mysterious way is the divinity moving when this occurs? Wouldn’t you rather think, harsh though it is, that at least it is random?

But no, the solipsism must go on. I had no idea how bad Bill Bryson’s work was till this evening. You can look at the solar system, okay, I forget how many planets has it got, nine, ten, they keep finding more baby ones, okay, well, I know this much, I know how many of them there are, but most of them are either too hot or too cold for anything remotely like life to occur. That’s just one solar system. That’s how many abortions nature aborts. Who doesn’t know that nature takes life? Nature kills, nature kills in the womb. It must do, it’s part of our evolutionary pattern. It’s part of what we’re born with. I’m sorry to say, nature aborted half the planets in the solar system. What are the conditions on our own hollow little planet? A wonderful little, well, most of a good deal of our planet is either too hot or too cold as well to support life, and it’s on a knife-edge climatically as we all know. We don’t know why. I don’t claim to know, by the way, why there’s a climatic crisis in the—but I know that there is one. I’m hoping someone will tell me who’s mandated it and for what reason. Or is it possible that it’s an event in the evolution of the solar system? I think it’s a great deal more likely, unless you have the solipsism to believe that the conditions have favored your own emergence. They must be benign. That’s not modesty, above all—it’s not objectivity, it isn’t detachment, it’s not rationality, it is none of the above, it’s mere superstitious self-centeredness. Two minutes, I yield my two minutes, ladies and gentlemen. I think if I haven’t persuaded you by now, I shall not succeed. I think the rabbi and I both agreed before this began that we would make the assumption that nobody comes here just to sit and listen, and that we all know what we’re here for. So I yield back my time and give it to you, and don’t waste it. Bye.

Notable Quotes

“It’s another sign of their lack of confidence… Reason has no dogma.”

“Reason doesn’t tell you you have to believe anything. It says your mind must be open to reason… Natural selection is not the theory of evolution, it is a theory of evolution.”

“To say that he is a voter of Genesis, I’m sorry, that’s an insult, not to me, but to you.”

“I personally think I probably could overthrow the arguments for National Socialism in a fairly short time… There’s no secular case to be made for genocide.”

“If someone wants to take credit for this creation, let them take credit for the whole thing, and for all the despair and misery that goes with it… But no, the solipsism must go on.”

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