People sometimes try to score debating points by saying, Evolution is only a theory. That is correct, but it's important to understand what that means. It is also only a theory that the world goes round the Sun - it's just a theory for which there is an immense amount of evidence. There are many scientific theories that are in doubt. Even within evolution, there is some room for controversy. But that we are cousins of apes and jackals and starfish, let's say, that is a fact in the ordinary sense of the word.
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I think nobody would claim that random genetic drift is capable of producing adaptation, that is to say the illusion of design. Random genetic drift can't produce wings that are good at flying, or eyes that are good at seeing, or legs that are good at running. But random genetic drift probably is very important in driving evolution at the molecular genetic level.
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Nowadays theologians aren't quite so straightforward as Paley. They don't point to complex living mechanisms and say that they are self-evidently designed by a creator, just like a watch. But there is a tendency to point to them and say 'It is impossible to believe' that such complexity, or such perfection, could have evolved by natural selection. Whenever I read such a remark, I always feel like writing 'Speak for yourself' in the margin.
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It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology- and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.
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As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbrit around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't.
It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air. ... spreading DNA whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. ... It is raining instructions out there; it's raining programs; it's raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn't be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.
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The alternative which I favor is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater.
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Suffering is a byproduct of evolution by natural selection, an inevitable consequence that may worry us in our more sympathetic moments but cannot be expected to worry a tiger - even if a tiger can be said to worry about anything at all - and certainly cannot be expected to worry its genes.
The trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody's advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse. If manipulators really had the powers claimed, they could win the lottery every week. I prefer to point out that they could also win a Nobel Prize for discovering fundamental physical forces hitherto unknown to science
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The word 'mundane' has come to mean 'boring' and 'dull', and it really shouldn't - it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning 'the world'. And the world is anything but dull: The world is wonderful. There's real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.
If you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God.
Religion has been a powerful weapon in the hands of governments, in the hands of priests, in the hands of kings who have used it as a weapon to keep down the populace. It is a wonderful way of disciplining people and making them do what you want, to tell them that if they don't do what you want they will, for example, go to Hell.
There's a natural tendency for children to, in some sense, inherit the cultural values of their parents. I'm not against that, that's fine, that's wonderful. What I am against is labelling. Nobody ever labels a child a cricketer because his father is a cricketer, but they do label a child a Catholic because his parents are Catholic. I think it's more or less unique. Nobody ever labels a child a socialist or a conservative or a liberal because that's what their parents are.
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Religion and science have nothing to do with each other, they're about different things, science is about the way the world works and religion is about miracles, I mean, if you ask most ordinary people in church or in a mosque why they believe, it's almost certainly got something to do with the belief that God does wonderful things, that God intervenes, that God heals the sick, that God answers prayers, God forgives sins.
Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional "next world" is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them.
Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as soon as the police go on strike or the spy camera is switched off, whether the spy camera is a real one monitored in the police station or an imaginary one in heaven.
Science may be weird and incomprehensible--more weird and less comprehensible than any theology--but science works. It gets results. It can fly you to Saturn, slingshotting you around Venus and Jupiter on the way. We may not understand quantum theory (heaven knows, I don't), but a theory that predicts the real world to ten decimal places cannot in any straightforward sense be wrong.
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It is interesting to ask whether there's any general reason why being religious might make you do nice things or indeed nasty things. It's possible that people do nice things because they're religious. One reason might be they're hoping for a reward in Heaven, which is not a very noble reason.
One of the possible reasons why we might be good is that we're frightened, frightened of God. We want the reward in Heaven, we don't want to go to Hell. That would be an ignoble, ignominious reason for being good, and I think that if anybody was good to you just because they hoped for a heavenly reward, you wouldn't respect them, you'd probably give them a wide berth.
I think we have got to start again and go right back to first principles. The argument I shall advance, surprising as it may seem coming from the author of the earlier chapters, is that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution. If there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? ... Is he manuvering to maximize David Attenborough's television ratings?
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Book critics or theatre critics can be derisively negative and gain delighted praise for the trenchant with of their review. But in criticisms of religion even clarity ceases to be a virtue and sounds like aggressive hostility. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a soberly reasoning critic of religion employ what would in other contexts sound merely direct or forthright, and it will be described as a 'rant'.
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It is quite true that many scientists, many physicists, maintain that the physical constants, the half dozen or so numbers that physicists have to simply assume in order to derive the rest of their understanding ... have to be assumed. You can't provide a rationale for why those numbers are there. Physicists have calculated that if any of these numbers was a little bit different, the universe as we know it wouldn't exist.
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That there is a continuous link from humans to gorillas, with the intermediate species merely long dead, is beyond the understanding of speciesists. Tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, incomputable value.... Self-styled pro-lifers, and others that indulge in footling debates about exactly when in its development a foetus becomes human, exhibit the same discontinuous mentality. Human, to the discontinuous mind, is an absolutist concept. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil.
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If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had. No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.
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The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
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A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a 'child of Muslim parents' will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.
To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries
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The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism - as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: 'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.' So did Bertrand Russell: 'Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.
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The human psyche has two great sicknesses: the urge to carry vendetta across generations, and the tendency to fasten group labels on people rather than see them as individuals. Abrahamic religion mixes explosively with (and gives strong sanction to) both. Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today. Without a doubt it is the prime aggravator of the Middle East. Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and speak out. Things are different now. 'All is changed, changed utterly.
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There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. [... ] Somebody else must be responsible for my well-being, and somebody else must be to blame if I am hurt. Is it a similar infantilism that really lies behind the 'need' for a God?
Jesus was not content to derive his ethics from the scriptures of his upbringing. He explicitly departed from them. [... ] Since a principal thesis of this chapter is that we do not, and should not, derive our morals from scripture, Jesus has to be honoured as a model for that very thesis.
Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.
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If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment-thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as 'Christ-killers': did that hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?
There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will. I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don't. Pascal's Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he'd see through the deception.
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The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. Which religion, anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up? To which chapter, then, of which book of the Bible should we turn-for they are far from unanimous and some of them are odious by any reasonable standards. How many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is prescribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the sabbath and for cheeking your parents? If we reject Deuteronomy and Leviticus (as all enlightened moderns do), by what criteria do we then decide which of religion's moral values to accept? Or should we pick and choose among all the world's religions until we find one whose moral teaching suits us? If so, again we must ask, by what criterion do we choose? And if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?
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And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced-too eagerly in my view-that the question of God's existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP category. From this, as we shall see, they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God's existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right.
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It is possible to conceive, Anselm said, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Even an atheist can conceive of such a superlative being, though he would deny its existence in the real world. But, goes the argument, a being that doesn't exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey presto, God exists!
What we can imagine as plausible is a narrow band in the middle of a much broader spectrum of what is actually possible. [O]ur eyes are built to cope with a narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies. [W]e can't see the rays outside the narrow light band, but we can do calculations about them, and we can build instruments to detect them. In the same way, we know that the scales of size and time extend in both directions far outside the realm of what we can visualize. Our minds can't cope with the large distances that astronomy deals in or with the small distances that atomic physics deals in, but we can represent those distances in mathematical symbols. Our minds can't imagine a time span as short as a picosecond, but we can do calculations about picoseconds, and we can build computers that can complete calculations within picoseconds. Our minds can't imagine a timespan as long as a million years, let alone the thousands of millions of years that geologists routinely compute. Just as our eyes can see only that narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies that natural selection equipped our ancestors to see, so our brains are built to cope with narrow bands of sizes and times. Presumably there was no need for our ancestors to cope with sizes and times outside the narrow range of everyday practicality, so our brains never evolved the capacity to imagine them. It is probably significant that our own body size of a few feet is roughly in the middle of the range of sizes we can imagine. And our own lifetime of a few decades is roughly in the middle of the range of times we can imagine.
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[W]e can calculate our way into regions of miraculous improbability far greater than we can imagine as plausible. Let's look at this matter of what we think is plausible. What we can imagine as plausible is a narrow band in the middle of a much broader spectrum of what is actually possible. Sometimes it is narrower than what is actually there. There is a good analogy with light. Our eyes are built to cope with a narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies (the ones we call light), somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from long radio waves at one end to short X-rays at the other. We can't see the rays outside the narrow light band, but we can do calculations about them, and we can build instruments to detect them. In the same way, we know that the scales of size and time extend in both directions far outside the realm of what we can visualize. Our minds can't cope with the large distances that astronomy deals in or with the small distances that atomic physics deals in, but we can represent those distances in mathematical symbols. Our minds can't imagine a time span as short as a picosecond, but we can do calculations about picoseconds, and we can build computers that can complete calculations within picoseconds. Our minds can't imagine a timespan as long as a million years, let alone the thousands of millions of years that geologists routinely compute. Just as our eyes can see only that narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies that natural selection equipped our ancestors to see, so our brains are built to cope with narrow bands of sizes and times. Presumably there was no need for our ancestors to cope with sizes and times outside the narrow range of everyday practicality, so our brains never evolved the capacity to imagine them. It is probably significant that our own body size of a few feet is roughly in the middle of the range of sizes we can imagine. And our own lifetime of a few decades is roughly in the middle of the range of times we can imagine.
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If you're an atheist, you know, you believe, this is the only life you're going to get. It's a precious life. It's a beautiful life. Its something we should live to the full, to the end of our days. Where if you're religious and you believe in another life somehow, that means you don't live this life to the full because you think you're going to get another one. That's an awfully negative way to live a life. Being a atheist frees you up to live this life properly, happily and fully
Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth'. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it.