We had a good time at St Olaf tonight — it was a small group, I gave a short talk, and we had lots and lots of stimulating conversation afterwards, along with my favorite pizza (jalapeno and pineapple). I’ve tucked what I sort of said below the fold.
I am here to bring you some good news.
The universe is about 13.7 billion years old, plus or minus a few hundred million, and the earth itself is about 4.6 billion years old. How do we know this? The work of astronomers in measuring cosmological constants, in calculating the age of stars and the size of our universe; the work of physicists on principles of radioactive decay, and measurements of the age of rocks; the work of geologists in charting the many layers of rock and puzzling out the mechanisms of change.
There are currently somewhere between 10 and 100 million species living on our planet, and we also know that 98-99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. We know this because of the work of systematists who have carefully documented approximately 2 million species so far, because of the work of ecologists who have carried out statistical sampling to estimate how many species are left to discover, and by the work of paleontologists who have uncovered era after era of lost worlds in Earth’s history. And isn’t the uncertainty in the specific number exciting? There is so much left to discover!
All those species on our planet are related to one another — we can trace lines of descent that link every one of the residents of this Earth to every other; we are distantly related to worms and bacteria and sea anemones and trees. We know this because, again, the paleontologists have shown us the chain of history, and because the molecular biologists have mapped out the genes and shown us their similarities. The proteins in my eye that capture light and convert it to an electrical signal are present in jellyfish, and the cellular mechanisms and the genetic code we use to translate those genes into action are identical.
All of us here in this room are apes and descendants of apes. Examine our anatomy, our physiology, our molecular biology, our chromosomes and genes, and at every point the data joyfully points out that chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons are our brothers and sisters and cousins. We are family. We trace back our pedigree through the work of the paleontologists and anthropologists and molecular biologists, and we see millions of years of fascinating history — two million years ago, our hominin ancestors were making love, building families, bonding together in social groups, and they were struggling and suffering and experiencing all the fears and happiness and tragedies and travails of life.
These are tiny fragments of the good news of science. Most of you here are students at this university, and I urge you all to drink more deeply of the wonders that are taught in your science classes — sometimes I suspect that the greatest miracle in all of human history has been the product of the last few centuries of human endeavor, the deep hard work that has led to the explosion of information about the nature of the universe, the earth, our history, and ourselves. You are at a university. You are at the center of the greatest revelation of all: a flowering of intellectual thought that has at its center the rejection of tradition and dogma, and the celebration of doubt and exploration and relentless criticism and a foundation of naturalism and materialism. We have a formula that works, that has a demonstrated track record of success.
At the same time, though, we are in a country and a culture that has a strong element that rejects our good news, that wants to turn its back on empiricism and reason and return to a comforting ignorance. In some ways, I can’t blame them. New knowledge demands new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing ourselves; the idea that the life we value so much is but a transient scum on one neglible rock in a vast universe is difficult to face if you’ve been brought up to believe that you are center of all purpose in the cosmos. Our problem right now is a religion that has become a force for foolishness.
I’m going to denounce this religion, but first let me say a few mildly conciliatory words. Religion, like science, is a human enterprise, and it reflects entirely human values and concerns. Personally, I do not consider religion to be a force for evil — human beings are darned good at finding excuses to do evil, with religion or without — but I also do not consider it a force for good, and it is a dreadful distraction that misleads people away from productive paths towards truth, and too often replaces genuine thoughtful introspection with rote adherence to dogma … a sin, I will freely admit, to which science is also prone, and which we always have to be on guard against. Some here may still cling to the consolations of what I consider to be rank superstition, but if you’re willing to set it aside in all questions of the natural world, and if you confine those beliefs to your personal philosophical framework and what you call “spirituality,” I’ve got no gripe with you. I won’t tell you to use the scientific method in your prayers if you won’t try to use your prayers to tell me how the world works.
This hypothetical enlightened religious belief is not what is dominating our culture right now, however.
There is a $27 million dollar “museum” (I use that term very loosely) that has opened in Kentucky in this past year that claims that the earth is 6000 years old, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans (and that, by the way, T. rex used those massive dagger-like teeth to crack coconuts), and that all modern ills are a direct consequence of Charles Darwin’s teachings.
We have a think tank with a multi-million dollar yearly budget in Seattle that is dedicated to casting doubt on scientific findings and injecting creationism in our public school classrooms. It claims to be secular in purpose, but as the Dover trial exposed, it is religiously driven. Let me quote President Farris of Patrick Henry College:
You don’t stand up in the public schools and say, ‘We’re going to bring prayer into your schools and we’re going to do it with this bill right here right now. You do something smarter than that. You talk about intelligent design. You talk about teaching evolution and the facts that support it and the facts that negate it and pass a bill that says they shall both be presented in an evenhanded manner. And then you discipline your supporters to keep their stupid mouths shut.
We have a president who claims that a god instructed him to go to war. We have a president who, like Farris, thinks ideologically-driven, anti-scientific nonsense deserves equal time in the classroom. We have a president who believes faith can replace reason.
Since this is St Olaf, let me also quote Martin Luther.
Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but — more frequently than not — struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
Or how about this?
But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.
I was brought up in the Lutheran church, so I know that for the most part the church has left behind Luther’s petty bigotry and hatred of reason, so I would not make the mistake of damning this fine university with the ravings of a 16th century fanatic, but I will suggest that, as far as we’ve moved from that degree of irrationality, our society has room to move a little further, to a complete abandonment of the error of religion.
I have told you the good news of science, and I’ve told you a little about how we come to know those facts — and trust me, the depth of the information you can discover in any science textbook is vast beyond any one person’s comprehension — but compare that knowledge with what you can find in most people’s favorite source, the Bible.
There is a scant two pages on the origins of the natural world in the book of Genesis, and I’m being generous. It is maddeningly vague, internally inconsistent, and couched in clearly metaphorical and poetic language. It is also wrong in every detail. It is not even a good metaphorical description of the creation of the world; it does not map in any sensible way to the actual history of the universe. Sure, you can appreciate it as a pretty story, as a window into the mind of a tribe of Middle Eastern peoples a few millennia ago, but it is not an accurate or objective picture of the world we live in. As a science textbook, the Bible is rubbish.
I know what the immediate objection will be: modern religion, enlightened theology, does not treat the Bible as a science textbook — it’s like complaining that the textbook “Molecular Biology of the Cell” is not written in the form of an epic poem.
That would be fair enough, except that polls have shown that roughly half of all Americans — over 150 million people in this country — do think it is a literal guide to human origins. The churches aren’t correcting them in this error of interpretation of the bible, but to a large part instead are reinforcing it. I’m a realist: I prefer to judge religion on what it actually does, instead of what it claims it does or should be doing, and I’m afraid religion in practice has demonstrated itself to be no friend of science.
Even distinguished theologians make this terrible mistaken assumption. A few weeks ago, there was a debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, both of Oxford University, and Lennox made the same mistake. He tried to argue that the Biblical story was not an erroneous description of the origins of the world, and at one point he tried to give the Bible credit for accurately stating that the world had a beginning. That’s what he was reduced to; in the face of all of the wealth of detail, the complex mathematics, the accumulated evidence of physics and astronomy, the theoretical and observational data for the big bang theory, the deep work driving string theory, the international research in cosmology, John Lennox stood up and boldly faced the question of whether the universe had been here forever or had a beginning, and proudly said that “At least [the Bible] got the right one.”
Dawkins’ response was perfect: “Toss a coin and you had 50 per cent chance of getting it right.”
Let’s regard the Bible for what it is: a sincere attempt to understand their place in the world by a collection of ancient peoples, that is actually little more than a collection of bad guesses, gussied up with logical fallacies and threats and demands that you must accept them. It is not enough to say that it is not a science textbook: we must also be clear that is is anti-scientific, that it preaches a way of knowing that is the antithesis of the scientific method.
I’m here addressing the freethinkers of St Olaf, and you probably already know all this. The real question we should have is what are we going to do about it?
Obviously, what we must do is speak out. Freethinkers in this country have two serious deficits: 1) we are a somewhat cowed minority, although that is changing, and there is a tradition of unwarranted deference to religion. If someone wants to pray, that is their right…but at the same time, there is a reluctance to assert our right to ignore the calls to prayer, and when people do speak out against forced piety, they are often ostracized. And 2) freethinkers are FREETHINKERS. We’re a motley mob of deists, agnostics, secular humanists, pantheists, atheists, and who knows what else, and organizing seems to be against our nature. We have to resist that; we have to be willing to work together while recognizing the diversity of perspectives under the umbrella of freethought, and treat that variety as a strength rather than a weakness. And that’s hard.
Let me tell you about my father, who was a perfect example of both of these problems, and who, I think, represents a larger part of the religious tradition in this country than is appreciated. I never saw my father in a church. He never claimed affiliation with any particular religious tradition. He would readily disavow any form of organized religion, but he sometimes expressed a reverence for nature that was almost spiritual. He never spoke out directly against religion, and expressed no reservations about my mother sending us kids out to Sunday school and church every week; we never, ever discussed religion. Ever. We did talk about science, and he was a great unlettered fan of science. He’s gone now, and there are a lot of questions I wish now that I had asked him. But you know, if there had been a freethought movement then, I’m pretty sure he would have willingly joined us – he most likely would have been in the deist or perhaps the agnostic faction, but I think he definitely would have found common cause with even the most militant atheist above a James Dobson or a Michele Bachmann.
There are a lot of people like my father in America.
That’s our mission. We must build a tradition and an institution of freethought that discards the old dogmas and superstitions, that relegates the Bible and Christianity to what they are – interesting mixed examples of history, philosophy, sociology, art and literature, but most definitely not science, law, public policy or morality – and that elevates reason and evidence and naturalism as the intellectual ideals to which all children of the Enlightenment should aspire. On the one hand, we have to clear away the old bones and cobwebs of overreaching religious thought, and on the other we have to create an attractive set of ideals and organizations that will recruit the great majority of sensible people, people like my father, to our side.
And we have to do that without compromising science.
I have to leave you with one last quote from Richard Dawkins that perfectly personifies the New Atheist attitude, and that represents a sentiment that I think not only every loud and proud freethinker should agree with, but should also be a fair statement of principle for even the most devout Christian here. Consider it a unifying ideal.
“Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”