Evolution and Atheism: Best Friends Forever

Here is the full speech given by Jerry Coyne at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh on Oct. 8. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker introduced him:

Jerry is a past recipient of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award and has been an honorary board member of FFRF and has also worked with our attorneys over the years. He is professor emeritus in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago and he’s a member of both the Committee on Genetics and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. He focuses on understanding the origin of species, the evolutionary process that produces discrete groups in nature. He’s written 119 scientific papers, 150 popular articles, book reviews, columns, and a very popular trade book about the evidence for evolution: Why Evolution is True. And I think, when it comes to this book, nobody does it better. In fact, even Richard Dawkins said that he didn’t need to write his next book because Jerry Coyne had already done it. His newest book is called Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Let’s welcome Jerry Coyne.

By Jerry Coyne

I want to begin by asking all of you a question. I want you to raise your hand if you agree and keep your hand up when I ask you two other questions. First of all, how many of you accept that evolution is true? OK, so it’s almost everybody. Now keep your hands up, but put them down if you don’t agree with the next question. Do you think you’re a humanist? I think a couple of hands went down. And the third question is, how many of you would describe yourselves as atheists? Keep your hands up. OK, so hardly any of them went down.

I thought there would be a lot more humanists than atheists. Well, we’re going to try to convince you in this talk is that your hands should have been up all the time because humanism, atheism and evolutionary biology go hand-in-hand. And, I want to describe the nexus of that relationship and why it’s true and why when you promote one of those three areas, you’re perforce promoting the other ones.

But first I’m going to start with evolutionary biology, and I’m gonna say what Maajid Nawaz calls the Voldemort Effect, that which must not be said: That the study of evolution should lead ineluctably to atheism.

So here’s my thesis for the evening. The fact of evolution, and you’ve seen this yesterday with Carter Warden. His transition to atheism began by studying evolutionary biology. And this is a general pathway that a lot of people go on, including Richard Dawkins. The fact of evolution is not only inherently atheistic, it is inherently anti-theistic. It goes against the notion that there is a God.

Second of all, the implications of evolution are also atheistic. It’s not just that what evolution tells us about how we evolved that makes us not believe in God, but the implications of this is the process that gave rise to all living things also creates that conclusion.
And finally, therefore, as it did for Carter Warden, accepting evolution and science tends to promote the acceptance of atheism. Now, it doesn’t always of course. There are many religious people who accept evolution. I would say they’re guilty of cognitive dissonance, or at least of some kind of watery deism. I would also claim that promoting the acceptance of atheism should promote the acceptance of evolution because it’s only religion that blinds people to the truth of evolution.

And finally, I want to bring in humanism here because it’s a very important thing. Atheism promotes the rise of humanism and vice versa. So all these three factors atheism, humanism — for whatever that stands for and we all have our own interpretation — and evolutionary biology should be mutually synergistic in promoting the acceptance of each other.

The path from going to an evolutionary biologist to an atheist and anti-theist is pretty straightforward. You write a book on evolution with the indubitable facts that show that it has to be true, as true as the existence of gravity or neutrons, and then you realize that half of America is not going to buy it no matter what you say.

So you start realizing that this book, writing this book, is a useless endeavor for these people. Their minds cannot be changed; their eyes are blinkered. And so you start studying what it is about religion that makes people resistant to evolution. And when you study theology, and God help me, I never want to do it again. I spent three years doing that. You discover that religion is in some ways like science, but it’s a pseudoscience. It makes scientific claims, or at least empirical claims, about the real world, but then adjudicates those claims in a completely different way from science.

So you start realizing that religion is perverting what you’re trying to do with science by making statements about the world, but then supporting them with various cockamamie methods. And so you become an atheist and you become an anti-theist because you see that religion is promoting ways of thinking about the world which are not sound.

This is a natural pathway; it’s the same pathway Richard Dawkins went along. He started off just like I did as a straight evolutionary biologist, writing Climbing Mount Improbable, The Selfish Gene, and segued into, of course, The God Delusion. The pathway he went along is pretty much the same one as I did. Except that he pissed off religious people more than I did.

Look at the subtitle of The Blind Watchmaker: A World Without Design. As I’ll show you, that is one thing that religious people cannot bring themselves to accept. I’m not going to go over the evidence for evolution. You should either know it by now or, if you don’t, buy my book. Let me just say it comes from many various areas of biology: embryology, the fossil record, morphology, genetics, biogeography. All these different areas come together to show that evolution, in fact, is true. As true as anything is in science.

And that book I wrote, and one that Dawkins wrote about at the same time, The Greatest Show On Earth, shows that. Case closed, right? Well, no. Not in America, at least. The Gallup Poll has been surveying American attitudes toward evolution for 32 years and they’ve held pretty steady.

You can see this plot here beginning in 1982 against an inclining line until 2014, consisting of: If you ask Americans, “How did humans get here?” Unfortunately, the top line, which has held steady at about 40 percent of the young earth creationists, who say, “We’ve always been here like we are now and so have all the other species and the Earth is about 10,000 years old.”

You can see that for over 30 years this has held steady. Then we have the theistic evolutionists on the second line. Those are the people who accept evolution, but think that God was the motor that did it. In other words, that God put his, her or its hand into the process at some point. And that has pretty much hovered around 30 percent. There’s a sort of hardening downswing in that in the latest years, which is mirrored by a hardening upswing in the number of naturalistic evolutionists at the bottom about 20 percent. Those who claim, yeah, we got here by naturalistic processes. This happens to be the truth, by the way.

But the fact that this has held steady, and you can see this may be a heartening rise in the last couple of years of naturalistic evolution. The fact that this has held steady in an age of which we’ve had Richard Dawkins, we’ve had Stephen Jay Gould, we’ve had David Attenborough, we’ve had E.O. Wilson, we’ve had Jared Diamond. All these people all over the media telling us about evolution. It’s not like people don’t have access to the evidence and information of evolution. It’s that people are blinkered to that truth by religion, and that’s something that I think almost all of us know in our hearts.

But, if you’re like Eugenie Scott and you’re standing up here, you’re not going to admit that religion has anything to do with resistance to evolution. I want to try to prove this otherwise to you. By the way, about 70 percent of people who think about evolution think that God had some hand in it, 41 percent and 30 percent. And of those people who accept evolution in the last two lines, about 31 over 31 plus 19, or 62 percent of evolution acceptors think that God had a hand in it.

So most people who say they accept evolution are nevertheless supernaturalists to some degree. Why? Because of religion. Religion is the only serious reason why people do not accept the truth of evolution. Not only in the United States, but throughout the rest of the world. Here, for example, there are a number of organizations that are opposed to evolution. You can see they have the word majesty and creation in them. They’re all Christian organizations.

You scratch a creationist, you’ll find a religionist. Intelligent design advocates’ ideas have been described as creationists in a cheap tuxedo, which is why I’ve displayed it like that. They don’t fool anybody because they’re also religious. They just don’t like to say it. They say intelligent design, but what they really mean is Jesus. I have never met a creationist who was not religious, except for one person — David Berlinski, and I have my suspicions about him as well.

So there’s something inherent about creationism that makes you opposed to evolution. First of all, the antagonism between these two areas which you already know about. But then that’s why they’re so antagonistic. So, let’s ask those people who don’t accept evolution why they don’t accept it.

Those people who fall into the first category in the chart below. If you ask evolution deniers why they deny it, this is what they say. This is a poll taken by the Gallup organization about nine years ago. The first three reasons are all religious. They don’t have anything to do with evidence. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” “I believe in the Almighty God,” “due to my religion or faith.” It’s only when you get to the fourth most common answer — you can only give one answer in this poll — they say “Well, there’s not enough evidence for it.”

And you keep going down and all the answers are religious. So 83 percent of the people that reject evolution say it has to do with their faith. It has nothing to do at all with evidence.

The antagonism between religion and evolution can be seen in this graph, which plots data from 32 European countries on the religiosity of those countries. The degree of belief in God is on the X-axis, and their acceptance of human evolution on the Y-axis. Each one of these triangles or diamonds is one of 32 European countries. And you can see there is a strong negative relationship, a highly statistically negative relationship, between them.

Those countries which have the most belief in God on the lower right and the right have the lowest acceptance of Darwinism. Those countries which have the least acceptance of God, the least belief in God, are those that accept evolution more. If you were to plot countries in, say, sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East, there would be a whole bunch of dots at the lower right because those countries are not only highly religious, but they’re also deeply opposed to evolution. So this is, if anything, an underestimate of the sort of antagonistic relationship between religion and belief in evolution.

If you’re an economist and you looked at this, you’d say that what we see here is an elastic demand curve for God. In order to gain 10 percent more acceptance for Darwinism, you have to give up 40 percent of your belief in God. So you have a lot of religious resistance there.

So what’s the reason for this relationship? This is a correlation, not a causation, but I think there is some causality here. First of all, you can say, well, the higher your belief in God, the less likely you are to accept evolution. There’s something about being religious that makes you less likely to accept Darwin and I think that is indeed the case.

But the other alternative explanation is that the more and more you grow to accept evolution, the less and less you are likely to be religious and to become an atheist. That’s plausible, but I think it’s almost incontrovertibly true that the first explanation is the correct one, simply because you know how it works in this country: People get their Jesus before they get their Darwin. By the time they get to biology class, they’re already immune. They’re immunized to evolutionary biology.

There’s a third factor that I want to talk about, but this is the reason I think for this negative relationship. Those countries whose inhabitants are more wedded to the idea of a supernatural being have less, or are less likely to accept evolutionary biology.

Where’s the U.S. in this graph? It’s really bad. We’re second from bottom. The only country that has less acceptance of evolution than we do is Turkey. And you know Turkey is a Muslim country. Usually secularly Muslim, but getting more and more hardline all the time.

So the reason why the U.S., actually amongst so-called advanced industrialized countries, is so resistant to evolution as opposed to say France, Denmark and Sweden, is because we’re one of the most religious first-world countries in the world. Now, I want to go and try to explain why that’s the case, but let’s look at another case.

The states of the United States is where we can do the same kind of correlation. So instead of looking at the different countries, we look at the 50 states and we order them from top to bottom in terms of how accepting the inhabitants are of evolution. So lengths of the blue bars tell you the proportion of people who accept human evolution. The yellow bars in the middle are the people that are dithering. They don’t know, or they don’t want to answer. The red bars are people who deny evolution — they are basically creationists.

So the top we have like Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts. At the bottom: evolution denialists, Arkansas, Tennessee and Utah. You see any pattern there? You’re going to see the same pattern we saw in different countries.

I don’t have the data on the religiosity of every state in the U.S., but what I did find were the 10 most religious states and the 10 least religious states. So I’m going to put the 10 least religious states with blue arrows, because they’re blue states, and the 10 most religious states with red arrows. I’ll just show you where they fall on this graph. Those are the 10 least religious states. Here’s the 10 most religious states. This is the kind of data that we love as scientists because you don’t have to do statistics on it. There’s a complete non-overlap of these two distributions. Those states that are the most religious are the ones that are the most evolution denialist and vice versa, and there’s no overlap between them.

We see the same pattern here as we saw among different countries in the world. The more religious you are, the less likely are to accept evolution. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but I want to document this for statistics before I try to give you the reasons why it’s true.

Where is Pennsylvania? Since we’re in Pennsylvania. Eh, it’s OK. It’s in the middle somewhere. Could do better, those of you who live in this state. So that’s a correlation, not a causation, between religiosity and evolution denial. And there could be a third factor at work here, and I think there is, and that’s where the idea of humanism comes in. Not that there’s some other factor that explains that relationship, but there’s another factor that explains why different countries vary in their degrees of religiosity and why different states in the U.S. vary in their degrees of religiosity.

And that has to do with well-being. So, how many of you are familiar with the work of Greg Paul? Many of you are. This came out awhile back, but it’s being increasingly supported by studies of sociologists. What Greg Paul did was to try to rate the well-being of different countries. In this case it’s the plot of 17 first-world countries, based on what he called the Successful Society scale. How well-off are members of a given society.

And he used 25 factors that sociologists like to use as inferences of well-being. Income equality, incarceration rates, suicide, the availability of medical care, child mortality, corruption. All of these factors were factored into a scale that went from zero, a really rotten society, to 10, a really high society. So every one of these 17 European countries is rated on that scale. And then, on a separate scale, it was rated for religiosity.

You see the same kind of relationship we saw for evolution and really just the negative relationship those countries which have the highest belief in God tend to be the countries that are the least well-off. Those countries that have the lowest belief in God tend to be the countries that have the most well-being. I don’t think this is an accident.

Where is the U.S. here? You can say the reason why we reject evolution is because we’re so religious. But why are we so religious? Because we’re not really that well-off. We have high degrees of income inequality. We have no government health care — or not, at least, until recently — high incarceration rates, high child mortality compared to other countries. This is purely an objective plot. No, it’s not done theologically where you come to your conclusion beforehand. This is the result of Greg’s analysis.

So what’s going on here? Well, again, you have a correlation and not causation. You can say two things. First of all, you can say that those people on the lower right, those countries that absolutely believe in God more, tend to create societies that are bad. That it’s the religiosity that somehow makes the societies dysfunctional. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t jibe with any notion of religion that I have. Although, some aspects of some religions you can see where this might be true.

The other explanation is — and I think this is the correct one because sociology is supporting it increasingly with more and more studies — that the more well-off you are as a country, the less need your inhabitants have to embrace God. They don’t feel that they have to have a need to appeal to some celestial being to succor an additional life that will make things right for them when your own life is miserable now.

And Nadia Duncan spoke in her speech about an hour ago about how slaves were pacified by telling them — you can see this in the movie “12 Years a Slave” — “Well your life might be crappy now, and I’m going to whip you, but think of all that wonder you’re going to find afterlife.” And so it was a form of, it was an anodyne. It was like an opiate for the religious people.

So my explanation for the diversity of religious belief among different countries, which plays into the acceptance of evolution, is that the countries that are pretty crappy, whose inhabitants have low levels of well-being, are the ones whose inhabitants feel a need to embrace God.

And you can see this in Europe as countries became more and more secularized over time, that secularism went hand-in-hand with an increasing well-being of the inhabitants and increasing acceptance of evolution.

One more graph just to show you to dispel the common reason that happiness and religiosity go hand-in-hand. You may not know this, but every few years the United Nations compiles a happiness index. It goes around to all the countries of the world and asks the inhabitants, “How are you doing? Are you happy?” They don’t have any objective rating on how happy they are. They don’t look at your blood pressure or anything like that. They just ask people if they are happy or not.

I’ve taken that happiness index and I’ve correlated here in this graph with the religiosity of these different countries. There were 156 countries surveyed. I could get data on only 52 of them. But you can see there is, again, a strong negative relationship. The happier you are as a country, the less religious you are. The more miserable you are, the more religious you are. The happiest countries in the world are Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. The unhappiest countries in the world are Togo, Benin and the Central African Republic — countries which are deeply dysfunctional and highly, highly religious.

So this supports my explanation, which I said before, of why religious countries tend to be countries that are less well-off. That’s the explanation of Karl Marx. I don’t know if you read The New Yorker over the last week or so, but there is a re-evaluation of the work of Karl Marx. It didn’t really talk about this, but Marx was perhaps the first person to actually make this hypothesis, that religion is an anodyne. It’s an opium of the people.

And his famous quote that people use in order to make themselves feel better when their lives are crappy. Here’s this famous quote, which comes from a critique of Hegel’s philosophy: “Religion is the sight of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and on the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

What Marx meant by that, and this is often taken as an anti-religious quote, but what he’s really trying to say is that religion comes into being when people have no other place to turn to in their lives. It is the opium of the people. And to rectify the situation, where you have an illusory kind of solution to a very real physical problem, is the next paragraph: “To call on people to give up their illusions about these conditions is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

In other words, if you want to get rid of religion in this world, then you have to get rid of the conditions that breed it. The conditions that foster the illusion that things are going to be made right in the next world. So this sort of sociological hypothesis for why countries are differentially religious, which, in turn, I’ve used to explain why they’re differentially friendly to evolution, was first adumbrated by Karl Marx.

So I hope I’ve painted a picture of the antagonism, the perpetual antagonism between religion and evolution. Of course, not all religious people hate evolution. You know many of them. There might be some sitting in this audience.

What I want to say now is why that antagonism occurs. Why is evolution so anathema to believers. Well, there are lots of reasons. So I made a list. But before I do that, I just want to make us feel good by showing us the benefits of accepting evolution, as opposed to the down side for religious people.

Well, first of all, because it’s true. It’s the true story of our origins. All of us, or most of us, are intensely curious about our genealogy, where we come from, who our grandfathers were, what countries they came from. Evolution answers that question on the broadest scale possible because it ties us in ancestry to every creature that ever lived. Those extinct and still living.

Second of all, it just feeds your sense of wonder in a way that religious myths can’t. That this ineffably simple process of natural selection, it’s not actually ineffably. If you read Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, you’ll see he makes it quite effable. That this process of natural selection, which is just the blind sorting of molecules, based on their ability to contribute to the propagation of their descent of molecules, has been responsible for every complex thing that we see on this planet today — from dandelions to frogs to mushrooms to homo sapiens. And that’s really, really a remarkable thing that when you become an evolutionary biologist, that sort of imbues every fiber of your being.

Third of all, evolution makes possible the consideration of these scientific questions and phenomena, and religion doesn’t. For example, here’s one question I thought of almost immediately when I was writing this talk. If you look at male and female animals they’re often very different from other. Males are often brightly colored, they have feathers, they have elaborate displays, they have calls like these Mandarin ducks here. And females are sort of drab, nondescript, and they sit back and they choose the males most brightly colored.

OK, how do you answer that question? If you’re religious, the only thing you can say is “God must have wanted it that way.” And that’s not very satisfying. But if you believe in evolution, then you can say, “Well, we have a whole theory called sexual selection.” The answer to this question, and we can test it and it seems to work. That’s a lot more satisfying, at least to a scientist or anybody with curiosity.

Finally, and this isn’t necessarily true, but it seems to be true, that if you believe that you are related to everything living on Earth and you yourself are a product of the environments on Earth, then you sort of get a fellow feeling, not only for the other creatures on the Earth, but a sort of protectiveness toward the environment.

Now, there’s a lot of religious people who are conservationists and animal lovers. So this is just something that I see that grows out of evolution, but isn’t necessarily a concomitant of accepting evolution. So that’s the good stuff. I just wanted to remind you why the acceptance of evolution makes you feel good.

This is why I think evolution makes so many people feel bad. It’s scary. It’s scary in a lot of ways if you’re religious. In fact, I could not finish the list of the ways that evolutionary values scare religious people.

Here’s just a few of them. I put the most scary ones in red, so you can see them. We’re products of evolution, not out of any protective God. We can be explained largely by natural selection and you don’t need a God to do that. That, of course, is the thing that religious people really cannot stand that all. Their strongest argument for God, which is the appearance of design in nature, has now been kicked out from under them by Charles Darwin and his descendants. The design-like features of organisms don’t come from the mind of God, they come from a process of evolutionary genes sorting. Mindless, mindless wind. There is no celestial mentation behind it. The process involves huge amounts of suffering death and waste. There’s no two ways around it. Evolution goes with pain and suffering.

As Dr. Lawrence Krauss would have said last night (at the convention), that’s just the way it is! There’s no way around it. But, you know, theologians have made their lives trying to explain why this has to be so. Don’t ask me what I think about theologians that do that.

There is no qualitative difference between life and non-life. It is a smooth transition between evolution of molecules and evolution of organisms. This is something we’re beginning to realize now. Naturalism reigns, there is no evidence in evolution or anywhere else in science for a supernatural organism.

Origin of life. There is no mind-body dualism. Free will does not exist. If you want to take that up, take it up with Dan Barker. He’s writing a book on it now. We’ve had our differences on this issue. The mind is what the brain does. There is no duality. There is no “you” that makes decisions. In fact, the decisions are made before you think you made them.

There is no evidence for a soul. All of this comes out of science and evolution. Some of these are direct facts, some of them are implications, but both of them are scary to religious people. We’re animals, African apes. If you want to really tick off evangelical Christians, tell them they are just an ape. If you tell them they’re a fish, it doesn’t give them the same reaction, although that’s just as true. Just tell them they’re an African ape and that will rile them up.

Morality is not God given. This is a big thing for Americans in particular. Morality is not something that’s given to us by God, but is either evolved from earlier antecedent animals or is a cultural veneer that is developed sociologically over time. And there is no externally imposed meaning or purpose and lives. At least nothing that we can find in the universe that that shows any evidence or purposiveness at all or teleology.

And so Steven Weinberg, in one of his most controversial quotes, says the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. By “pointless,” he didn’t mean that his life was pointless, what he meant was that we don’t see any signs of any higher intelligence directing science. This quote seems quite innocuous, but it is anathema, it is poison to theologians.

The feeling here is John Hart, who’s a liberal, Catholic theologian and one that I’ve debated, says that religious people can accept all kinds of scientific findings but what they cannot abide is the conviction that the universe and life are pointless. They just can’t stand that. And when they say “pointless,” they mean it has to have some meaning put into it from above.

So here we see that direct conflict between religion and science and between evolution and religion. I just want to tell you briefly about why science and religion are incompatible. And that’s the subject of my second book, “Faith Versus Fact.” Although you will hear from well-meaning people throughout the country and throughout the world that science and religion are not at odds with each other, they are not incompatible.

That’s just wrong. If you can pardon my French, I think it’s complete bullshit. There are three reasons why I think this.

Science and religion are both competing entities and they both compete to make statements about the universe. You don’t hear people saying that religion and business are compatible. Or that religion and baseball are compatible. You don’t hear that. What you hear is science and religion are compatible. Why science and why religion? Because they both compete to tell us the truth about the universe.

So, in many ways, they’re in the same business, although there’s a lot more to religion than just empirically non-verifiable statements. They differ in their methodologies. Science, you know how it works, we appeal to nature, we appeal to to testability, we appeal to hypotheses, we appeal to falsifiability, we depend on consensus. We have all the apparatus of professional science like blind testing, like peer review. All of these professional scientific things.

Religion makes claims about the universe that does not have this apparatus. It has dogma, authority and scripture, and that’s the way it tests its claims. So right off the bat when they’re making claims about the universe, they differ in how they adjudicate them. Methodologically, it can’t be expressed more strongly than this: In science, faith is a vice. If you say, “I have faith that the Philae lander is going to land on the comet,” people would just laugh at you in science. But if you say the same thing for religion, “I have faith that Jesus died for my sins,” people say, “What a wonderful man that is, he’s a person of faith.”

But, yet, these are both empirically, they are both epistemic statements about the world. So in science, faith is a vice; in religion, faith is a virtue. In science, we have ways of knowing that we’re wrong. I have a slide of a list of like a dozen things that would convince me that evolution was wrong. I think Susan Jacoby said she can find ways that can convince her that God actually exists. So, if you have a scientific frame of mind then, if you believe something, you can be capable of being shown wrong.

In religion, there’s no way that they can be shown wrong. If you say point out to them, “Everybody is suffering and dying. Look at that little girl over there who’s got leukemia. How could your god do that?” They’ll always find a way to explain it. It’s a system of bias where you find out exactly what you want to believe to begin with.

So the result of the difference in methodology between religion and science and how they find out the truth results in a difference in outcome. And that is the second incompatibility that I’m talking about. Science and religious investigations tell us different things about the world.

Here, for example, is what Christianity told us about the world before science came in and blew them all out of the water. Creation story, there was an exodus, Adam and Eve, a great flood, prayer works, young Earth. These are all wrong. We know this now. And why are they wrong? Because science has shown them to be wrong.

We have an asymmetric relationship between science and religion. Science can show that religious beliefs are wrong. Religion cannot show that scientific beliefs are wrong. Religious people know this in their heart and that’s why they hate science so much, at least many of them. And different religions give different answers to these questions. So not only are religions incompatible with science, they’re incompatible with each other. Which means, of course, as several people have said today, that leads right off the bat to wondering, “Well, are any of these things are true?”

Here’s a graph of the history of religions over the past 20,000 years. You start with whatever proto-religion there is on the left, and as you go toward the right you see them splitting off. The orange denominations on the top are Christians. There’s actually 41,000 of these. I couldn’t put them on the graph all together. The green ones are Muslims. Shia, Sunni and Sufi, and of course there’s others as well. That low yellow bar going across is Judaism, but there are different sects of Jews. And then at the bottom we have the Asian religions.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this is like a phylogenetic tree of organisms. We have one religion as it evolves, so to speak, it splits into different religions. Why? Largely because their splits come over irresolvable matters of fact. And a religion will schism when its adherents divide into two camps trying to figure out which one of them is right about a question that can’t be decided. How many gods are there? Is there one or more? Is there a trinity? Unitarians, trinitarians. Was Jesus a prophet? Muslims versus Christians. Did Jesus even exist? Is evolution true? Can you give blood? Can women be priests? Can you marry more than one woman at a time?

Each time one of these questions come up about God’s approval of the nature of the universe, a religion splits. And they split, and they stay split. They don’t come back together again because these questions cannot be resolved. Now, in contrast, this is science. This is the history of science over the past 30,000 years and what we see is pretty much a straight line. We have these things coming off which represent divergent ideas, like the continents could be static instead of movable, and the last one I put over on the right is string theory which is still out there.

But, you know, nobody’s believing now. But you can see that there’s a difference. Science has a way to resolve its questions. It has a way to arrive at a consensus, which we call the scientific truth. And then there’s philosophical incompatibilities as well as the methodological and outcome incompatibilities.

I won’t talk about these except that science has an atheistic philosophy behind it. That we do not believe that gods interfere in our experiments and observations. And this is the philosophical underpinning of our epistemology. And that’s an end compatibility, also.

So science advances and people feel threatened by the implications of science, and the more science advances the more threatened they get. Here are all of the fields of science, and even humanities, that threaten religious people.

Evolution, of course, threatens them for ways I’ve mentioned before. Cosmology, the idea that there’s a big bang and that there could be an infinite series of big bangs that go back forever and ever so you don’t need a first cause. That’s scary to religious people. Animal behavior in psychology is starting to tell us that that we’re born with certain evolved tendencies which we can see nascent in other species.

You might want to look up Frans de Waal’s experiments with morality and capuchin monkeys. The famous, “give that monkey a grape and give that one a cucumber and see what they do to each other” experiment. That’s morality in its nascent form. And, of course, this is repugnant to religious people because morality has to come from God.

Psychology and neuroscience are starting to tell us that we don’t have free will. That our brain is just collections of molecules and what we do is completely deterministic. It’s a product of the physical processes in our brain.

We don’t have the kind of libertarian free will that is absolutely essential to many religious people. You have to be able to choose to accept Jesus. You have to be able to choose freely to accept God. God gave us free will as our most precious gift. If we don’t have that, then the underpinnings of religion are seriously undermined. And this is what neurobiology is starting to tell us. We can now predict what choices are going to make in certain circumstances 10 seconds before you’re cognizant of having made that choice yourself.

And finally, archaeology, history and biblical scholarship are starting to tell us that the bible is largely a man-made construction. It’s a work of fiction. Many of the things in it don’t turn out to be true, like the exodus or the census of Caesar Augustus.

I don’t know how religious people come to deal with that, particularly fundamentalist ones. So we have this constant tension. Now, don’t believe the people that tell you that science and religion are friendly, because they’re not. Science advances and each time it does, religious people have to figure out how to incorporate that change into their worldview. Not only the changes I talked about before, but the changes that are proposed by the so-called Four Horsemen, these books, the new atheism.

So religious people are being squeezed at two ends by the advances of science and by the books written by the new atheists. And I would say, and many would disagree with me, that if there’s anything that characterizes new atheism that differentiates it from the old atheism, for most people, except for maybe Ingersoll, is its emphasis on testability and science.

All these new atheists are either scientists or science friendly. They regard religious hypotheses as hypotheses to be tested. And if you can’t test them, then you don’t consider them seriously. So what does a religious person do when they’re faced with this squeezing from one end by the atheists and from the other end by the scientists? They don’t want to give up their religion, that’s for sure one thing. Except for Adam Mann yesterday, who actually could not take that cognitive dissonance any more when he learned about evolution. They try to do what we call accommodationism. They try to find ways in which science and religion are friendly to one another.

And I want to talk about that for a moment. The view that science and faith are compatible, harmonious or mutually reinforcing. And if you ask an accommodationist why they are like that, what’s so comparable about science or religion, they’ll give you a diversity of answers. But the most common one is the one that Steve Gould proposed in 1999 in his book Rocks of Ages, which was very popular.

I don’t think he believed it for a minute. Gould was a diehard atheist if there ever was one. He had no use for religion, when he showed respect for religion in this book, I think he was absolutely lying through his teeth because I knew the man and I never heard him say anything good about religion at all.

But if there’s anything that will make you popular in this country, it is saying that science and religion are friendly. You don’t get a lot of popularity by saying that science and religion are enemies of one another. So I think this was Gould’s attempt to mollify his public to make them like him. And his idea was that they’re non-overlapping magisteria.

Science documents the factual character of the natural world and develops theories that coordinate and explain the facts. Religion, on the other hand, has nothing to do with claims about the universe or the real world, according to Gould. Religion is all about meaning, morals, purposes and values.

So what we get are these two non-overlapping areas. One of them dealing with what’s true in the universe, the other one dealing with what’s right and wrong in the universe, and they can be friendly because they’re separate from one another. So I guess distance breeds amity, or something like that. Unfortunately, religious people do not have this.

This isn’t the way religion works in most countries. Religious people really do have an epistemological underpinning to their beliefs. And here’s what, for example, a Harris poll, taken a couple of years ago, shows about what Americans believe. It’s always between 55 and 85 percent. The existence of God, the existence of heaven and hell, Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the virgin birth, the existence of angels. Look at that: 68 percent of Americans believe in angels. That’s three times more than believe in evolution or accept evolution.

These are real empirical statements about the nature of the universe. So this is not the kind of religion Gould was talking about. This is a religion that is absolutely grounded on certain propositions about what’s true. You cannot call yourself a Christian, or maybe Bishop Spong can, but hardly anybody else can call themselves a Christian unless they believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And, in fact, smart theologians — that may be an oxymoron — will admit this in their more revealing moments. Here’s Ian Barber, a religious historian of science: “Religion is a way of life and a set of abstract ideas, but it presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.”

Here’s Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. Collins, of course, is head of the National Institutes of Health, America’s most prominent scientist, and they say, “Well, yeah. Religion often makes claims about the way things are.” So, Gould’s conception of religion as some nebulous collection of moral dicta and songs that you hear in church is completely at odds with the way religions really live in America and Christianity, and even more so and Middle Eastern countries in Islam.

You try telling a Muslim that there is no truth in the idea that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammad, they’ll slit your throat. I mean, not all of them will. But they take these things very seriously as empirical truths. Try telling a Mormon that Joseph Smith was a con man and made up those golden plates. If they really believed that, they couldn’t be Mormons.

Now, you know, there is epistemic underpinning for almost all religions. Maybe not Quakerism, maybe not Buddhism, maybe not Confucianism, but the Abrahamic religions, yes. And this is emulated by the Christian physicist Ian Hutchinson at MIT, who explicitly says, “The religion Gould is talking about is not a religion that I recognize.”

A religion, whatever its attraction to the liberal scientist, could never be Christianity or, for that matter, Judaism or Islam. So think of religion as a form of science, because at bottom all religious beliefs, all religious adherents, all religious attendance at church must be based on certain claims about the universe and the world that, at least in principle, are empirically testable. If you can test them, then you can show whether they’re wrong. They always are wrong. If you can’t test them, then there’s no reason for you to believe them according to Hitchen’s dictum.

Eugenie Scott, whom I have great respect for as ex-head of the National Center for Science Education, was one of the great accommodationists of our time because she realized that if you alienate Christians or religions by saying that science and religion are odds, you’re going to lose a lot of those liberal religious people who will come to court to support you against the teaching of creationism in the public school. So it was a political tactic on her part. I don’t know whether she believed that or not, but this is certainly the line that she took.

That religion and science are separate, like Gould said, because you cannot put God into a test tube. You cannot do scientific tests on claims about religion, and therefore they’re different magisteria. Well, of course you can do scientific tests on claims about religion. Creationism is one such test and it’s been shown to be wrong.

Here’s another one. You’ve probably heard of the heart study that was done, although I can’t remember the year. It was funded by the Templeton Foundation. It was meant to test whether intercessory prayer was effective, and they did a really good study, a double-blind study. They took heart patients who had undergone cardiac surgery and they had people pray for them. And some people knew they were being prayed for, some people didn’t know they were being prayed for, some people didn’t know who they were praying for. So it was a pure double blind study.

And then he could monitor the effects of this prayer. What do you think the outcome was? It’s zippo. Actually, not zippo, the people who were prayed for the most were marginally worse off than everybody else. But believe me, if it had gone the other way, if prayer had worked, then you would hear this study trumpeted from the highest mountaintops by every Christian in this country. But when it doesn’t work they’ll say things like, “Ah. You can’t test God. It’s a meaningless study.”

So this is the way they regard putting their God in a test tube. When the test tube doesn’t give you the results you want, you write off the experiment to begin with.

I just want to say one other thing about Gould, which is his idea that meaning, morals and values are the purview of religion. That that’s its bailiwick. That is a very invidious and misleading statement, and Gould should have known better because we have all this history of secular ethics and philosophy beginning with Plato, Hugh Spinoza, John Stuart Mill. In our day, Dan Dennett, John Rawls, Anthony Grayling, Peter Singer.

You don’t need a god to construct an ethical system or to have a philosophically consistent system of virtues and morality.

I just want to give you one test case of, even if you’re a liberal Christian, how evolution and science comes in to clash with your own views, and that’s the case of Adam and Eve. You all know the story, so I’ll just reiterate it briefly. You can find it in the bible in the Epistles of Paul. And then it was the theologians and as Aquinas and Gus — sorry, Aquinas and St. Augustine — founded it, there were two original humans created by God — Adam and Eve.

They sinned against God’s will. That gave them the original sin since they were the only founders of humanity, and all humans descended from them, everybody was infected by original sin. In order to rid ourselves of this original sin, we have to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior to cleanse us.

This is believed by 58 percent of Americans and it’s held as true by the Catholic Church that Adam and Eve are our literal ancestors. There were only two original humans and we all descended from them. So when you say that the Catholic Church is friendly to evolution, remember that this is still part of Catholic dogma. It’s in Pope Pius the XII’s Die Humani Generis, it’s still in the Catholic catechism. You cannot not believe in Adam and Eve and that there were only two humans originally.

The problem is, of course, that this is not true. And now the population genetics in the last 10 years has enabled us to know how many ancestors we have. I’ll just show this graph briefly, which on the X-axis on the bottom shows going back in time in units of 10,000 years, 100,000 years, a million years, etc. And then the effective population size the number of breeding humans on the planet on the Y-axis and that goes up in factors of 10, 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, and you see that there are two drops in the population size of history. Of humans over history. How do they do this?

You can look at the diversity of genes in the population of existing humans and sequence them and you can back calculate how many humans there must have been at certain periods of time. How many were there? You can see there’s two drops in population size. Here, a big one about six million years ago, which is when we split off from the ancestors of modern chimps. Maybe we went through a bottleneck or had a disease. And then you can see here, a drop about 60,000 years ago in population size. We don’t know the reason for this, it’s likely is because many humans who were leaving Africa about that time and it caused a bottleneck in the population size. So what was the population size of humans at that time?

(And audience member shouts “Two!”)

That’s what Christians will tell you. If you believe in Noah’s Ark, you would say eight. But there would have to be two beforehand. But you can actually set limits on these estimates. And here’s what the estimates are in Africa — 10,000. People who left Africa — 2,250. Total humans on the planet, smallest size we ever achieved — 12,050. Greater than two, right?

Now, you may say, well you know this is clear, right? There were never two humans, but this is throwing theologians into a huge tizzy. They don’t know what to do about it because that’s a fundamental cornerstone of Christian theology. And many people take it literally. So some people say, “Well yeah. There were never Adam and Eve. There were these two guys over there, John and Freeda, and they were the titular Adam and Eve that God appointed.”

And that’s one solution. You may laugh, but that’s what theologians get paid to do. But it causes problems because what about the rest of the people on the planet? How did they get the original sin from those two people? And some will say the whole thing is just a metaphor, but that causes theological problems, too. If Adam and Eve are metaphors, what are they metaphors for? Are they representing our evolved tendency to be xenophobic, selfish and aggressive?

If that’s so, then why are we being punished for something we had no control over, which was built into our genes by natural selection? So there’s all kinds of problems that are caused by this. And theologians at this very minute are fighting over it. It’s actually quite amusing to sit at the sidelines and watch these squabbles when they try to resolve this issue.

And, of course, if you say Adam and Eve are metaphors, then you get into the slippery slope of saying that Jesus is a metaphor because you can make an argument that Jesus didn’t exist. There’s no real good evidence for Jesus. But he’s a metaphor for the increasing morality that is developing in our planet. The kind described in Steve Pinker’s book.

And so Jesus is, this is a metaphor for Adam and Eve. But you don’t tell that to Christians.

I’ll finish up with a question: Can religion and science have this friendly dialogue that everybody is always saying we need to have? This is a paper that has occurred in Nature just a week and a half ago. I’ve written a reply. We’ll see if it will be published. Religion and science can have a true dialogue. And what they mean by dialogue is that we all sit down at a table, maybe we’ll have a glass of wine — Manischewitz or something like that. And we’ll settle our differences and we’ll be buddies and everything will be fine.

The problem is that is not possible. You cannot have a dialogue like that. You cannot have a constructive dialogue between religion and science. You can have a destructive monologue between religion and science. The monologue is because the only discipline that can speak to the other one is science talking to religion. Science has the capability of telling religious people your beliefs are wrong. Religion doesn’t have that effect on science. It can’t. There is nothing, and there is no scripture, there is no religious belief that has ever had any influence in promoting the advance of science whatsoever.

So it’s a monologue. Science talking to religion. Religion is having to swallow it. And change its dogma, if it can. But it’s a one-way thing. So let me finish with this question: What is our task in light of all this antagonism between science and religion? The relationship between atheism, humanism and evolution. What do we do? How is the best way to promulgate evolution, or to promulgate non-belief, or promulgate humanism?

There are several ways to do it. Well, one of them was very common. Just teach evolution and shut the hell up about being an atheist. And being a humanist. You hear this all the time by people who say, “Richard Dawkins, you know, he really had me believing in evolution but then he wrote The God Delusion.” And, I mean, I just can’t stand that anymore. The guy has completely wrecked his credibility because he was being an atheist. This is what I call the “Dawkins Canard” because it’s not true. It’s simply not true.

If you look at the evidence that Richard’s atheism has impeded his efficacy in promulgating evolution, there is none that I can find. You go to his website, you find a place called Convert’s Corner. There are hundreds and hundreds of letters from people. People who have read the The God Delusion and by reading The God Delusion have not only become atheist, but have accepted evolution. Or, you find people that have read The Selfish Gene or Climbing Mount Improbable and believe in evolution and they become atheists.

So what you find when you look at data is this synergy between atheism and religion. The Dawkins Canard is not correct in my opinion. In fact, you will find one letter, and I’ve never heard anybody tell me, interacting with creationists over a long time, saying, “You know I really, really, really want to accept evolution. I really do because I know that all effects are buttressing it. But as long as Richard Dawkins keeps propagating atheism I’m not going to do it.” You don’t hear that. But that’s the contention that these people make.

Second of all, you can criticize a religion and teach evolution, just don’t do it at the same time. That’s one strategy. This is the one I usually use not because it’s duplicitous, but because you don’t want to confuse people with what your message is. Because I will gladly tell, when kids ask me when I’m teaching evolution, what do I think about this and I will tell them. Or, you can bring up religion and science and evolution at same time. You need a special audience to do that, like the collection of molecules I have in front of me.

And finally, this is the lesson I really want to say, that the all-important thing here in propagating evolution and atheism is the rise of humanism itself. If you want to get people to accept evolution, you have to get rid of the blinkers that prevent them from doing that. Which is religion.

And if you want to get rid of religion, you can be an atheist and you help preach people out of it. But the best way to do it, this is what Marx said, you improve society in a way that makes people not need religion anymore. Propagate humanism.

So if I was going to ask what’s the best way really to get people to accept evolution? My answer would be “income.” Get rid of income inequality and give everybody health care. That’s going to take a long time, but when you do that, you’re going to build a lot of societies like the ones in Northern Europe which are largely atheistic. They’ve given up the need for God because they don’t have a need for God. And every one of those societies is an evolution-accepting society.

We have evolution that perforce leads to accepting atheism because the implications and the facts about evolution. And then if you become an atheist and then an anti-theist, because you think religion has applications, then you want to become a humanist because you realize that humanism is the way to create societies that become atheistic.

And then you can go the other way around. If you’re a humanist, then you just simply build good societies and you don’t worry much about atheism or evolution. But, it turns out, that once you improve society, people don’t need to believe in god anymore. They become atheistic and as soon as they become atheists their opposition to evolution just drops. Drops like a stone.

So I’ll just say we’re winning. This country and, that is, at least the West, is becoming more and more secular over time. The Nones are increasing in the United States, even in Europe, for the first time this year. In Britain, Christians were outnumbered by people who said they have no religion at all.

The last thing I want to say is a quote in honor of Susan Jacoby from the great, agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who said the most precious thing I’ve ever heard about the relationship between science and religion. “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, the religion sought to strangle it in its cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied rack, religion, says to the athlete, ‘Let us be friends.’ It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse. Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation