(I loved this speech!)
The following is the text of Richard Dawkins’ speech at the Reason Rally, held Saturday, March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The full video of the speech can be found here.
What a magnificent, inspiring sight! I was expecting great things even in fine weather. In the rain — look at this: This is the most incredible sight I can remember ever seeing.
The sharper, critical thinkers among you may have discerned that I don’t come from these parts. I see myself as an emissary from a benighted country that does not have a constitutional separation between church and state. Indeed it doesn’t have a written constitution at all. We have a head of state who’s also the head of the Church of England. The church is deeply entwined in British public life. The American Constitution is a precious treasure, the envy of the world. The First Amendment of the Constitution, which enshrines the separation between church and state, is the model for secular constitutions the world over and deserves to be imitated the world over.
How sad it would be if in the birthplace of secular constitutions the very principle of secular constitutions were to be betrayed in a theocracy. But it’s come close to that.
How could anyone rally against reason? How is it necessary to have a rally for reason?
Reason means basing your life on evidence and on logic, which is how you deduce the consequences of evidence. In a hundred years’ time, it seems to me inconceivable that anybody could want to have a rally for reason. By that time, we will either have blown ourselves up or we’ll have become so civilized that we no longer need it.
When I was in school, we used to sing a hymn. It went, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be.” After that the hymn rather went off the rails, but those first two lines have inspired me. It is a thing most wonderful that on this once barren rock orbiting a rather mediocre star on the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy, on this rock a remarkable process called evolution by natural selection has given rise to the magnificent diversity of complexity of life. The elegance, the beauty and the illusion of design which we see all around us has given rise in the last million years or so to a species — our species — with a brain big enough to comprehend that process, to comprehend how we came to be here, how we came to be here from extremely simple beginnings where the laws of physics are played out in very simple ways — The laws of physics have never been violated, but the laws of physics are filtered through this incredible process called evolution by natural selection — to give rise to a brain that is capable of understanding the process, a brain which is capable of measuring the age of the universe between 13 and 14 billion years, of measuring the age of the Earth between 4 and 5 billion years, of knowing what matter is made of, knowing what we are made of, made of atoms brought together by this mechanical, automatic, unplanned, unconscious process: evolution by natural selection.
That’s not just true; it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s true. And it’s almost too good to be true. How is it conceivable that the laws of physics should conspire together without guidance, without direction, without any intelligence to bring us into the world? Now we do have intelligence. Intelligence comes into the world, comes into the universe late. It’s come into the world through our brains and maybe other brains in the universe. Now at last — finally — after 4 billion years of evolution we have the opportunity to bring some intelligent design into the world.
We need intelligent design. We need to intelligently design our morals, our ethics, our politics, our society. We need to intelligently design the way we run our lives, not look back to scrolls — I was going to say ancient scrolls, they’re not even very ancient, about 800 BC the book of Genesis was written. I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for. I like to quote the British journalist Johann Hari who said, “I have so much respect for you that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas.”
Electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from extremely long wave, radio-wave end of the spectrum to gamma waves on the very short-wave end of the spectrum. And visible light, that which we can see, is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perspective of that section to long-wave radio waves on the one hand and gamma rays on the other. I take that as being symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision — our little, parochial, small vision — and broadens it out. And that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn’t see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see.
We’re here to stand up for reason, to stand up for science, to stand up for logic, to stand up for the beauty of reality and the beauty of the fact that we can understand reality.
I hope that this meeting will be a turning point. I’m sure many people have said that already. I like to think of a physical analogy of a critical mass. There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists or secularists or agnostics. We are far more numerous than anybody realizes. We are approaching a tipping point, we’re approaching that critical mass, where the number of people who have come out becomes so great that suddenly everybody will realize, “I can come out, too.” That moment is not far away now. And I think that with hindsight this rally in Washington will be seen as a very significant tipping point on the road.
And I will particularly appeal to my scientific colleagues most of whom are atheists if you look at the members of the National Academy of Sciences about 90 percent of them are non-believers an exact mirror image of the official figures of the country at large. If you look at the Royal Society of London, the equivalent for the British Commonwealth, again about 90 percent are atheists. But they mostly keep quiet about it. They’re not ashamed of it. They can’t be bothered to come out and express what they feel. They think religion is just simply boring. They’re not going to bother to even stand up and oppose it. They need to come out.
Religion is an important phenomenon. Forty percent of the American population, according to opinion polls, think the world — the universe, indeed — is less than 10,000 years old. That’s not just an error, that’s a preposterous error. I’ve done the calculation before and it’s the equivalent of believing that the width of North America from Washington to San Francisco is equal to about eight yards. I don’t know if I believe that 40 percent figure. It stands up as being apparently so from about the 1980s. But what I want to suggest you do when you meet somebody who claims to be religious ask them what they really believe. If you meet somebody who says he’s Catholic, for example, say “What do you mean? Do you mean you just want that tie as Catholic? Because I’m not impressed by that.”
We just ran a poll by a foundation in Britain in which we took those people who ticked a Christian box in the census — and by the way, that figure has come down dramatically. we just took the people who ticked the Christian box and we asked them “Why did you tick the Christian box?” And the most popular answer to that question was “Oh, well, I like to think of myself as a good person.” But we all like to think of ourselves as good people. Atheists do, Jews do, Muslims do. So when you meet somebody who claims to be Christian, ask her, ask him “What do you *really* believe?” And I’ll think you’ll find that in many cases, they give you an answer which is no more convincing than that “I like to be a good person.”
By the way, when we went on to ask a specific question of these only 54 percent: “What do you do when you’re faced with a moral dilemma? Where do you turn?” Only 10 percent turned to their religion when trying to solve their moral question. Only 10 percent. The majority of them said, “I turn to my innate sense of goodness” and the next most popular answer was “I turn to advice from relatives and friends”.
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!
Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits.
Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.
I want to end now on what my colleagues from the Richard Dawkins Foundation said. I am an outsider but we have been well-staffed in America and we’re going to spread the word along with our colleagues in other organizations throughout the length and breadth of this land. This land which is the fountainhead, the birthplace of secularism in the world, as I said before. Don’t let that tradition down. Thank you very much