Dawkins’s Darwin Day lecture for Humanists UK: “Taking Courage from Darwin to Fight the Hubris of Faith”

February 18, 2019 • 9:15 am

Reader Michael called my attention to Richard Dawkins’s Darwin Day Lecture to Humanists UK (HUK). Richard is introduced by Humanists UK President and evolutionary biologist Alice Roberts, who was the moderator when I gave this lecture a few years ago. Richard’s lecture was just posted today, and as I write there are only 194 views. I’ll watch it as I write, and give any thoughts I have.

I was glad to see that Richard limned evolution and religion in an antagonistic light, which is what I did when I talked. After all, this is a talk to humanists, so it’s not hubris to do that, much as accommodationists like to argue that people can have their Darwin and Jesus too.

Ten minutes in, I was surprised at how hard Richard went after theology and religion, and especially after Islam and its obsession with “religious control-freakery” such as breast feeding. The audience likes it, of course, as they’re all a bunch of nonbelievers, but I don’t yet see any connection between the criticisms of Islam and Darwin.

The connection came at about 14:15, when Richard contrasts the certainty of theology with the doubt that’s endemic to science. “We don’t know” is his mantra here, and we should use it more often. At 17:30, he suggests a humorous Gendankenexperiment of the kind he’s famous for: he imagines what science would look like if scientists acted like theologians, operating from faith and revelation instead of evidence. (Note the mention of “SJW State University.”)

A quote:

“It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths: it’s as though they just don’t care about truth, aren’t interested in truth, and demote truth to negligible status compared with other considerations such as metaphorical, symbolic, and mythic significance—or simply what feels good.”

Later on, he explains why he’s proud to be a product of evolution—a product with a flexible brain that has vouchsafed to us our ability, unique among animals, to understand our origins—and many other things.

Richard also argues that “the atheistic world view has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage.” To explain that, he introduces the “deep problems” that science might not answer, but that theology can’t, either: these include the “deep problem of consciousness” and the question of “why are the laws of physics as they are?” This leads to his conclusion (40:28) that science (and atheism) help kick ourselves out of the emotional reaction that the “big questions” defy naturalistic explanation—that they defy the scientific assumption that the whole universe arose and evolved through mindless naturalistic processes. As he says,

“However improbable a naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, a theistic alternative is even more so. But it needs a courageous leap of reason to accept the conclusion.”

He then returns to Darwin as a good fount of courage to seek naturalistic answers to the Big Problems. After all, it was Darwin who, abjuring supernatural explanations, tackled the long-standing problem of life using purely naturalistic methods—and solved it!

In the end, Richard’s lecture is his version of “Faith Versus Fact,” and though it’s independent of my own ideas, I was pleased to see that he’s banging the same drum about the intellectual vacuity of theology as contrasted to the productive wielding of “the empirical attitude” that underlies science.

This lecture is also paean to the virtues of atheism, which won’t please religionists, theologians, and faitheists. Yes, New Atheism makes a brief comeback in this lecture.

If you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll find the last three minutes heartening, bracing, and eloquent. In the last 13 words, he connects atheism with social justice, though that won’t placate the SJWs who are always throwing shade on Dawkins.

At the end, Alice presents Richard with a “Darwin Day medal.”

74 thoughts on “Dawkins’s Darwin Day lecture for Humanists UK: “Taking Courage from Darwin to Fight the Hubris of Faith”

  1. “It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths: it’s as though they just don’t care about truth, …”

    I think this idea is also behind Trumpism. They prefer the “truth” that supports their gut feelings. Fox News, Trump, and religion are all one big middle finger presented to the truth.

    1. Yes, what all three have in common is that they create an alternate reality that provides psychological solace to its adherents. There is a certain percentage of humanity (I don’t know the number, but it must be near 50% or higher) who don’t care about the truth. They have a worldview that includes in believing whatever helps them get through the day. For them, the cold realities of atheism will never be accepted. Religion relieves their pain; atheism can’t do that.

      1. They have also all been egged on by the “you can be whatever you want to be” self-esteem movements. Of course, there is something to be gained by not settling for who you are at the moment. Unfortunately, they didn’t mention that a loose relationship with the truth in all areas is a bad side effect.

  2. Good to see Alice in a pair of ropey old plimsolls – has taste in footwear that lass. She normally favours variations on Dr. Martens type boots. The absurd, crippling, high heel is dying out fortunately.

  3. I agree that theology is nonsense and that the universe evolved through mindless naturalistic processes, but reality is still way too mysterious: there really is something immaterial and extremely powerful (just like a demiurge) that has been -and still is- creating the universe: it’s the laws of physics. Is this “demiurge” creating life in many other places in the universe? If the picture life->brains->a godlike AI is true, are the laws of physics creating a god?

    Looks like the classical idea of God->demiurge->creation->present time, upside-down: demiurge->creation (the past and the present time)->god.

    1. really is something immaterial and extremely powerful (just like a demiurge) that has been -and still is- creating the universe: it’s the laws of physics.

      That’s a misunderstanding of what “laws of physics” are. They are not agents, they don’t do anything, they are just descriptions of how stuff behaves.

      The “laws of physics” are descriptions in the same way that a map is a description of some land. But the map does not “create” the land.

            1. Well, right. People usually talk of humans as causative agents. But, that’s just a convention for use in the social domain. Then agency would have to be available in degrees diminishing as we decent from Homo sapiens to the amoeba, etc.

      1. Or as I used to say when confronted with puzzles in hydraulics – the water will do what it wants. It neither knows nor cares about our equations, they’re just our attempts to predict it.

        In many cases, the equations are just approximations or over-simplifications to make calculation easier. Usually, this works.


      2. @Coel

        “The “laws of physics” are descriptions”

        I sense a dichotomy between your use of the term ‘laws of physics’ and FB’s.

        There are the ‘real’ ‘laws of physics’ – the fundamental properties of matter, which are what they are whether we have figured them out or not. They certainly dictate how matter behaves.

        And then there are our ‘laws of physics’ such as Newton’s Laws etc, which are our best attempts to deduce or approximate the real laws, and to which your comment applies.


              1. I hate it when WordPress forgets who I am. There’s always this extra probability that something will screw up your comment.

        1. My point is that the mistery of life is bigger now than before Darwin, which is paradoxical.

          The mistery comes from more recent discoveries and conjectures: two trillion galaxies in the observable universe, billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the possibility of a universe teeming with life. Of course we don’t know if we’re alone in the universe, but if we aren’t, the picture that emerges is that of the laws of physics creating life everywhere. And life goes in one direction: complexity. And we know what complexity is capable of: AI, for example. And many smart people think that AI could rather soon become extremely powerful, like a god.

          Are the mindless laws of physics trying to create god?

          It’s a philosophical mistery independent of the misteries of quantum mechanics. (And probably many people thought this before but I don’t know because I’m uneducated).

        2. Matter behaves in accordance with its nature. There is nothing that is distinct from matter that directs matter or tells matter how to behave.

          1. I’d agree with that.

            But I would note that often the phrase ‘laws of physics’ is used to mean ‘the way in which matter behaves’.

            e.g. ‘The Solar System operates in accordance with the laws of physics’. Well, actually it’s just doing what it does, and our ‘laws of physics’ are our attempt to explain/predict that.

            In most contexts, the difference is not significant enough to split hairs about.


  4. Thanks for that video. Excellent presentation as only Richard Dawkins can do. The contrast between theology and reality is the best explanation of atheism.

  5. Ah sweet mystery of life! We don’t have to let our imginations run away with us or overcome reason or invent a god to explain the unexplained. We should just love and respect the process that was set in motion and led to our existence: evolution. Evolution’s doctrine tells us all life had the same origin and is therefore interconnected by the process of evolution via DNA. If ever there was a “moral” doctrine to follow, it is the imperative of preserving the evolutionary process as well as the things it has already produced. True “spirituality”, i.e. a love for nature, arises from this understanding and love as well as providing a profound aesthetic and intellectual experience. Sadly,few atheists and agnostics have been curious enough, much less inspired, by these “miracles”. Perhaps we need a new paganism founded on evolutionar principles, with its central dogma being
    the preservation of biodiversity, which is both the prerequisite and product of evolution.

  6. Thank you for this lecture. Erudite, as always.

    I am surrounded by religious people where I live – mostly christian. After years of communicating and observing them I postulate that there are many people who simply cannot get their heads around evolution. I wonder why?

    1. I think it is hard for people to get their heads around a process that takes millions of iterations where each iteration involves other processes (geology, climate, other species, etc.) all going through their own iterative processes. In short, too many balls in the air.

      It is impossible to demonstrate evolution visually without skipping all the millions of intermediate steps. Animations that show an individual creature morphing from one species to another don’t help at all.

      1. It is a failure to comprehend or visualise the aeons of time involved.

        A bit like counting ‘one, two, many’, our concept of time is based on everyday experiences. Yesterday, last year, 50 years ago are meaningful to us. Beyond that, a thousand years or a million are almost the same – ‘an unimaginably long time ago’.

        The same with large numbers – once you get over a thousand or so, it’s just an awfully big lot of things. We can count them, we can do arithmetic on them, we know intellectually what they are, but a billion is no more ‘real’ to us than an imaginary number like 3+4i.

        IMO, anyway.


        1. This is part of the problem for sure but I find large numbers easier to imagine because we can break them down in terms of multiplication. I can imagine 1000 directly, so I can also imagine 1000 x 1000 = 1 million. The Queen Mary ocean liner is 1000 feet long. I can imagine putting 1000 of them end-to-end. I can even convert to larger units (eg, miles) to help. Even if I can’t imagine a really large number, I understand the multiplication process well enough to know that the number can be computed. Regardless of how I get to a large number X, each step is identical. With evolution, each step is different. It represents a different sort of infinity. It is algorithmically complex.

          1. I get your point about the complexity (and again, I think it’s hard to grasp that intuitively. I think we go “simple, complicated, really horribly complicated,” and our imagination fades at that point.)

            But with respect to large numbers (and great time and distance) – yes we can compute them. But I submit we don’t really have an intuitive ‘feel’ for them. 10^100 does not ‘feel’, to me, vastly larger than 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

            I can ‘imagine’ a million quite easily – I can imagine a kilometre with marks every metre, that’s a thousand, I can walk that. Now take a square kilometre with lines every metre – there’s your million. I could stand on a corner (preferably on a box) and see each square.

            Or a sheet of millimetre graph paper a metre square. That’s easy. I can even do a billion – a lattice a metre high with lines every millimetre. I can easily conceive it but I can’t quite grasp it. I imagine counting every little millimetre cube – and my brain promptly does the ‘one two many’ thing and blurs it all into one huge lump.


            1. Ok, but you have no trouble believing in the existence, countability, constructability, or whatever of your metre cube, right? That’s because it is just a matter of repetition of identical steps.

              1. I have no trouble believing it, intellectually. I just can’t quite grasp it, intuitively. A billion little cubes, right there? If you asked me to guesstimate, without working it out, I’d probably say ‘oh, a few thousand’.

                And I think most people would probably do the same.


              2. Makes sense. However, aren’t we still talking about those that don’t believe in evolution “intellectually”? I maintain that those that do not “get” evolution are struggling at a whole different level than you or I trying to wrap our heads around some really large number. The difficulty understanding evolution does involve large numbers but goes way beyond that.

          2. And while I’m at it, the amount of data in Google Maps satellite view is staggering. I took 6000 photos (!) on the Trans Siberian line (in the knowledge that fully half of them would have motion blur, reflections, or poles in the way) and I have found, somewhat to my surprise and gratification, that I can locate them to the nearest few yards if they have e.g. a distinctive stream crossing or pond in them. Yes Satellite View is that detailed. And it’s like that, not for just a narrow strip along the railway line, but for most of Siberia and much of the rest pf the world too.

            I find that truly amazing.


    2. I will venture a guess about the mean educational level of those people. On average low. More specifically, the higher you go in education the more exposure to incremental processes, recursion, and so forth. A high school or college course in economics, calculus, biology, etc. Anything that involves lots of magnitudes, measurements, comparisons, etc. prepares the mind for the kind of abstraction required to comprehend evolution by natural selection.

  7. I attended this excellent Darwin Day event. What I found both inspiring and encouraging was the fact that 2000 attendees filled the auditorium to absolute capacity for Dawkins talk and that a further very large waiting list of possible attendees were hopefully waiting to see if any space might become available for them. The event was in a pretty remote area in East London, a far from easy place to reach on any working evening. There is hope yet!!

  8. Given the current predominance of atheism among intellectuals, especially academics, arguing for atheism takes less intellectual courage than arguing for God scientifically.

      1. How many death threats does Dawkins get? Most professors are avowed secular humanists, and I’m not aware of assaults or murders in Western countries by angry theists. To the extent there are death threats against atheists, they are exceedingly rare. The more common and relevant attack is ridicule, isolation, and outrage (the latter by SJW).

        Atheism has not been iconoclastic for a couple of generations. It’s the establishment position.

        1. Umm. . . sorry, pal, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. And yes, Dawkins has gotten death threats.
          As for your claim that atheism is “not iconoclastic,” you may be referring to professors at liberal schools, but if by “the establishment” you mean the government, corporations, and so on, you’re dead wrong. The percentage of avowed atheists in America is less than ten percent, we have never had an openly atheist President, and there are only a tiny handful of avowed atheists in congress.

          Sorry, but go away and check your facts. Only 19% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution, 38% are de novo Biblical creationists, and another 38% theistic evolutionists. So 76% of Americans surveyed by Gallup accept that God played some role in evolution, while fewer than 1 in 5 accept evolution as scientists understand it and teach it.

          I’d like the source of your claim that “most professors are avowed secular humanists”. Fewer than half of all American scientists are nonbelievers, so I don’t accept your facts.

          But I don’t want to argue. You have made a palpably untrue claim–a lie, and you can go promulgate it on Breitbart if you wish.

        2. eFalken:

          “Atheism has not been iconoclastic for a couple of generations. It’s the establishment position”

          Tripe. As an economist by trade you should be firmly wedded to evidence & data, but I think your recent conversion from “Libertarian” to “Christian Libertarian” has somewhat influenced you to listen to your gut rather than going by the numbers! Shameful unchecked bias spewing out of you.

  9. Very good. I remember something that Richard wrote (can’t remember where) where he made the very eloquent point that went something like this (I must paraphrase and probably embellish a bit since I don’t remember how he put it. But the general point will be the same):
    Suppose we were to all wake up one day to find that we had forgotten everything. Over the ensuing years we would no doubt rebuild, and we would certainly rebuild religions since that is something that seems emergent in our nature. But these new religions would be different from those we had, including different gods and different norms of worship.
    But we would also rebuild science and the knowledge that comes with it. We would have a scientific method that is much like what we have now, since that is what works; and we would also rediscover the nature of our world and its past. What is especially important here is that we would rediscover things like the nature of the atom, the chemistry of life, and the theory of evolution. These and myriad other discoveries would be the same because the facts and logical inferences surrounding them will not be different.

  10. “why are the laws of physics as they are?”

    A century ago, the mathematician Emmy Noether helped Einstein and David Hilbert, respectively the greatest physicist and the greatest mathematician of the era, to sort out an apparent problem with general relativity. With her interest piqued, she indulged in a little physics, and generalised her results to develop her theorem that any symmetry conforming to certain mathematical constraints gives rise to a conservation law. Conservation laws are the most fundamental laws of physics. Under the modern lable of “gauge theory”, Noether’s concept dominates modern physics.

    The point is that a state of symmetry is the default: were any god mucking about with the system it would no longer be symmetrical.

    Victor Stenger wrote a book about this.

    For more information, BBC‘s In Our Time on 24th January was devoted to Noether: search for “Noether” on the BBC home page.

        1. For my sins I myself was once moderated,. I had attacked the incompatibilist position in terms that were way too robust. I have since mended my ways and have become less strident… and I have received absolution for these past sins. I made this alteration to my behaviour, of course, of my own free will.

      1. I doubt it. Einstein did not use the Michelson-Morley result, despite a brief reference to “unsuccessful attempts to detect a motion of the Earth relative to the “light medium,” ” in his 1905 paper. He took at face value Maxwell’s calculation of the speed of electromagnetic radiation as independent of any frame of reference, implying a constant speed of light. In any case, Noether only became involved in tidying up a final detail of GR. Einstein and Hilbert were struggling with the problem that, to put it crudely, GR shows that gravitational fields “create” energy, which creates a gravitational field that creates energy…, apparently defying the conservation of energy. This was late in 1915: remote from speed of light issues.

        1. I have come to realize a lot of popularizations of special relativity omit its connection to E&M. This makes the title of Einstein’s paper incomprehensible and also makes one wonder why he would postulate that c is constant. It was a great “aha!” moment for me in my education when I realized the connection.

          Some pomos have taken adavantage of this confusion (or suffered through it themselves). H. Collins has a talk claiming that nobody should have believed Einstein after SR was published to any degree because the M-M was equivocal. I tried to ask him if the prediction by Maxwell makes a difference to his argument but was never called upon.

          (He also gave an apparently very silly talk about AI that same trip to UBC which was apparently panned by the CS people etc.)

  11. Actually “the empirical attitude” also works on the “deep problem of consciousness”. But it doesn’t supply another essential component of the scientific method, intrasubjective agreement, because there is a reappraisal of subjectivity per se.

  12. Great lecture. Was that probably Brian Cox standing on the hill in the starry night at the end? Love how Richard threw in the “42”🤓

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