We live in exciting and dangerous times. Exciting because today we understand so much more about the world than we ever have before. We live in an immense cosmos 13.7 billion years old — I feel like Carl Sagan—a cosmos that's made up of an enormous number of fundamental particles. The particles come together and form about a hundred chemical elements that make up everything in this room and everything in your bodies. We live in a solar system that came into being from the ashes of dead starts 4.5 billion years ago. Earth, our home, orbits a sun that warms us through the reactions of nuclear fusion. —he sun is a mass of incandescent gas— and will continue to do so for billions of years. All life is intimately related. Isn't that great?
Having descended from a single life form that rose about three billion years ago. We and the apes share a common ancestor that lived in Africa about 5 million years ago. All people are truly brothers and sisters, sharing the same genetic heritage.
Now, we know these things.
How do we know them?
We know them not because of prayer, or religious revelation, or sacred texts, or meditation, or sacrificing of goats, or altered states of consciousness. We know these because generations of scientists weren't afraid to question the dogmas of their previous generations. Sometimes losing their lives or their liberties in the process. Our scientific picture of the universe is now far grander and subtler than that anything conceived by the authors of the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Quran. And there's so much more waiting to be discovered.
But, we live in dangerous times too. We're now confronted with threats more serious than ever before. The threat of global climate change, bringing significant disruption to our lives, hangs over us. The plague of AIDS, threatens to wipe out the entire continent of Africa. Nuclear proliferation brings the specter of mass destruction, or a dirty bomb that could render a major city unlivable for hundreds or thousands of years. Faced with these threats, what does fundamentalist religion really offer? My opponent offers us the absurd and grotesque image of a supposed-created of the universe, the inventor of everything that ever was or will be, unwilling to aid us with these threats, these significant threats to our survival, but ready to subdue aggressive bulls or bring rabbits back to life for the cost of a brief prayer.
The fundamentalist God is one that is obsessively and intrusively concerned with our sex lives, but apparently unwilling to allow us to perform experiments on stem-cells to make life better for sufferers of disease.
I am a provisional non-theist, someone who has not yet been convinced by the arguments for the existence of gods of Christians, Jews , or Muslims, but I'm not the enemy of theists. On the contrary, if yours is a theism that is willing to acknowledge that your conception of God might be wrong, that your belief in a supreme being doesn't create any obligation on the part of non-believers, that your holy books are human artifacts that may be read metaphorically or might contain errors, that we should behave charitably toward our fellow humans because it's the right thing to do and not because of threats of eternal torment, then you are my brothers and sisters. Let us go and solve our problems by reasoning together without relying on the dogmas of past ages. But if your sect is the enemy of rationalism, if it requires that evolution be false or homosexuals be stoned or shunned, forbidden to teach elementary school or adopt children, if you agree with Martin Luther that a lie that serves the church is ethically acceptable or, as my opponent admitted here at the University of Waterloo, just a few months ago, that genocide is perfectly okay, if God wills it, that it's perfectly okay to kill me and everyone in this room if God told him to do it—and he was sure.
Then you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.
So the question remains, will we remain as children, consoled by the false promises of fundamentalist religion, slavishly adhering to dogma blindly following the prejudices and bigotry of past ages, or will we go forward together as adults to stand on our own, ready to face the future with reason and courage?
Let's all pray we make the right choice.
Thursday, October 25th, 2007