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Jerry Coyne delivers Darwin Day Lecture 2016 on ‘Evolution and atheism: best friends forever?’

Darwin Day Lecturer Jerry Coyne, with guest chair Alice Roberts.

Darwin Day Lecturer Jerry Coyne, with guest chair Alice Roberts.

A packed auditorium of almost 1,000 people attended the 2016 Darwin Day Lecture in London on Friday night, which was presented by Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True and Faith vs Fact. The lecture, hosted by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and entitled ‘Evolution and atheism: best friends forever?’, explored whether comprehension of evolution was inimical to religious belief. It was chaired by BHA Patrons Professor Steve Jones and Professor Alice Roberts, who filled in for the event’s usual chair, Professor Richard Dawkins, after he became unwell.

The lecture began as hosts, chairs, and speaker recorded a heartfelt message to Richard Dawkins, wishing him a speedy recovery, with the audience showing their enthusiasm and solidarity with massive applause and cheers.

After an introduction from Steve Jones, Professor Coyne began his lecture with a statement of his thesis: that religion and evolution are incompatible. He then moved on to laying out the case for why evolution is true: the extensive evidence of the fossil record and transitional forms, vestigial organs, bad design, numerous examples of natural selection in ‘real time’, and a wealth of support from numerous fields of science. You would, Professor Coyne declared, ‘have to be obtuse not to accept it’. 

The lecture then turned to the rates of acceptance of evolution, and why these might be lower than hoped. Raking over Gallup polling from the United States, he presented data which showed that fewer than one in five Americans believe in the naturalistic evolution which is taught in science lessons. 73% of Americans, he showed, are either creationists or believers in ‘theistic evolution’: the idea that a deity must have set evolution in motion. He demonstrated that opposition to teaching evolution in schools came entirely from religious quarters, and that every American group lobbying for creationism in schools was in some sense a religious group. Then, turning to Europe, he showed evidence of a strong negative correlation between acceptance of evolution and belief in God across 32 European countries. He posited that America bucked the general trend between high levels of income and lower levels of religious adherence, which he said could be attributed to America’s high levels of social inequality.

As the lecture went on, Coyne pressed the point that very low levels of inequality in countries like Scandinavia were not just incidental to non-religious populations, but in fact the reason for widespread rejection of theism. After developing this theme for a while, his lecture came to the question: how can humanists work together to improve scientific literacy and greater understanding of the universe? He argued that for the most part, the answer did not lie in debating religion with theists, but more in working towards positive social change, equality, and social harmony. If human beings could promote social change, and in so doing, see more humans cared for by fellow humans, argued Coyne, then more people would feel ‘safer’ accepting the scientific evidence which suggests that a naturalistic, deterministic view of the universe is true.

Concluding, Coyne remarked that ‘The best way to promote understanding of evolution is to promote the values of Humanism’, making the point that while evolution and atheism were indeed inextricably linked, for either to flourish, the promotion of functional and egalitarian societies around the world was a necessity.

Notes

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.

The Darwin Day Lecture, held each February as part of the British Humanist Association’s annual lecture series, explores Humanism and humanist thought, especially that related to science and evolution, Charles Darwin, and his works. It takes place every year on or around 12 February, coinciding with Darwin Day, the annual global celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin. 2016 is the first year in which the BHA has organised two Darwin Day Lectures, with talks in both London and Newcastle.

It is part of the BHA’s annual lecture series, which also includes the Rosalind Franklin, Voltaire, Holyoake, Bentham, and Shelley Lectures.

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