It is time we admitted, from kings and presidents on down, that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview-however heroic the efforts of redactors- is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture. We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.
It is taboo in our society to criticize a persons religious faith... these taboos are offensive, deeply unreasonable, but worse than that, they are getting people killed. This is really my concern. My concern is that our religions, the diversity of our religious doctrines, is going to get us killed. I'm worried that our religious discourse- our religious beliefs are ultimately incompatible with civilization.
If faith is what you have to go on, if faith is the link between your beliefs and the world at large, your beliefs are very likely to be wrong. Beliefs can be right or wrong. If you believe you can fly, that belief is only true if indeed you can fly. Somebody who thinks he can fly, and is wrong about it, will eventually discover there's a problem with his view of the world.
While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.
The problem I want to talk to you about tonight is the problem of belief. What does it mean to believe? We use this word all the time, and I think behind it lurk some really extraordinary taboos and confusions. What I want to argue tonight is that how we talk about belief- how we fail to criticize or criticize the beliefs of others, has more importance to us personally, more consequence to us personally and to civilization than perhaps anything else that is in our power to influence.