This is my fourth (and last) article on Dr Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Here are my thoughts on reading Chapter 5 The Roots of Religion.
As I approached this chapter, the question I wanted to see if Dawkins were to explore was why there is no atheistic society. I have asked that of skeptics, since they have argued that atheism is the out-of-the-womb default, much like ignorance of Calculus or our native tongue. If it were true that people are born atheists, then why are there no atheistic societies? Beyond that, those societies which decided to become atheistic had to do so by the force of the gun and even then, they just ran religion underground where it thrived. Once the officially enforced atheism stopped, belief in God was shown to have grown under the oppression, indicating “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” to be more true than “people need to throw off the shackles of religion.”
Dawkins does not address this issue. Noting that evolution does not allow for weaknesses or frivolity, he asked what evolutionary “benefit” religion provided (by “benefit” Dawkins means “benefit to individual survival and reproduction” the only “value” in Evolution). Here is how he states it We should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favored the impulse to religion (p163) He goes on to more detail (and talk about anthropomorphizing) Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance. Unrelentingly and unceasingly, natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being. If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favor its rival individuals who devote the time and energy, instead, to surviving and reproducing. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’esprit. Ruthless utilitarianism trumps, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. (p163) I think his statement about evolution not allowing frivolity was overstated as human history shows much frivolity. (Later, Dawkins says even on an evolutionary model, there doesn’t have to be any natural selection. Biologists acknowledge that a gene may spread through a population not because it is a good gene, but a lucky one. (p189)) Also, as I hinted, even if due credit is allowed for metaphors, this section is over the top making Evolution an intelligent, if not sentient, process. Popular (and I understand that “popular” is not the same as “technical”) evolutionary explanations for things often go in this direction. “Then Nature decided that it would be good if people walked on two legs and so Homo Erectus came into being”.
Dawkins could argue that we are too soon down the road to determine that evolution has allowed us to “get away” with our obsession with sports and entertainment, but then again, where does the Louvre Museum fit evolutionarily? Or The Viennese Opera House? Time spent there, evolutionarily speaking, is frivolous and wasted.
His opening line, placed there as if it were fact, Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant needs a bit of a challenge. As I’ve pointed out before, there is a blurring of terms of which Dawkins takes advantage. Is he talking about belief in God here? Or, religion? Should I say belief in God is not extravagant, Dawkins will point to, say, the Kölner Dom (Dawkins does not specify that building but mentions medieval cathedrals on p 164). Arguments about how much art aids worship aside, the Kölner Dom is neither God nor a relationship with God nor a necessary component of either. Perhaps the emptiness of cathedrals of which Dawkins boasts in his PBS special is not proof that God does not exist but a reaction to the extravagance of these peripherals, which are not necessary and which are sometimes detrimental in relating to God.
Also on page 164, Dawkins mentions that thousands of people have been tortured for their loyalty to religion. This being one of his favorite side comments (and for his sake, thank God for the Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials), but like his other sideswipes, it is overstated and plays on prejudicial “knowledge” rather than facts. The Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials have other “naturalistic” explanations. Religion is not the sine qua non of these events, but can be explained by the nature of humanity that will do such things whatever pretense it uses as a justification. To pretend that such atrocities would not have happened without religion shows a serious lack of insight into human nature. Not all Christians have torture chambers in their basement. Also, compared with the “thousands” who have been tortured for their faith by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternate faith, the 20th century, thanks to atheistic Communism and Naziism, saw the torture and death of more Christians for their faith in God (as well as adherents of other faiths) than all previous centuries combined. The figure is in the tens of millions, and, as I said previously, when these regimes were overthrown and/or loosened their persecution, it was found that faith was far from eliminated but quite strong in underground movements. When I consider Dawkins invitation to join him in the liberating airs of atheism, I think the fact that the first atheistic regimes in recorded human history have such records of sheer brutality and butchery against its own citizens evidences far more loudly to the systemic misanthrope of the atheistic world view than the execution of 20 people in a pique of hysteria in an isolated wilderness village causes me to discolor 2000 years of good done by Christianity and declare murder a defining component of its religion.
In this chapter, he gives three speculations which he says might explain religion evolutionarily. He, of course, does not say any of these is the explanation for religion, though he does like the second option. He presents them to show that there are possible explanations which make sense, evolutionarily, and so “we don’t need god”. In other words, it is an “anything but god” exercise. Since he does not endorse any of them, he does not want to support or argue the details of any of them. Again, note, these are speculations with no scientific evidence. They are Dawkins and others using their imaginations within their commitment to explain the world without god. There is always the alternative that the reason religion is universal is because God exists and humanity has to deal with relating to Him, whether truly or just for appearances.
Group Selection. Dawkins first suggestion is the idea that Darwinian selection chooses among species or other groups of individuals (as opposed to just the individuals) (p170) so that, Christianity survived by a form of group selection because it fostered the idea of in-group loyalty and in-group brotherly love and this helped religious groups survive at the expense of less religious groups (p170) Dawkins does not accept this explanation, noting that the example of a tribe which fosters individual self-sacrifice (martyrdom) for the sake of the whole group fails at the point that those prone to self-sacrifice die young while those not prone to self-sacrifice will survive longer to reproduce so that the “self-sacrifice gene” will be weeded out of the tribe fairly quickly.
Religion as a By-product of Something Else. This is Dawkins favorite. What he is saying here is that religion could have survived, not because it has benefit for the human race, but because it piggybacks on something which does have benefit. Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying … propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifested itself as religious behavior p174.
In short, this evolutionarily beneficial propensity is the teachability of children. Note, this is not claimed by Dawkins as the explanation, I shall offer one suggestion by way of illustration, but I must stress that it is only an example of the kind of thing I mean. (p174) In this suggestion, More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs (why does it ‘need’?) to be passed on to children for their protection and well being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience (why not genetics?) not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grownups tell you. (p174) The piggybacking occurs when as children cannot judge the comparative value of any equally solemn pronouncement, whether “don’t eat these mushrooms” or “sacrifice a lamb at the full moon or the rains will fail”, they accept both with equal certainty.
Another suggested piggyback is that children are naturally predisposed to be creationists (p180) (why? I wonder) They think concretely, assigning purpose to everything (teleology), such as “Clouds are ‘for raining’”. From there, it is a small leap from thinking about purpose to seeing design (intelligent purpose).
Another suggested example is that the irrationality of religion is a by-product of a particular built in irrationality mechanism in our brain: our tendency, which presumably has genetic advantages, of falling in love. (p184)
So, religion is the equivalent of a “viral infection” (p188). This is not really that good of an analogy as viruses are individual living entities living out their place in the scheme of things. They, too, are subject to the laws that if they do well, they will survive, but if they do poorly, they will become extinct. (for those of you who recognize it or not, this is the denouement of The Andromeda Strain.)
Dawkins mentions the question as to why this particular virus (religion) is so universal, but leaves it unanswered other than to say It doesn’t matter what particular style of nonsense infects the child’s brain. Once infected, the child will grow up to infect the next generation with the same nonsense. (p188) This raises the question about what is unique about religion as opposed to other childish nonsense which they eventually grow out of?
Tread Softly, Because You Tread on My Memes. The third alternative to explain the universality of religion is the theory of memes. This takes the discussion away from genetics to another replicator (replicator – a piece of coded information that makes exact copies of itself along with occasional mutants), called “memes” (units of cultural inheritance). The meme pool is less structured and less organized than the gene pool. Nevertheless, it is not obviously silly to speak of a meme pool, in which particular memes might have a ‘frequency’ which can change as a consequence of competitive interactions with alternative memes (p192) In doing this, it seems he also takes us away from Darwinian selection as humans are uniquely possessors of cultural inheritance. It can be argued that the very concept of civilization is a Darwinian anomaly. Because of medicine, the weak do survive – not only humans, but also cattle and other animals selected for treatment by humans. Because of civilization, frivolity survives and even thrives, as I expressed earlier. Natural selection just does not explain drinking warm beer (they say it is an acquired taste.)
Some religious ideas … might survive because of absolute merit. These memes would survive in any meme pool. … Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool … but some memes survive only against the background of other memes. (pp 199,200) Again, he leaves unanswered the whole question as to how these memes happened to have accumulated into this perfect storm of religion. As he must, he leaves us with the idea that since there is no God, there must be some explanation somewhere and for now we can trust that it exists and when the explanation is found, it will be science which will discover it. Well, science does have a history of discovering things, but on the issue of God, Dr Dawkins at least, will have us accept, based on his say so, that there is no God and so all the evidence that people feel a need to relate to God and the millennium of history of that activity with no evidence of an atheistic society can be, and must be, ignored or explained away.