Welcome to part three in a five-part series re-examining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series, my interest in revisiting it and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered Dawkins’ responses to arguments for the existence of a god and his contrast with the argument, that an agent god would be supremely unlikely. In this part I will be critiquing Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality.
Even if there were some supernatural foundation for religious belief or morality, i.e. even if an agent god got the ball rolling, religions and morality are complex socially constructed systems, which can be explained through naturalistic means. Religion would remain a social construct even if all the central theological claims of a particular religion were true. Even if a god’s morality existed, human morality would still be a human product.
One could simply argue that as the supernatural does not exist, anything that actually exists must have a naturalistic explanation. But there is an enormous gulf in satisfaction between knowing something must have an explanation, and having some idea of what that explanation is. In these chapters, Dawkins will explore what that might be.
Chapter 5. The roots of religion
Dawkins begins the chapter writing: “Everybody has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.” (One could quibble over whether this depends on how you define “religion”) before moving, as we have become somewhat accustomed, to viewing the question through a Darwinian lens. This reflects his much clearer thinking and communication when it comes to Darwinian, rather than sociological or philosophical, explanations.
Dawkins reasons that as Darwinian evolution is a fact, any behaviour which is seemingly ubiquitous among a species should have a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation. Dawkins analogises religion to other complex and costly expressions such as mating dances or the tale of the peacock, which do not on the surface appear to make survival more likely but serve some evolutionary purpose.
“Religious behaviour is a writlarge human equivalent of anting or bower-building. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming, often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of paradise.”
Dawkins argues that religion, or some set of instinctual behaviours which typically manifests as religion, is an example of The Extended Phenotype. This is seeing genes as leading to behaviours which influence the survival of other genes within an ecosystem, rather than an individual. Dawkins paraphrases Dan Dennett as pointing out that “the common cold is universal to all human peoples in much the same way as religion is, yet we would not want to suggest that colds benefit us.”.
Dawkins considers how “costly” (in the Darwinian sense) religious beliefs and practices are despite their ubiquity across very different human societies:
“Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.”
Drawing on the work of Kim Sterelny, Dawkins considers examples of aboriginal hunter gatherer societies in New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea. Aborigines live in an extremely harsh environment where survival takes great skill and effort. Their cultural evolution has supremely well adapted them to this environment and led these cultures to place huge emphasis on understanding their biological environment. The Darwinian utility of this is obvious. But the same cultural evolution has led them to develop “destructive obsessions about female menstrual pollution and about witchcraft”, which appear to be positively destructive to their survival, and for which an immediate Darwinian explanation eludes us. I don’t know how good or problematic Sterelny’s anthropology is, but it seems this point could have been made without risking being drawn into or perpetuating tropes.
In search of this Darwinian explanation Dawkins first considers direct benefits of religion. He argues that it can be seen to provide a placebo benefit, by providing the illusion of explanation and comfort. While Dawkins believes this placebo effect may play a ”subsidiary role” in the ubiquity of religion, he does not believe it is a sufficient explanation.
Of course, there are direct benefits of religion for certain people. Most religions have clerical classes or positions. Wherever there is religion, there are people receiving direct benefits or special considerations because of it, furnishing them with resources which they have an incentive to invest in perpetuating that religion. This does not require those beneficiaries to be conscious or cynical scammers. Again, Dawkins clearly believes that this may play a subsidiary role, but is not a sufficient explanation.
Dawkins moves on to considering the potential impact of group selection. He paraphrases archaeologist Colin Renfrew’s argument that religions encourage in group loyalty and outgroup hostility which provides a survival advantage. However, such in group/outgroup dynamics are far more ubiquitous than anything that could be called religious behaviour. It’s not clear whether this dynamic could serve as a Darwinian foundation for the tendency to religion, and/or vice versa.
Dawkins considers a fictional, simplified example: “A tribe with a stirringly belligerent ‘god of battles’ wins wars against rival tribes whose gods urge peace and harmony, or tribes with no gods at all.”. In this case it wouldn’t be clear whether the religious belief would spur the tribe onto investing greater resources in war-making, or whether the greater cultural capital invested in war-making would encourage the religious belief.
Dawkins’ extreme scepticism of the utility of group selection explanations in the scientific/genetic sense, may prejudice him against the role of group selection in the sociological sense. In any case, he likewise places this as having a subsidiary role and being insufficient to explain the roots of religion.
Dawkins then moves on to consider what may be the strongest Darwinian explanation of religious tendency: that it is a by-product of something else. He begins with an explanation of what evolutionary by-products are. As with the best of his science communication, he builds up from a simple interesting example: insects fly to their deaths in candles and other lights, because their eyes have evolved to navigate with reference to light sources coming in from optical infinity.
Religion leads people to act in ways which appear counter to their best interests and to hold beliefs which appear irrational. To ask for a direct Darwinian explanation of this may be to ask the wrong question, and Dawkins argues we should explain some other propensity which may manifest as religion, but was selected for because it manifests in other useful ways.
The God Delusion being a piece of popular and accessible science communication, Dawkins is seeking to raise the readers consciousness to the possibility of a type of explanation, rather than defending a specific hypothesis. Nonetheless, the arguments he brings up our compelling.
Dawkins preferred hypothesis is to do with the education and survival of children. We are a social species whose children are born underdeveloped and require extensive rearing. Dawkins hypothesises that a biological propensity to trust parents and authority figures without question provides an evolutionary advantage. A child who believes their parents’ warnings about crocodile infested waters may be more likely to survive than a child who gathers empirical evidence to test this claim. Every freethinking liberal parent may turn into a Darwinian authoritarian when their child’s life is in immediate danger.
Dawkins argues that this mechanism may equally transmit false or useless beliefs. Obedience to authority is highly valued in many cultures particularly, though Dawkins does not make this point, in highly religious cultures. He does relate a “Horrifying in retrospect”, school sermon about a squad of soldiers so well drilled that they admirably marched into an oncoming train because they had not received their order to halt. Theirs’ was not to reason why.
As Dawkins points out, both educators and indoctrinators understand the “useful programmability of the child brain”.
Having drawn on the work of various anthropologists, Dawkins rounds out the subsection with a consideration of how “All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them.” Via Pascal Boyer, he shares the story of the Fang people of Cameroon, and their admittedly bizarre and complex beliefs about the night-time activities of witches. Boyer relates his experience at a dinner with a prominent Cambridge theologian who on hearing about these beliefs remarked “That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.”
As Dawkins points out, the theologian in question likely holds a selection of mainstream Christian beliefs which are equally as absurd as those of the Fang, but our cultural blinders and prejudices make them seem more “acceptable”.
Continuing his search for potential Darwinian by-product explanations, Dawkins turns to “the important and developing field of evolutionary psychology”. I feel compelled to acknowledge that, while being a valuable and legitimate academic field, evolutionary psychology has been attractive to some of the cranky fringes of the atheist movement for its supposed ability to explain cultural issues in purely rational terms, without reference to sociology or philosophy.
Evolutionary psychology would suggest that the ubiquity of religion shows that humans have evolved mental architecture which supports the tendency towards religious thinking. By analogy, the ubiquity of the common cold suggest that humans have some infrastructure which supports its existence, not that the human respiratory system evolved specifically to support the common cold.
Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom, Dawkins argues that “children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind”, and good empirical evidence backs this up. Bloom suggests this tendency is particularly prominent in younger children, who have not yet developed an adult theory of mind and understanding of agency. Children assign purpose and tend towards agency-based explanations of the world.
Dawkins draws on another psychologist, Deborah Kelema and her article “Are children natural theists” which he summarises as:
“Clouds are ‘for raining’. Pointy rocks are ‘so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’. The assignment of purpose to everything is called teleology.”
This natural tendency to imagine abstract minds and assign agency maps very well onto religious beliefs. In fact, I think the ability to empirically demonstrate this tendency and its exclamatory power is the best explanation of the tendency towards religious thinking.
The reasons we have evolved to see agency even where it does not exist, particularly in childhood where our empirical knowledge of the world is limited, are obvious. Dawkins, drawing again on the work of Dennett and Bloom, calls this the intentional or design stance. Which are “useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates”.
The classic example is that of our ancestors on the African Savannah seeing the leaves of a brush rustle. Possible explanations could be the wind or a predator creeping up on us. Humans with the predisposition to assume agency may occasionally find themselves wasting energy running away from non-existent predators. But those with a predisposition to not assume agency are more likely to be eaten, when they think they have just heard the wind.
Dawkins spends a significant portion of this subsection exploring potential Darwinian explanations for a tendency towards irrational thinking, which may in turn lead to a propensity for religious thinking. The empirical evidence for this is nowhere near as substantive as for the hyperactive agency detection thesis. It’s interesting enough but doesn’t really add to the central argument.
In a section entitled “tread softly, because you tread on my memes”, Dawkins considers how religion, or any cultural manifestation, may be replicated and evolved in a Darwinian sense, without being genetically based. This opens with the Oscar Wilde quote “Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.” Dawkins invented the term meme in an earlier book and has written more extensively elsewhere about meme theory.
Put simply, a meme is the cultural equivalent of a biological gene. Just as different genes are inherited and change over time, and these differences influence how well they are able to spread, ideas can spread in similar ways:
“Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool – as part of a memeplex.”
It is surprising that in this chapter on “The roots of religion” Dawkins has drawn on few empirical examples of the roots of specific religions. It may simply be that cases where we have the best empirical evidence are not always generalisable. Where religions have come about as a result of deliberate fraud, such as Mormonism or Scientology, we have the most complete and documented understanding of their roots. That doesn’t mean that the deliberate fraud hypothesis is best to generalise as an explanation of all religion.
We have outstandingly strong empirical evidence that humans, particularly children, have a tendency to trust authority figures, assume agency and utilise dualistic theories of mind. While this provides a general explanation for religious thinking, it does not adequately explain most specific religions.
Dawkins rounds out the chapter by considering one of the examples that we do have, which demonstrates how quickly these tendencies can drive the development of religious beliefs and practices, given the right environment. The ‘cargo cults’ of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea which appear to have evolved multiple times over the 19th and 20th century, though from the same background cultural matrix.
To summarise: islands in this area of the Pacific were invaded by white people with technology that the native inhabitants of these islands lacked the background knowledge or cultural references to understand. They witnessed these immigrants performing activities which they did not understand as any sort of useful work and witnessed the regular delivery of “cargo” from the sky. In an attempt to get in on this heavenly largess, the inhabitants began mimicking what they perceived to be the rituals to invite the cargo, they built their own airports, marched in formation much as the soldiers who inhabited the military airstrips would. This eventually led to the development of a clerical class. In the 1950s David Attenborough visited an island where the high priest claims to regularly speak by radio to the pilot of a cargo plane and interpret his will.
Chapter 6. The roots of morality: why are we good?
Dawkins opens the chapter with the consideration of the typical argument presented against atheists: “Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good.”
Personally, my response is to point out the empirical evidence that morality precedes and is separable from religion, and to point out that the question could be replaced with any unevidenced assertion: “If you don’t believe in the flying pink unicorn and their four-sided triangle of truth how can you be good?“
Pointing out how often religion inspires immoral behaviour, as Dawkins will go on to do, does not seem to be the best response to the claim that religion is the foundation of morality. Dawkins shares some of his hate mail, the tone of which is familiar to anyone who has ever advocated atheism or even challenged religious supremacy in the public realm. Ironically, it is through an example of this hate mail, where someone is berating Dawkins that he should shut up and pretend that religion is true even if it isn’t, because the alternative is so immoral, that we see the core problem with the argument from morality. Even if we were to agree that a god belief was foundational to morality (it isn’t) that would say nothing about whether morality itself is a useful tool, or whether that god concept maps to reality.
As is to be expected given the book’s format, Dawkins turns first to considering the question through a Darwinian lens. As Darwinian evolution is a fact, and it is a fact that humans have a propensity towards creating moral systems, there should be a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation of this.
“Natural selection can easily explain hunger, fear and sexual lust, all of which straightforwardly contribute to our survival or the preservation of our genes. But what about the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain?”
Cooperative behaviour is pretty much the definition of a social species, and the ability to understand a propensity to act to alleviate the suffering of members of our in group have clear evolutionary advantages. It is unsurprising that we see behaviour that can be described as a basic form of reality across all social species, and particularly in our close relatives. Species which have evolved in tandem, such as flowers and pollinating insects, or more complex examples such as humans and dogs, have a genetic tendency towards certain forms of cooperation, which may serve as some of the foundations for morality. In all such cases, mechanisms have evolved to punish those who do not cooperate.
Someone who does not understand how the utilitarian gene competition of natural selection leads to manifestations of altruism, does not understand how kinship and reciprocity serve as “the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world, but there are secondary structures which rest atop those main pillars”.
In a Darwinian sense, our complex systems of morality, of social interaction, the appreciation of art music and beauty may be happily accidental by-products of other processes. This may not be satisfying if you start from the belief that morality was created especially for us.
Dawkins, and others, have written far more extensively on the evolution of morality, or more accurately the evolution of mental and social structures which serve as a basis for our morality, elsewhere. For a popular work of counter apologetics, it is simply enough to point out that there are good naturalistic explanations for the roots of morality.
Dawkins considers various empirical studies of moral norms, which he refers to as “moral universals”, though that term is a little problematic. It’s quite a brief overview, but it reminded me of studying basic moral philosophy and how useless and distracting God claims are from interesting real-world moral dilemmas. Dawkins draws on the work of biologist Marc Hauser who has undertaken extensive and genuinely cross-cultural research into responses to variations of the trolley problem. The details don’t really matter, but suffice it to say we have incredibly strong empirical evidence that certain basic moral predispositions are common across cultures and regardless of religion or belief. We should also point out that the ubiquity of these basic moral predispositions does not mean that they are the best possible moral approaches.
Dawkins concludes that:
“This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good – or evil.”
Theologians may counter with the claim that such ubiquitous moral predispositions are themselves a product of divine intervention, but without evidence of divine intervention being possible, such claims are profoundly unimpressive.
Dawkins expresses his frustration at the question “if there is no god, why be good?”. The question is actually circular, as it pre-supposes that god is the reason to do good. Without this presupposition, the second half of the question is a non sequitur. Dawkins flippantly responds to this question with what is effectively a critique of divine commandment theory, asking: “Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and
punishment?”. Theologians have all sorts of ways of attempting to wriggle out of or obscure their use of divine commandment theory.
Quoting Michael Shermer, Dawkins argues that this is a “debate stopper” because:
“If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder’, you reveal yourself as an immoral person, ‘and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you’. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”
I have previously critiqued such claims of “debate stoppers” and the simplistic idea that belief systems as complex as religions can be bought down by such simple rational argument.
Dawkins, like many atheists, thinks that the belief that a god is the only thing holding back rampant immorality, is a demeaning and anti-humanist position. However, he contrasts this view with examples where the temporary absence of policing has led to a breakdown in law and order. These are slightly beside the point and such anomalies don’t really tell us much about how northern order would function in a society designed with the absence of policing.
Again, Dawkins draws on empirical evidence showing that belief in an all-seeing supernatural police force in the sky, does not appear to make people more or less likely to follow the law. He does argue however that humanism as an atheistic moral system does encourage superior moral behaviour. I would tend to agree, but that is a more complex question.
Dawkins quotes from Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation: demonstrating that all sorts of behaviours we consider morally bad, principally crime, are in fact highly correlated with religiosity. This is problematic, because in a highly religious society such as the United States, and despite atheists being a marginalised community, the ability to be nonreligious is often correlated with positions of privilege.
Returning to the question of why one should be good without a god, Dawkins imagines a hypothetical apologist asking:
“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person, but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? Only religion can ultimately provide your standards of good and evil.”
He could have chosen to quote from any number of apologists making this basic argument. There are several critiques of this argument. Firstly it misunderstands the process by which societies come to moral consensus, and by which individuals exercise moral reasoning, and secondly it sets up the idea of “ultimate morality” as a way to smuggle in circular reasoning presupposing an ultimate moral arbiter, when such ultimate or cosmic morality is unnecessary for human moral systems.
Dawkins first points out that even if it were true that we needed a god concept to be moral, that would not imply that the god concept actually maps to reality. He also points out that theories of moral absolution can be based on nonreligious or naturalistic arguments. This and the remainder of the chapter, which considers very briefly determinist and utilitarian reality, perfectly undermines claims that god concepts are necessary for morality, but doesn’t build up a positive case for a secular or humanistic view of morality.
This sets up the next two chapters of the book. I hope you will join me for those in the penultimate, part four, of this review in a few weeks’ time.
Thanks for reading
Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?
If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.