I just finished watching part one of “The Root of All Evil?” Richard Dawkins unfortunately named TV series on religion. Apart from the name, and the fact that Dawkins comes across as a big jerk and loses his temper which weakens his argument(s) when he confronts religious zealots, I have a simple criticism of his approach.
Religion is basically a complex, structured form of social superstition. The problem isn’t Catholicism or Judaism or Muslim..ism…, because getting rid of those isn’t going to address the fact that people–consistently, historically–need to find some kind of meaning to their lives. And for many, “faith” is the easy answer. Religion surrounds us and the dogma is easily accessible, even if it’s completely bonkers. As an added bonus, it’s generally quite social, which can be said to be a positive aspect. What I would like to see is a very critical, very scientific dissection of the part of our brains, minds and thought processes that makes faith and superstition so seductive. Johnny believes in God and the bible; Susan believes in the healing powers of crystals; Jan believes in past life regression; Ruprecht believes in astrology, chakras, reflexology and karma. What do these have in common? They fly in the face of being measured, of being quantifiable, and for some reason most of us like it that way. Most of us are drawn to this sort of vague, intangible, but still very organized beliefs of what exists behind the everyday world of rock, air and flesh.
Why should that be? Why is it that I can live out my life, happily and with a very strong sense of morality; that I can sleep sound at night with the belief that I am not going to be resurrected, I am not going to a paradisal afterlife, my destiny is not tied into the constellations, that there is no soul or other magical immortal energies within my body?
An enormous body of evidence compiled by millions of researchers tells me that my body is a machine composed of an incredibly complex organization of chemicals — the tiniest cog in a process which took billions of years to develop, founded in chance and completely devoid of meaning — which will some day stop working and everything that was Toren Atkinson is going to decompose and scatter. No grand creator. No spiritual destiny. Just worm food, baby. How can I find that to be completely reasonable, and still help that complete stranger with her groceries, or pick up that twenty dollar bill someone just dropped and give it back to them when there’s nothing in it for me, knowing there is no omniscient overseer judging my actions?
So what is the biological advantage in believing in baseless fantasy? Surely there must be some reason for all this unreason..it’s so hugely prevalent in our species!