The Trouble With Dawkins

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’s so hugely prevalent in our species!

5 Replies to “The Trouble With Dawkins”

  1. As someone who does not believe in a supernatural reality, I am nonetheless fascinated by spirituality, myth and our need for a supernatural universe. As science explores these areas, they are finding as yet inexplicable elements in our biological make up that seem to “inspire” us toward a mystical interpretation of the world around us. In the midst of all the howling of Dawkins and others, scientists in neurology and genetics are finding odd parts of our make-up that seems to encourage people toward a metaphysical world view. It is still very early in the research, (30 years is a blip in science) but it is interesting to speculate just why we as a species would have this as part of our evolutionary journey. It makes for an interesting evening chat over a diet ginger beer.


    PS I agree, Dawkins is a Jerk and comes off as just a big a nut job as the religious zealots he attacks. Not a good front man for my point of view.

  2. I recommend two books very highly to you: the first is “Evolution for Everyone” by David Sloan Wilson. It’s very readable (it’s for everone!) and has a very elegant discussion of the evolutionary benefits of religion. I’m an athiest but unless you’re totally divorced from reality you have to accept that religion is doing *something* for people… something they like, even if it isn’t logical. This book talks about that, among other topics.

    If you want something meatier, I recommend “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer. It has a sort of irritating structure where he presents arguments backwards but it’s a cognitive science take on religion that presents faith as an unintended side effect of other evolutionary modules in the brain. Very interesting indeed!

    And instead of Muslimism, say Islam. 🙂

  3. First off, I agree that Dawkins kind of drops the ball by getting angry and being a jerk in “Root of All Evil?”. It’s still enjoyable, and a bit eye-opening. And that preacher he interviewed that was nice to him and then shouted him off his property in the parking lot? That was Ted Haggard who was caught with a male prostitute trying to buy crystal meth.

    As for biological reasons for faith, I’ve seen a few theories. One is that it’s a holdover from a survival mechanism for children. If a child questions everything their parents tell them, they may run off into the dark to investigate that cougar sound, or ignore other warnings. To have something in you that enforces “believe what you are told unquestioningly” has pretty obvious survival benefits, at least for children and in the short run.

    It also seems to be related to the dualism we all feel about nearly everything. How many times have we gotten angry “at” the weather for “spoiling the weekend” or bashed our tennis racket because it — an inanimate object — was working against us? Or punched the couch we just stubbed our toe against? We certainly have that, but where does it come from? I’m not sure, but perhaps assigning intent to everything is another survival mechanism of some sort as well.

  4. To quote a wise American sage, “I’m having the best day of my life, and I owe it all to not going to Church!” – Homer Simpson

    FYI – Toren, I think Muslim..ism is actually called Islam (but I’m sure you knew that).

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