Who? Me?

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Richard Dawkins knows that he cannot just say that religion is silly, and that people are silly for believing it. Given his evolutionary premises, he has to give a Darwinian account of why people are so overwhelmingly religious. This is the goal of his next chapter in The God Delusion.

“Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant, and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates, waste . . . If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favour rival individuals who devote the time and energy, instead, to suriving and reproducing. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’espirit. Ruthless utilitarianism trumps,, even if it doesn’t always seem that way” (p. 163)

That being the case, then what’s with these churches, temples, synagogues, and whatnot, all over the place? Why did natural selection select that stuff? On the surface, it would seem to be the bumpersticker none of us have ever seen — not the Jesus fish eating the Darwin fish with feet, but a big Darwin fish with feet eating a little Darwin fish with feet, and leaving all the little Jesus fish alone.

In other words, the preponderance of faith is an evolutionary fact, one that Dawkins knows he has to explain. Now his explanation is long and involved, and it is not really my purpose to engage with him at that level. I simply want to commend him for noticing that, on his premises, widespread religion was created by an impersonal process that was favoring the fittest. Dawkins gives several ways this could be explained, and the one he favors is that the trait giving survival advantages also throws off by-products, religion being one of those by-products. In other words, the trait that evolution would favor is children obeying their parents, and believing what they are told. This keeps kids out of the woods, off the freeway, out of the medicine cabinet, and so on. But because kids who listen to their parents will survive at a better rate than the kids who are under the kitchen sink drinking the Drano, this means that what also survives are the religious opinions and superstitutions of the parents. But this is just a by-product, and this explanation is the one favored by Dawkins (p. 172).

The way I want to answer Dawkins here is by pointing out how he has framed the question. Here I sit, Christian convictions bouncing around in my head, and Dawkins knows that this requires an explanation. Why have millions of years of evolutionary selection given us Arkansas Methodists, Brooklyn Jews, Saudi Muslims, and so on, ad infinitum. But in this book, the one set of convictions that requires no explanation at all would be (suprise!) atheism.

This is because Dawkins cannot afford to argue that his entire book was written the way it was because it is the result of impersonal forces, grinding away. This would lead some readers to think that it might therefore not be true, and Dawkins obviously thinks that what he is writing is actually true. He believes what he believes because he has courageously followed the argument wherever it leads, and we believe the contrary because the cosmos is much larger than we are and has churned out a considerable number of intellectual blind alleys, down which we are chasing our blinkered lives.

In other words, Dawkins explains the convictions of his adversaries in terms of atoms banging around, and he explains his own convictions with a blithe confidence in the correspondence of the chemical reactions in his head to the actual state of affairs in the outside world. But what reason can we have for assuming that? The idea that someone could come to Christ as the result of following a line of reasoning seems never to have occurred to Dawkins. That’s what he did. We don’t get to do that.

But atheism requires an evolutionary explanation every bit as much as religious conviction does. And that explanation cannot appeal to the correspondence of the chemical reactions in the head to the events of the outside world — what a contrived business that would be. Given atheistic principles, we have no reason to assign any truth value to any arrangements of materials. Dawkins’ atheism in his head no more aligns to any actual “no-Godness” out there than the waving of the blades of grass in a really big meadow are busy formulating the next big advance in quantum physics. Evolution occasionally allows atheists to develop, but this is a complete accident, and their existence cannot be justified by the convergence of their opinions to the facts of the case. Rather, the facts of the case require us to believe that all atheists have struck on “the truth” completely at random. It might be so, but that is not why they think so.

Dawkins’ lack of epistemological self-awareness is nowhere more evident than here. He is the enlightened one. We are the ones in darkness. He explains our darkness completely. But given that explanation, he is just as much in the darkness. And not only will he not explain where he got the magic flashlight, he will not admit that he has a magic flashlight.

He offers an evolutionary explanation of a particular form of intellectual development, serenely unaware of how that explanation applies just as much to him as to anyone else. The thought never crosses his mind. But I can’t fault him for this really. If he is (accidentally) right, there is no such thing as a mind to cross.

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