Sunday, July 15, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 5 – The roots of religion

Ok Richard, now you have spent four chapters arguing that religious faith is irrational and based on invalid argumentation. Say that we believe this, what is the alternative? How can it be that something as irrational and destructive as religion has been apart of every culture since the birth of humankind? Doesn't that suggest that there is something to it? What is your alternative? Why do you think religion is so widespread? These are the questions that Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, take on in the fifth chapter. Dawkins writes:

The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene-like way, as replicators.

Allotetraploid recently posted a video in which Daniel Dennett (see picture) dealt with this issue. He used the analogy of the common cold. It too has existed in all cultures at all times, since the birth of the human race (and even before that), but we do not say that, "the common cold must be good for something" just because it is so common. You might complain that the common cold is a disease whereas religion is more like a choice, and I would think that is a valid argument if the meme theory is wrong. However, if there is something to memes, then it is definitely a valid argument.

My point here is simply that because something has been shared in a lot of different cultures and for many millennia, it doesn't follow that it is necessarily a good thing. Some people seem to think that just because astrology has been around for so long there must be something to it, but if you look at the evidence this is not case. Religion may exist just because it is beneficial to itself, just like the common cold is good for the bacteria causing the common cold. Plausible as this may be, Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion advocates a different position, namely that religion is a by-product of another mechanism which is beneficial. Dawkins writes:

Perhaps the feature we are interested in (religion in this case) doesn't have a direct survival value of its own, but is a by-product of something else that does. I find it helpful to introduce the by-product idea with an analogy from my own field of animal behaviour.

In the following paragraph Dawkins introduces the analogy of a moth which, as we all know, is extremely attracted to light. Either they fly into your light bulb a thousand times in a night, making is virtually impossible to sleep, or they come diving into your campfire like a genuine kamikaze pilot. What could possible be the point of this behavior (read here for an answer)? I was told another similar analogy by Mike Majerus in Cambridge. Apparently one of his Australian friends had a garden in which he had lit up a small path using lights imbedded in stones. At dusk, a bunch of clever frogs would appear on these paths standing next to the lights which lit up the path. Insects, because they are also (like Moths) attracted to light would fly towards light and there the waiting frogs would spurt out their tongue and capture a nice meal. Yet the frogs' intellectual capacity did have a limit. One day when the owner of this house accidentally dropped a ping pong ball on the path he saw to his surprise how one frog's tongue fired out, grabbed the ball, and swiftly drove it right down the stomach. The frog seemed happy enough and would gladly eat more ping pong balls, all of which would sooner or later come out the other end (somewhat messed up). These frogs could not distinguish between ping poll balls and insects. It is as if they have a mechanism in their head telling them "swallow anything mobile in proximity to the lights". Had it not been for us humans throwing ping pong balls around, this adaptation would have been highly successful (perhaps it is anyways)…

Is religion the equivalence of eating ping pong balls? Richard Dawkins seems to think so and I think it is also a plausible explanation. He writes:

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience 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 grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

So perhaps children who are taught by elders that God exists, that you better pray to God, and that you better go to church if you don't want to fry in hell, will accept this simply because they are told so by people who are supposed to know a lot about the world. This would explain the extremely high correlation between the religion of parents and their children, as well as the fact that virtually all religious conversions are to religions which are present in the culture in which the converter lives (there are not many people who move from say Iran to Sweden and suddenly convert to Hindu).

But wait! This only explains how religion can be passed on. How did it come about in the first place? Richard Dawkins, in order to explain this, suggests that it might have to do with our "Hyperactive agent detection device":

Justin Barrett coined the acronym HADD, for hyperactive agent detection device. We hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent. I catch myself momentarily harbouring savage resentment against some blameless inanimate such as my bicycle chain.

I don't think I risk any overstatement when I say that people blame "things" for all kinds of stuff. My mother often calls me when she needs help with her computer and she is always certain that she did indeed not do anything to mess up the system, that option is unthinkable. No, the system messed it self up, intentionally… Well, maybe that is why we have religion. Who are we to blame when it rains on our wedding day?, who are we to blame when the alarm clock stops working the day when you were going to that really important meeting?, and who are we to blame when a tsunami has swept away your entire family? Surely there must be an agent who influences these events? I think that we probably have a mechanism in us which biases us towards such explanations. Hence religion.

Ps: For some "good news" see the Guardian article "Atheists top book charts by deconstructing God"


EM said...

Rasmussen, I read your blog today for the first time. In brief, you are an idiot. And so is Dawkins.

Religious people have a higher reproduction rate, are more willing to wage war and take greater care of their health than atheists.

With these three evolutionary pressures combined, the next generations will be more religious, and religion will hold more political power.

In other words, religion is universal because all previous attempts to create an atheist society were violently crushed by people more numerous, bravier and healthier than them. And so will the current crop of secular democracies. This is Darwinian evolution, plain and simple.

Of course, it has nothing to do with Genesis 12:3

rasmussenanders said...

The question is though, whether it is religion that causes people to reproduce, make war and take care of their health more and not some other factor.

I would be interested in looking at data in support of the points you bring up but it is also controversial to claim that religion has a genetic foundation, I would think there is some but not much. If religiosity is not determined by the genes then natural selection cannot act on it.

Jan Thurin said...

Thank you for reviewing the book. I will probably not read it. However, I would like your judgement, if you please, on an atheist society such as the USSR. The Companion to the Bible have some interesting data on when the Bible was translated into the vernacular language. The earliest was the English translation from 1388, Sweden about 1550 and Russia about 1850. At the time the Bible was probably the only read in a reasonably educated house. I now there are other factors but don't you think it was important with the religion the reading of the Bible supplied in order to form our present society and our Western Civilization, especially when we today compare ourselves wiith the society out east?

rasmussenanders said...

Sorry about the late response, my private life has been rather hectic recently, hence the absence.

I will probably write about the "evil atheist states argument" later on, but briefly I don't consider atheism to be the defining characteristic of these societies. It was not Stalins atheism that made him do crimes against humanity, but rather his totalitarian dictatorial character. The same goes for the rest. Furthermore, according to TTC's class on science and religion one common denominator amongst cruel dictators is their religious affiliation in their youth.

In contrast I think that some religious leaders are cruel because of their religion. This is true I believe for the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda, and it is true for Islamic fundamentalists.

About your second point about the postives of reading I do think that the bible probably contributed to better reading skills in the past, and that is indeed a good thing. However, I think that it would have been prefereable to have another book rahter than the bible. The bible I think was common mostly becuase of the enourmous resources that the church had.

Anonymous said...

"Surely there must be an agent who influences these events? I think that we probably have a mechanism in us which biases us towards such explanations. Hence religion."

Hence science as well. Show me a scientist who is not compelled like a moth to find an expanation.

Anonymous said...

For one who allegedly embraces reason, Dawkins sure engages in a lot of sophistry. The analogy between religion and the common cold is falicious, since people don't go out of their way to cure their religion, nor to they embrace and defend their colds. Sheesh!

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for an interesting series of comments, anonymous. I will try to meet them best I can...

"Hence science as well. Show me a scientist who is not compelled like a moth to find an expanation."

It seems to me that you are suggesting that suggesting there is an agent behind things is the same as saying there is an explanation for something, I disagree with that. An explanation from a scientific perspective does not involve agents (such as God) who try to steer event in a certain direction, there are merely impersonal laws which we all have to follow.


"For one who allegedly embraces reason, Dawkins sure engages in a lot of sophistry. The analogy between religion and the common cold is falicious, since people don't go out of their way to cure their religion, nor to they embrace and defend their colds. Sheesh!"

You are of course right that the analogy between the common cold and religion is far from perfect, and I could easily add to your list of things that differ between the two (for instance a cold is caused by a bacteria or a virus and religion is not).

The point of the analogy is to meet the argument that many christians state: "Religion must be something good and evolutionary beneficial because it is so widespread". This statement is not true for the same reason it is not true to say that the common cold must be good. Perhaps religion spreads in a way similar to the way that a virus or a bacteria does (read the Selfish gene if you want a longer discussion on this).

Anonymous said...

To anyone reading this, sorry about my bad spelling and gramah.

EM you couldn't of said that in a more arogant way.

you present no evidence for your argument.
it is fact that third world countries have the highest reprodution rate and are religious, but i dont see them waging war with athiests. and it's only religous fanatics who do wage war and still then its against another religon anyway, or use religion as an excuse to get natural recources or teritory gain.

what proof do you have that a religious person is more healthy then an athiest? There are no statistics that tell us they are more healthy in a physacle, spiratual (as in connected by an affinity of the mind, spirit, or temperament mentaly)or mental way, in fact most people are so cought up in there believes they become delusional and in concealable to talk to about any other religion or beleif.

Evolution shows that species organisms ext... change to adapt to the universe around them. An increasing amount of people are turning away from religion because it is clearly making unessary war (not than any war is nessery) people just dont want to die because of something so stupid amd just may not exsist, so they are adapting to the universe around them by turning away from religion and looking at other things from more a pathasists view of things or finding other religions like buddasism, that wont start violence in a name of a god weather he or she igsists. And that is part evoloution.

Not what you are saying witch is everyone copies everyone cause someone says so. Your wrong simply because religion isnt genetic and you cant prove that religious people are more healthy witch would result in stronger offspring. what if an athiest and a religious person had a child? it happens every day.

and this is why your a narrow minded IDIOT. who is ready to close any one's open mindness to a subject that they are trying to understand. It is people like you who slow humanity down.