Chp 5 of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, contends that religion can be explained on the basis of natural selection. “What ultimately explains the lust for gods?” he asks (p. 169). Or, put in more Darwinian terms, “What is the primitively advantageous trait that sometimes misfires to generate religion?” (174)
Here is his logic:
1. It is nearly impossible to do a better job than an organism (humans and religions) is doing in its own environment.
2. No known culture lacks the expense and demand of religions.
3. Typical theories — like psychological benefits — don’t explain enough; there must be a Darwinian explanation.
4. Religion is a by-product of something else. As moths “commit suicide” because they are not programmed to deal with the kind of light that can burn them (candles), so religion is something that is actually designed for something else.
5. Native dualism and native teleology predispose us to religion. That is, the distinction between matter and mind and a desire to impute intention to everything we see confirm the predisposition. Natural selection shapes brains to explain things as having intention — and we impute intentions to things that matter to us. Everything must be subjected to reason; here he quotes a statement or two from Luther, but he has not considered the whole context of Luther. (See this article; RJS called my attention to Dawkins’ use of Luther.)
6. He sees it as “memes.” Do cultures replicate themselves the way “genes” replicate themselves? Dawkins says yes, and he thinks religion is memetic replication. The “memes” (elements of religion) that get passed on are those that are easiest to copy/replicate and which make themselves useful — like surviving death, believing in God is a virtue, faith is virtue, etc..
Chapter 5 “The Roots of Religion” It is an indisputable fact that we are inherently predisposed for religious belief – with a hunger for God. Dawkins’ foundational assumption is that there is nothing beyond the natural world and that all universal features demand a Darwinian explanation. In this chapter he lays out what he considers a plausible rationale for the development of religion from the point of view of scientific naturalism.
Dawkins divides the discussion of the roots of religion into two regimes; (1) The natural, biological, predisposition for religious thought and (2) the mechanism for the cultural development of religious belief and practice.
He discusses potential explanations for an evolved tendency to believe in the supernatural – from the value of knowledge passed from generation to generation to the value added by ability to imaginatively place ourselves outside of the confines of our physical experience. Thus we are genetically primed for religion as a parasitic by-product of useful traits. For example, we are predisposed to believe our elders as this favors survival of the species. We have an evolved “imagination” because encourages avoidance and speeds response to dangerous situations. We are programmed to believe in an essence of self beyond body because this ultimately favors survival of the species. There is no distinction between mind and matter – but we are programmed to think that there is a distinction.
Although adaptive biological pre-disposition explains why religion might develop – it is Darwinian natural selection applied to culture that accounts for the development and evolution of religion in the world. Cultural elements (memes) replicate and evolve in a manner similar to organisms. Religions have distinctive and universal traits as organisms have both distinctive and universal traits. Universal traits often have absolute survival value and flourish everywhere while other traits only have coupled survival value, or even no survival value.
So what is the bottom line?
The universal hunger for God is an argument in favor of the existence of God, but is not a proof for the existence of God. Convincing alternative stories can be constructed.
I have two principle questions here:
(1) Do you find Dawkins’ rationalization convincing? And (2) Tim Keller in his series on “”Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City Centers” (http://www.redeemer2.com/themovement/) starts his engagement with secular people from the point of view “Realize you already know there is a God. You actually already believe in God at the deep level, whatever you tell yourself intellectually.” Dawkins and others are challenging this “realization” at a fundamental level. How can we as Christians have an effective witness in a world where Dawkins’ point of is becoming increasingly popular?