Evolution for Everyone

Sacred texts such as the Bible say so many things that almost any position can be supported by selecting the right passages. So it is with scientific hypotheses. In Stealth III, I listed six plausible scientific hypotheses about the nature of religion. If we are allowed to pick and choose among them, we can support almost any position. If we regard religion as destructive, we can call it a delusion or like the flame that fatally attracts the moth. If we admire religion, we can call it a group-level adaptation that in its purest form promotes universal brotherhood.

Science hasn’t made real progress until it tests among the hypotheses, enabling us to accept some and reject others. Only then can we make factual claims about the nature of religion, leading to practical decisions on the basis of those claims. In Stealth IV, I asserted that the scientific study of religion has advanced to the point where we can make factual claims about the nature of religion. Even though evolution is a messy process and all of the major hypotheses might have a degree of relevance, most enduring religions enable religious groups to function as corporate units, or superorganisms, to use a more flamboyant term. In this respect, religious groups are much like other groups, such as governments and business corporations, whose collective purpose is more obvious. Why some groups become organized by religion and others by cultural systems that we call secular is a great question, but it can only be addressed after we accept the factual claim that religious groups do function as corporate units, in contrast to the radically different conceptions of religions suggested by the other major hypotheses.

That’s where I part company with the new atheists. I claim that science has made progress and that we can use our factual knowledge to address the problems associated with religion, such as why people believe weird things (to borrow the title of Michael Shermer’s book) and why cooperation within groups is often (but not always) accompanied by conflict among groups. Much remains to be discovered, and studying religion from an evolutionary perspective is an especially nascent enterprise, but we can do much better than pick and choose among hypotheses to support our preconceived notions about religion.

In contrast, the authors associated with the new atheism movement begin with a deep antipathy toward religion and select their examples from the text of science like so many parables from the Bible. Not only do they ignore, misrepresent, and selectively report the facts of religion, but their practical recommendations for solving the problems associated with religion are ineffective, silly, and worse.

Ineffective. Daniel Dennett is a world-renown philosopher who also writes about the big questions for a general audience. With Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he became a major interpreter of evolutionary theory and its philosophical implications. I value Dennett as a colleague and intellectual sparring partner and hope that my disagreement with him on the subject of religion does not damage our relationship. As David Hume said and the evolutionist/philosopher Massimo Pigluicci reminds us at the top of his blog, “truth springs from argument among friends.” Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is notable for the degree to which he treats the scientific study of religion as a task for the future, as if no firm conclusions can be drawn on the basis of current knowledge. This stance gives him maximum elbowroom to interpret religion as primarily a delusion (as implied by the title), like the parasitic worm that commandeers ants by burrowing into their brains (the first example of the book). I have critiqued Breaking the Spell in detail elsewhere. For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dennett offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. His primary recommendation is universal religious education. If only religious believers could be introduced to the full panoply of religious belief, they would become less deluded about their own. I doubt that this policy would have a meaningful impact on the worldwide problems associated with religion. In America, for example, fundamentalist religions are immersed in a larger cultural milieu teeming with “memes” from secular life and other religions. Like a cell maintaining osmotic pressure, a given religion is designed to pump out contrary memes and maintain an internal environment containing the appropriate memes. Elsewhere in the world, does Dennett really believe that we’ll solve the problems of the Middle East (for example) by teaching the Palestinians about Judaism and the Israelis about Islam? His policy recommendation might be well-meaning, but it is likely to be ineffective.

Silly. Richard Dawkins is a hero around the world as a champion of rational thought. His website is subtitled “a clear-thinking oasis.” Thousands of people have been turned on to evolutionary theory through his many books. I recommend The Blind Watchmaker as a good tutorial and I even admire the gene’s eye view of evolution, as long as it isn’t taken as an argument against group selection. However, a funny thing happened to Dawkins on his way to becoming a public icon. He no longer regards himself as scientifically accountable for what he says, especially on the subject of religion. Part of the problem is that he has crawled so far out on a limb with respect to group selection and the impossibility of explaining widespread human cooperation from a Darwinian perspective, that the only way to get him down might be to saw off the limb. In this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dawkins offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. For example, he regards religious education as a form of child abuse, which will require setting up a vast foster care system staffed by rationalists. In his essay titled “Atheists for Jesus”, he offers as his best solution a slogan with the oxymoronic power to “lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment.” It is unclear whether Dawkins intends these suggestions to be taken seriously, but either way they are just plain silly.

Worse. Whenever Christopher Hitchens and his book God is Not Great are mentioned in the comments to my Stealth blogs, it is usually to say “Why should anyone take him seriously?” As a great provocateur, he will do anything to get a reaction–trashing God on Sunday, Bill Clinton on Monday, bikini-waxing his naughty bits on Tuesday, inviting journalists to have a feel during the National Book Award Ceremonies on Wednesday, and so on. Nevertheless, even a provocateur must play by certain rules. If he doesn’t speak the truth, then his barbs have no sting and he isn’t worth the time of day. In this blog, I am most concerned with the solutions that Hitchens offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. At the very least, we should expect the new atheists to avoid the kind of between-group conflict that Dennett blames on religious believers when they fight over “who has the best imaginary friend.” Yet, in an article titled “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Richard Seymour documents statements such as this one:

We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.

Who needs religious fundamentalists when we have Christopher Hitchens? Few atheists and rationalists would agree with him on this point–certainly not Dan Dennett, who e-mailed me that he finds Hitchens’ views “very troubling indeed.” Yet, this only underscores the larger problem that I am trying to identify with my Stealth blogs. Something has gone terribly wrong with popular intellectual discourse on religion. A few authors have occupied center stage, claiming to base their analysis on science and rational thought, when in fact their views are detached from the serious scientific study of religion and their practical recommendations are ineffective, silly, and worse.

In the final installment of the Stealth series, I will show how popular intellectual discourse on religion can become more enlightening and even more entertaining when anchored more firmly in the serious scientific study of religion.


  1. #1 Dmitriy Kolesnikov
    October 21, 2009

    I’m quite certain that Christopher Hitchens was referring to militant Islamists in his quote, not fundamentalists in general. Perhaps killing them all is not a good option, but in some cases, it is hard to imagine pacific ways of dealing with them. If we captured them and put them into re-education camps; provided lives for them outside of the realm of violent jihadism, then perhaps killing them would not be obligatory. I believe Saudi Arabia has had some success with this approach. But many (most?) will not quietly accede; thus necessitating the lethal option.

  2. #2 Freidenker
    October 22, 2009

    I read and re-read what you wrote about Dawkins, and I’m still scratching my head. Dawkins is a popularizer of science and an anti-religious public figure. He’s also, by training, a scientist, but he’s not being a scientist when he says religious education is child abuse.

    That’s something that I personally agree with, being a native-born Israeli, and knowing what religious education does to the Arab and Jewish population in this screwed-up country of mine.

    So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that indoctrinating people into hurling stones and lynching people for driving on yom kippur (such as happened in 2008, when an Arab driver was almost killed by Jewish mobs on the day they’re supposed to atone for their sins) – is not, in any way, a form of child abuse? Maybe you can find another way of putting that. It still sucks, if you pardon my Klingon.

    Well, I think Dawkins has a point, and I think that when he speaks of religion, he cannot be held accountable in the same way he is when he writes about wasps (if I recall correctly, in his practical science days, he researched wasps or otherwise social insects)

    To make a stand on religion, something you know and do not deny has deleterious effects on the human condition – it’s trickier, and more dangerous, than to be held accountable for something you write in a scientific article. Dawkins may be imprecise, may be even flat-out wrong about stuff he writes on religion… But anyone would be, since the subject of religion, like many subjects in psychology (and religion, if anything, is a psychological phenomenon) – so… to treat him as though he has any other choice but to tentatively understand and eluciate his qualms about religion is simply unfair.

    So I don’t think Dawkins is being silly, and I don’t see atheism (mine or yours or otherwise) as a stealth religion, unless you conveniently change the dictionary (and sensible) definition of the word “religion”.

    I don’t worship Dawkins. I don’t worship anyone. To be honest, I don’t even worship the truth, although I do hold it in high regard. I would lie to save lives, for example. Wouldn’t you? I think anyone who wouldn’t because he’s an atheist is a veritable idiot.

  3. #3 abb3w
    October 22, 2009

    The problem appears to be that the Horsemen are attempting to switch from working in Science to working in Engineering.

    Dmitriy Kolesnikov: Perhaps killing them all is not a good option, but in some cases, it is hard to imagine pacific ways of dealing with them.

    It’s a question of competition for limited available resources. We have only so many resources. This not only includes material resources, but the cognitive resource of what options we can conceptualize; however, questing for better options requires material resources to support such a quest, so we’re again bounded.

    While trying a “Kill them all” approach likely would cause a lot of problems, it doesn’t take a lot of resources. (You have to add “without killing off the human species” to make it vaguely difficult.) In contrast, “Ignore them all” causes other problems (like falling skyscrapers). Putting them all in re-education camps might get rid of those problems, but we probably don’t have sufficient resources to achieve that, and even if we did might have alternative uses for the marginal resources (over those for KTA) that would allow providing more benefit than getting rid of the KTA-problems. So, we consider the choices KTA, ITA, and many other more subtle options.

    Again, it’s Engineering. Define the benefit desired, enumerate the accessible choices, and search within the choices for the one understood to yield the best benefit accessible within the search space. (In practice, there may be multiple passes through these stages.)

  4. #4 Douglas Watts
    October 22, 2009

    Perhaps killing them all is not a good option, but in some cases, it is hard to imagine pacific ways of dealing with them.

    I assume you are joking.

    If you are not, you are employing the fallacy of incredulity, often mocked by Richard Dawkins, ie. “Personally, I just can’t believe that evolution could ever produce the human eye.”

    For you, it might be “hard to imagine,” but as in the immediate example above, this simply means you have not even tried or you have extremely poor aptitude in rational thought.

  5. #5 James Taby
    October 23, 2009

    Actually Dawkins does appeal to his authority as a scientist all the time when bashing religion. It is like evolution is his personal whip to use on religion. One example:

    “Next, Dawkins discusses specifically the idea of religion seen as a virus in the sense of a meme. He begins by explaining how a child is genetically programmed to believe without questioning the word of authority figures, especially parents – the evolutionary imperative being that no child would survive by adopting a sceptical attitude towards everything their elders said. But this same imperative, he claims, leaves children open to “infection” by religion.”

  6. #6 ivo
    October 23, 2009

    This stance gives him maximum elbowroom to interpret religion as primarily a delusion (as implied by the title), like the parasitic worm that commandeers ants by burrowing into their brains (the first example of the book).

    I may be wrong, but I recall very clearly that by the phrase Breaking the Spell Dennett means to break the social taboo about discussing religion as any other natural phenomenon (indeed, the subtitle is Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). This is implied throughout the book. He is not referring to religion as an illusion having us under its spell. In fact Dennett asks to (temporarily) set aside the question of the veracity of religious claims in order to conduct his naturalistic analysis. Then yes, he proposes the “parasitic worm” hypothesis among others, but so do you on this series of posts.

    I’m also not convinced by your rebuttal of his proposal for better factual education on the world’s religions. For instance, in your American example, have you considered religious homeschooling and other forms of shielding from external influences? Or the widespread demonisation of atheism and even science? These must certainly play a role in the perpetuation of unrealistic world-views.

    It seems to me that you resent Dennett for rather leaning towards the parasite hypothesis and not taking the “superorganism” one seriously, but this is ridiculous. It is up to you to provide enough evidence to convince him.

  7. #7 bilbo
    October 26, 2009

    This whole series is wonderfully spot-on, and I’m surprised you haven’t been flamed more for it, David. Perhaps it’s because of the (very good) quality you have of seeming to write out of a geniune search for knowledge rather than a self-interest in showboating. As an atheist, I’ve become disgusted at the mindless parlor tricks of the new atheists playing purposefully to their own sidelines, and I’ve been desperately wishing for a levelheaded voice representing true intelligence to come out of all this – not a voice espusing bigotry cloaked in intelligence. Thank you for filling this void.

  8. #8 Spaulding
    November 3, 2009

    This would be a more interesting series if you’d cite data to support your conclusion, especially since you suggest that the positions of Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens are not supported by the bulk of the available data. It’s kind of ironic that you’d think it’s sufficient to dismiss them without reference to data of your own.

    Further, you appear to have difficulty in honestly representing your opponents. Had you linked to the full Hitchens interview, we’d see that the “them” to which he refers is not the religious masses, as you imply, but rather “aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies.” Did you misrepresent him, or do you think that he is misguided in his opposition to “aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies”?

    And then you suggest that Dawkins “regards religious education as a form of child abuse, which will require setting up a vast foster care system staffed by rationalists.” Really? I don’t suppose you have a source for that. In comparing religious indoctrination to abuse, Dawkins states “All I am doing is calling attention to an anomaly.” Certainly Dawkins has the goal of consciousness-raising, i.e. getting people to question the extraordinary exemptions from social and moral responsibility that are allowed in the name of religion, and the ancient taboos that discourage us from criticizing religion’s special pleading. That’s a far cry from taking away someone’s children to be raised in an atheist commune. Better check and cite your sources if you aspire to mature discourse.

    The misrepresentation of Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ opinions is similar to the sneaky semantic trick that permeates this series of blog postings: when it suits your purposes, you surreptitiously revise the definition of “atheism” to mean “the anti-religion views of several recent authors”. Your semantic confusion is such that your title essentially parses to “absence of faith is faith.” I look forward to the follow-ups, “black is white” and “up is down.”