Friday, October 9, 2009

Is Dawkins missing something?

On our wonderful kid-free weekend last week we did one of our favorite things from our university days: hung around Chapters and looked at numerous books and then didn't purchase a single one.

I came across a book by an author I revile, Richard Dawkins. His new book is entitled The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Anyone interested in the science and religion debate will recognize this name, also known as Darwin's Bulldog. If you are not familiar with his philosophy, he fervently supports evolution and vehemently rejects spirituality, particularly as it manifests in organized religion.

Now, when I say I revile Dawkins it is not due to his stance but his delivery. Just like Dawkins, I completely agree with evolution and accept that the evidence is too substantial to deny its sweeping effects in the natural world (as does the Roman Catholic Church, as written by Dawkins: "Hot on the heels of its magnanimous pardoning of Galileo, the Vatican has now moved with even more lightning speed to recognise the truth of Darwinism."). I also believe, like him, that Creationism, the literal interpretation of the Bible that purports that the Earth was created some 6000 years ago much as it is stated in Genesis, is intellectually inappropriate. But cannot someone both accept evolution as scientific fact AND believe in God? Why is this so wrong?

This is Dawkins' problem: his insistence that there is only one right answer. He believes that anyone who believes in God and/or is religious is either intellectually dishonest, willfully ignorant, brainwashed, or psychopathological. Isn't he then just as bad as all the fundamentalist Christians he lambastes for being close-minded to another world view?

Nothing in evolutionary science disproves the existence of a spiritual being, nor could anything ever do so. Nor should I care. A Dawkins quote I enjoy is "There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?" This is a fallacy I see pop up in lots of these debates. When will atheists like Dawkins who insist that they are right realize that they take just as much of a leap of faith in accepting the absence of God as I do in accepting the presence of God? You cannot empirically prove the presence or absence of God. Why can't he just accept that and get on with his life instead of persisting in his crusade to rid the human race of religion?

But in thinking about this book and whether I would read it or not (he is a brilliant writer and the book would likely prove quite interesting but I fear he may digress into attacks on religion that will distract from the subject matter) I stumbled upon a disconnect in his approach.

Dawkins is a firm supporter of evolution. Because it is something that can be empirically proven and has successfully been so, as a scientist, he'd really have to be. This book of his is all about evolution and how incredible it is that complexity arose out of simplicity due to the random selection of advantageous mutations in genetic material. If religion, then, is such a disastrous, divisive force only followed by the mentally unstable, why then has the propensity to religious behavior persisted in our species?

I really don't know. But isn't that a flaw in his mindset? Has he grappled with that? I'm certain he has, I just couldn't find much on it except his statement that religious behavior has killed millions of individuals over the years and that it consumes incredible amounts of energy and time. So he seems to think it an evolutionary hiccup.

Other scientists have tackled this question. An excerpt from a book called The Story of God highlights, among other things, that religion may have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. The communal nature of it would have led to a more unified front against the many dangers inherent in our early environment and thus promoted survival of those who practiced it. But this could have been passed on in societal customs. However, twin studies done over the years do seem to suggest that there is at least a partial genetic component to religion so it seems the question will remain unanswered for now. Of course, religion is one of those aspects of human biology that is so complex the answer likely sounds like this: religion is impacted both by genetic makeup and life experiences.

What this research does do though is ask the question: if religion is so awful, so disordered, so pathological, why does it persist so widely? Sure, many diseases which are incredibly destructive persist in the genetic pool because they may at one time have served a purpose. They usually arise in a relatively small portion of the population though. But with 80% of the world population claiming religiosity, surely this is not the case with religion? Because if it exists en masse like this but is as destructive as Dawkins claims, why does it still exist at all? Why has it not become a vestigial organ of human life?

1 comment:

Stephanie Gour said...

My opinion on Dawkins is that he is an evolutionary biologist turned quite bitter after many long years of dealing with crack-pot creationists. Which is always a possibility when working in the field of biology....His older books may be more subtle on the whole "anti-religion" thing, more focused on actual science.

By completely disregarding religion the way he (and many others) do, you disregard the vast majority of the population.
If religion didn't exist, fanatics would still find SOME way to express their psychotic, self-righteous urges...Religious belief is not the problem, people are.