Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Thomas Crean, O.P. | From "God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins" | IgnatiusInsight.comProfessor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Thomas Crean, O.P. | From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins

Editor's note: References to page numbers are to The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), by Richard Dawkins.

An evolutionary puzzle

Why, if religion is irrational and pernicious, is it so widespread? Our author devotes one chapter of his book to this question. [21] As a committed Darwinian, he cannot allow himself the luxury of shrugging his shoulders and saying like Thomas Carlyle, men are mostly fools' (not that he would in any case employ so unfeminist an idiom). Professor Dawkins holds, as a first principle, that 'natural selection punishes wastage of time and energy' (p. 164). He names this 'the Darwinian imperative'. The genes that replicate themselves for a future generation are those that promote efficient behaviour, that is, behaviour favouring such replication. Religion, however, seems on the face of things to be a waste of time and energy. Some religions encourage or even enjoin their adherents to accept serious privations, sometimes to the point of martyrdom. They lead men to construct cathedrals, which take a long time to build yet offer no shelter to their builders. The evolutionary scientist is forced to ask himself 'What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?' (p. 165).

Our author is dissatisfied with purely psychological explanations of religion. He does not want to be told that 'religion is consoling' or 'religion satisfies our curiosity about the world' (p. 168). Such explanations do not seem to him sufficiently fundamental. He wants to know why we are susceptible in the first place to a consolation or an explanation that is so irrational. Nor is Professor Dawkins a Marxist: granted that cynical priests and kings may have used religions as a means of subjugating the masses, this still leaves the question of why the masses were so susceptible to this particular form of manipulation (p. 169). Nor will any neurological explanation of religion suffice. Even if it should turn out that some part of the brain was particularly associated with religious activity, the Darwinian will still ask, 'Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god centre [sic] survive to have more grandchildren than rivals who didn't?' (ibid.). Clearly, we are in deep waters.

Might religion benefit its practitioners after the manner of a placebo? Probably not, according to our author. Though there is, apparently, some evidence that 'religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases' (p. 166), this doesn't seem able to account for the 'massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon of religion'. After all, 'religion is a large phenomenon, and it needs a large theory to explain it' (p. 168). Moreover, he doubts whether religion is really good for the nerves. 'It is hard to believe that health is improved by the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence' (though, as he handsomely continues, 'perhaps it is unfair to single out the Catholics', since all religion is essentially a way of inducing guilt).

Having disposed of these superficial or erroneous explanations of religion, the author gives us his. It belongs to the discipline known as 'evolutionary psychology': the attempt to explain the mental traits of human beings by their aptitude to promote human survival. However, he does not consider religion itself to be such a trait. His idea is rather that religions are produced by the 'misfiring' of various human traits that are, in the abstract, beneficial.

What this means will become clearer as we examine his explanation in more detail. But before we consider his various proposals for useful traits that could have accidentally brought religion into being, one point should be clearly made. Even if Professor Dawkins were able to show that belief in God was likely to emerge from certain useful human propensities, as distinct from objective evidence, he would have done nothing at all to discredit theism. There is no reason why a proposition should be false because we have a natural inclination to hold it. The fact that a child has a natural and useful propensity to trust its parents does nothing towards showing that its parents are in fact, untrustworthy. Nevertheless, it is worth examining our author's attempts to sketch possible non-rational ancestries for religious belief. It will show, I believe, the degree to which prejudice blunts his own rational powers.

Explaining religion

Professor Dawkins singles out several human characteristics as liable, though genetically useful in themselves, to lead by accident to religious delusion. The first, and apparently the principal one is the child's readiness to believe whatever his elders tell him. In the abstract, this is a useful trait, since as the author remarks, 'more than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations' (p. 174). It promotes the survival of the race, or rather of our genes, that children believe what they are, told: therefore, he concludes, if they are told nonsense, they will believe this as well.

Even if this last statement were true--and in fact it is probably harder to convince children than adults of something patently false [22]--still, it would not help to explain the universal tendency towards religion. Granted that children have a natural predisposition to accept whatever their parents tell them, why would this cause their parents to teach them that there is a Creator rather than that there is no Creator? This 'explanation' of religion could just as well be used by a religious believer to explain the existence of atheism. It doesn't explain why belief in God is 'a massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon' whereas atheism is not.

The second trait that is supposed both to have evolved in man to aid survival and to be accidentally favourable towards religion is the 'intentional stance' (p. 181). By this is simply meant our ability to recognize purpose, in the broad sense of the word, in certain creatures around us. For example, if we see a tiger approach us with its mouth open, we don't just observe its colour and shape, but also that it 'intends' to eat us (p. 182). This tendency to attribute purposes to other creatures is a genetically useful trait: in the particular case of the tiger, it leads us to run away rather than to stand still and be eaten.

How is this supposed to lead, by a 'misfiring', to a belief in God? Insofar as one can reconstruct the author's thought from the assertions that he scatters around this part of the book, the argument would seem to run like this:
1. We have evolved the habit of attributing intentions to things, like tigers, that are important to us. (p. 183)
2. The weather and other forces of nature are important to us, so primitive people and children attribute intentions to them. (p. 184)
3. But later people stop attributing intentions to the forces of nature, and so attribute them to something else. (p. 181)
4. So they believe in God. (ibid.)
All this is rather lame. With regard to (1), whilst it is certainly useful to be able to impute intentions to a ravenous tiger, what benefit is conferred by imputing them to inanimate objects that do not in fact possess them? Presumably none: but in that case, why would such a disposition have been produced by the Darwinian imperative? Next, no supporting evidence is offered for (2). I don't believe that any child would, as he claims, 'impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks', except perhaps as part of a game. And even if children or 'primitive people' did so, by what principle of evolutionary psychology would they, on ceasing to do this, begin to impute the same intentions to something else, as (3) suggests? Why should an inherited tendency to impute intentions to things that are important to us lead to us imputing intentions to things of which we have no experience? And even if we did this, why in virtue of the inherited tendency that is supposed to govern the whole process, should we impute all these different intentions to one single being, as (4) presumes, and declare this being the Creator of the universe? Professor Dawkins claims to show that theism might be the misfiring of an otherwise useful tendency; in reality, his explanation limps at every step.

Elsewhere he makes another attempt. Children, he tells us, are natural dualists, that is, they believe that there is a difference between mind and matter (p.180). Could this be: because mind and matter are clearly different things? Not at all, insists our author; that is a mere superstition. But it is an evolutionarily useful thing to believe. Precisely why,: is never made clear. The author hints (p. 183) that dualism goes along with primitive man's supposed propensity to impute intentions to beings that are important to him. But he doesn't attempt to prove such a connection, and in fact, it appears unprovable, not to say indefensible. Granted that it is useful to recognize when a tiger is hungry, and even granted for the sake of argument that it could somehow be useful to imagine that the wind was angry when it blew very hard, what does this have to do with the philosophical position that our author calls dualism? In order to believe that a tiger desires to eat me, must I believe that the tiger has a spiritual soul that will survive the tiger's death? He tells us (p. 183) that he doesn't want to pursue the question of the relation of dualism to our capacity to recognize the desires of certain animals--why then does he raise it in the first place? The suspicion arises that although he wants to say that dualism is an evolutionarily useful belief, he cannot in fact find an argument for this conclusion.

Yet even if the belief that he calls 'dualism' could be shown to be genetically useful, how would this show that belief in God was genetically useful? Dualism and theism are quite separate positions; it is logically possible to maintain either without the other. Our author writes that if we believe in a spirit inhabiting the body, [23] we can imagine it moving on elsewhere after bodily death, and thus being a pure spirit. True: but the idea of a pure spirit is not the idea of the Creator of the universe. None of his talk about 'dualism' and 'teleology' and 'the intentional stance' comes close to establishing the point for which he is arguing, namely that the belief in a Creator is likely to result as an irrational by-product of human characteristics that are in other respects useful.

Let me repeat at this point that even if Professor Dawkins' attempts to show that religious belief could emerge as the misfiring of otherwise useful traits were successful, religious believers need not be bothered in the slightest. To show that a belief could emerge in some non-rational way is not to show that it must do so. It is not to show that it could not also emerge in perfectly rational ways. If our author's arguments were sound, they would not have the least tendency to undermine the rational arguments for God's existence that we have already discussed. But in fact they are unsound.

A little further on (p. 187), he suggests that the tendency to have irrationally strong convictions is also evolutionarily useful, and therefore another possible explanation for belief in God. The fickle man achieves nothing, whilst the man who persists in a course of action upon which he has once determined, will sometimes at least be successful. Should this second kind of man adopt irrational beliefs, he will be likely to persist in them, even in the absence of good evidence; thus religion is born.

Once again, the reasoning appears simply childish. Granted that stubbornness may sometimes be a more beneficial character trait than fickleness, why should not reasonableness be better than either? But then why did the evolutionary process in which our author believes not produce this most desirable quality? Yet let us grant for argument's sake that stubbornness is a more genetically useful trait than reasonableness. Why should stubbornness tend to produce a widespread conviction of the existence of God, rather than of His non-existence? Professor Dawkins' 'explanation' simply amounts to saying, 'men are religious because they tend to persist in the philosophy of life that they have once adopted', when the whole question at issue is why so many people adopt some kind of theism as their philosophy of life. From a man whom the dust-jacket of his book proclaims as 'one of the world's top three intellectuals' [24]' and 'the author of many classic works on philosophy' [25] one might have expected something a little more rigorous.

The logical vice of assuming what one needs to prove is ubiquitous in this chapter. It is evolutionarily useful, our author writes, to be able to deceive ourselves, since this allows us the better to deceive others. The conscious liar looks shifty and so is disbelieved. The unconscious liar looks sincere; he has deceived himself so well that he can convince others. Let it be so: how does this lead to theism rather than to atheism? St Paul tells us that atheists 'keep the truth about God captive' (Rom 1:18). Why should it not be the atheists who have deceived themselves, the better to deceive others? Once more, our author's arguments which would, I repeat again, be harmless even if sound, are unsound: mere assertions, resting on nothing, leading nowhere.

Finally, on p. 188, we are told that religion is mere 'wishful thinking'. By this point, the author seems to have forgotten his original intention, since he offers not even a weak reason for supposing that wishful thinking would have been evolutionarily useful. He also seems to have forgotten that twenty pages earlier he quoted, with approval, an American comedian who claimed that religion exists to produce guilt. Why would 'wishful thinking' manufacture something so unpleasant? Or why would judgement and the punishment of sin loom so large in so many religions? Our author cannot decide with which stick he wants to beat religion: as a result, his arguments cancel each other out.

Our conclusion must be that the attempt to show that religion would naturally arise from non-rational forces is an entire failure. Not only are the author's arguments extremely muddled, so that it is difficult to see where one ends and another begins, when they are with difficulty brought to light they are seen to rest on untrustworthy foundations, or not to lead to the desired conclusion, or both. Professor Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. This chapter lets the public understand that evolutionary psychology, as practised by our author, is about as much a science as reading tea-leaves.

Sawing off the branch

Our author, as we have seen, considers himself subject to the 'Darwinian imperative'. He holds that all the capacities of living things as such are the result of evolution. He also holds that evolution is driven without any transcendent purpose: a given gene simply replicates itself if it is in a position to do so, and fails to replicate itself if it is not. He exults in the supposed explanatory power of this 'imperative'. But he doesn't seem to realize what a hard taskmaster it is.

If all human powers are a result of a blind process of evolution, then our capacity for making judgements is also a product of this blind process. Our minds, which according to Professor Dawkins are simply an aspect of our bodies, must have evolved those powers most favourable to the continued existence of our genes. In other words, the principle that fundamentally governs the working of our minds is utility. Just as, according to the Darwinian, man has developed the lungs that will best help him to breathe in the particular atmosphere that is the earth's, so also has he developed the minds that will, accidental 'misfirings' aside, best promote survival.

But if this were so, we should have no reason to be confident that our minds could grasp the truth. If the ultimate principle that directs our thinking is utility, we shall have a tendency to believe what it is most useful to our genes that we should believe, but not necessarily what is true. Nor is there any reason to suppose that these two things must coincide: it would no doubt be useful to our genes that every person should believe that he or she had a duty to have as many children as possible, but that does not make this belief true.

Our author may protest, as he does in another context (p. 222), that Darwinism does not imply determinism. Though I have a tendency to believe whatever will be most useful to the survival of my genes, still, I can correct this tendency by education. But such an answer is not logically permissible to a Darwinian of the strict observance like our author. If the very nature and intrinsic bias of the mind is towards useful beliefs, as the Darwinian imperative insists, then whatever education we receive, the mind will never be able to step outside itself and judge its own beliefs according to a standard other than that of utility. If both your hands shake, you cannot use one to hold the other still. If the governing principle of our judgement is utility, we cannot judge our own judgements by a principle independent of utility, such as truth.

In other words, the materialistic Darwinism professed by our author is a self-refuting system. It claims to tell us the truth about all living things, including the intellectual animals that we are. But by claiming that we have evolved minds whose property is to assent to useful beliefs rather than to true ones, it takes away our assurance that our minds are in contact with reality. If the assent of our minds is governed by what is useful and not by what is true, we cannot even be confident that 2 + 2 = 4. Much less can we be confident of the truth of some great philosophical system, such as Darwinism.

Darwinism is thus in practice a form of relativism. It denies, not explicitly but in virtue of its own logic, that our minds were made for a truth independent of ourselves. But the relativist, whatever label he may wear, infallibly cuts off the branch on which he sits. He professes a doctrine that would render all doctrines, and therefore his own, valueless. Like the heretic of whom St Paul warns St Titus, he is self-condemned (Tit 3:11).


[21] 'The Roots of Religion', pp. 163-207.

[22] For example, that two people of the same sex can marry each other.

[23] Contrary to the author's claim (p. 180), those who accept the position that he calls dualism, need not believe that the spirit merely 'inhabits' the body, like a man inhabiting a house. No orthodox Christian believes this. Body and soul compose a single substance, even though the soul survives bodily death.

[24] According to a vote organized by Prospect magazine.

[25] The works are not named.

Related Articles and Excerpts:

Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson

Fr. Thomas Crean is a Dominican friar of the Priory of St. Michael the Archangel, Cambridge.

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