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Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Thomas Crean, O.P. | From
God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of
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.  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
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
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 --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)
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.
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.)
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,  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' ' and 'the author of many
classic works on philosophy'  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).
 'The Roots of Religion', pp. 163-207.
 For example, that two people of the same sex can marry each other.
 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
 According to a vote organized by Prospect magazine.
 The works are not named.
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Fr. Thomas Crean is a Dominican friar of the Priory of St. Michael the Archangel, Cambridge.
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