Richard Dawkins really annoys the crap out of me sometimes. I was just listening to a rebroadcast of his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air about his book The God Delusion, and I found myself as irritated with him as I’ve ever been with the most caricatured Bible-thumper.
Let me say first that I’m an agnostic, and perfectly comfortable with philosophical arguments against various spiritual and religious beliefs. He’s not prodding me in any sensitive spots.
A good example of why he irritates me was his reply to Terri Gross’ question about why religion seems to be such a universal part of human societies over time and space. He concedes that yes, this is so “anthropologically”, though he adds the caveat that individual humans are pretty diverse in their views. So far so good.
So why is it this true “anthropologically”, he wonders? Well, he suggests, part of it is that people wish to believe in comforting and simplistic untruths to make themselves feel better, casting back to an earlier part of the interview in which he recounted anecdotes of religious people saying that they couldn’t bear to live if they didn’t believe in God or the afterlife.
Problem #1, purely on evidence, truth, rationality–things Dawkins claims are his stock in trade. The problem is that a goodly number of religions or spiritualities that I can think of across time and space don’t provide comfort to the believers, nor do they significantly simplify questions of cosmology and sociology. In some cases, spiritual beliefs make the temporal and spiritual world seem vastly more menacing, depressing, or dangerous, and promise no escape in an afterlife from these conditions. Many of them complicate and vasten the world as we perceive it.
Dawkins isn’t the only sociobiological thinker who really aggravates on this kind of point, but he’s among the worst offenders when it comes to tossing off “anthropological” universals without apparently having read any anthropology that doesn’t come from the favored few sources that tautologically comfort evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. If you’re going to talk the big picture, man, then educate yourself a bit about it. Don’t use Ocaam’s Razor like a blunt instrument to simplify and reduce human time and space to a kind of crayola scrawl. It may be that there is a particular kind of Christian for whom religious belief is an existential comfort, but that isn’t even necessarily terribly representative of Christian theology over the totality of the history of that religion, let alone representative of religion in general.
Then Dawkins started whipping out Cliff’s Notes flavored evo-psych talk. Perhaps, he mused, humans believe in religion because we have a cognitive module that predisposes us as children to believe in what adults tell us. Because that would confer a Darwinian advantage, saving children from various dangers. The problem, he suggests, is that this module can’t distinguish between false information (“join in the rain dance”) and true information. Look, I know there are smart versions of evo-psych, but this is not it, even given the limitations of a radio interview for communicating complicated information. There is so much wrong with this even at the level of a casual sketch or hypothesis. There is tremendous scientific evidence that children know how to lie, and learn very quickly what lies are and that both adults and children can lie. Lying is a basic part of our social and communicative intelligence. A lot of socialization into religion takes places with peers in many societies, not adults. (In fact, a lot of past human societies actually isolated children from adults or parents in various ways.) But most of all, it’s as much a fairy tale as Dawkins claims religion is. Dawkins says that the religious believe in things which are not true so as to give themselves comfort. Well, that’s pretty much what a Just-So story like “Once upon a time, there was a Darwinian advantage to believing in what adults said, and hence, we came to be religious” amounts to. Yes, yes, I know he would say that this is a testable story and “God created the heaven and the Earth is not” but I suspect what Dawkins thinks is a valid test of that kind of narrative is roughly the equivalent of a Jesuit spouting off about the uncaused cause.
If you want the real comforting fiction, though, it lies at the bottom of Dawkins’ enterprise. He must think that if only we all could come to share his clear-eyed dismissal of all religion, something about the world as we know it would be better. That means for one that he believes emergent aspects of consciousness, will and reason can overcome whatever ur-Darwinian dynamics created religion back in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, which is in and of itself a pretty dubious argument in a lot of current science. But secondly, what good would actually come of this sea change, for Dawkins? Would there be no more wars of religion? I can make an argument in my sleep that any “war of religion” you care to name really wasn’t caused or sustained by religion, and dump evidence by the truckload on its behalf. Would there be no more con men evangelists preying on the weak minded? The religious have no monopoly on this kind of predation.
Would the world be better if everyone had a clear scientific understanding of their circumstances? What would change if everyone saw things that way as opposed to many or some people seeing things that way? Knowing why things happen in the world is no protection from natural disaster, from social conflict, from accident or happenstance. This is the old dream of modernism resurfacing again, the experts who believe that if only they are given power through universal acclaim, all that is bad and horrid in the world shall melt into air in time. Dawkins might as well given the closing kitschy speech of Things to Come. “The Universe OR Nothing: which shall it be?”
Yes, sure, I’d appreciate it if various religious fundamentalists would just take a hike, and maybe even that some of what seems flawed or absurd to me about even modest spirituality lose some of its protected status. That’s strictly personal preference: I think there are other forms of malevolent power and individual chauvinism that would inrush into the vacuum left by religion. But there’s no better example of a person making up a story to make himself feel better than Dawkins telling himself (and anyone who cares to listen) that were there no religion, a great deal of our mutual existence would improve. There’s no scientific or empirical reason to think that this is the case. What would help Dawkins (or anyone else who wants to persuade the religious to rethink) is if he could apply skepticism to himself. Or perhaps more simply do something that at least some religions advise: seek humility.