Richard Dawkins: What Is the Survival Value of Human Religion?

For some reason, Big Think titled the Richard Dawkins video below “Why Religion and Evolution Don’t Mix Well” which has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the video.

Rather, Dawkins addresses a very specific question: if natural selection favors adaptations that increase the fitness of individual organisms, how does religion increase the fitness of human beings? Why does religion persist in human cultures given that its claims about reality are false?

We Are Going to Die, and That Makes Us The Lucky Ones

From Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Charlie Brooker Reviews ‘The Genius of Darwin’

PZ Meyers linked to this review of Richard Dawkins’ new documentary ‘The Genius of Darwin’. The reviewer, Charlie Brooker, has a wit about as acerbic as Dawkins’, writing,

Darwin’s theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it’s been under attack since day one. That’s just tough luck for Darwin. If the Bible had contained a passage that claimed gravity is caused by God pulling objects toward the ground with magic invisible threads, we’d still be debating Newton with idiots too.

Since Darwin’s death, Dawkins points out, the evidence confirming his discovery has piled up and up and up, many thousand feet above the point of dispute. And yet heroically, many still dispute it. They’re like couch potatoes watching Finding Nemo on DVD who’ve suffered some kind of brain haemorrhage which has led them to believe the story they’re watching is real, that their screen is filled with water and talking fish, and that that’s all there is to reality – just them and that screen and Nemo – and when you run into the room and point out the DVD player and the cables connecting it to the screen, and you open the windows and point outside and describe how overwhelming the real world is – when you do all that, it only spooks them. So they go on believing in Nemo, with gritted teeth if necessary.


PZ Myers, A Frackin’ Cracker, and the Neoatheist Movement

I’ve been an atheist literally just about as long as I can remember — since sometime when I was 6 or 7. My family was neither particularly religious nor particularly irreligious, and I remember concluding at a very young age that God was just one of those stories like Santa Claus that people passed on because it made them feel better even if it wasn’t true.

At the same time I’ve never particularly felt the need to evangelize for atheism. When I see people pray or ascribe some natural phenomena or another to God or a miracle I think it’s kind of silly, but certainly the world is filled with all sorts of irrational beliefs and no one has time to stamp them all at. I, for example, have an extremely irrational fear of heights, and I wouldn’t be particularly welcoming if people got in my face challenging me to overcome that fear. Similarly, I assume haranguing people over their superstitions would be similarly ineffective. So, in general, I just don’t talk to people about their religious beliefs or mine, and everyone gets along.

Neoatheism is a term that has been used to describe the approach to atheism advanced by folks such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Broadly speaking, the claim is that religious ways of thinking are a net negative to society and atheists need to more openly affirm their atheism and point out the problems that religion creates. Note that although the fundamentalists and evangelicals are frequently the targets of the neoatheists, their critique is much deeper — it is the form of any religious doctrine rather than the specific contents of said doctrine that Dawkins and others attack.

For the most part, I’ve thought the neoatheists have been on the right track. For example, I think Dawkins is absolutely right in attacking the commonly held middle ground position that science and religion are compatible. As Dawkins rightly notes, it is rather the case that science has completely undercut religion and why so few scientists are believers — the more you know about the naturalistic workings of the universe, the more absurd religious myths become.

But just how far should atheists go. I think PZ Myers offers us a good example of crossing the line in, of all things, a controversy about crackers.

A University of Central Florida student started a bizarre scandal when he attended a Catholic Mass held in June on the UCF campus. To make a long story short, the student received The Eucharist from a priest but rather than swallow it, took it with him when he left the church. Somebody spotted him and tried to stop him from leaving. At that point, the incident became a minor story in Florida, complete with an idiot priest comparing the kerfuffle to a kidnapping. A spokesperson for the Catholic diocese where this occurred said the student’s failure to consume the wafer should be treated as a hate crime. You just can’t make this shit up. Bill Donohue suggested the university might want to consider expelling the student.

I thought Myers did a good job of highlighting the idiocy entailed in those sorts of statements. He was on a roll making fun of silly superstitions and then he had to write this,

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.

I think publicly asking for a religious symbol so that you can desecrate it for everyone to see on the Internet is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve heard an atheist who wasn’t Madalyn Murray O’Hare say. Myers post reminded me most of the sort of far left activist who thinks the best thing to do for this or that U.S. failing is to burn an American flag which, after all, is just a frackin’ piece of cloth.

In both cases, the only thing being communicated is an incredible lack of disrespect that generally tends to harden opinions on the other side rather than persuade anyone that this is just a cracker/piece of cloth. For me at least, Myers’ asking others to sneak out wafers so he can desecrate them is just as extreme as saying that the student who walked out with one committed a hate crime.

The New Atheism — Sounds A Lot Like the Old Atheism

Wired’s long story on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others, Battle of the New Atheism, certainly garnered a lot of coverage and commentary, but pardon me if the “new atheism” looks a lot like warmed over “old atheism” (and that’s not a compliment).

For an extraordinarily long time, atheism in the United States was identified in the popular imagination with one person — Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For O’Hair and her organization, American Atheists, it was not enough to simply make the philosophical and historical case for atheism while defending the rights of atheists. No, O’Hair had to take the next step and argue that religious belief itself was an unmitigated evil and that pretty much everything wrong with the world was due to religion.

This was an absurd position that caricatured both religion and atheism. On the one hand, it ignored the many contributions that religious systems and thinkers played in the evolution of secular, liberal and humanist thought. This was a view that lumped both the Inquisition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together on the same side of an irrational belief in the supernatural.

On the other hand, it ignored the very obvious fact that some of the world’s worst mass murders — those in China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia — were carried out by avowed atheists. Typically, something like the Inquisition was said to be quintessentially Catholic while the Bolshevik murder of priests had nothing at all to do with their atheism.

The media attention on the American Atheists had already waned in the mid-1980s, and the group pretty much dropped off the radar screen after O’Hair’s tragic murder. Here was an opportunity for a different face on atheism.

Instead, what we get are people like Dawkins. In what I assume was a compliment, Boing! Boing! hit the nail on the head by referring to Dawkins’ “evangelical atheism.” With all due respect, though, the last thing we need is an atheist counterpart to Ted Haggard, especially when some of Dawkins views are so extreme that the only analogy I can think of among the fundamentalist Christian movement are the Westboro Baptist Church nutcases.

For example, Dawkins doesn’t just think that there is no god and that believers are, thus, deluded. He argues that parents who teach their children to believe in god are guilty of child abuse. Here’s what Dawkins wrote in a 1997 article in The Humanist,

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

As an atheist with two children, the only thing bizarre here is Dawkin’s deranged view of how, apparently, the state and/or other actors should interfere with family matters.

In a flawed but still helpful review in Prospect, Andrew Brown points out how this sort of extremist nonsense leads Dawkins to nonsensical conclusions. For example, in The God Delusion, Dawkins blames religious schools for suicide bombings, saying “It children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet there would be no suicide bombers.

Brown cites a study of terrorism which rightly notes that secular Marxist movements have also resorted to suicide bombings, and certainly secular movements from the anarchists to the suffragettes resorted to terrorist tactics to try to advance their political causes.

Brown also nicely demolishes Dawkins’ apologia for the crimes of atheist China and the USSR,

Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.”

Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists. The claim that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book, but it has competition from a later question, “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief [atheism]?”—as if the armies of the French revolution had marched under icons of the Virgin, or as if a common justification offered for China’s invasion of Tibet had not been the awful priest-ridden backwardness of the Dalai Lama’s regime.

One might argue that a professor of the public understanding of science has no need to concern himself with trivialities outside his field like the French revolution, the Spanish civil war or Stalin’s purges when he knows that history is on his side. “With notable exceptions, such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people play lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” Really? “The majority of us don’t cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said.” Do the Chinese believe in free speech? Does Dawkins think that pious Catholics or Muslims are allowed to? Does he believe in it himself? He quotes later in the book approvingly and at length a speech by his friend Nicholas Humphrey which argued that, “We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out.” But of course, it’s not interfering with free speech when atheists do it.

As I’ve said before, if this is the best atheism has to offer, I’ll take my chances with the Christians.