I haven’t read much Dawkins recently, largely because it feels like the eminent zoologist has been submerged beneath the militant atheist and it’s all getting a bit silly. (Why define yourself by something you’re not? I mean, I can’t play the piano, but I don’t call myself an ‘apianist’.)
Here’s why I believe his voice of reason is now doing rationalism a disservice.
If you debate religionistas by asking them to prove their theories, you’re giving the assorted god hypotheses (all 250,000 of them) an authority they don’t deserve. Can a few ancient myths written down by Hebrew scribes match the modern scientific method as a means of explaining nature? Of course not. Yet Dawkins tries to debate those myths in terms of their scientific accuracy. Not only is he using the wrong weapons; he’s in the wrong bloody arena.
What Dawkins should be doing is taking the debate up a notch: to the ‘meta’ level.
In short: stop applying the scientific method to the god theory, and start applying it to belief.
If you recontextualise the argument, by trying to understand why people believe in the various god theories, it suddenly becomes much easier to get at the truth. Where Dawkins goes wrong is thinking it’s about guys with halos or pitchforks, and whether they exist. It’s not.
At the meta level, understanding religion is a simple matter of understanding the forces that drive people to believe the totally intangible. Because those forces can be easily understood in rational, scientific terms.
And amusingly, those scientific terms are in the subject area Dawkins knows best: evolution.
100,000 years ago, homo sapiens scratched along by foraging; life was nasty, brutish, and short. If you formed into a small group, life was slightly less nasty. And if that group became a tribe – with divisions of labour and shift systems forming – life became less brutish still. By 5000 years ago, life in some societies could even be called pleasant.
And how do groups form? Simple: people come together when they share a belief.
The most powerful shared beliefs, in prehistory, were those that ‘explained’ the world around us. Great stories that told a tribe’s members who corrugated the land into mountains, who poured rain from the sky, who split the night with lightning. Over time, these shared beliefs became part of the tribe’s culture, holding it together. And making life slightly nicer for its members.
People with nicer lives tend to live longer and have more children. The children who survive (and go on to have children themselves) are those who share the same life-improving beliefs as their parents.
In other words, religious belief is just a useful evolved trait.
This simple thought explains religion, in its entirety.
As an atheist, I can therefore be grateful for the god theory, because I wouldn’t be here without it. Almost every society and civilisation, including my own, grew out of religious belief. It creates a seed bed for culture, enabled cities to grow in medieaval Europe, allowed a man to walk freely across the entire Middle East. Over time, the thousands of creation stories went through their own process of natural selection, and a few big ones – like the Abrahamic religions, variations on a theme – survived and prospered. The stories hardened, got written down, turned into organising structures, and became the scaffolding of a thousand societies.
Definition of an evolved trait: something useful enough to survive into the next generation. And for most of history, being a member of a shared belief system gave you much better survival prospects than not being one. Religion is just an evolved trait.
And that’s the full and complete explanation of religion. If someone protests they ‘have faith’, I can just smile tolerantly and accept it, because I understand why. (I’d prefer it if they embraced rationality instead – I’m troubled by the volume of energy that intelligent and hardworking people devote to such intangibles – but at least I comprehend why they hold the beliefs they do. The sense of comfort that comes from shared belief is hugely important, to many, many people.)
Most importantly, viewing religious belief at the meta level puts such beliefs in proper context: as a component of human behaviour that can be studied and tested. (NOT putting up the straw man of whether it explains reality or not; that’s irrelevant.) In this meta context, someone stating they ‘believe in (a) god’ is perfectly understandable, because you can see why.
It’s possible Dawkins has written about this himself, but he seems to be having a lot of fun simply debunking, which means he’s missing the point.
In my opinion, there’s more fun to be had by taking it up to the meta level. Take one of Dawkin’s pet hates, the USA’s young-earth creationists. Isn’t it fun to know that their opposition to evolution … is itself just an evolved trait?