In this part of my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I come to the chapter where Dawkins discusses the roots of religion. These next two chapters, this on the origin of Religion and the next on the origin of Morality both suffer from a problem that is common not just to atheist, or even to science but to everyone: the freedom of speculation, in absence of evidence.
This is quite visible when Dawkins discusses the habit of some birds to bath in ant nests, which is called anting. Dawkins says “Nobody is sure what the benefit of anting is… but uncertainty as to the details doesn’t – nor should it – stop Darwinians from presuming, with great confidence, that anting must be ‘for’ something.” (pg 164)
While not an entirely unwarranted conclusion, it clearly does not derive from the evidence, for by Dawkins own admission, no one knows what it is for. Instead it derives from Dawkins’ faith in Darwinian evolution. His faith in evolution, is part of his world view, and shapes and in some cases determines the conclusions he reaches, particularly in those areas where there are gaps in his knowledge.
Again there is nothing unusual about this. We all do it. Christians have certain beliefs about the universe and God, and when we come to things that are unknown, we attempt to fill in the gaps the best we can based on how we see the world. There is no problem for Christianity here as many Christians realize this, and acknowledge the role that faith plays. The problem is that most atheists are very critical of Christians for relying on faith, not realizing that they are doing the same thing.
The reliance of faith is likewise behind Dawkins belief that there must be some evolutionary benefit to religion. This claim is a natural outgrowth of his rejection of God and the supernatural; and his faith in evolution. Dawkins is not reaching this as a conclusion of his study of religion; it is his starting point for understanding of religion.
In short, he starts with a huge bias that will permit only certain types of answers. Sure, anyone who likewise rejects religion and accepts evolution, might find his explain, that religion is a by-product of the evolution of memes; the cultural equivalents to biological genes, acceptable. However, Dawkins is hardly driven to that conclusion by the evidence.
This leads to yet another problem, for there is really very little evidence for Dawkins claims about the origin of religion, and most of what there is comes from other areas of science that also have an a priori rejection of the supernatural. Now when dealing with physics and chemistry, an a priori rejection of the supernatural, is not much of an issue. But when dealing areas such a psychology, it does become a factor, and when dealing with the psychology of religious belief, becomes key.
In short, this chapter basically boils down to biased speculation. It cannot be taken as an argument against religion, and to his credit Dawkins does not really try to do this. If he did, he would immediately fall into the fallacy of circular reasoning, as the ending premise and starting premise would both be: religion is false. Instead, Dawkins is trying to clear up some questions that follow from his main argument discussed early, that the God does not exist.
Still his arguments in this chapter seems to be more than just a dispassionate analysis of the possible origins of religion once it is accepted that God does not exist. Dawkins seems driven to defend his hostility to religion. He admits that this puts him in a quandary for if religion is so negative, how can it be the evolutionary benefit it must be to exist in the Darwinian worldview.
But it is not much of a quandary. Freed from constrains of facts and evidence, for there is very little in this area, Dawkins is pretty much free to speculate anything he wants, limited only by his own imagination, and naturalistic bias.
Such speculation is routinely condemned by atheists when theist engage in it, but the label of science puts a veneer of respectability on Dawkins speculations, as if labeling them as science somehow magically gives them some sort of special standing above other more ordinary speculations. Since they are ‘science,’ they are more readily accepted into the mental framework and then become the basis upon which other speculations will be judged.
While Christians realize that they have faith in the Biblical accounts and that they are speculating in some cases where we do not really know, most atheists do not realize that they do the same things. Most of them really have no idea of how much speculation and faith underpins that which they believe.
Actually Dawkins summed up the situation pretty well in his first sentence of the chapter, when he said “Everyone has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.” (pg 163) If you exclude a belief in God and sin up front, then one theory for religion is as good as another. Dawkins should have just left it at that.
This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.