Lately I have been reading several books by Richard Dawkins, a biologist and strong promoter of atheism. I started with his book An Appetite for Wonder which is an autobiographical sketch of his own life and how he became interested in his main speciality,
biology and especially Darwinism.
Dawkins is a very intelligent writer and easy to read. He is also a recognized scientist in his own field and has, among other accomplishments, developed the idea of the “extended phenotype” about which I intend to read in more detail and which he himself describes as his most important work.
I share the same appetite for wonder that Dawkins describes in his own life, but my sense of wonder leads me to a different set of conclusions from Dawkins.
Dawkins also wrote another book, Outgrowing God, specifically promoting his own ideas on atheism. There he develops arguments for abandoning the notion of God based on the foundation that the many beliefs that have existed through the ages are not supported by science and are even harmful. Many of his points are not new, but he does have a flair for writing that makes him enjoyable to read.
His key point is that the whole paradigm of a creator God is not justified by science and that many of the traditional concepts from religion – and specifically the Christian religion – are unsupportable, outmoded and even harmful. His arguments against belief in God – any God – are “well taken” in the sense that the cultures and paradigms in which most present day religions have been originally framed are no longer accepted in modern educated society.
For example, Biblical references to such things as the earth being created before the stars (Genesis: Chap.1, 9-14) have no credence among educated and scientifically literate people. In that sense, one can also say that scientific ideas from those same time periods are also no longer valid – in fact “scientific ideas” as a concept did not exist. It is only in the last few hundred years that the scientific paradigm has been constructed and most religions were founded long before that. Off-shoots of foundation religions, such as the Protestant Reformation against the Roman Catholic Church and the notion of new interpretations of older religious ideas and concepts have for the most part developed over the same time period.
In fact, Dawkins, who is a strong promoter of The Darwinian theory of evolution and the further developments in that theory, seems to ignore the “evolution” that has taken place in religious ideas in general and spends quite a bit of time kicking down straw dogs of “old time religion “ such as the vengeful or jealous God pictured in the Old Testament. His basic thesis though, that the whole notion of God should simply be thrown out because it has done more harm than good is a point that deserves some discussion and response.
Few of us could argue that religion – in particular institutional religion – has not done harm. Perhaps in defence of religion as a general concept one should say great harm has been done by people in the name of religion and in turn in name of “God” as perceived or imagined by them. It is true that what people believe in and specifically what they believe their God wants them to do has often resulted in great harm to others.
In our own recent times we have the seemingly ongoing saga of scandals and crimes committed by the Roman Catholic Church – or, as the standard defence seems to be – by particular individuals in the church. There are the long and seemingly endless revelations of sexual abuse of young people by clergy going back decades. More recently there is the sad history of the Church’s role in residential schools in Canada, where the Roman Catholic Church actively served the Canadian government in running residential schools adjacent to Aboriginal reservations and communities for the express purpose of wiping out Native culture.
There is really no excuse or defence for any of these terrible events and of course someone like Dawkins could point out that historically the Church has been involved in many horrible examples of cruel and inhumane behaviour. The Inquisition and the Crusades come to mind, as well as the accusations of “not doing” the right thing, such as not doing enough to oppose Nazi oppression of the Jews in German occupied Europe during that era.
To return to Dawkins’ point that religion and belief in God needs to be abandoned – outgrown, to use the expression in his title – because of the harm that has been done in the name of religious belief, and continues to be done, I would posit that there are examples of great harm being done by non-religious, even officially atheist states. Human beings have never needed religion as a reason to do evil to one another. In our own present day we have political empires like Communist China which actively discourages religion – not only Western religions like Christianity and Islam but also traditional Chinese religion. This has not prevented The People’s Republic of China from doing great harm to its own people inside its borders, such as the persecution of Uyghurs or of democracy advocates in Hong Kong. Dawkins himself offers very little in the way of a better alternative prescription for encouraging ideal human behaviour.
In fact Dawkins seems to offer very little more than the assumed hope that through education and perhaps through enlightened self interest human society might come to behave more morally – although he also rejects absolute moral imperatives such as what is good or virtuous.
These concepts do change with time, history and context – not only within religions but in society generally. In spite of the fact that Dawkins is a proponent of evolution he leaves little room for discussion of evolution of religious ideas or of social or ethical concepts. In fact his main thesis throughout his writings is his focus on the gene as the agency of evolution, including the evolution of behaviour – in animals generally but also by default in humans.
The survival and ongoing reproduction of any and all particular genotypes is what drives the dynamics of nature, in his view. He does present some very strong cases and I agree generally with many of the notions that he advances. Sometimes it takes a bit of contriving on his part to explain in terms of gene survival just how some behaviours come into being and persist in different species. In this respect, Dawkins books are very interesting in their own right and I learned a lot of new facts and ideas that I had not been aware of.
For example, in his book An Appetite for Wonder Dawkins describes around page 245 and following pages his early research on animal behaviour. In the course of his discussion he cites a poem by Bert Leston Taylor describing a feature of dinosaurs that I knew nothing about: because of the very long spinal cord in some species and the long time for information to move from the tail to the brain, there was a second “brain” (enlarged ganglion) in the pelvis. The poem is quite witty as Dawkins says – even going so far as wishing he had written some of the lines:
Behold the mighty dinosaur, Famous in prehistoric lore, Not only for his power and strength But for his intellectual length. You will observe by these remains The creature had two sets of brains - One in his head (the usual place), The other at his spinal base. Thus he could reason ‘A Priori’ As well as ‘A Posteriori’. No problem bothered him a bit He made a head and tail of it. So wise was he, so wise and solemn, Each thought filled just one spinal column. If one brain found the pressure strong It passed a few ideas along. If something slipped his forward mind ‘Twas rescued by the one behind And if in error he was caught He had a saving afterthought. As he thought twice before he spoke He had no judgement to revoke. Thus he could think without congestion Upon both sides of every question. Oh, gaze upon this model beast, Defunct ten million years at least.
I agree with Dawkins in the delicious wit in every line of that poem and wanted to make sure I had a place to save it. There is also the impressive irony, probably intended by the author of the poem (with whom I am not familiar): despite the remarkable achievement of “this model beast” having evolved “two sets of brains” the creature is extinct “ten million years at least” presumably by some random act of natural selection such as a large meteor hitting planet Earth. Not even two sets of brains is enough to allow the creature to escape the Darwinian dictum – survival of the fittest.
And this seems to be a key point of Dawkins’ promotion of his atheism – that there is no purpose in the grand scheme of things for creatures such as ourselves. Rather we are “vehicles” (to use the term he uses often) of the real drivers of evolution – the genes. It is, in his view, the survival of the genes and their evolving genotypes that is crucial to life and all the “phenotypes” (the large scale outcome of genes acting in huge collection of cells, like our bodies) are primarily just carriers and spreaders of the genes.
I found many of the examples of the myriad of living creatures he cites in his books fascinating and I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about biology or genetics. I can certainly recommend reading his books, especially for the enjoyment of his writing and for learning new things.
Where I differ substantially, however, is in the idea of purpose and particularly in the existence of consciousness or self-consciousness generally, as the concept applies to our own existence as human beings. The “problem” of the conscious mind is one which he does try to describe or explain in terms of the evolution of genes, and discussing his ideas in detail in this regard is the subject of a future blog. I also want to spend time on his notion of “memes” – a term he claims to have invented and with strong evidence to support this claim, and on the notion of “extended phenotype”. Both of which play an important part in his approach to our own consciousness as human beings and which I also find intriguing and interesting to use as tools for understanding ourselves – but again with a quite different result from Dawkins with respect to religious belief.
For now though I want to discuss a bit more on Dawkins’ specific book An Appetite for
Wonder and how I think it shows some interesting insight into his own background and motivations. When I first started reading his book I skipped what I thought would be boring, irrelevant “stuff” about Dawkins and also skipped his description of his research career and polemics on atheism. However later on I read the “boring” introductory sections and found some interesting facets of the man. He was born and raised in what I would describe as an elite social setting and attended what I take to be among the best schools in England. In describing his ancestors he states of his forebears “…and all followed their father into Colonial Service…” In another passage he refers to his family being “…carried around in Moses baskets slung from poles by trusty bearers…”
I was struck by these passages but also by the mere passing reference to them and no mention at all of the negative and destructive consequences of British Colonialism. There seemed to be no consideration at all of the lives and effects on the “trusty bearers”. I found it ironic indeed that one of the titles given one of his ancestors was “Chief Conservator of Forests in the district of India” – which meant they were in charge of exploiting the forests of India – to the benefit of themselves and Britain – certainly not to the benefit of the people of India.
Dawkins does say at this point that “ I tried to convey the idea that, although there was much that was bad in the British Colonial Service, the best was very good indeed…” It would be nice to hear more of what was bad since there is no shortage of his descriptions of what was bad about Christianity – nor of what might have been “very good indeed” about British Colonialism.
Dawkins does state that had he lived in earlier times he might have been a “clergyman too” (like some of his ancestors). He goes on to say, “I have always been interested in the deep questions of existence, the questions that religion aspires (and fails) to answer, but I have been fortunate to live in a time when such questions are given scientific rather than supernatural answers.”
There is lots to respond to and discuss in this brief summary of Dawkins’ upbringing and mindset and I look forward to writing a bit more on his ideas after reading the Extended Phenotype. For now I will respond to this last statement I quoted by pointing out that it is possible (and necessary, as far as I am concerned) to incorporate our scientific culture into those very deep questions about our own existence – and to allow and encourage the resulting “evolution” of religious thought and experience that can come from that and has in fact, already come from such an incorporation.
One such example that comes to my mind is Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Here is an example of a clearly scientific mind applying his work to modern psychology and at the same time maintaining a deep and inclusive religious belief. Discussing Frankl’s work and ideas would be a separate set of blogs in itself, but I am just making the point that, contrary to Dawkins’ many assertions, an appreciation of science and a sense of wonder by no means requires one to reject one’s belief in God – it does require us to modify, refine, and find new truths in our search for God – and in our search for meaning behind our existence.
As I have said before, to me, applying the many new ideas and concepts humankind has developed in the last several centuries, leads us naturally to the notion that we are an integral part of the Universe we are examining and learning about. We are a tiny piece of the Totality that has somehow (and possibly for some reason) has evolved the conscious ability to comprehend the Universe itself – when we think, we are a very tiny part of the Universe that is Itself thinking about itself.
Pursuing science and satisfying our own appetites for wonder is, to me, delightful and inseparable from pursuing our own yearning for meaning and a sense of purpose. The development of human knowledge has meant that the paradigms that religion was framed in have had to change. The need for some kind of religious purpose that we continually seek has not changed and we can delight in all scientific discovery as part of the ongoing adventure of discovering ourselves and the nature and meaning of our existence.