TGD – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is titled “The Roots of Religion”. In all honesty I was expecting it to be a bunch of accusations of ancient liars and why they chose to deceive all of mankind. In fact, that was not at all what it was about.

Instead Dawkins sets out to answer a very important question. He readily admits that the prevalence of religion creates a hurdle that the Darwinian atheist must overcome. Because religion is prevalent, it is incumbent on them to come up with a plausible natural selection reason why religion is so ubiquitous.

He freely admits that the argument that religion can be “selection neutral” won’t suffice because religion takes so much time and effort that for the time alone there must be some offsetting factor.

He starts out with a few half hearted examples of direct advantages of religion. He mentions some study results that suggest religion helps with stress and reduces stress related death. He also mentions the placebo affect, that being told the God may heal you could help from a placebo effect perspective. But in the end you can tell these are half hearted and Dawkins doesn’t want to admit there are any direct advantages to religion. That wouldn’t help his cause.

Instead he focuses on two other theories.

The first is the idea of “group selection” which is a derivative of natural selection. If a group of people can instill characteristics in their people that helps that group survive whereas other groups wither away, those characteristics will survive. He mentions things like loyalty and being willing to die to protect the group, something that doesn’t help the individual but would help the group as being possible examples. But again, he doesn’t put too much weight in this theory either. Even this sort of a concession seems to trouble Dawkins.

Instead he moves on to the theory he puts the most weight in, that genetic characteristics can be tied together. He didn’t use this example, but one would be if red hair and high sperm counts were genetically tied, red hair people would be genetically superior even though there was no specific natural selection advantage to their red hair.

After a long explanation using moths that I thought could have been far more succinct (like my red hair example) he goes on to the hypothesis he backs which is that obedience is tied to religion and that obedience is a good trait for survival. He specifically mentions how obedience to one’s parents is a good thing (why do I suspect that he’ll be coming back to the parental obedience thing since he’s already played out the “we’re slaves to the religion of our parents” meme in earlier chapters?)

But again, he freely admits that he has no evidence of genetic linking of religion to obedience nor any scientific evidence that obedience, particularly to one’s parents, is a natural selection benefit. He also admits that he doesn’t feel compelled to actually know the specific answer of the genetic advantage whether it be direct, group, or associative. Merely the possibility that there is an answer is sufficient.

And I think that’s the thing that I find most strange, despite admiring his honesty. He’s spent a whole bunch of time criticizing what the religious person believes on faith, but then is seemingly oblivious to how many areas he has “faith” that an answer exists out there somewhere and he freely admits that he doesn’t have proof of it or even know what it is yet.

He seems to have this trend of wrapping of the chapter with some sort of an aside, ones I think Dawkins believes elaborates on his point. In this one he brings up the example of “Cargo Cults” which according to Dawkins are a group of small religions groups in the South Pacific who are very recent in time. His point seems threefold. One, that they’re idiots because they took the arrival of westerners as signs of an arriving diety. Two, that these religious groups have morphed their beliefs really quickly and any historicity of their claims of only 50 years ago are dubious. Three, that independently these groups have seemed to come up with similar themes to their religion.

Of course the fact that one religious group has done stupid things is no more proof of the existence or non existence of God nor the wisdom of any other religion than the fact that there have been a plethora of scientists who have advanced theories that have turned out turned out to be incorrect proves that God doesn’t exist. Nevertheless he somehow sees this as a significant data point for some reason beyond my grasp.

On to Chapter 6…

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