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Richard Dawkins: Religion as a By Product

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 2:44 pm
by Minimalist
In The God Delusion, Dawkins discusses evolutionary by products. The example he chooses to use is a moth flying into a flame as a demonstration of what we see as abject stupidity. Why would a moth deliberately fly into a flame?

This is not an example of natural selection....it is an example of natural selection gone wrong. Moths evolved to fly at night by using celestial objects as guides: Keep the light source in a certain position and you can navigate, much as we do with a compass which points north. Dawkins notes that it was not until comparatively late in evolutionary history that there was anything like artificial lights to throw off the moths. We see only the moths who get distracted by the flames. We do not see millions of moths who merrily go on their way without self-immolating themselves.

So, what is the Darwinian answer to religion? Dawkins sees it this way.

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff-edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.


Dawkins then continues:

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-produce is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that "Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo" is good advice but "You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail" is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.


The Jesuit maxim "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man" clearly understand the net result of this principle.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 2:49 pm
by rich
One point of wrong tho:

Dawkins notes that it was not until comparatively late in evolutionary history that there was anything like artificial lights to throw off the moths.


What about forest fires? I'm sure they've been around snarin' moths since waaaaaaaay back.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 3:01 pm
by Ishtar
In The Four Horseman, Dawkins et al make the separation between "the numinous and the supernatural."

All four agree that people do have mystic experiences where they feel totally at one with the universe - but then they attribute it to Jesus, or Buddha or someone other such avatar who had nothing to do with the experience.

He says it's almost as if we have to attribute it to something else because we don't want to take responsiblity for it. Maybe this obedience aspect also plays into it.

But this is the cross in the road where religion goes one way, and shamanism another. Shamanism is about taking responsibility for your own experience and the empowerment that that brings. The word 'mage' means 'he who has power' and the word magic and magician derives from it. Religion makes man hand over that power. Shamanism gives it back to him.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 3:05 pm
by rich
If I had real magical powers - I'd use it as often as I could - who cares what someone else wants you to do with it. If it's yours - bwah-hah-hah!!!!! Damn would I have a blast!

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 3:13 pm
by Minimalist
rich wrote:One point of wrong tho:

Dawkins notes that it was not until comparatively late in evolutionary history that there was anything like artificial lights to throw off the moths.


What about forest fires? I'm sure they've been around snarin' moths since waaaaaaaay back.



No doubt they took out their fair share of moths. But, were we standing there wondering why the moths flew into the flames or were we running for our lives in terror?

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 3:14 pm
by Minimalist
All four agree that people do have mystic experiences where they feel totally at one with the universe



Yeah... I had that feeling once. Turned out I was just in a drunken stupor.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 3:15 pm
by rich
Neither - we were havin' a grand ol' barbeque - beer 'n' all! :D

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 5:09 pm
by War Arrow
How to put this diplomatically (and keeping in mind that I'm presently full of beer)?
I agree with Dawkins on a lot of things, though religion is a thorny one. Whilst I take his point (in fact I strongly agree with it) about the negative effect of religion and superstition in general, I wouldn't say that this means that religion by definition always has to be bad in and of itself. If that doesn't make sense, it's the beer.
I'm also dubious about this 'religion as a misfiring impulse' idea. In purely evolutionary terms it seems that religion is a powerful strategy for the survival of a group, a tie that binds if you will. And then of course there's the conscious (and hence I guess non-evolutionary) development of religion as a means of understanding the universe.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 6:00 pm
by Minimalist
He's not saying "good" or "bad" (directly.) What he is explaining is how the idea is an outgrowth of a useful trait (listening to authority) which is taken to extremes.


I will say that, in general, the application is "bad." So you can yell at me instead of Dawkins.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 7:14 pm
by Forum Monk
War Arrow wrote:I'm also dubious about this 'religion as a misfiring impulse' idea. In purely evolutionary terms it seems that religion is a powerful strategy for the survival of a group, a tie that binds if you will. And then of course there's the conscious (and hence I guess non-evolutionary) development of religion as a means of understanding the universe.


I agree wholeheartedly. But don't consider this an endorsement to post while plastered.

PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 11:09 pm
by Ishtar
Forum Monk wrote:
I agree wholeheartedly. But don't consider this an endorsement to post while plastered.


I disagree! :lol:

Keep taking the beer, WA. Great insights! :lol:

PostPosted: Sun Jul 06, 2008 1:13 am
by War Arrow
Thanks all, but please stop shouting.

PostPosted: Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:08 am
by Minimalist
a tie that binds if you will.



It's also a tie that can get you killed. Natural selection does not make value judgments. It rewards successful adaptations and punishes bad ones.

(I'm whispering.)

PostPosted: Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:28 am
by rich
Is that why all things die?? They're all bad adaptations???? :D

PostPosted: Sun Jul 06, 2008 10:16 am
by Ishtar
War Arrow wrote:In purely evolutionary terms it seems that religion is a powerful strategy for the survival of a group, a tie that binds if you will. And then of course there's the conscious (and hence I guess non-evolutionary) development of religion as a means of understanding the universe.


Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

By Philip Larkin, atheist