By Douglas Anele
Dawkins provides an interesting account of the origin of religion. He began by explaining why, for example, moths fly into the candle flame, which seems like suicide (p.201). Dawkins argues that before human beings invented artificial light, the only available sources of illumination in the night scene were the moon and the stars. At optical infinity, these celestial objects are suitable for insects to use as compasses.
Moths depend critically on this, having evolved compound eyes and a nervous system that is adept at setting up a temporary rule of thumb such as: “Steer a course such that the light rays hit your eyes at an angle of 30 degrees”. But the light compass depends crucially on the celestial object being at optical infinity. If it isn’t, the rays are not parallel but diverge like the spokes of a wheel. A moth’s nervous system applying a 30-degree (or any acute angle) rule of thumb to a nearby candle as though it were the moon or stars at optical infinity will steer the insect through a spiral trajectory into the flame.
Dawkins believes that the same misfiring mechanism is largely responsible for the emergence of religion, that religion is an unintended and accidental by-product of a psychological disposition in humans. He suggests, tentatively, that the counterpart to the moth’s habit of navigating by celestial light compasses, the primitively advantageous trait in humans that sometimes misfires to generate religion, is the unquestioning obedience by children of orders given by parents and tribal elders, especially when the latter adopt a solemn, minatory tone (p.205).
This proneness to uncritical acceptance of orders has an adaptive value, because more than any other species, humans survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations which has to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Additionally, it saves time that might be spent in ratiocinating, when prompt action (for example, speedy escape from a wild animal or avoidance of danger of any kind) is needed for survival.
Human beings appear to be psychologically primed for religion. The human brain is a collection of organs or modules for dealing with a set of specialist data-processing needs, including the need for forming theories of other minds and of reality in general, for forming relationships and for discriminating in favour of in-group members and against strangers.
Dawkins asserts that “Any of these could serve as the human equivalent of the moths’ celestial navigation, vulnerable to misfiring in the same kind of way…[as] childhood gullibility” (p.209). He summarises four lessons from contemporary evolutionary psychology and anthropology on how religions spring up almost from nothing.
First, religion and cults emerge at astonishing speed. Second, the origination process covers its tracks very quickly. Third, there is remarkable similarity in the religions and cults that had evolved worldwide, which tells us something about human psychology and its proneness to religion.
Finally, widespread religions and cults usually begin as local cults. The deaths of charismatic modern figures such as Haile Selassie, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and, I might add, Michael Jackson and Osama bin Laden, present opportunities for investigating the rapid emergence of cults and their subsequent memetic evolution (p.239).
“The roots of morality: why are we good?” is the title of Chapter 6. Dawkins began discussions in it by citing instances of hatred and warped moral indignation which believers manifest towards people that do not share their faith (p.241-245). He mentions kinship and reciprocation as the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world. He also suggests that, because language and gossip are part of human society, reputation is an important substructure atop the two twin pillars of good conduct.
Accordingly, there are four good reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or “moral” towards one another. To begin with, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Two, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours received, and the giving of favours in anticipation of payback.
Three, we have the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And, four, conspicuous generosity (which is related to what social scientists call the Veblen effect) is beneficial as a way of buying authentic advertising. Dawkins pointed to researches conducted by the Harvard biologist, Marc Hauser and moral philosopher, Peter Singer, in which three hypothetical moral dilemmas were posed and believers and atheists were asked to respond to them. The study concluded that there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in their responses to the dilemmas.
This strongly suggests that we do not need God in order to be good or evil, according to Dawkins (p.258). In chapter 7, under the title “The ‘Good’ Book and the changing moral Zeigeist”, Dawkins tries to establish that people who claim to derive their morals from scripture do not really do so in practice.
He analysed the moral values implicit and explicit in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, and argued correctly that if most people, especially Christians, actually patterned their behaviour according to those values, they would strictly observe the Sabbath, and think it fair and appropriate to execute anyone who doesn’t.
They would stone to death any new bride who failed to prove that she was a virgin on her wedding night, and execute disobedient children (p.283). Of course, Muslims have also carried out totally unjustifiable acts of destruction in the name of religious piety: the talibans’ demolition of 150-foot-high Bamiyan Buddha statues in the mountains of Afghanistan, the destruction of valuable historical artifacts in Mecca to preserve the practice of Islamic monotheism, and the extant law which prescribes beheading of idolators in Saudi Arabia are typical examples.
But if any Christian believes that although the Old Testament obviously recommended cruel and inhuman practices and that the New Testament with its “gentle, meek, and mild” Jesus ameliorates the damage and makes it okay, Dawkins did not waste time to explode such thought into smithereens. Yet he acknowledged that morally speaking, compared to the bloodthirsty and wicked Yahweh of the Old Testament, the story of Jesus in the New Testament is a huge improvement (p.283). To be continued.