This post is part of a series on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The previous post covered Chapters 3 & 4.
In continuing my discussion of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, we will be moving on to chapters 5 and 6 and talking about the origin of religion in human evolution as well as morality. There is less material to cover in this post, but I think the intersection of moral ontology and atheism is one of the most interesting topics in the debate between atheism and theism, so I’ve been looking forward to this post.
The Roots of Religion
I have no problem with almost everything Dawkins says in this chapter about how religion might have naturally evolved among humans. If atheism is true, religion naturally evolved; if theism is true, religion could still have naturally evolved as supervised (with or without intervention) by God, so this isn’t a problem for me. That said, this was still a really interesting discussion.
Dawkins primarily compares two mainstream theories about how religion evolved: the adaptive theory and the by-product theory. The adaptive theory is that religious belief is somehow directly beneficial to the species, and therefore was cultivated by natural selection. The by-product theory, on the other hand, says that religion is not directly beneficial, but instead is a by-product of something else (or probably multiple other things) that are beneficial.
He uses smart (in my estimation) reasoning to argue that it’s difficult to say that religion evolved purely because it’s beneficial, since, in spite of any goods that religion provides, it also generates a lot of things that hurt survival chances like martyrs, angst, and dissension. On the other hand, religious belief could easily be a byproduct of, for instance, a combination of the trait of mindlessly trusting authority and a natural tendency to detect agency in things. It’s helpful to trust authority because, broadly speaking, what our tribe and our parents teach us about the world around us is hugely helpful in keeping an individual— who starts out clearly knowing nothing—alive to reproduce. And it’s better to, when in doubt, assume there’s a “mind” (an agent) behind things in the world than to not; just think of encountering a new, strange predator out in the wild.
Probably the most entertaining part of the entire book, and one of my favorites sections in general, was his discussion of cargo cults. I think I had vaguely heard of them before, but had no idea just how striking they were and what they revealed about how religious belief can form. The fact that, as part of their ritual, members (“priests”?) would pretend to talk on fake radios made out of bamboo is perhaps the most perfect expression ever found of the idea that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Dawkins, in another part of the book, also mentions the split-second creation of an entire religion that happens in one scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Undoubtedly, humans turn to religious belief very, very easily.
Like I said, this all makes a lot of sense, and I don’t have much of a problem with it, since even if Christianity is true God could’ve easily used a natural process to generate true beliefs (in this case, regarding his existence) or at least prime them to accept true religious beliefs.
Stepping back, I think it’s still significant that, as Dawkins points out in this chapter, every known culture has had religion (or a “lust of gods” as Dawkins calls it). There hasn’t been a single culture throughout all of known human history that hasn’t believed in the supernatural. There have been people-groups that didn’t know how to count past three, but none without a god. That doesn’t prove anything either way, but I still think it’s significant.
The Roots of Morality
Dawkins begins the next chapter on the roots of morality by giving a sampling of the nasty emails and letters he’s gotten from believers, ones that talk about how they will enjoy seeing Dawkins suffer eternally in hell and other similarly pleasant notions. Let me begin this section by saying I’m one hundred percent with Dawkins in saying that that is truly abhorrent. In fact, since I was young, I’ve really hated how cavalier many Christians are when they talk about hell and damnation. It’s as if they never really stop and think about what the traditional hell would be like (which I don’t believe in anyway1), and what it may say about them that they can so flippantly wish someone to end up there.
It goes without saying that the way many people who claim to be Christians act and talk is completely at odds with the character of Christ, and these letters to Dawkins are very good examples of that. And while I acknowledge that the fact that there is that discrepancy could be used as an argument against Christianity (which I don’t think there’s time to go into), ultimately we should put way more weight on judging Christianity based on actual Christian teachings than how some poor examples of its followers behave.
Moving on, Dawkins spends the rest of the chapter discussing how our moral senses could have evolved. He goes through four different aspects of morality that could have given it an advantage in natural selection: protecting your tribe or kinsmen, reciprocation, reputation enhancing, and status defining (the one who gives could be seen as “greater” than the one who receives). When it comes to examples that seem to defy any natural selection advantage, say, helping someone outside your clan, it’s because of a side-effect from something else (e.g. helping someone out who is in your clan and therefore shares your genes).
He then moves on to discussing studies that show how deeply ingrained a general moral sensibility is within us. Cross-culturally, people answer roughly the same way to the same moral thought experiments. Dawkins here is saying this to show that we don’t get our morality from a book (i.e. the Bible), but that it’s already within us due to millions of years of evolution.
Similarly to his discussion of how religious belief evolved, I was perfectly happy with his discussion of how morality could’ve had an evolutionary advantage, and really enjoyed reading his thoughts on this topic. However, the first section where I really start to part ways with him is the assumption that Christians believe that humans can only get their morality from the Bible. As Paul describes in Romans, Christians recognize God has “written his law on their hearts2” (and evolution would be a perfectly fine way to do that). Not to put too fine a point on it, but you obviously don’t need to have read the Bible to feel guilty about committing murder.
The interesting thing about the case Dawkins has laid out here is that it actually supports what I think is one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God: namely the existence of objective morality. Dawkins has shown how deeply ingrained a common morality is in all cultures worldwide, even to the point— as he describes—where we sense it better than we can often articulate it. We can sense why it’s wrong to push an innocent bystander onto the train tracks to slow down and stop a train full of people from going off a cliff even if we can’t say exactly why it is wrong. This is a crucial first step showing that morality is not purely relative. If it were, you would find wildly different moral systems in every culture, but we’ve found the opposite—always a common baseline moral sense, as Dawkins forcibly argues.
Does Objective Morality Exist?
There is an elephant in the room at this point however, and Dawkins seems to barely address it. Even if our morals senses are similar worldwide, how do we know they are not arbitrary and ultimately illusory due to the nature of how evolution operates?
Dawkins seems to try to answer this by analogy, saying that knowing the reason for sexual reproduction and how it evolved doesn’t demean or reduce its value. However, there is a big difference. We can imagine sex being different. It might seem strange to us to imagine sex working differently, but I don’t think it would disturb anyone on a deep level to think of it working differently. However, morality is in a different category, because it can be quite disturbing to think of morality evolving differently than it did. What if we evolved to think that rape is appropriate in certain circumstances due to its reproductive advantage? Or throwing out unwanted babies or even killing full grown adults who were unfit for the tribe? Examples abound of these sorts of acts in the animal kingdom, so it seems quite possible we could’ve evolved that way. But there is something deeply disturbing about picturing a world that way. On the other hand, it’s not particularly disturbing to imagining evolving so that, say, we have six fingers instead of five.
To underline this dilemma for the atheist, I want to share a verbatim exchange radio host Justin Brierley had with Richard Dawkins, as documented in the former’s book Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists I’m Still a Christian:
Justin Brierley (JB): But if we’d evolved into a society where rape was considered fine, would that mean that rape is fine?
Richard Dawkins (RD): I don’t want to answer that question. It’s enough for me to say that we live in a society where it’s not considered fine. We live in a society where selfishness, failure to pay your debts, failure to reciprocate favours is regarded askance. That is the society in which we live. I’m very glad – that’s a value judgement – glad that I live in such a society.
JB: But when you make a value judgement don’t you yourself immediately step outside this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good… is that it’s good? And you don’t have any way to stand on that statement.
RD: My value judgement itself could come from my evolutionary past.
JB: So therefore it’s just as random, in a sense, as any product of evolution.
RD: You could say that. In any case, nothing about it makes it more probable that there is anything supernatural.
JB: OK. But ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.
RD: You could say that, yeah.
Contrary to Dawkins’ view that morality is arbitrary, our moral intuition presses heavily on us that some things are truly, objectively wrong. Every fiber in our being tells us that torturing a child is and always will be a truly evil act, regardless of how we might evolve in the future to think of it. If Hitler had won the war and the Nazis took over (or killed) everything to the point that there was not a single person on the planet that disagreed with their master plan, we intuitively think it would still be morally wrong to murder an entire people group, regardless of the fact that no one in this hypothetical world would agree with us. According to Dawkins’ view though, it seems like the Nazis would at least in some sense be morally right, since evolution, and therefore those who survive, are the ones that dictate what truly is Right and Wrong3.
If Christianity is true, the reason genocide is evil is because all humans are made in God’s image. It’s very hard to articulate the same idea on atheism without importing assumptions or creating a circular argument. If atoms, cells, and natural selection are all there is, then why couldn’t the human race evolve to a new stage where, say, eugenics is a socially acceptable practice, implemented so that the gene pool becomes healthier over time? What is the argument against that? Improving the gene pool is in fact exactly what evolution does: it aims for survival, and eugenics arguably would improve that.
The Problem of Good
This argument, called the Moral Argument for God, is subtle but powerful. The first few times I heard it, it didn’t quite sink in and seem forceful. But the deeper I thought about it, the more I realized that if atheism is true our moral intuitions are no more special than the fact that we have five fingers instead of six, just as Dawkins implied above. We might prefer five fingers, but if our children’s children evolve to have six, who’s to say that’s “better” or “worse?” It literally isn’t. Evolution doesn’t have the concept of better or worse, except for what survives. So if humans evolve to accept eugenics, who are we to say that’s wrong? We are the ones in the past! We are by definition on the wrong side of history from an evolutionary standpoint. And since there is no transcendent reality beyond the physical world there is no objective standard of morality to measure against. If society evolves to accept rape in certain circumstances or eugenics, who are we to declare that “wrong?”
The reason the atheist can’t morally judge another culture (or time period) is due to what’s called the Is-Ought Problem in philosophy. Put simply, science and reason can only tell us the facts about the world; they tell us nothing about how things ought to be. We can talk about the history of WWII, but studying its history doesn’t tell us that the Nazis were wrong. We know that genocide and therefore the Nazis were wrong by our moral intuition, not by historical investigation. But on atheism, that intuition simply came from evolution and is therefore arbitrary and without a goal and is no more binding on us than it is on spiders that they should build webs. If spiders evolve to shoot projectiles at their prey instead of build webs, who are we to say that’s “wrong” and that they should build webs instead. Evolution has made its choice and who are we to question that?
I should note that not all atheists take Dawkins’ approach of accepting the ultimate subjectivity of morality. Plenty of them try to hold onto some form of objectively morality, but it can be quite challenging to understand what foundation they use to ground it. One atheist expert in the philosophy of ethics, Erik Wielenberg, even goes so far to suggest that objective morals are grounded in platonic forms that exist beyond the natural world4. Here you have the case of an atheist philosopher going so far to declare that there are (essentially) supernatural moral entities that serve as our objective moral standard. I hope the irony does not go unnoticed. Needless to say, finding a way to hold onto any form of objectively morality, or building a robust ethical philosophy without objective morality, is a huge challenge for the atheist, and one that can seem insurmountable.
I want to be as clear as possible that I of course do not think Dawkins actually approves of the Nazi regime or that atheists cannot be moral. Of course atheists can be moral! What I’m trying to analyze here instead is the nature and foundation of that moral intuition we all naturally apprehend.