University Of Liverpool Public Lecture Series
(28th February 2008)
As far as academic ape descendents go, Richard Dawkins is a very interesting
one. He must be, because when he gave a lecture at the Philharmonic, almost
1,600 of his fellow homo sapiens packed into the venue, and a few more
stayed outside, waving placards and protesting that he was making 'a monkey'
out of people.
Dawkins began with a kind of evolutionary theory 101, which I suspect
was pretty basic stuff to everyone inside the hall, although those placard
wavers could have done with a primer. Alas, he was giving an ironic new
meaning to the phrase 'preaching to the converted'.
The second half of Dawkins' performance was more intriguing, as he moved
into the territory he explored in his controversial 2006 bestseller The
God Delusion. The professor of biology turned intellectual stand-up comedian
as he pointed out absurdity after absurdity in religious belief. For example,
why is okay to call four-year-olds 'Christian', 'Muslim' or 'Jewish',
when it would be considered ridiculous to describe them as 'liberal',
'conservative' or 'neo-Marxist'? And how can we sleep at night when so
many Americans believe that the world is 6,000 years old, a misjudgement
equivalent to imagining it's only 7.8 yards from New York to San Francisco?
Dawkins hopes that atheism can advance through this kind of 'consciousness
raising', and drew a parallel with the feminist movement of the last century.
But this is clearly a poor comparison. Ideas don't become popular just
because people come across them. Ideas about sexual equality predate the
1900s, but it wasn't until then that society had developed enough for
them to be given anything like a decent hearing. Indeed, many women came
to realise they were being discriminated against without reading Mary
Wollstonecraft or hearing about the suffragettes. They examined their
own lives, and came to their own conclusions. The Christian protesters
were outside the Philharmonic for a reason.
But what was that reason? After Dawkins had finished his lecture, he
took questions from the audience. Drawing on his work on genetics, one
woman asked him what evolutionary advantage a capacity for religious belief
gives an individual. The professor answered that it probably isn't an
advantage in itself, but could be the by-product of an adaptation that
There may well be some truth in this. But what that doesn't explain is
why people with the strongest religious belief tend to be those with the
least to thank their God for in terms of their position on Earth. Why
is it that on a global level, people in the poorest countries seem to
be the most devout? In this wealthy but horrifically unequal nation, Christianity
is in steep decline, but why are those who are 'born again' almost always
coming through some kind of life crisis? Genetics in its current form
cannot fully address these questions.
Dawkins' 1976 biologist's bible The Selfish Gene does seem to offer some
clues, although he backed away from making sociologically radical conclusions
at the time. Contrary to popular belief, the title doesn't refer to a
'gene for selfishness', but rather to the idea that genes themselves are
‘selfish’, pursuing their own reproduction. Organisms from
the earliest single-celled ones onwards have adapted to their material
environments, and that has resulted in us, here and now. You are a ‘survival
machine’ for your genes that is reading this review because it seems
like the best strategy for your genetic replication.
The same logically applies to being part of a religious community. It
might turn out to be a bad strategy, but the important thing is that it
seems like the best strategy to the religious person. Until their circumstances
change, and another strategy seems to suit better, they will continue
to follow it, down whatever road that takes them. With that in mind, it
is a bit grubby, sneering and sanctimonious to look down on believers
in the way that Dawkins seems to.
Read review of
Comment left by Marc Woolfall on 20th March, 2008 at 13:13
There is definitely an evolutionary advantage for people to recognise patterns. As for the poorest people and those in a crisis being the most religious: they have the most to gain in belief in the afterlife. In terms of natural selection, flase hope is better than none at all!
Comment left by charles wressell on 14th April, 2008 at 11:20
false hope is useless, replace hope with truthful education, the ability to think and to reason and to read
Comment left by Matt Saunders on 24th April, 2008 at 14:45
Thanks for the review. I went to see Dawkins and was disappointed that he didn't make many good arguments. Just a whole load of flawed ones in rapid succession. I was disappointed he didn't address many of the questions opposed to his arguments and spent more time appealing to peoples emotions than to their intellect. For example, he used repeated images of violence involving people from religious backgrounds.
Comment left by Matt Saunders on 24th April, 2008 at 14:51
Apologies for the extra post, but had to add this.
I found Dawkins contradictory. On the one hand he spent time making outrageous statements about religious people (muslims christians etc). Along the lines of us all blowing each other up and causing wars. Yet on the other hand he expressed quite a dislike to derogatory comments aimed at atheists, claiming that it had nothing to do with atheism.... hmmmmm
Comment left by Marc Woolfall on 30th April, 2008 at 11:39
Maybe you should read the book Matt, the arguments are explained more thoroughly in there.