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Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson Against the Possibility of the Truth of Religion

The proposal that Darwinism can eliminate the need for theology has been advanced in particular in the writings of:

Richard Dawkins, the ‘selfish gene’ theorist and first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford

Edward O. Wilson, Professor of Entomology at Harvard and one of the founders of sociobiology - the science of explaining the behaviour of complex organisms in terms of their genetic make-up.

also by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who has more recently worked in the field of neurophysiology.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Ch.5, for an assessment of the limited validity of reductionism in neuroscience.

These thinkers have in common a rejection of the possibility that religious propositions about creation could have any validity. They see ideas of God as no more than phenomena in the history of human evolution (see also the science of sociobiology critiques the truth-claims of religion and religion as evolutionary phenomenon.)

Science is an aspect of Western culture which has been very successful in giving certain groups of human beings power over their environment. This gives credibility to attempts by scientific thinkers to reduce religion itself to a phenomenon for examination within the discipline of their science. (These attempts receive much more attention than theological examinations of the bases of scientific exploration.)

At the most polemical end is Dawkins, developing his idea of a ‘meme’, a complex of ideas evolving within a human culture:

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it arose many times by independent ‘mutation’...Why does it have such a high survival value?...What is it about the idea of a god that gives it stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.Dawkins, R, The Selfish Gene (London: Paladin/Granada Publishing, 1978) p207

Any possibility that human ideas of God might reflect in however partial a way the existence of such a being is discounted. So also Wilson:

...we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences...sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the human brain.

If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon.Wilson, EO, On Human Nature (London: Penguin, 1995edn) p192

Compare this with the much more measured and less polemical approach of Willem B Drees:

Theologians ... have to take into account that religious beliefs and interpretations arose in various historical and pre-historical circumstances. That such beliefs arose in certain circumstances does not imply that they must be wrong (emphasis ours), but their historical contingency in relation to human history and human nature raises the question of why we would consider particular beliefs of an earlier epoch as serious candidates for truth or as existentially relevant insights, worth reformulating in our time. Translating theological convictions into new terms by finding new models and metaphors is, in my opinion, inadequate if questions concerning the evolved, historical character of human religious traditions are passed by.Drees, WB, Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996) p4

humans and their cultures, languages, aesthetic and moral codes, and their religious practices can be seen as results of a natural evolutionary process...The actual history of morality and religions and their actual functioning in the web of genes, mind and culture are very complex, and therefore not clear. The complexities of culture and mind should not be glossed over in short-cuts from genes to human behaviour and social institutions.Drees, 1996, 212-13

It is a good exercise to look at the three passages quoted above, and to examine the presuppositions of the writers. How do they compare with your own presuppositions about religious belief? Is humanity ‘alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe,’This phrase is from Jacques Monod - see Can Darwinism Rule Out Truth in Religion? or at home in it?

Dawkins and Wilson both types of genetic reductionism - they both see a wide range of behaviour in humans and other higher organisms as directly attributable to the functioning of genes, and hence a manifestation of Darwinian selection. (Though Dawkins at least admits a higher level of selection, the unit of cultural inheritance or ‘meme.’ Furthermore he admits the possibility that genes will cease to be the important level of evolutionary selection in humans.)

Click here for an examination of reductionism.

Click here to go straight to further analysis of the approach of Dawkins and Wilson under the heading cross-explanatory reductionism.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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