Richard Dawkins discusses applying Darwinism to religion. He says that religion is not a product of natural selection but a by-product. He gives the example of a moth who flies into the candle flame and burns to a crisp. We could ask, ‘why did the moth evolve to commit suicide? What’s the benefit?’ A closer look at the situation reveals that the moth did not evolve to commit suicide. The countless moth deaths are a by-product of an evolved trait. Moths use light from stars and the moon to navigate at night. If they keep the light from the moon at a 30 degree angle in their eye, they will fly straight. A candle on the other hand (because of its proximity) forces them into a spiral that inevitably ends in their premature demise.
In this way, Dawkins asserts that religion is not the result of a process of natural selection, but a side effect (those are my words, not his). He suggests that natural selection has made it so that young children take their elders seriously. This is because a lot of what humans do is build on the experiences of those that came before us. As a child you were probably told the iron was hot – and so you didn’t touch it. You may also have been told that ‘god loves you’. Since the child brain is equipped so that it learns things from its parents (like not to touch the iron) it is unable to distinguish between useful advice and bullshit. Hence, religion is a by-product of our intuitive sense to listen to our parents.
Dawkins sees this as one of many possible explanations for his ‘religion as by-product theory’. The theory is astounding, the explanation is fascinating.
But why, you ask, must religion be a by-product? Why can’t it be a product? Simply enough, biologically speaking, it has no use. In fact it is even detrimental at times. Think of all the time you waste performing ceremonies – valuable time you might use to gather food. Not to mention martyrs.
Additionally, Paul Bloom suggests that, “we are innately predisposed to be creationists.” A child’s mind doesn’t grasp the big picture (a skill which results from intellectual and scientific thinking). A child assigns a purpose to everything, for example ‘clouds are for raining’ and ‘pointy rocks are so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’. This is called teleology. One can easily see that someone who suffers from teleology would be easily disposed to religion.
We are prone to take what is called the intentional stance. This is something that has arisen because it has the ability to save our lives. It’s a shortcut to assessing something’s danger. Instead of looking at a tiger and analyzing what it is capable of doing with its sharp claws and teeth and then deciding on an appropriate course of action, we look at the intention of the tiger. Its intention is to eat us, so we flee immediately, without having to analyze all the parts individually. (Dawkins goes through the other orders of stances, physical stance and design stance)
Because we are predisposed to assign intention to objects, we also sometimes find it hard to not look for agents behind things. An icicle falls from the eve of a house and hits you on the head. Probably your first instinct is to get mad at the icicle. The icicle wasn’t acting intentionally, and you know that, but it doesn’t stop you from placing blame.
These are sort of bastardized, lazy, half-assed explanations of Dawkins’ eloquent text. But here’s my point –
When speaking of religion, not any specific religion, but religion as a concept – theists like to point out that every society has made a religion, so that it must be something that we need, it must fill some hole in our culture.
But when you consider the evolutionary forces at work – it is easy to see that perhaps religion is nothing but a by-product of things that have helped us survive as a species. There is no spiritual hole that we need to find a plug to. All we are is victims of our own evolutionary waste.
When one understands that religion is not divine in origin, but can be explained using the same theory that explains why we have opposable thumbs – it is far easier to see just how ridiculous individual religions are.
In any case, read the book, it’s better at this than me.