Posted by: searcygr | February 3, 2009

A Response to Richard Dawkins’ Hypothesis Regarding the Roots of Religion

tangled-rootsAll things in life and topics worth discussing can be approached from multiple viewpoints. One must take precautions, both in the reading of issues and formulating his or her own arguments to avoid generalizations, one-sidedness, and bias. It is in this way that I feel Dawkins has failed to give the God debate a fair trial. More specifically, while Dawkins has some good points and persuasive arguments, I feel that most of his presentation is flawed or incomplete. Here, I will comment on Dawkins’ hypothesis regarding the roots of religion before mentioning the problems I see with Chapter 5 of The God Delusion.

Dawkins begins Chapter 5 with a quote from Marek Kohn which summarizes his main point for this chapter. “To an evolutionary psychologist, the universal extravagance of religious rituals, with their costs in time, resources, pain and privations, should suggest as vividly as a mandrill’s bottom that religion may be adaptive.” Thus, from the start, Dawkins states that he will be striving to demonstrate that the pressures of natural selection have resulted in religion becoming a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon. To this end, in Chapter 5, Dawkins seeks to use biology and psychology to support his claim. However, not long after beginning the chapter, Dawkins’ presentation seemed to change from a look at why religion exists into the assertion that because religion can be explained without God, He does not exist. Of course, this does not follow from the quote that begins this chapter, and one must carefully distinguish between the two notions and see them as distinct when reading and reflecting upon this chapter. After reading this chapter, I was left feeling that Dawkins’ presentation was persuasive, even though flawed at points. Yes, I admit it. As Dawkins stated, religion may be adaptive and governed by natural selection. However, this presentation has nothing to do with a proof for or against the existence of God.

In Chapter 5, Dawkins states that religion is the by-product of or an association with something else that has a positive survival value and on which natural selection acts. Along these lines, Dawkins hypothesizes that there is a selective advantage to a child whose brain possesses the rule of thumb, believe without question whatever (correct or incorrect) an elder tells you. Therefore, Dawkins would state that religion is passed on each generation, because children do not question the religion that their parents transmit.

Next, Dawkins diverges down another path, where he states that people have a predisposition toward dualism and creationism. According to Dawkins, dualists recognize a distinction between matter and mind, which religious humans refer to as body and soul. Similarly, Dawkins states, as creationists, people desire to assign purpose to all things. This manifests itself in the religious desire to name a creator and specific reason for life.

Later, Dawkins mentions that religion could also be seen as a product of humanity’s tendency to fall in love. Here, Dawkins claims that similar symptoms are manifested in one struck by cupid’s arrow and one infected with the disease of religion.

While these hypotheses concerning the roots of religion are persuasive, I found fault with the following points of Dawkins’ presentation.

First, Dawkins’ main assertion in this chapter, as demonstrated in the previous quote from Kohn, states that religion or belief in God can be attributed to natural selection. Therefore, because religion still exists, it must have been selected for directly or indirectly (as Dawkins’ theory states). However, in all his talk of religion, natural selection, God, and evolution, Dawkins fails to address a key issue. If religion were truly as negative as he has represented it through Chapter 6 of The God Delusion, it would have disappeared due to natural selection acting against it. If one seriously examines Dawkins’ claim that natural selection acts on religion or on “something” else associated with religion, one will come to the following conclusion. Either Dawkins’ statement regarding religion spreading due to natural selection is erroneous, or there are goods associated with religion that outweigh the bad. Dawkins has clearly overlooked these goods. Dawkins’ failure to address the incompatibility of the extreme negative light in which he depicts religion and his natural selection model is problematic and should cause the alert reader to question Dawkins’ hypothesis.

Next, many would find it difficult for Dawkins and his claim to explain the recent history of celibacy among clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. As stated by the theory of natural selection, one who is most fit and able to have viable offspring will pass on his or her genes to the next generation. Clearly, since Roman Catholic priests are celibate and do not have offspring, the tendency to be a Church leader would be selected against, the Church would be left without leaders, and religion would disappear. Because this has not occurred, there must be other forces at work besides Dawkins’ natural selection hypothesis. The same argument can be made in regard to the tendency of early Christians to be martyred.

Also, on page 164 of my edition of The God Delusion, Dawkins quoted and agreed with the following statement of Richard Lewontin. “That is the one point which I think all evolutionists are agreed upon, that it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is doing in its own environment.” As a student of biology, I could not take a stronger stance against this statement. It simply is incorrect. The theory of evolution by natural selection states that populations are constantly evolving. Natural selection is acting upon each of us, even today. This statement seems like such an elementary mistake and caused me to question Dawkins’ presentation of evolution by natural selection or the means in which he would misconstrue science to advance his ideas. I was left wondering, are there other points where Dawkins’ scientific basis is faulty?

Next, Dawkins casts serious doubt on his own hypothesis on page 174 of my text, where he stated, “I must stress that it is only an example of the kind of thing I mean, and I shall come to parallel suggestions made by others. I am much more wedded to the general principle that the question should be properly put, and if necessary rewritten, than I am to any particular answer.” Here we are reminded that his hypothesis regarding religion as the by-product of some genetic entity upon which natural selection acts is only a hypothesis, just as likely as any other hypothesis that one can devise. In making the preceding statement, Dawkins opens himself up to the criticism of others who could hypothesize that religion exists because God exists.

Along the same lines, when examining Dawkins as a scientist and his hypothesis, one can see that there is little evidence provided that shows that religion is applicable to genetics, natural selection, and evolution. For a scientist, Dawkins’ argument is obviously weak on data, and Dawkins should know better than to make an assertion without extensive and definitive data. This makes me wonder if Dawkins’ hypothesis can even be tested. If it cannot, then Dawkins’ hypothesis is not scientific, a key point in which he seems to take pride.

Finally, it is obvious to me that Dawkins is a master of rhetoric and the use of persuasion in the English language. Where Dawkins’ argument lacks data, he most certainly tries to make up for it with flashy language, intellectual appeals, and references to rather advanced disciplines, some of which will probably just be accepted by readers without a critical examination. For example, the language and tone used on pages 178-179 and 199-200 to describe Christian beliefs are truly remarkable. On one hand, readers must congratulate Dawkins on his language skills. However, on the other hand, readers must realize that Dawkins’ strength in words is in contrast to his lack of data and sound reason.



  1. Garrett, I completely agree your analysis of this chapter, particularly the parts where Dawkins attempts to describe religion as an adverse mistake of evolution. Dawkins brazenly conjectures that religion is an unfortunate by-product of the beneficial “obey your parents and authority figures” gene that helps protect children from harming themselves. In Dawkins’ mind, this gene which causes children to accept their parents’ commands about safety issues without question also prompts children to conform to their parent’s religious beliefs and ideology. Therefore, Dawkins surmises that evolution has been unable to select against religion since religious indoctrination is intertwined with this necessary “obey your parents” gene.

    I must agree with Dawkins that a majority of religious individuals do blindly adhere to their parents’ religion. However, I was shocked by Dawkins’ audacious generalization that all religious people have been tricked into believing a load of fairy tales and lies simply because that was what their parents told them. If Dawkins truly thinks that having faith in God is an inconvenient phase of life that one must simply outgrow by becoming educated, then he simply does not understand what it means to have a relationship with a personal God. No wonder he does not believe in God. However, one cannot critique what one does not know!

  2. Dawkins statement that religion is passed from generation to generation through children who do not understand but adopt the beliefs anyways is a partial truth. Some people adhere to a religion simply because their parents forced it upon them as a matter of speaking. However, isn’t it the responsibility of a parent to teach their child about the workings of the world? Religions cannot survive without evangelism of some sort. Whether that be to others worldwide or subsequent generations it must spread in order to be sustained. Parents teach their children their accepted religion because it makes sense to teach one’s own offspring the “truths” about life so-to-speak. I state the passing on of religion in this way because anyone with a religious faith believes that their doctrine, their faith system, their methodology is correct above all others. If one does not believe in the inerrancy of ones own convictions, then by definition they do not have faith. Therefore it makes sense to teach others, especially new generations, such revealed truth. I agree with Dawkins point that a young child cannot fully understand the implications of the religion taught by their parents. Yet if they are never introduced to religion, then when they do possess the ability to rightly reason for themselves they will not have opportunity to draw their own conclusions about God. I understand the point that Dawkins is making about religion being greatly affected by the religion transmitted to them at a young age. Dawkins may be correct that at a young age, children do not question that which is purported by the influential adults in their life. Yet, that is not to say that at no point in life does a person analyze and reflect upon one’s own religion. There comes an age when a person internalizes their own religion so that the belief, the faith becomes fully their own. This is why religions persist throughout generations. I do not disagree however with the assertion that a child of Muslim parents, who grows up in the Islamic faith, is likely to be a Muslim adult. I was raised a Christian, I remain a Christian. I cannot determine if I would still believe so strongly in the Christian faith had a been brought up in a Jewish household. Demographics may be largely responsible for religious beliefs, but this does not mean that believers question the truth of their faith. That point is something we may take for granted. However, the same can be said about atheism. A child raised by atheist parents is likely to develop personal beliefs that strongly align with those of their parents; atheistic beliefs. Dawkins would probably see no problem with this because he believes he is correct in his denunciation of God, and therefore he would be doing his child a service by teaching those truths. That is his prerogative, just as it is the prerogative of theists to teach their children what they believe to be truth.

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