quotes & notes from
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins

These pages:The God Delusion

Preface–Chapter 4

Chapters 5–10 (here)



index pages:

The God Delusion

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Dawkins

The Roots of Religion
Psychologically primed for religion


Chapter 7

Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ‘soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body. We can also easily imagine the existence of a deity as pure spirit, not an emergent property of complex matter but existing independently of matter. Even more obviously, childish teleology sets us up for religion. If everything has a purpose, whose purpose is it? God’s, of course.
We hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent.

Compare to:

Richard Leakey

From a Darwinian point of view it is, no doubt, important to choose a good partner, for all sorts of reasons. But, once having made a choice – even a poor one – and conceived a child, it is more important to stick with that one choice thorugh thick and thin, at least until the child is weaned.

Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love?

Tread softly, because you tread on my memes
Even where religions have been exploited and manipulated to the benefit of powerful individuals, the strong possibility remains that the detailed form of each religion has been largely shaped by unconscious evolution. [...] In the early stages of a religion’s evolution, before it becomes organized, simple memes survive by virtue of their universal appeal to human psychology. This is where the meme theory of religion and the psychological by-product theory of religion overlap. The later stages, where a religion becomes organized, elaborate and arbitrarily different from other religions, are quite well handled by the theory of memeplexes – cartels of mutually compatible memes. This doesn’t rule out the additional role of deliberate manipulation by priests and others.



The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?
Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?
Natural selection favours genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can’t. It also favours tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes.
The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist

There are two ways in which scripture might be a source of morals or rules for living. One is by direct instruction, for example through the Ten Commandments, which are the subject of such bitter contention in the culture wars of America’s boondocks. The other is by example: God, or some other biblical character, might serve as – to use the contemporary jargon – a role model.

Note (Hal’s):
The notion that stories cannot convey moral content except by portraying role models is contrary to even the most casual observation.

— end note

The Old Testament

Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other.



Is the New Testament any better?

I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment – thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as ‘Christ-killers’: did that hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?

Note (Hal’s):
This is one of the most emotionally charged and venomous rhetorical flourishes in the book, though Dawkins appears to say he tends toward such splenetic outbursts in other contexts.

Apparently the doctrine is so familiar that Dawkins doesn’t bother to understand it. I suspect the word “atonement” is one source of his problem; it suggests God is somehow required to inflict punishment on somebody for humanity’s humanity.

I concur that punishment for the sake of punishment is unacceptable, but the notion that God could “just forgive our sins” has an obvious flaw. Suppose we applied the same notion, in law, to the offense of driving while intoxicated. We could “just forgive“ it, without punishment, but the offenders would in all probability repeat it, endangering themselves and others. Modern programs offer alternatives to imprisonment and other punishments which are more effective in getting them to stop.

Sin is like drunk driving; without help, people tend not to be able to stop. The point of the doctrine of atonement is that an alternative remedy has been made available: God, like the legal system, has taken on the burden of fixing the problem instead of simply punishing, or simply and uselessly forgiving, sinners.

The long history of Church-sponsored persecution of Jews is precisely the sort of sin that needs to be stopped, not “just forgiven.” The church from which Dawkins claims to draw his familiarity with Christian teaching, incidentally, declared that those persecutions had been wrong, decades ago at Vatican II.

As to “passed down in the semen,” apparently a reference to original sin, Dawkins himself attributes human failings (among which he includes the tendency toward religious belief) to the biologically inherited structure of the human mind. (See Chapter 5.) That comes to the same thing, without the slanted language.

— end note


Chapter 5

See also:

Nostra Aetate

Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. ‘Love they neighbour’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’ The point is devastatingly made by the American physician and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung. He has written a remarkable paper on the evolution and biblical history of in-group morality, laying stress, too, on the flip side – out-group hostility.

Note (Hal’s):
It would be easier to regard Hartung’s paper as honestly intended if he did not cram his footnotes with Biblical references, and then fail to acknowledge that continuations in two cases repudiate his interpretation. See Matthew 15:43 with verses 44-47; Luke 10:27 with verses 29-37.

Hartung is an anthropologist, apparently from the school that considers imagined motives to constitute “proofs.” He also believes that definitions, interpretations, and attitudes toward in-group and out-group ethical obligations remain fixed over millennia; a great deal of his argument assumes that the views of Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) represent those of Moses and Jesus.

— end note

The moral Zeitgeist

It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven by religion – and certainly not by scripture. [...] Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.

What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?
How ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism

More generally (and this applies to Christianity no less than to Islam), what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them – given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by – to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades.

Note (Hal’s):
Faithlessness, then, is preferable?

I’ve noticed the New Atheists lean very hard on Hebrews 11:1 to redefine faith as a certainty of one’s possession of absolute truth, without regard to evidence. Christian teachers, treating that verse as a definition, are largely responsible. They ought to have noticed by now that when treated as a definition, rather than as a description, that verse is made inconsistent with most other uses of the word in either Testament.

— end note

Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion
In defense of children
The same tendency to glory in the quaintness of ethnic religious habits, and to justify cruelties in their name, crops up again and again. It is the source of squirming internal conflict in the minds of nice liberal people who, on the one hand, cannot bear suffering and cruelty, but on the other hand have been trained by postmodernists and relativists to respect other cultures no less than their own.

Note (Hal’s):
Both Dawkins and Sam Harris pick particular quarrels with those they call religious “moderates.” Both insist that any allowance for diversity of views be regarded as tacit consent to all abusive interpretations.

— end note

A Much Needed Gap?
It is amazing how many people seemingly cannot tell the difference between ‘X is true’ and ‘It is desirable that people should believe that X is true’. Or maybe they don’t really fall for this logical error, but simply rate truth as unimportant compared with human feelings. I don’t want to decry human feelings. But let’s be clear, in any particular conversation, what we are talking about: feelings, or truth. Both may be important, but they are not the same thing.
[...] wouldn’t you expect that religious people would be the least likely to cling unbecomingly to earthly life? Yet it is a striking fact that, if you meet somebody who is passionately opposed to mercy killing, or passionately against assisted suicide, you can bet a good sum that they will turn out to be religious. The official reason may be that all killing is a sin. But why deem it to be a sin if you sincerely believe you are accelerating a journey to heaven?
The mother of all burkas

The evolution of complex life, indeed its very existence in a universe obeying physical laws, is wonderfully surprising – or would be but for the fact that surprise is an emotion that can exist only in a brain which is the product of that very surprising process. There is an anthropic sense, then, in which our existence should not be surprising. I’d like to think that I speak for my fellow humans in insisting, nevertheless, that it is desperately surprising.

Think about it. On one planet, and possibly only one planet in the entire universe, molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than a chunk of rock, gather themselves together into chunks of rock-sized matter of such staggering complexity that they are capable of running, jumping, swimming, flying, seeing, hearing, capturing and eating other such animated chunks of complexity; capable in some cases of thinking and feeling, and falling in love with yet other chunks of complex matter. We now understand essentially how the trick is done, but only since 1859.

text checked (see note) Feb 2010

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