The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Faith and Evolution

Richard Dawkins has been making the book tour stops lately (including the most recent New Scientist podcast) promoting his new book, The God Delusion.

I've read a bit of this book at the book store, and in it Dawkins seems to make a mistake (at least I think it's a mistake) that many militant atheists make in their argument. They typically argue that religion leads to stupidity. This is simplified a bit, but it seemed to be the gist of The God Delusion and it's definitely the theme of closet Buddhist Sam Harris's The End of Faith. I believe that this theory reverses cause and effect.

One of my pet theories for which I have no evidence is that religion is the product of a certain evolutionary force which causes your brain (and the brains of most animals) to equate correlation with causation. For instance, a deer that runs away whenever leaves rustle will likely outcompete a deer that only runs away occasionally when the leaves rustle. Rustling leaves may not always be a predator, but even if it does indicate a predator only 1% of the time, the cautious deer will survive where the lazy deer will not. There are some mistakes that animals cannot afford to make

We are wired to pick up patterns. I was guilty of this just the other day. My extended family shares a Packer season ticket package and whenever I'm in the end zone seats the Packers lose on the last play of the game. Just this year I was there for the Rams game. A few days later I was talking to Danny on the phone and I jokingly said that I can't sit in those seats anymore because I was clearly causing them to lose. The fact that this thought occurred to me at all tells us something about human nature.

I'm fairly sure that this is how religions (and superstitions) get started. Some person or tribe probably encountered good or bad fortune and connected it with some unrelated act like killing a goat or praying or whatever. By random chance the two events may have coincided again, or perhaps it just seemed that way as people have a tendency to disregard events that don't fit a pattern. At any rate, religion likely evolved as a side effect of our pattern-sensing ability.

I have not read Dawkins' book, but I did peruse a portion that specifically discussed potential root causes of religion, and nowhere did I see my idea. The closest he got was positing that the ability to indoctrinate young children with unquestioning belief is evolutionarily beneficial. This isn't a bad theory but it doesn't really get to the root of religion, it merely deals with the spread of religion.

With the development of the scientific method we're no longer slaves to our instincts, and we now understand that correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, but it takes conscious effort to think this way all of the time, and most of the time our pattern-detection still serves us well, especially for everyday run-of-the-mill tasks. It is for this reason that I claim that "stupidity" causes religion.

South Park recently ran an episode (which was highly critical of Richard Dawkins) in which Cartman ended up in the future, and militant atheists were in a constant state of war over some petty disagreement. The point was that if there was no religion that people would still fight over stupid crap. I suspect that Dawkins would answer that atheists are smarter than that. In The God Delusion he speaks highly of the "consciousness raising" ability of evolution. And as far as the current situation is concerned, he's right. Most scientists are atheists, many Nobel winners are atheists, and certainly evolution was a revolutionary step towards solving one of the great mysteries of the universe (and displacing religion in the process).

But, while atheists and evolutionists may be smarter as a group, at the moment, than religious folks, it does not necessarily follow that religious folks would become smarter by becoming atheists and evolutionists. In fact, I would assert that those most likely to remain religious throughout their lives are more likely to adopt evolution as a belief through faith, not reason.

I personally know several people who currently believe in evolution on nothing but faith. They don't really understand it, and they either can't explain it or explain it incorrectly, but they still believe it because they know that smart people believe it. This may be more sensible than faith in God, but it is still faith.

The fact is that not everyone cares enough to learn about every topic, and for those topics that they find boring they rely on experts. I don't mean to criticize here, as for the most part this is extremely efficient, however, it means that no matter how intelligent your idea is, "stupid" people will still believe it.

People like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris believe that eliminating religion would solve many problems. Dawkins has a series on BBC which featured an advertisement showing the World Trade Centers standing tall with the caption "Can You Imagine a World Without Religion?" While I agree that the towers would likely still be standing without religion, there's no telling what other ill-conceived ideas would have gained traction in its place. (They need a refresher on "replacement level.")

Dawkins and Harris believe that the problem is religion, but I believe that the problem is people. Religion exists almost everywhere in the world. It appears to be a natural part of human evolution. While I applaud Dawkins' effort to bring enlightenment to the present-day world, harping on and on about the past atrocities of religious people places an unrealistic standard on those people, something which Dawkins admonishes others for in his book when discussing the evils of Stalin and Hitler. (He asserts that when comparing their atrocities to those of civilizations past, we must separate their "evil intentions" from their advanced technology. He makes the case that Hitler and Stalin are no more evil than many ancient warlords, they just had guns.)

As with Harris's book, I agreed with Dawkins on most points, it is just the little differences, the snipes, the over-the-top rhetoric, and the lack of perspective, that takes him from being the George Will of atheists to being the Ann Coulter of atheists. That's probably a bit harsh. Let's say the Sean Hannity of atheists.

If you are an atheist you will probably like it. If you're not, it will almost certainly piss you off.

(Note 1: Dawkins also gets on his high-horse about the hick portion of the US (Dawkins is British.) I have no problem bashing the American South but while Europe may be more enlightened spiritually, they adhere to their fair share of nonsensical beliefs, many of which are economic in nature, in complete contradiction of all available evidence.)

(Note 2: At one point Dawkins asserts that "hate speech" is illegal in the US. This is not the case. In fact, you can actually make a fair amount of money engaging in hate speech.)

(Note 3: Ron Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, never said the following: "We don't have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand." Dawkins trots out this "quote" on page 288. Grist Magazine originally reported the quote which was then repeated by Bill Moyers and has now lodged itself into the memories of everyone attempting to make religious people look bad. Grist ran a correction here. (Scroll all the way down to the bottom.)

24 Comments:

  • I think you make a lot of great points, but I think you're still being too easy on religion. With respect to the cause and effect relationship between religion and lack of intelligence, you're probably mostly right. But there are things other than raw intelligence that should be part of the equation. Chief among them is willingness to learn. Although willingness to learn is closely tied to intelligence, it is seperate-i.e., you can have one and not the other. I think the relationship between religion (or dogmatism in general) and willingness to learn cuts the other way. Religion causes people to be unwilling to learn. In Christianity for example, questioning is the only unforgivable sin. If being told that when you are a child by people with a great deal of credibility in your life at the time (parents, techers, guys in dresses preaching in big expensive buildings) doesn't cause you to be unwilling to question, what would? Raw intelligence, however is probably the best tool for breaking this cycle.

    BTW, that South Park episode is awesome. It is also available in its entirety on you tube. Did you read the article in Reason last week about Trey Parker and Matt Stone? Those guys are awesome.

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 8:39 AM  

  • While Dawkins doesn't make your point regarding cause and effect in this book, he does discuss it thoroughly in another, although I can't remember which. There, he talks about "superstitious" behavior in many animals as well, where they are demonstrated to easily see a correlation where none exists, showing that this type of behavior has precursors or analogues in other parts of the animal kingdom.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:49 AM  

  • For instance, a deer that runs away whenever leaves rustle will likely outcompete a deer that only runs away occasionally when the leaves rustle. Rustling leaves may not always be a predator, but even if it does indicate a predator only 1% of the time, the cautious deer will survive where the lazy deer will not. There are some mistakes that animals cannot afford to make

    Did you make this up? Yes, yes you did.

    Deer, particularly young deer, are often safest from predators by "freezing" or remaining hidden. Often in the woods, you walk right by where they are bedded down. Has nothing to do with laziness, my friend. A deer, like a rabbit, that jumps everytime leaves rustle, instead of relying on the evolutionary protection of a camoflauged coat, are not safer than those who stay hidden and do not run.

    Check it out.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:15 PM  

  • "A deer, like a rabbit, that jumps everytime leaves rustle, instead of relying on the evolutionary protection of a camoflauged coat, are not safer than those who stay hidden and do not run."

    So, um, the point is still exactly the same, right? The deer that freezes when leaves rustle survives more than the one that runs. The point has nothing to do with how the deer reacts. The point is that a deer that associates rustling bushes with a predator will survive, no?

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 3:25 PM  

  • Yes indeed. Anonymous, you completely missed the point.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 4:20 PM  

  • Oh admit your mistake, Paul. At times, you're talking out your ass and are not credible. If you can acknowledge you were talking beyong your knowledge, fine. If not, this is just a blowhard blog, with like-minded buddies "yeah, huh, yeah man", which is cool. I just thought you were operating on principles more of scientific curiosity rather than ego stroking.

    An animal that stays hidden is no more "reacting" than it is lazy. Watch what happens to the one that "outcompetes" according to Noonan's definition. Check out Felix Salen, good Austrian read, if you have no first-hand knowledge.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:13 AM  

  • "beyond"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:15 AM  

  • Did you mean Felix Salten? Like, the guy that wrote Bambi?

    I, for one, don't know what the fuck a deer does when it hears rustling in the bushes. It probably has some sort of survival instinct, no? Whether the right answer is freeze or flee, isn't it necessary that the deer's brain first associate the sound with danger? Isn't it lilky that some, or even most, of the time, the sound isn't danger? Isn't it true that the sound itself doesn't cause the danger? Mr. Anonymous, you may be right and Paul may be wrong about how it reacts, but does that change the theory he suggested at all?

    I see holes in his actual theory and commented to that affect, but I'm not about to start commenting on his spelling or whatver. Do you have any comments of criticisms of his actual point? Or are you just nit-picking insignificant errors?

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 8:37 AM  

  • A deer does "freeze", but it also looks to see what caused the noise as well as rotating its ears toward the noise. Then if it thinks you are dangerous it runs away. Then it usually falls down. Geesh.

    Yes, Paul's analogy erroneously surmises actual deer behavior. I can see some room for debate about whether the analogy is apt, but not based on exactly how the deer reacts.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 10:15 AM  

  • Felix Salen knew his stuff.
    Undisney-fied Bambi.

    Some people just make up shit in their head, never observing. Read the book.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 AM  

  • But I don't care about deer. I like reading about stuff that matters.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 1:13 PM  

  • Um... my "Then it usually falls down." comment was part of an additional comment I meant to delete. Lest someone think I believe that deer are clumsy.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 1:19 PM  

  • Clumsy and lazy.

    Dumb deer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:41 PM  

  • Doesn't it make you wonder how much other stuff he opines on here is false?

    Yet he calls other people dumb. Can you see it?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:20 PM  

  • First of all, how do you know that deer don't get startled and run away when they hear bushes rustling or whatever? What is your source on that?

    Second, aren't you failing to draw a distinction between theorizing (this post), guessing (who will win the superbowl), and stating facts (radio stations are already playing X-mas music)?

    Third, could you please create a pseudonym or something. I'm not a big fan of this anonymous trolling. We're nice guys, we'll usually respond to you, and be nice about it, even if you're being kind of a dick. But the least you could do is make a screen name so we're not calling you Mr. anonymous. We use our real one's afterall.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 6:05 PM  

  • "Doesn't it make you wonder how much other stuff he opines on here is false?"

    Not in the slightest. An opinion can't really be false. By definition the grounds on which an opinion is based aren't sufficient to produce complete certainty.

    Also, it's Felix Salten, not Salen. That's twice now. That would make me wonder how much other stuff you opine in these comments is false if I was a total loser. Since I'm not, I'll just assume it was a typo.

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 6:58 PM  

  • I don't see what is so objectional about someone writing their opinion on their blog. If you disagree with it make a substantial argument, if you can. Your focus on the deer's exact behavior suggests you might not be the best at logical thinking.

    Danny, "anonymous" read a book by a guy who wrote a cartoon. Seriously, his point that deer freeze only really applies to rather young deer. Adults typically flee. From my experience they at least sometimes look/listen to see what the noise is before they do though. I strongly suspect they can tell the difference between the sound of a squirrel and that of a human or wolf though.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 5:18 PM  

  • Damn Paul, did anonymous' girl flash you a smile or something?

    By Anonymous Rashid Muhammad, at 5:54 PM  

  • Since I'm a Christian, I don't need facts to support my opinions.

    We can't tell the benefits of not having religious people around, because we'll never be without religious people. Something, by the way, I say we can't know about the beginning because none of us were there.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:40 PM  

  • "We can't tell the benefits of not having religious people around, because we'll never be without religious people."

    I don't know about that. We stopped believing in Thor and Zeus, why can't we stop believing in Allah or Jesus? Imagine all the people, living for today. You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.....

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 12:14 PM  

  • "First of all, how do you know that deer don't get startled and run away when they hear bushes rustling or whatever?"

    Danny-- Trust me. Deer often sleep through the "rustling". I read a lot of natural science and outdoors books, plus my father and my friends know the woods. I know deer behavior, and what others have written here is false.

    Really, check out Felix SalTen's Bambi. I've got an old edition or two on my shelves, and if all you know is Bambi, you really are missing out. The reason I originally mentioned it -- to contradict and correct your brother's statement here -- is there is a wonderful natural science/religion undercurrent running throught that book. It's not a child, but an outdoorsman's book and the natural observations crafted there are worth your time. If you care enough about life and nature to make an analogy, you should know at least a bit of what you're talking about. That was my point. Sometimes we're not as smart as we think we are, and we are embarrassed to realize it in retrospect. Friends who would back you up in error really aren't friends; they keep you from KNOWING, which really is what it's all about, right? Some find it through religion, some through constant questioning and criticism. You might be overlooking a lot...

    Check out the book. Trust me. You'll get into it, I predict.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:22 PM  

  • For what it's worth, I believe in the power of the religious STORY. Power of the myth and all. What you believe affects what is.

    I recommended that Joseph Campbell a while back too. You might respect that it's a personal thing for a lot of folks -- the culture, family, traditions all wrapped up. If they aren't affecting your life, why assume everyone literally believes, instead of just believing in the story itself? See the distinction; you can learn a lot about life in a meadow if you believe that animals can communicate amongst themselves and think. Full circle on the post. (don't assume that humans are smarter than animals on what they do and why = youthful arrogance, makes you look bad/ close-minded as a rational thinker)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:27 PM  

  • First of all, how do you know that deer don't get startled and run away when they hear bushes rustling or whatever? What is your source on that?

    Second, aren't you failing to draw a distinction between theorizing (this post), guessing (who will win the superbowl), and stating facts (radio stations are already playing X-mas music)?
    ----------

    Please look into this re. deer behavior.
    It IS a fact, not my pet theory.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:33 PM  

  • "you can learn a lot about life in a meadow if you believe that animals can communicate amongst themselves and think."

    Totally brah, paaaass the jooiint. he...hehehe..he.

    Seriously, none of what you said undercuts the overall point of this post at all. not. at. all. You picked some minor alleged error, which didn't effect the point of the post at all, and clung to it. That is petty. Totally petty. You have a lot of growing up to do Mr. Anonymous. Perhaps when you graduate from Bambi to The Hardy Boys or something, you'll have a little more credibility.

    By Blogger JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe, at 10:51 AM  

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