I stumbled across a link to an article by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins titled What Use is Religion?.
With a title like that, how could I not read it?
I was disappointed. Dawkins is a skilled essayist–even though I usually disagree with him I enjoy his writing style. He throws in the most fascinating illustrations, and his logic is engaging.
This article, however, fell flat.
The key paragraph:
Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. And this very quality automatically makes them vulnerable to infection by mind viruses. For excellent survival reasons, child brains need to trust parents and trust elders whom their parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot tell that If you swim in the river youll be eaten by crocodiles is good advice but If you dont sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, the crops will fail is bad advice. They both sound the same. Both are advice from a trusted source, and both are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.
So religious faith is a byproduct of childhood naivete?
The problem with his argument is that it doesn’t explain why so many adults continue to believe this specific “bad advice” received in childhood.
After all, we reject both specific mythologies (Santa Claus) and specific beliefs (bad people always have bad things happen to them). Why then do so many keep believing in God (especially so many smart ones) if it’s just another piece of bad advice?
Also, I’m not sure his theory could account for adult converts from atheism.
His argument, intriguing though it is, doesn’t hold water.
Dawkins hatred of religion is fairly well known, and has always interested me. It’s one thing to not be religious, it’s another thing to hate religion utterly.
That’s why I was struck by this anecdote:
I have never forgotten a horrifying sermon, preached in my school chapel when I was little. It was horrifying in retrospect: at the time, my child brain accepted it as intended by the preacher. He told the story of a squad of soldiers, drilling beside a railway line. At a critical moment, the drill sergeants attention was distracted, and he failed to give the order to halt. The soldiers were so well schooled to obey orders without question that they carried on marching, right into the path of an oncoming train. Now, of course, I dont believe the story now, but I did when I was nine. The point is that the preacher wished us children to regard as a virtue the soldiers slavish and unquestioning obedience to an order, however preposterous.
I don’t know Dawkins, but I can’t help but wonder if that story (and others like it) help account for his zealous atheistic convictions.
While trying to explain away adult beliefs via childhood experiences, it seems that Dawkins inadvertently does the same to himself.