Saturday, March 01, 2008

Richard Dawkins

University Of Liverpool Public Lecture Series
Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (28th February 2008)

As far as academic ape descendents go, Richard Dawkins is a very interesting one. He must be, because when he gave a lecture at the Philharmonic, almost 1,600 of his fellow homo sapiens packed into the venue, and a few more stayed outside, waving placards and protesting that he was making 'a monkey' out of people.

Dawkins began with a kind of evolutionary theory 101, which I suspect was pretty basic stuff to everyone inside the hall, although those placard wavers could have done with a primer. Alas, he was giving an ironic new meaning to the phrase 'preaching to the converted'.

The second half of Dawkins' performance was more intriguing, as he moved into the territory he explored in his controversial 2006 bestseller The God Delusion. The professor of biology turned intellectual stand-up comedian as he pointed out absurdity after absurdity in religious belief. For example, why is okay to call four-year-olds 'Christian', 'Muslim' or 'Jewish', when it would be considered ridiculous to describe them as 'liberal', 'conservative' or 'neo-Marxist'? And how can we sleep at night when so many Americans believe that the world is 6,000 years old, a misjudgement equivalent to imagining it's only 7.8 yards from New York to San Francisco?

Dawkins hopes that atheism can advance through this kind of 'consciousness raising', and drew a parallel with the feminist movement of the last century. But this is clearly a poor comparison. Ideas don't become popular just because people come across them. Ideas about sexual equality predate the 1900s, but it wasn't until then that society had developed enough for them to be given anything like a decent hearing. Indeed, many women came to realise they were being discriminated against without reading Mary Wollstonecraft or hearing about the suffragettes. They examined their own lives, and came to their own conclusions. The Christian protesters were outside the Philharmonic for a reason.

But what was that reason? After Dawkins had finished his lecture, he took questions from the audience. Drawing on his work on genetics, one woman asked him what evolutionary advantage a capacity for religious belief gives an individual. The professor answered that it probably isn't an advantage in itself, but could be the by-product of an adaptation that is advantageous.

There may well be some truth in this. But what that doesn't explain is why people with the strongest religious belief tend to be those with the least to thank their God for in terms of their position on Earth. Why is it that on a global level, people in the poorest countries seem to be the most devout? In this wealthy yet horrifically unequal nation, Christianity is in steep decline, but why are those who are 'born again' almost always coming through some kind of life crisis? Genetics in its current form cannot fully address these questions.

Dawkins' 1976 biologist's bible The Selfish Gene does seem to offer some clues, although he backed away from making sociologically radical conclusions at the time. Contrary to popular belief, the title doesn't refer to a 'gene for selfishness', but rather to the idea that genes themselves are ‘selfish’, pursuing their own reproduction. Organisms from the earliest single-celled ones onwards have adapted to their material environments, and that has resulted in us, here and now. You are a ‘survival machine’ for your genes that is reading this review because it seems like the best strategy for your genetic replication.

The same logically applies to being part of a religious community. It might turn out to be a bad strategy, but the important thing is that it seems like the best strategy to the religious person. Until their circumstances change enough for another strategy to apparently suit better, they will continue to follow it, down whatever road that takes them. With that in mind, it is a bit grubby, sneering and sanctimonious to look down on believers in the way that Dawkins seems to.
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