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A Darwinian View of a Hostile Atheist

Article

Irwin Tessman

Volume 32.1, January / February 2008

The frontal assault on religion by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, and by others, may mark a new chapter in the warfare of science with theology.

Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006, reviewed by Kendrick Frazier in the March/April 2007 Skeptical Inquirer; see also, Massimo Pigliucci, “Is Dawkins Deluded?” SI, July/August 2007) has attracted much attention. My initial encounter with the book, in which I only read a sampling of pages, gave me the recurrent thought: why is he so angry? As if Dawkins was aware that readers were likely to ask this question, he headed a chapter “Why Be So Hostile?,” in which he explained his belief that too many religions are evil, that they have been responsible for much of human misery, and perhaps the worst, that they deeply offend the scientific mind.

But without religion and God, where will our sense of morality come from? Specifically, what accounts for altruistic behavior? Charles Darwin, anticipating atheists such as Dawkins, believed that altruism is an adaptive trait and, therefore, evolved by natural selection.
Dawkins is well known for his books The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986), among others, which popularized the field of evolutionary science with particular emphasis on the gene as the unit of natural selection. Dawkins’s writings are noted for their clarity, logic, and wit. Appropriately, he has been Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University since 1995.

The God Delusion attempts to contribute to the public understanding of what Dawkins and others see as a war between science and religion. Dawkins is an ardent Darwinian and militant atheist. He is on the frontline opposing religion in hopes of encouraging wavering skeptics to join the atheist ranks. The word Delusion in the title sets a belligerent tone. He seems to be saying, “If you still believe in God after reading this book, it is likely you are mentally disturbed.”

Darwin’s Views of Religion

Darwin, in his Autobiography, appears to have anticipated much of what Dawkins has to say on religion. When the Autobiography was first published five years after Darwin’s death, it was an expurgated version (Darwin 1887). Now we have the complete text, which was edited by his granddaughter, Nora Barlow (Darwin 1958). All omissions were restored, particularly the section headed “Religious Belief.”

Some in Darwin’s family, including his wife, Emma, felt his reputation would suffer irrevocably if his lack of conventional religious belief were widely known. Emma successfully argued for the purging of sensitive remarks from the public text in a letter to her son Francis in 1885: “There is one sentence in the Autobiography which I very much wish to omit, no doubt partly because your father’s opinion that all morality has grown up by evolution is painful to me. . . .” It is unsettling to realize that we might not have learned of Darwin’s profound idea for seventy-one years if Darwin had not already openly published it in The Descent of Man (Darwin 1871, pp. 161-166).

Darwin describes his slow but complete loss of faith (italicized passages are those that were originally expurgated): “Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox. . . . But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world . . . and from its attribution to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos [sic], or the beliefs of any barbarian.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection undermined the conventional religious concept of an all-powerful God. It could explain in a natural way the existence of complex organisms without the need for an intelligent designer, a term made popular by the Reverend William Paley.1 In an argument familiar to us today, Paley asserted that the incredible perfection of the human eye could not be explained by any hypothesis other than a supernatural one. Many were convinced that Paley had proved the existence of God because no competing plan existed. But that was simply only a matter of time. Darwin himself confessed (1958) that he, too, was at first convinced by Paley that God must exist, but that lasted only until a much better theory-natural selection-came along. That better theory made God superfluous in Darwin’s view.

His aversion to Christianity was explicit. For example (Darwin 1958, pp. 86-87), “By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be [required] to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported . . . that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us . . . disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all their best friends, will be everlastingly punished. . . .” Charles’s father, Robert, also a nonbeliever, warned Charles that he would be wise to keep his religious feelings to himself because few of his acquaintances would understand his lack of faith.

Dawkins’s Views of Religion

Dawkins is equally passionate in his own condemnation of the Old Testament. He writes that the God of the Old Testament is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (Dawkins 2006, p. 31). This is classic Dawkins.

Dawkins has his crosshairs on the personal God, which makes a clear target of what most believers believe in. A personal God is one who is concerned with us individually, listens to our prayers sympathetically, and responds favorably to our requests. In many cases, the personal God takes an interest in our behavior, he punishes and rewards us and from time to time performs a few miracles (which are often recognized only in retrospect).

Dawkins agrees with Darwin that evolution challenges the concept of a personal God. He concedes, however, that the implications of evolution appear damaging to his cause: (1) Evolution implies denial of a personal God; (2) Lack of a personal God is equivalent to atheism; (3) Therefore, evolution implies atheism. Creationists now feel free to equate evolution with atheism. Since most people in the United States consider atheism unquestionably false (Dawkins 2006), for them it follows that evolution must likewise be false and we ought to fall back to Paley’s intelligent design, a bitter result.

Next to Darwin, Einstein is most utilized by Dawkins, occupying nearly the entire lengthy first chapter. It allows Dawkins to repeat what most physicists know: that Einstein, like many other physicists, had the habit of referring to God metaphorically-e.g., “God is subtle but he is not malicious”-in which case God might represent the Universal Laws of Nature. Einstein emphatically rejected the notion of a personal God with obvious feeling (Dukas and Hoffmann 1979, p. 43).2 Dawkins seems unable to pass up any chance, no matter how anecdotal, to identify highly accomplished people who are also atheists. Einstein is a particularly good catch. Why does Dawkins do this? First, it seems quite natural to be curious about the religious views of such an eminent scientist, and Dawkins’s chapter on Einstein goes a long way in satisfying that curiosity. But there is more to it here. Dawkins was responding to religious people’s claims that many outstanding scientists are religious.

He describes the poll published in Nature (Larson and Witham 1997, 1998) depicting scientists’ views about religion. In contrast to the roughly 90 percent of all Americans who believe in a personal God, the number drops to 40 percent among scientists in general and plummets to 7 percent for a class of outstanding scientists-defined as members of the National Academy of Sciences. Dawkins continues to reiterate his point with comparable statistics about recipients of Nobel prizes. Both sides seem to be playing the same publicity game. Dawkins describes “[t]he efforts of apologists to find genuinely distinguished modern scientists who are religious” as having “an air of desperationÉ” (2006, p. 100).

Dawkins invents a nearly subliminal version of the game. Conceding that some scientists are sincerely religious, Dawkins describes one of them, Francis Collins, a devoutly religious evangelical Christian, as the “administrative head of the American branch of the official Human Genome Project” [emphasis added]. He doesn't refer to Collins as simply the head or the director (which he was) of the project, but gratuitously tries to diminish his role by implying Collins’s role was only administrative. In the very same paragraph, he refers to his friend Jim Watson, who is strongly irreligious, as the “founding genius of the Human Genome Project,” ignoring the fact that Watson could also have been labeled as the administrative head of the Human Genome Project before he resigned under fire and was eventually replaced by Collins, who saw the project to its completion.

Ignored by Dawkins is the pioneering leadership of Collins in the successful search for, and sequencing of, genes involved in cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington’s disease. Ignored also was the election of Collins to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993. And then, to rub it in, Dawkins inserts a footnote cautioning the reader not to confuse the official genome project with the unofficial one, which was “led by that brilliant (and nonreligious) 'buccaneer' of science, Craig Venter” (Dawkins p. 99). Venter was elected in 2002 into the same section of the National Academy that Collins was in.

Why do I devote so much space to such petty stuff? To make two points. The first is that Dawkins recklessly implies that smart scientists are the best judges of whether there is a God. It is conceivable that scientists, most especially outstanding scientists, are too engrossed in their scientific studies to give much intellectual thought to the subject of religion. It is important to remember that nothing in science gets resolved by authority, but rather by the voice of reason. My point is that Dawkins weakens his case by unnecessarily including a weak argument. Added to that is my second point, which is to expose bias in Dawkins’s presentation and to question his objectivity.

Natural Selection versus Randomness

Natural selection proceeds in small mutational steps that depend on the random occurrence of DNA mutations. In what sense, therefore, can the process be said to not be random? It is easy to see how people could be confused. The process is not random because of selection. Only those mutations that confer significant, albeit small, benefit (under local environmental conditions) are selected and so may seem to occur with considerably greater probability than random occurrence would allow.

Dawkins goes to pains to point this out in order to counter the intelligent designers who rule out natural selection on the fallacious charge that it is a random process and therefore must be improbable. This is fundamental; it would seem that any reader who doesn't understand that point could not fully appreciate Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and should be offered a helpful explanation, preferably one showing semi-quantitatively the advantages of natural selection.

Consider Dawkins’s explanation of how natural selection takes the random out of random mutations to greatly increase the probability of evolving an adaptive version of a gene:

What is it that makes natural selection succeed as a solution to the problem of improbability, where chance and design both fail at the starting gate? The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance. It is these end products that form the subject of the creationist’s wearisomely recycled argument. The creationist completely misses the point, because he (women should for once not mind being excluded from the pronoun) insists on treating the genesis of statistical improbability as a single, on-off event. He doesn't understand the power of accumulation. (Dawkins 2006, p. 121)

Correct, but does that sound like the author of The Selfish Gene? I believe it is appropriate to quote Einstein, Dawkins’s inspiration, in this context. “Most books about science that are said to be written for the layman seek more to impress the reader . . . than to explain to him clearly and lucidly the elementary aims and methods” (Dukas and Hoffmann 1979, p. 41).

Intelligent-design advocates are keen to argue that you cannot disprove the existence of God. That may be true, but Dawkins argues that there are innumerable things we cannot disprove, and that God is merely one more. The burden, he says, should be on believers to prove God’s existence. He resorts to Bertrand Russell, the famous English mathematician and one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers. Russell proposed, for the sake of argument, that there is a teapot in orbit between the Earth and the Sun too small to see with a telescope. You cannot prove the teapot is nonexistent. Would you therefore propose that it has a reasonable chance to exist? If you list innumerable similar items-unicorns, Zeus, Egyptian gods, etc.-and you assign each a practical chance, then inevitably it becomes almost certain that at least one of them must exist.

Where does Darwin stand on the matter of a personal God? “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which seemed to be so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man” (Darwin 1958, p. 87). Darwin seems to reject the idea of a personal God and, therefore, theism too. His religious views are difficult to pin down (Browne 2006, p. 46), but something close to deism would seem to fit.

Theism is a belief in a personal God, one who responds favorably to prayers and interferes in daily events; atheism is the opposite of theism. Deism is the belief in a God who set the universe in motion with all the physical laws and both sacred and learned commentaries, but was absent after that. In practice, deism is much like atheism.

Morality (and Altruism) Without God and Religion

It is often taken for granted that a moral code requires God and religion. Why be good if there is no God? Believers ask how atheists could be moral inasmuch as they seem to deny any fear of God’s punishment for immoral behavior. We saw that Emma Darwin expurgated from her husband’s Autobiography his conviction that morality is established by natural selection, implying that religion was not a significant factor. On this question of morality, Dawkins is a staunch disciple of Darwin and emphasizes the view that the conventional role of religion is delusional.

While in his take-no-prisoners mode, Dawkins asks what it is that religion has taught us. His answer: nothing. In this he goes up against Stephen Jay Gould. The two frequently fought intellectually. In Gould’s scheme, there are two nonoverlapping realms of knowledge. He called them NOMA: Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Science answers objective questions about how the universe works (empirical questions); religion answers the ultimate questions: why am I here, what is the purpose of life, what is the basis of morality?
Dawkins will have none of that. It may turn out, he says, that there are meaningful questions that science cannot handle, but why should we assume that religion is equipped to answer them? What do theologians know that enable them to handle such questions better than science? Again: nothing. He is completely scornful of theologians and is even skeptical that theology is a field of knowledge. None of this should come as a surprise; theologians have long claimed authority over questions that science had not yet answered. In the course of time, however, the theologians were forced to retreat-with lengthy rearguard action (White 1896).

Dawkins’s defiant dismissal of theology reminds me of the challenge E.O. Wilson made at the end of his tome on Sociobiology (1975, p. 451): “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” Its time may have come.

Moral sense is the ability to judge good from bad. As such, believers conclude that our moral inclinations come from God. Altruism, which implies a concern for the welfare of others at the expense of oneself, appears as a higher form of morality.
I have defined altruism as behavior “that increases the reproductive fitness of others at the apparent expense of the altruist” (Tessman 1995). “Apparent” because from an evolutionary point of view it turns out that several forms of altruism unexpectedly benefit the altruists, that is, they are really selfish and not selfless behaviors. Darwin upset his family by proposing that altruism, which he saw as a key element of morality and a distinctly human activity, evolved by natural selection (Darwin 1871).

It is now commonly argued that some altruistic behavior is genetically determined, and that altruism may have a selective advantage. The earliest and arguably most influential was William D. Hamilton’s explanation of altruistic behavior among the social insects that is controlled by a haplo-diplo sexual system (Hamilton 1964). In that case, a female is more closely related to her sister (75 percent) than to her own offspring (50 percent), which accounts for her devotion to raising sisters in preference to her own offspring-with the false illusion of selflessness.

Critical insight into the motivation for altruistic behavior can be found in a quip by essayist Charles Lamb (1834): “The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth and have it found out by accident.” Having it found out by accident is designed to suggest indifference to credit for the altruistic deed and therefore imply (falsely) the purity of the act. The admission of a secret wish to be found out, however, exposes the truly selfish nature of the act. It is a shortcut to a good reputation, and what is a good reputation good for? R.A. Fisher, cofounder of modern statistics, tells us one important benefit of a good reputation: “The wooer relies on his reputation even for the decision of the lady herself” (1958, p. 266).

That is why I have suggested that human altruism may serve as a courtship display that has successfully evolved by natural selection. I have offered a simple example that arose in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which I find convincingly illustrates my point, although its scientific value may be arguable.

“An altruistic act is performed [by Mr. Darcy] without apparent publicity or hope of reward, but the author contrives to have Darcy’s beneficence revealed to his love, Elizabeth. In this case the altruism clinches Elizabeth’s developing affection and secures her hand in marriage.” The courtship strategy was successful.

As suggested by science author Matt Ridley, another literary example of the perverse courtship role of altruism is consciously employed in the classic erotic tragedy Les Liaison Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). The Vicomte de Valmont, the amorous protagonist, acts out an impressive display of seemingly pure altruism to capture the heart of his victim. He is successful, in part because he ensures that his contrived altruism is revealed to her with no hint of his complicity.

Francis Collins presses the view that there is indeed a selfless, godlike purity and virtuousness to at least one form of altruism that opened his eyes to God’s presence and gave him a sure glimpse of God’s work (2006). And we are invited to walk the same path to view God’s certain existence. With the growing literature on the evolution of altruistic behavior, though, Collins is painting himself into a corner. It looks as if he will eventually provide yet another example of science forcing the retreat of supernatural theories (White 1896).3
Dawkins adds an exclamation point to the question of whether morality is possible without religion. Isn't religion the source of moral behavior? Dawkins suggests the opposite. If we are attracted to a religion because it advocates a particular philosophy that we find morally attractive, doesn't it mean that we have an internal appreciation of morality? We may well be genetically programmed internally to favor certain moral convictions. In other words, it would be we who shape religion, contrary to the conventional wisdom that religion shapes us. That may have alarming implications: if humans shape religion then we must have shaped the evil behavior that so moves Dawkins to anger.

I return to Dawkins’s confession of being on a mission to recruit new atheists. Once again, Darwin is a source of thoughtful comment. He adopted an understanding attitude with a compassionate tone. He said, “At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons” (Darwin 1958, p. 90).
He himself was not such a believer. He believed that natural selection doomed intelligent design by providing a natural explanation for evolution. Darwin and Dawkins are alike in many ways, but with at least one striking difference. Dawkins is an active fighter in a war with religion for reasons Darwin shared, but Darwin, defended by friends who were willing to fight in the trenches, was apparently content to let them go to the front while he worked effectively behind the lines.

A notable event was the recent emergence from the nontheistic closet of a public official, Congressman Pete Stark of Fremont, California, who announced that he did not believe in a supreme being. Will other public officials do likewise?4

It will be fascinating to see if Dawkins can make significant inroads on the American religious scene. Recently, there has been an outpouring of books by prominent authors aggressively challenging the dominant role of religion in American life: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Richard Joyce, Lee Silver, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens.

Is change in the air?

Acknowledgments

I thank Laszlo Csonka, Jeff Lucas, and Sam Rosenfeld for extensive discussions and criticisms.

Notes

References

Irwin Tessman

Irwin Tessman is a professor emeritus of biology at Purdue University. His primary scientific research is on DNA damage, repair, and mutation. He has written critically about alternative medicine and intercessory prayer.