February 26, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

The God Gene

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, 406 pages & Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett, Viking, 448 pages

by Patrick McNamara

Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon argue that religion is a delusion or, at best, a misfiring of basic cognitive systems evolved for other more useful purposes like “agent detection” and placebo responding. But the authors do not believe that the delusion is harmless. Instead, they make clear that they see religion as a major source of evil in the world and go so far as to say that the religious instruction of children is “child abuse” when unaccompanied by countervailing scientific instruction.

If Dawkins and Dennett really believe that raising a child in a religious tradition is abusive, then they are morally bound to call for the protection of children subject to such abuse. Theoretically, abusers should be subject to legal penalties and perhaps even jailed. The state, in such cases, should use its coercive powers to restrain abusive parents and require them to undergo some sort of psychiatric treatment or thought-retraining program to cure their delusionary illness.

Given the widespread nature of the delusion—both authors cite statistics showing that better than 64 percent of the U.S. population believes in God—America’s psychiatric system will have to be expanded. It may be necessary to build retraining camps similar to those used throughout the Communist world to free recalcitrant religionists from their delusional devotion to God and their irritating resistance to the state. Too bad we can’t all be “brights,” as the merry band of Dawkins- and Dennett-inspired atheists has dubbed itself. If only everyone were as emancipated as the brights from religion’s dangerous spell, the world would be a better place!

Why can’t religionists see the error of their ways, especially when the bright brights point this out to them? It must be that they are stupid. Dawkins is so convinced of the religion-as-delusion equation that he seems to endorse the long discredited notion of a correlation between high religiosity and low intelligence.

Yet no convincing data exist to warrant such a claim. There is, however, a well-attested inverse correlation in many Western cultures between years of education (not I.Q.) and religiosity, but most scientists who study religion believe that the correlation simply indexes one’s level of exposure to the secular culture regnant in most Western universities. It simply demonstrates, in short, one’s level of servility toward and indoctrination in that culture.

Dennett, to his credit, forthrightly raises the issue of who should teach the children about religion and very carefully treads the issue’s thorny ethical undergrowth. At first, he seems to suggest that rules of informed consent should apply, but then in the spirit of the robust and kind-hearted tolerance he wishes to advance, he very magnanimously proposes that parents “may teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like” as long as they “don’t teach their children anything that is likely to close their minds 1) through fear or hatred or 2) by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world).”

Is Dennett blind to the potentially enormous implications of these proposed rules? Who decides when a child is being taught to hate or fear? Who decides when a child’s mind is closed? Perhaps a specially educated elite of informed intellectuals should make such decisions; perhaps properly certified guardians; perhaps ministers of the state.

But Dawkins and Dennett should not be tarnished as a pair of unwitting forerunners of a new set of thought-control programs. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and Dennett is a philosopher and Director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Tufts University. The two men have often been allies in the fight to defend Darwinian evolutionary science against the so-called creationists and the intelligent-design people. Dawkins first came to prominence in the 1970s on the strength of his book The Selfish Gene, which led to a more gene-centered view of evolutionary change. In such a perspective, organisms exist to propagate genes—not the other way around. He also later suggested that the basic units of cultural evolution might be called “memes,” which can be thought of as sets of basic ideas that use the minds of humans as vehicles to proliferate and immortalize themselves. Both Dawkins and Dennett tend to see religion as a set of virulent and harmful memes, but little or no scientific evidence supports this view.

Dennett has made a number of important contributions to the philosophy of mind. His 1992 book, Consciousness Explained, debunked theories of consciousness in which a little observing man or homunculus sat somewhere at the back of the mind of the individual and did all of the hard work of being conscious. Dennett’s 1996 book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, advocated extending Darwin’s idea of the mechanism of natural selection to virtually all human experience.

Dawkins and Dennett’s intellectual honesty and dedication to liberty of thought preclude their endorsement of the state’s use of coercion to combat religious delusion. But their belief that religion is delusion appears to have led them into a position inimical to liberty of thought. A fair reading of the science of religion suggests in any case that religion is not mere delusion or cognitive error but a complex suite of biocultural behaviors shaped by standard evolutionary forces and consequently ingrained deeply into the biology of the human psyche. It is pointless and counterproductive to equate religion with stupidity, abuse, and brainwashing, as such language only obscures the complex nature of religion and compounds this obscurantist move with an open invitation to reformers and state planners to regulate, restrict, and control yet another realm of human choice and behavior.

The fact that religion has an evolutionary history is no guarantee, however, that it is good for people. Murder has an evolutionary history too, and we do not (usually) promote murder. But neither do we describe murder as an instance of mere delusion. The label “delusion” here would be a category mistake, just as it is in the case of religion. But to the extent that ideas have consequences—and they do—this is one category mistake that could lead to disastrous social policy.

Instead of a research paradigm built around the old canard that religion is delusion, what’s needed to throw light on both the constructive and destructive aspects of religiousness is concerted, well-funded, long-term research on religion and religiousness and a careful dissection of their natural functions. Whatever natural functions are discovered will not, of course, preclude discussion of the question of religion’s basic truth value. Neither will it foreclose discussion of whether God exists. Instead, developing a natural history of religion will simply clear away all of the pointless chatter about religion being a delusion and free us from all the zealous reformers who want to save us from our own innate religiousness.

While calling for the development of a science of religion, however, Dawkins and Dennett, I fear, have already concluded that there is really no substantial phenomenon to be studied at all, since they believe that religion is mere delusion. Why then do the research if the jury’s verdict is already in?

The fact that people believe in agents unseen so outrages Dawkins and Dennett that they call religion virulently harmful. Apparently, they look at all of the charities, universities, hospitals, orphanages, clinics, poor houses, soup kitchens, and shelters financed and run by religious groups and conclude not only that all of these establishments mean nothing in comparison to the monstrous acts perpetrated by brainwashed religionists, but also that religion needs to be done away with completely. Dawkins in particular too easily dismisses the concern that massive crimes have also been committed by antireligious ideologues like Robespierre, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin. He claims that these crimes were not committed in the name of atheism. Perhaps Dawkins does not read history as carefully as he reads the book of nature. All of the aforementioned individuals and many other anti-religious ideologues, like the early 20th-century Mexican revolutionaries, explicitly carried out programs of mass murder in the name of their militantly atheistic ideologies. These despots knew that they had to crush religious organizations and “erase the infamy” of religious belief and intolerance if they were ever to control the populations of their countries.

Religion, like any other human enterprise, should not be off limits to scientific study or public scrutiny. But curiously, for all of their calls for enhanced scrutiny and study of religion, Dawkins and Dennett seem hellbent on ignoring one of the most basic scientific findings of modern research on religion: namely, that religiousness is not due to stupidity, error, delusion, or trance.

Instead, religiousness appears to be sui generis—a phenomenon unto itself that cannot be reduced to more fundamental cognitive operations (though like any other biocultural adaptation, it utilizes more fundamental cognitive systems in its operations). Religiousness may even turn out to be a normal biologic trait strongly influenced by standard, nonmysterious evolutionary forces. Like that other quintessentially human skill, language, religiousness displays many of the telltale signs of a classic, evolutionarily-shaped adaptation or suite of adaptations. It is found, for example, in all known human cultures, and furthermore, it is heritable. When one twin is religious, the other will likely be religious as well. Its “heritability coefficient” is moderately high, ranging from .40 to .70 (compared to heritability coefficients for traits that most scientists see as adaptations such as basic personality traits—.40 to .60—or intelligence—.50 to .60). Genes, such as the VMAT2 and the DRD4, are consistently associated with high scores on religiousness scales. And religiousness is now known to exhibit a definite brain basis: some drugs enhance religiousness, while others diminish it, and some brain regions are more consistently associated with religiousness than others.

All of the foregoing evidence is consistent with the idea that religiosity is an adaptation—not a mere delusion. Given that it is an adaptation, it is not surprising that basic components of religiosity are spontaneously acquired by children, who come to believe in omniscent supernatural agents in a relatively effortless manner. Children do not need to be force-fed religion because they naturally develop religion’s basic component processes.

Why then do Dawkins and Dennett persist in treating religion as mere delusion or “spell”? Doing so leads them to reinvent the nonproblem of religion’s persistence in an era of reason and scientific advancement. Most scholars of religion see no problem here, as religion, for better or worse, is considered the common biocultural inheritance of humankind. But for people who equate religion with stupidity, all sorts of problems arise, including the ethical issue of who will teach children about God.   

Patrick McNamara is Assistant Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the VA New England Health Care System. He recently edited the three-volume series Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion.  

February 26, 2007 Issue