Lecture I: The Science of Religion


Wednesday, November 19, 2003, 5:00pm to 6:30pm

Speaker: Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University

Summary by Ian MacMullen, Edmond J. Safra Graduate Fellow in Ethics

With Harvard's Lowell Lecture Hall full to overflowing, Professor Richard Dawkins opened the first of two Tanner Lectures by observing that the widespread prevalence of religion is a puzzle for Darwinians. Religious behavior, viewed from the perspective of evolutionary theory, appears wasteful, a case of "Baroque uselessness." Many precious resources are consumed to no apparent end. If an animal habitually performs a frivolous action, the mechanism of natural selection is ruthless in response; therefore, Darwinians assume that any widespread animal behavior must have a purpose, in the sense that we must be able to explain how it confers a survival advantage. But, throughout history and in modern times, humans across all societies engage in enormously costly religious activities, up to and including the sacrifice of one's own life for one's religious principles. This universal human phenomenon of religious practice demands an explanation in evolutionary terms.

One way – albeit, the wrong way, Dawkins proposed – to explain religion in evolutionary terms is to show that holding religious belief confers a direct survival advantage on the believer. Various explanations of this form have been offered. Perhaps religious belief prolong the holder's life by relieving stress, serving as a "psychosomatic placebo." The conviction that there is life after death may be a kind of "worry blanket." But the empirical grounds for these explanations seem weak; it is far from clear, Dawkins suggested, either that religion alleviates more stress than it causes or that the "worry blanket" actually staves off the  moment of death. Nor, claimed Dawkins, is there likely to be sufficient explanatory power in so-called "group selection" theories, according to which the possession of a common religion might make a tribe more likely to survive and reproduce successfully. The appropriate Darwinian account of religion should identify a distinctive survival advantage at the level of the individual.

The mistake in these proposed explanations consists in assuming that the survival advantage associated with religion must attach to the actual possession and practice of religious beliefs. Rather, we should ask: what is the individual survival advantage of the particular psychological trait that manifests itself, under certain circumstances, as religious belief? To ask why humans are religious is akin to asking why moths immolate themselves by flying into light bulbs: in each case, we should really ask about the survival value of the underlying propensity that happens to misfire in these cases. The nervous system of a moth is structured such that it will navigate at a particular angle to the rays emitted by a bright light source: this happens to be a very good system for flying in a straight line when the light source is a celestial object located at optical infinity and the rays are therefore parallel when they reach the moth. Unfortunately, if the light source is much closer and the rays diverge, the moth's on-board navigation system will steer the moth in a spiral that leads into the source (and to a fiery death). Darwinians should seek an analogous explanation for religious behavior in humans.

But what is the advantageous psychological trait that we observe misfiring in humans' irrational religious beliefs and practices? Dawkins offered a hypothesis, while emphasizing that his main message was simply to draw the audience's attention to the right way of posing the question. The gullibility of children, their propensity to trust and obey what their parents tell them, confers an important survival advantage while leaving children vulnerable to accepting the myths and legends that accompany their parents' vital practical advice about how to avoid falling prey to predators. Just as a soldier's unquestioning compliance with orders is a virtue that may occasionally lead to disaster, and a computer's slavish obedience to instructions makes it both useful to us and vulnerable to viruses, a child's undiscriminating acceptance of her parents' claims generally keeps the child out of serious trouble at the cost of deeply embedding the parents' irrational beliefs in the child. Elaborating on the idea that religious faith is an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise evolutionary advantageous trait in children, Dawkins made an impassioned plea against labeling children with the faith of their parents: a four-year-old may be a "child of Hindu parents," but she is not a "Hindu child."

In the last portion of his lecture, Professor Dawkins suggested an alternative Darwinian perspective on religion, one that emphasizes the survival of ideas rather than the survival of individual humans and their genes. Religions, like chain letters and urban legends, may be viewed as viruses that will survive and reproduce effectively if and only if they possess certain features. By way of illustration, Dawkins offered the example of the "postal virus" that began in 1989 when nine-year-old Craig Shergold, diagnosed with a brain tumor, expressed his wish to receive a world-record number of get-well cards. Letters were sent requesting the recipient to send such a card to Craig and to forward the instruction to others. This is not the normal Darwinian story of gene selection and survival, but it shows many of the same features, for example, the development of mutant strains of the request letter, in which the young boy's name and/or age were changed. The overwhelming success of the scheme, it soon became clear, was not a benefit to any individual – Craig himself was increasingly desperate to stop the cards, of which by 1999 he had received a quarter of a billion, with 300,000 more arriving each week – but rather a benefit to the postal virus itself. Much the same, Dawkins provocatively concluded, might be said of the survival and propagation of religion.

See also: Ethics