In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

4 Religion An Evolutionary View Introduction The previous two chapters provided the scientific and philosophical conceptual infrastructure of Dawkins’ worldview (Chapters Two and Three respectively). This worldview understands every facet of life, from its primordial origins through to the complexities of human consciousness, behavior, and cultural interaction, in terms of evolutionary science and philosophy. In the context of an intellectual exchange between theology and Dawkins, an interesting issue becomes apparent: how the religious behavior of humans can be explained through evolution. Therefore, Dawkins’ understanding of how religion evolves is an essential issue for consideration in a theological study. This is particularly important because, as Alister McGrath has suggested with characteristic insight, in modern times the meaning of theology has widened to include an “analysis of religious beliefs—even if these beliefs make reference to no god at all. . . ”.1 With this understanding of theology, then, Dawkins’ efforts to study the evolution of religion can be considered a theological task. However, we should acknowledge that there is division among theologians on this issue. Tina Beattie and Nicholas Lash, for example, have suggested that Dawkins and others have adopted an elitist and petulant attitude toward this study of religious beliefs, hindering their objectives.2 However, as we shall see, other theologians and religious philosophers, such as Nancey Murphy and Alvin Plantinga, see the evolutionary study of religion as theologically beneficial. This chapter will thus explore an evolutionary view of religion promoted by Dawkins. In the service of a better and more rounded understanding of Dawkins’ position, it must be understood that his views on the origins of religion can be placed within a wider context of theorizations in the area; Dawkins does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. Although he is a leading voice 145 in this area, his ideas, like those of all philosophers, theologians, and scientists, are molded by his peers. Consequently, to fully understand Dawkins, we must constantly look at his wider hermeneutical circle. In doing so, we will also incorporate other scholars who also seek to interpret religious belief in terms of evolution. However, much of the secondary scholarship we will focus on follows Dawkins’ evolutionary philosophy and builds upon it. This will justify our reliance on secondary scholars throughout this chapter, particularly those whose studies of religion Dawkins specifically endorses—for example, Robert Hinde, Pascal Boyer, and Scott Atran.3 Motives, Method, and Limitations MOTIVES In Dawkins’ perspective, it is not just features of biological life that are interpreted in terms of natural selection, but also nonempirical subjects such as culture and morality. In espousing this approach, Dawkins seeks a holistic image of the developmental history of all aspects of life, from the physical to the mental realms, grounded in terms of evolutionary science. Therefore, in dialoguing with this worldview, we become obliged to account for the evolution of religion, an influential element of human life, and an indispensable topic for this theological work. Dawkins understands human culture in terms of his view of Darwinism. Therefore religion, as a prevalent feature of human culture, must also be understood in terms of natural selection. As Dawkins observes, “Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution, we should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favored the impulse to religion”.4 Dawkins gains support for an evolutionary account of religion from Dennett, as he suggests that the ubiquity of religious belief in human civilization necessitates an explanation: All human groups it seems, have practiced religion. Groups have gone without agriculture, without clothing, without laws, without money, without the wheel or without writing, but not, apparently, without religion. . . . Religion, moreover, does not seem to have been a mere passing phase in human evolution; even in the most technocratic and materialistic corners of contemporary civilization, religion has found niches in which to flourish.5 146 | Reading Richard Dawkins For Dennett, the pervasiveness of religion, both in human history and modernity, impels by its nature an evolutionary explanation. Further support for Dawkins on this matter is evident in the work of zoologist Robert A. Hinde, in his work Why Gods Persist. Hinde acknowledges the ‘selection pressures’, seen above in Dawkins’ statement, and suggests that certain evolved human propensities are satisfied by religion, and it can therefore be treated as a Darwinian development: [I]t has been argued that a number of basic human propensities, which are probably ubiquitous in humans, though differing in degree between individuals and cultures, can be satisfied through religion. . . . To the extent that such is...


Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.