I have had an amazing experience. Perhaps it was a religious experience. I am having a hard time believing that even though it happened to me. It really seems like 3 atheists have led me to have a religious experience. No that can’t be. Or can it? I’ll show how that happened.
In 2007, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett had a conversation that sparked a religious revolution. Actually it was an anti-religious revolution. All 4 of them were brilliant religious thinkers. They were the 4 most famous atheists in the world and a video of their discussion went viral. The 4 thinkers were later called “the 4 horseman” in reference to the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse in that weird and wacky book of the Bible, Revelations. If you have ever read it you will likely be convinced it was written by someone under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. How could any of these figures lead me to religion? That is a good question.
The first of the atheists was Daniel Dennett and his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. And that really is the point. What kind of natural phenomenon is religion? That is step 1 in this process I am describing.
Dennett, like me considers himself to be an evolutionist. He accepts the theory of evolution, as do the vast majority of scientists. It is by now the foundation of science—the most famous and most accepted scientific doctrine perhaps in the history of science. It started out controversially when Darwin wrote his first book on the subject in 1859, Origin of Species.
Darwin is usually credited with originating the theory of evolution. That is not really true. What he did was launch the theory of evolution by natural selection. Other scientists and thinkers had thought of evolution before Darwin but his wholly original concept was that natural selection was the driving force of evolution.
Well what does all of this have to do with religion? I have earlier blogged that in my view Charles Darwin is the most important religious thinker in the past 500 years. (http://themeanderer.ca/darwin-the-greatest-religious-thinker) But I don’t want to repeat that now. I am here looking at Darwin and evolution and religion with a different lens.
Dennett in his book made a remarkable statement. He said, to an evolutionist like him, religious behaviors “stand out like peacocks in a sunlit glade.” He did not mean that in a complementary sense. It was his view that evolution ruthlessly eliminates costly and wasteful behaviors over long periods of time. He viewed religion as a wasteful phenomenon. Why then was it not eliminated?
Evolutionists always think in terms of long periods of time. Over many generations incredible changes can be seen in many small steps. Small changes over long periods of time bring about astonishing changes. That is evolution. So religion sticks out.
This brings me to the second atheist Richard Dawkins who is probably the most famous of the 4 horsemen. He said, “no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, rituals, the anti-factual counterproductive fantasies of religion.” Again, as you would expect from an atheist, not the most attractive view of religion.
But notice the puzzle here. How could humans have been evolved by natural selection to adopt religion? Natural selection picks traits that improve the individual’s chances of reproducing. How could religion, as described by these two atheists, have ever been selected? It seems impossible.
You really have 2 choices. One you could admit that religion (or really religiosity) must have been beneficial to humans. Naturally, atheists are usually reluctant to admit that. The second alternative though is much more complicated. There must be some reason that humans somehow came to adopt religions that are self-destructive (according to the atheists). Natural selection wouldn’t possibly do that, would it? Dennett and Dawkins both had complicated explanations for why this happened. Those theories are so complicated it is hard to be convinced by them.
Here comes the third atheist. An unlikely atheist and much less well known and much less of a fundamentalist atheist or militant atheist—Jonathan Haidt. He wrote an amazing book that deals with this fundamental thorny problem (among other thorny problems). This book is called The Righteous Mind and I highly recommend it. And he comes up with some amazing solutions to this problem, all based on science and in particular his science which is Moral Psychology. He is the one that tried these two contradictory views together and led me to religion. His explanation was much simpler than the 2 atheists and unless you were an atheist trying to prove you are right, this is the theory that you have come up with. In other words, religion is not bad for people; it is actually good for people? It gives people an evolutionary advantage! That is why it was selected.
How can atheists like Haidt get to that position? I will consider that in my next blog post.