How 3 atheists led me to religion


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. (  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.

10 thoughts on “How 3 atheists led me to religion

  1. Last night, a cranky knee kept me from sleeping. I had just read your essay and I listened to a YouTube vid with writers talking about fiction. The two mixed and I thought of religion as a cure for the “unreliable narrator.” Sometimes, in a novel, the narrator is unreliable — the characters do things that, according to the narrator, should not happen. The narrator gives us a bum steer.

    Life is similarly so. A childhood friend moves away. That charming puppy grows into a surly dog that bites. A loving grandparent dies. Life’s narrator promised us joy and yet these bad things happen. In fact, we slowly come to realize the stark measure of it… we ourselves will one day die.

    Oh, boy. How to deal with this, especially that last bit?

    Blame the damn narrator and change the story! How about: We don’t die. In fact, we go to a better place. Unseen, unheard, but it’s there! Pearly gates, virgins, the Canucks win the cup, etc. Now THAT is a better narration.

    And yet, we hedge. We go for walks — pumping our arms like jowly Olympians — we take our expensive meds, we eat mixing bowls full of blueberries dripping with anti-oxidants. What for? Just in case, I suppose, the new narrator is as unreliable as the last one.

    1. Sir: You are brilliant! I need time to digest your wisdom. One of my faithful readers has said I think too much. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps you are guilty of the same sin. Perhaps that, not a wonky knee kept you up at night when good souls should be sleeping. Though I don’t really believe that thinking is a sin.

  2. Daniel Dennett says religious behaviors “stand out like peacocks in a sunlit glade.” Evolution ruthlessly eliminates costly and wasteful behaviors over long periods of time.

    But it doesn’t always. For example, evolution did not eliminate the waste of resources that goes into those peacocks’ tails, which makes it harder to maneuver and more difficult to avoid predators. Yes, it has been argued that having the resources to put into a fancy tail is a sign of ‘resources to spare’. But why didn’t evolution give them terrific beaks and claws? Apparently, female finches apparently look to the beak above all else for evidence of survival.

    But (wasteful?) ornamentation is widespread.

    1. I actually agree and don’t believe ornamentation is always wasteful Like Bower birds build extraordinary bowers for their prospective mates. They seem to have no practical purpose. Yet the female chooses the most attractive bower maker for her mate. Like young girls didn’t choose me but instead some much better looking dude. In her eyes. Does the female always look for the healthier mate who will be a better provider or create healthier offspring, or perhaps does she look for the extravagance of art. I would never say that is “wasteful behaviour.” Is art not the sauce in meal? Birds perhaps are wise.

  3. Social evolution is too complex to try and understand it in a simple linear fashion, ie the oversimplified view that all new adaptations must be an ultimate advantage. It is true that all new evolutionary changes or aquisitions are a response to an environmental stimulus, but it does not follow that all new adaptations end up being the ultimate or long-term best adaptations to an ever-changing environment. And so there are many adaptive holdouts that were incomplete and or ultimately no longer adaptive, and so there often is a significant lag between the environmental demand and a truly adaptive response. Additionally, as in physical evolution, the adaptive responses frequently are non or even maladaptive to the point of eventually being relagated to the DNA scrap heap. In other words, evolution works in a trial and error fashion with many dead ends and regressions rather than a purely linear and perfectly progressive way. Ultimately, through many refinements it tends to have a net unidirectional outcome, ie it is progressive but not that every step of that journey is the best outcome.
    With this in mind, the adaptive advantage of religion at one point in human psycho/social development does not mean that it continues to be the most advantageous for all time. For instance, the need to make meaning of natural phenomena such as weather events led to various religious explanations for the interventions of gods, which were a part of a much broader religious understanding, and satisfied the need to make sense of a capricious world. But eventually science offered a better explanation and shifted our search for truth to a more empirical one. However, vestiges of the over-arcing religious world views hold out for many and in fact religion as we know it simply readapts in its convergence with science.
    In essence, religion and science are not so much competing world views as they are extensions of each other, religion filling in the blanks that science is not yet capable of doing (also known as the god of the shadows). That does not belittle religion, as it continues to fulfill the need to know where no other method can offer a satisfactory answer. Ultimately religion and science both search for truth and as such are adaptive and ultimately this mutual search for absolute (not relative) truth should converge. Perhaps that is the singularity so often anticipated. The God moment. The ultimate truth. But don’t hold your breath, we’re not nearly there.

    1. Wow! I agree that not every step in evolution is progress. I am not sure I believe in progress in that sense at all. I find the idea that religion and science may work together to be very interesting. Unfortunately, I think many religions have gone off the tracks and will in time be discarded on the dustheap of history. E.g. there is no reason that religion has to have insane appendages, such as requirements we can’t eat certain foods or have to cut our hair in a certain fashion. Yet the religious impulse can lead to great achievments as well. E.G. great art, or as I will blog on charity!

    1. KD: I have seen so-called adaptive progress: downhill skier, basketball player, windsurfer, kayaker, single track biker. OH MY! Talk about yer unidirectional outcome… to have left windsurfing in the wake. Shame-shame die finger lang! And now, with the new science of windsurf foiling–it would be seea fine to revert, to retroadapt and find yourself atop a high-flying windsurf foil. That is the way–the shining, sequined waterway–to come closer to the sun than ever before. Amen, pass the communion wine.

  4. It is not so much that I think religion and science work together Hans, certainly not in some conscious and deliberate way, but rather that some people’s need for answers drives religion to fill the gap that science is yet (but not forever) unable to elucidate. It’s a default and unwitting partnership but yet fulfills a psychosocial need and as such is filled as a response to psychosocial environmental pressures, much in the same way that physical evolution is driven by physical environmental pressures. I assume you probably meant my definition of “working together” but wanted to make sure on that point.
    No doubt some religions retain some vestiges of their evolution that have outlived their usefulness. This is no different than in physical evolution ( eg the vagus nerve in the giraffe neck, the human appendix etc) and natural responses to changing environmental pressures eventually correct for this, though unfortunately there is often a significant lag between the changing environment and a useful evolutionary response.

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