Is God Just a Human Invention? - Video Interview and Book Excerpt with Sean McDowell
- Wednesday, October 20, 2010
*Dawkins mentions in passing for cumulative effect: "Visionary religious experiences are related to temporal lobe epilepsy." The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 196. Again, all this would show is that there is a correlation between the physiology of the temporal lobe and a certain kind of experience; not that the experience is exhaustively explained by the physiology.
The mind or soul is clearly correlated with certain brain states or chemistry, but the mind or soul is not identical or reducible to them. We reject as inadequate materialistic accounts of reality that reduce human consciousness, free will, morality, or belief in God to genetics and neuroscience—as important and promising as these fields are.
We now turn to Dawkins's account of the root of religious belief: "The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene like way, as replicators."13 Dawkins calls these replicators memes, which he defines as "units of cultural inheritance."14 Elsewhere, he compares the spread of memes to a computer virus in which "self-replicating information leaps infectiously from mind to mind."15 Did you catch his word choice? Obviously viruses are not good. Dawkins candidly admits, "To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both."16
While Dawkins scores points for creativity by coining the term meme, the idea has been subject to severe criticism and is by no means a mainstream view among his peers.17 First, unlike genes, there is no scientific evidence that memes actually exist. Dawkins reveals as much, "We don't know what memes are made of or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel."18 Next, the gene had to be postulated due to the observational data piling up. Not so the meme, which is explanatorily redundant because anthropologists and sociologists are already exploring beliefs and communal dynamics in human cultures.19 Or as one book reviewer put it in the Los Angeles Times, "Memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer."20 Finally, Alister McGrath observes, "Since the meme is not warranted scientifically, are we to conclude that there is a meme for belief in memes? The meme concept then dies the slow death of self-referentiality, in that, if taken seriously, the idea explains itself as much as anything else."21
But let's briefly return to the notion that religion is a virus of the mind. How does one decide what is a dangerous idea and what is a beneficial idea? Or to put the matter bluntly, why are the ideas that Dawkins dislikes (e.g., religion or God) viruses of the mind, but others like Darwinian evolution are pure, safe, and beneficial? All these ideas would have infectiously leaped from mind to mind. All would function as memes in his view. It seems wholly arbitrary and subjective to prefer one set of beliefs and condemn another. As McGrath has pointed out, "Each and every argument that Dawkins adduces for his idea of ‘God as virus of the mind' can be countered by proposing its counterpart for ‘atheism as a virus of the mind.' Both ideas are equally unsubstantiated and meaningless."22
A By-Product of Natural Selection
Dawkins, in conjunction with his dubious meme theory, turns to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology to explain the roots of religion.23 Perhaps humans were hardwired to believe in God by the process of natural selection?24 Maybe this belief was useful for human survival? Many experiments in cognitive psychology strongly suggest that "human minds come into the world with all sorts of ‘software' both preinstalled and booted up" and that "some of this software manifests itself right from birth, while other bits of it become operative at specifiable times in human development."25 This research is fascinating and illuminating, but not very controversial until it is applied to religion.*
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