Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wilson vs. Dawkins on Religion

Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion has become a best-seller. This book reinforces the popular prejudice that Darwinism must denigrate religion. Dawkins's fanatical attack on religion falls into the stereotype of the Darwinian scientist as the village atheist.

But as I have argued in my books and on this blog, there is no necessary conflict between Darwinism and religion. Although Darwinian science cannot confirm or deny the theological doctrines of religion, it can recognize the practical truth of religion as satisfying certain natural human desires in ways that foster social cooperation. This sustains the conservative view of religion as important for supporting morality and political order.

David Sloan Wilson has written a response to Dawkins that shows how evolutionary theory can explain the practical importance of religion for sustaining cooperation in groups. Wilson's statement can be found here. A previous post on the debate over evolutionary explanations of religion can be found here.


John Farrell said...

Did you see Dawkins' condescending reply to Wilson?

Larry Arnhart said...

Even if Dawkins' reply is condescending, it does make one good point. The theological question of God's existence is quite different from the evolutionary question of the origins of religious belief.

Wilson generally sets aside the question of "factual truth" in defending the "practical truth" of religion. But doesn't the "practical truth" of religion depend upon the religious believer's confidence in its "factual truth"?

John Farrell said...

Yes, good point. I would quibble, however, insofar as Dawkins is not and never has been even interested in the theological question of God's existence: he ridicules theology and insists, incoherently, in my opinion, that it is a scientific question.

Any attempt to point out that theologically speaking the Christian God is, by definition, outside of nature, is again dismissed with ridicule.

Tony said...

I have often wondered how serious you really take your claim that Darwinism is consistent with a Christian worldview. Darwinism (according to your book at least) tells us that this planet is our home. Do you really think this is compatible with Christianity? Or would you admit of certain qualifications to that statement?

Larry Arnhart said...


I assume that you are referring to the last paragraph of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, which ends: "We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home."

To see human beings as aliens in the natural world who have been thrown into this world as prisoners was the teaching of the Gnostics, who were heretics. Orthodox Christians, however, would say that nature is good, having been created by the same God who created human beings.

Tony said...

Your point is well taken. Gnosticism is an egregious error. God does say that the world he has made is "good". And there's no reason to think that Adam and Eve did not feel entirely at home. But since the Fall, the condition of the human race is much different.
Of all the curses attendant upon our fallen nature, separation from God is certainly the worst. This is the source of the oft-mentioned "transcendent longing".
That is, we long for communion with the transcendent, not TO BE transcendent. We are incomplete in the absence of God. Thus we do not feel completely at home in a world whose "prince" is not our loving Creator but the despised Enemy of Him and us.
Christians, however, have reason to be content as we await Christ's return. For God has sent His Holy Spirit to be our Comforter.
Those who are yet lost do not have this, and will seek to supply the defect in a number of insufficient and often counterproductive ways, whether it be the search for pleasure, riches, glory, fame, power, or even knowledge.
Behind all these quests lurks the original rebellion and pride that caused humanity's fall in the first place. And in fact, that original sin took the form of wanting know, not to know in God which would have been entirely proper, but to know apart from and opposition to God--to be "as gods."
All men may want to be knowers (though I often wonder how serious Aristotle was about this), but they all will eventually run up to the limits of what they can know (which you have wisely acknowledged).
In light of this, I find Nieztsche and the existentialists to be an understandable turn in the history of thought. I also, therefore, am not surprised by the closet nihilism of many Straussians, especially those of the Bloom camp.
What I can't put of finger on is why Lawler and his idol, Walker Percy, insist on their existentialist Catholicism. I think you've got them dead to rights here. Whatever the source of this error, it is not the Holy Scripture.
But I wonder whether the easy targets they give allow you to ignore the fact that Christians cannot accept an account that posits faith in Christ as one among many religious strategies to fulfill a "natural desire" that might not have ever come about had the evolutionary pathway simply taken a different turn somewhere along the way--a natural desire which need not be fulfilled by religious strategies at all. Conquering the world or discovering the cure for cancer would work just as well, says the Darwinian conservative.

Mike King said...

One fundamental problem with The God Delusion is that it confuses the concepts of God and religion. Dawkins constantly draws on examples from religion to denigrate the concept of God, yet they are very different concepts, most fundamentally becuase God is a supernatural concept whereas religion (as we generally understand it and certianly as Dawkins understands it) is most definitely man-made.