Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ Fab Theories
of the Origins of Religion
Throughout the three-thousand-year history of the study of religion, philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and political cranks have posited innumerable explanations for the genesis and worship of the gods: fear (Petronius; cf. Isidore of Seville); innate and universal ideas (Stoics; Platonists); veneration of history’s great and powerful (Euhemerus); homeopathic rituals to encourage agricultural fecundity (Frazer); totemic ancestor worship (W. Robertson Smith); the awe of the numinous (Otto); the projection of the tribal group-soul (Harrison; Cornford); consolation for misfortune and injustice (the Marxist opiate idea); subjugation of the underclass by the “power structure” (contemporary Deconstructionism). In the second century A.D., the brilliant Middle Platonist and father of the modern novel, Apuleius, affirmed the need for a multiplicity of religions on the grounds that no single one could express the inexpressible totality of the Divine. In the fifteenth century, the Christian mystic Nicholas of Cusa expressed the same idea in his formula, Una religio in varietate rituum (one religion in a variety of rites). So, it seems, the multiplicity of religious aetiologies suggests that no one of them could possibly be adequate to explain so ancient, fundamental, and mysterious a human endowment as religion itself. But at least the traditional theories, however narrow and reductive, are psychologically and anthropologically plausible, which is more than one can say for the bizarre confabulations of Dawkins and Hitchens.
Both anti-theists purport to explain the origins of religion on the principle that poisonous fruit can only fall from a poisonous tree. Hitchens’ chapter (” ‘The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin’: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings”) is an embarrassingly incoherent rant on the corrupt beginnings of: the Mormonism of Joseph Smith (early nineteenth century); the footnote religion of the infant prophet Marjoe Gortner (early twentieth century); modern American televangelism; and the so-called second-world-war “cargo cults” of the Pacific Islands, in which American GI’s bringing trinkets in the holds of their marvelous flying machines were worshiped as gods and redeemers by the Melanesian natives. Through no small hermeneutic effort, the reader may eventually divine that the unifying features of these religions is their founders’ monstrous avarice, which they satisfied by resort to the gross fraudulence of their claims to supernatural revelations or powers. To slightly alter the favourite predicatorial text of Chaucer’s Pardoner, Radix religionis est cupiditas. The Pardoner, by the way, reminds us that faithful Christians were aware of the clerical temptation to venality and mischief, and publicly denounced them, six hundred years before Hitchens exposed this open secret. Being rather more realistic than Hitchens, medieval Christians recognized that avarice and dishonesty are the universal condition of fallen man, and by no means limited to the religious. If they excoriated ecclesiastical corruption more ruthlessly than any other kind, it was because they demanded a higher standard of probity from priests and monks than the generality of mankind. It was the high-minded religious ideal of virtue, that is, that made religious vice scandalous.
But besides its incoherence, Hitchens’ chapter is a crashing disappointment, even by the meager scholarly standards to which readers would have become inured by this point in his narrative. While his title promises a universal theory of the origins of religion, it delivers yet another smirk at relatively recent cultic ephemera. If Hitchens affects to account for the origins of the ancient mystery religions of the Great Mother, Isis and Osiris, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Dionysus, Hercules, Mithras, or Christ, on the grounds that, like Marjoe Gortner or Joseph Smith, they all secretly forged their own “revelations” and peddled them using slick theatrical effects, one should like to see his evidence. Hitchens provides none. Instead, he merely invites us to indict all religions by analogy to the most larcenous, primitive, and short-lived examples he can find. Should you wish to see dishonesty and legerdemain in action, look no further than the cynically staged arguments of writers who, by rhetorical sleight of hand, show gullible readers the compliant facts, while keeping the inconvenient ones up their sleeves.
Curiously, a common theme of both books is the aforementioned “cargo cults”, a relative neologism in the jargon of anthropology and the history of religion, whose prominence in our authors’ discussions of cultic origins suggests that they borrowed the term and thesis from one of the earlier anti-theistic manuals on which they so heavily depend (but which they rarely cite, not wishing to admit the gross unoriginality of their polemics). Or perhaps the appeal of the cargo cult theory is its sci-fi topicality, inasmuch as such astrophysical mystics as Carl Sagan have fixed in the popular imagination the vision of “billions and billions” of potentially habitable galaxies, which seems to have given new life to the early twentieth century fantasy that the gods we worship are extra-terrestrials who visited the earth during the infancy of our species. Dawkins devotes a significant part of his chapter “The Roots of Religion” to recounting how the flying machines and magical boxes that glowed with light and emitted strange noises, along with the uniforms and marching rituals of the white-skinned aliens who brought them, so impressed the natives of the Pacific Islands that they worshiped them as gods. For Dawkins, the speed with which these cults spread and their extraordinary geographical range confirm A.C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Dawkins concludes that “the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed”. But he does not tell us with what superior technological marvels Jesus mesmerized and purchased the reverence of his disciples–indeed, if Jesus really had possessed anything like the modern radio or airplane, perhaps he really was a God–nor from what advanced civilization he interloped into Palestine. Like Hitchens, Dawkins provides not a shred of evidence to support his risible hypothesis; rather, he asks his readers to accept it holus-bolus on, well, faith.
Since for Dawkins evolution is all the law and the prophets, his own contribution to the study of cultic origins is his theory of religion as a product of (you guessed it) natural selection. In dragging evolution into everything, Dawkins reminds one of the comically persona-ridden physician Euryximachus, an interlocutor in Plato’s Symposium, who when asked to discourse on the theme of love, defined it as “the health of the body”.
The problem for Dawkins-the-Darwinian, however, is explaining how a behavioral trait that is so “time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking…anti-factual, [and] counter-productive” as the worship of God could have become so universally naturalized within the human species that “no known culture lacks some version” of it. Shouldn’t religion have long ago been “selected out”? Indeed, as the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin insists, “That is the one point which I think all evolutionists agree upon, that it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is doing in its own environment.” The human organism is ubiquitously religious, and by his own logic, the evolutionist ought to conclude that, along with other universally human modes of adaption (e.g., reasoning, planning, tool-making, negotiating, co-operating), religion is a positive and essential contributor to man’s biological survival and thrift.
But then, predisposed as he is to the proposition that religion is pernicious, Dawkins is forced to introduce a bit of “dialectical prestidigitation” (to recall his mockery of the ontological argument) that would have made Anselm proud. Religion, he says, is an unfortunate “by-product” of a more generally successful evolutionary strategy: viz., the prudent imperative for a child to obey his parents. “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival.” But the by-product of it is gullibility, and the inability to distinguish between worldly wisdom and nonsense. “The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats.” As virus-like “memes”, religious doctrines thus infect the gullible brains of children and metastasize throughout the gene-pool, or rather “meme-pool”. Like genes, memes are selfish and reproduce only for the benefit of themselves, rather than their individual hosts or collective species. Each religion is a complex of such self-replicating “memes” or cultural complexes. “Perhaps Islam is analogous to a carnivorous gene complex, Buddhism to a herbivorous one”, Dawkins speculates.
But once again, he offers no empirical evidence to support such fascinating speculations. Nor does it really matter. The theory may be plausible enough that childish credulity and obedience (in themselves, making excellent Darwinian sense) have led to the propagation from generation to generation of religious nonsense, but it tells us nothing about religious origins. Why did parents and tribal elders conceive these fantasies about God and the soul in the first place? It will not do to say that they accepted them credulously from their own parents when they were children; for this is merely to kick the causal can down the road–and Dawkins has only contempt for that sort of intellectual sloppiness when it is exhibited by Creationists. (The triumphantly unanswerable question, “Who designed the Designer”, is one of Dawkins’ rhetorical tics.) So, what Darwinian Imperative first planted the God hypothesis in the brains of parents and tribal elders, in every part of the inhabited globe, during the nascency of humankind? And why was that particular species of nonsense, more than any other, so universally “selected” and propagated?
According to the very criteria to which he regularly appeals, Dawkins’ theory is preposterous. Both he and Hitchens are fond of invoking the principle of Occam’s razor to refute the assumption of the existence of God. According to Occam, the simplest explanation is always the truest, and thus for modern science, the God hypothesis, being wholly superfluous to the explanation of the existence and evolution of the cosmos, is false. (Not surprisingly, Occam is the one Christian theologian whom both Dawkins and Hitchens admire.) Well, isn’t it “simpler” for a Darwinian to infer that the universality and perdurance of religion means that it has been “selected” because it is a successful human adaptation? Remember Lowentin’s point that “it is impossible to do a better job than an organism is doing in its own environment”. For humans, that environment has ubiquitously and perennially included religion. Dawkins’ Byzantine speculations about religion as a “misfiring” of an otherwise sound evolutionary mechanism rather needlessly complicates things.