The evolution of belief

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As we burgeon headlong into the 21st century, there seems to be a growing zeitgeist afoot: the slow but steady death of religious belief. Previously taboo, the once-hushed voice of atheism has recently begun to speak up, and with compelling evidence to bolster its claims. It is now the fastest growing system of belief in the world. And its largest proponent? Richard Dawkins.

A renowned evolutionary biologist and professor at Oxford University, Dawkins came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene which popularised the gene-centered view of evolution. As an active atheist, he strongly advocates Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and is well known for his criticism of religious belief, creationism and intelligent design.

In his 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion, he argued that God almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion, a fixed false belief. Recent studies support this theory and suggest that religion may soon become extinct in nine countries, with New Zealand leading the way. Many anthropologists already foresee atheism and secularism replacing religious belief altogether, starting with the developed world. It seems that atheism is here to stay and its voice will become increasingly difficult to ignore.

You’ve been very busy over the last few years, especially with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science which you set up in 2006. It aims to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in an attempt to eradicate religious belief and superstition. In your experience, is the number of young people open to the idea of atheism versus religiosity increasing?
Well, my whole career has been teaching at Oxford, where of course they’re open to it. But I think the more telling question would be how open are they to it in places like America. And I think the answer to your question is yes. There’s good evidence that the number of people who describe themselves as non-religious is going up in successive censuses in various countries.

My own experience when I travel and give lectures is that I get large and enthusiastic audiences, especially in places like the Bible Belt in America, which, when you think about it, is not all that surprising, because people feel beleaguered. So if someone like me comes to them and articulates what they, themselves, would like to say but have always felt prohibited from doing so, they’re very grateful to me for doing so and they say this to me during book signings.

As an outspoken atheist, what do you see as the challenges that atheists face today?
I’m not that outspoken! I mean I have a fairly quiet voice…

You have been called Darwin’s Rottweiler (in allusion to Thomas Henry Huxley who was nicknamed Darwin’s Bulldog because of his strong advocacy for Darwin’s theories)…
Yes, well I don’t mind that. But I think if I were to live up to that name, I’d perhaps be a lot more aggressive than I really am. I think of myself mostly as a scientist, and the biggest challenge to my own particular field of science, evolutionary biology, is religion. Not all religious spokesmen are creationist, although a great many are, and a great many more of their congregations are. So I think there is a great challenge to science, and particularly to the science of evolution, to get across the beauty, elegance and overpowering convincingness of evolution.

In 2007 you set up the Out Campaign to encourage atheists to come out of the closet. The Scarlet A for Atheism was the symbol of the campaign. You’ve said that the inspiration for the campaign was the gay rights movement. Do atheists really face the same type of challenges and stigmatisations that gays have, or is this overstating the point?
Well not here [in the UK] but in America, yes, there’s no question about that. And there is poll data to support that. When people were asked which classes of person they would find acceptable as a candidate for president, atheists came right down at the bottom of the list below gays, etc.

So yes, there is a lot of stigmatisation in America. The gay movement succeeded magnificently in liberating itself from the sort of oppression that it used to feel. Now, gay people have almost no stigmatisation at all, indeed perhaps the reverse. They also succeeded in marshalling what they call ‘gay pride’. There was a time when people spoke about ‘outing’ themselves or being ‘outed’ as gay, and the Out Campaign sort of modelled itself a bit on that except we resolutely set our face against outing people. It’s fine to encourage people to out themselves, but we don’t out people.

Does atheism have a goal, ethical or otherwise?
No, not a specific atheistic ethical goal. I think what we would be happy with would be to show people that atheists are just as ethical as anyone else, and that there is no need to have any sort of supernatural belief in order to be a moral person. It is a very widespread fallacy that one has to be religious in order to be a good person. That really is complete nonsense. So I think it would be a very, very worthwhile goal if we could get rid of that misconception.

So if there is no specific goal to atheism, can it bring the same sort of comfort and fulfillment that religious people claim that their belief in a higher being offers?
Well, atheism is simply the absence of a belief in anything supernatural, and most of us find comfort in human things such as human relationships, love, poetry, music, sports and all of the things that we like doing.

You are an active humanist. Is this, then, the basis of humanism?
Yes, though I’m slightly uneasy about the term ‘humanism’ because it tends to suggest a preoccupation with our own species as opposed to other species. But yes, if you want to get an idea of the sort of positive ethics and values that atheists can hold, humanist literature is not a bad place to look.

In 2008 you supported the Atheist Bus Campaign, which aimed to raise funds to place peaceful and upbeat messages about atheism on transport media in Britain in response to evangelical Christian advertising. One example was, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It was a runaway success, raising more than £100,000 in its first four days, ten times the initially estimated amount, and generating global interest in atheism. Are you hopeful that atheism and humanism will continue to spread to all factions of society?
Yes. That was an amusing, rather fun campaign organised by a young woman called Ariane Sherine and I joined and contributed some money and joined the committee that was planning it. It was then taken up by similar campaigns in most of the other European countries, and in America, but with different and in some ways better slogans, I think. And those seemed to be very successful.

Even in America?
Oh yes! There were some quite good bus and poster campaigns in America, including one that said, “You don’t need God to be good,” and another that said, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” Oddly enough [the latter] was taken to be offensive!

You coined the word “meme”, the behavioural equivalent of the gene, to describe how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Can morality and ethics be considered memes?
Well possibly. With regard to the idea of a meme, I wasn’t really trying to make a contribution to the science of human culture or psychology. It was rather more, as you said, by analogy with the gene, and as the book was really about genes as the engine of selection, I wanted to make the case that it doesn’t have to be [only] genes.

The Darwinian principle can work with anything self-replicating or copied. Human culture itself provides a medium in which imitation happens: something passes from your brain to mine and then to somebody else’s. Human culture is therefore potentially a gene-like medium of transmission, and that could apply to moral principles.

It certainly is a very elegant solution to the question of where morality comes from. Could it then explain why moral codes tend to vary from culture to culture?
It could be. It’s certainly plausible. And if not morality, then social customs such as the way people dress, their customs at meal times or their rituals are very clearly transmitted in a gene-like way.

This concept of the meme spawned an entirely new area of study known as memetics. Do you feel as though you’re a part of that or that it is now so big that it no longer “belongs” to you anymore?
Well, I like to think it belongs to me. I certainly don’t want to disown it, no.

In 1986 you made a BBC documentary called Nice Guys Finish First, which discusses selfishness and co-operation. In it you argue that evolution often favours co-operative behaviour, with altruism occurring only on a tit-for-tat basis. Is there anything such as a purely altruistic act in evolutionary terms?
That’s very interesting. It’s surprising how far you can go on tit-for-tat, and there are very sophisticated versions of tit-for-tat which have been explored by mathematicians ever since. But there does remain a sort of ‘true altruism’ where a good deed is done in secret where no-one else knows about it or no kudos or credit is received for it, such as anonymously donating to charity or donating blood.

But then one could argue that the good feeling that one gets from such acts is a reward of sorts.
That’s true. A Darwinian could say that the good feeling we get was programmed into us in a primitive time, perhaps when we lived in tribal bands and the good deeds we did were for close relatives or for those who were in a position to repay such favours. We were therefore programmed by natural selection to have a tendency to feel good when we do a good turn or something generous. So yes, that sort of works. I think you can explain apparently disinterested acts of altruism in a Darwinian way if you do it in a sophisticated way.

Do you think that as a species we are inherently good? That this has been programmed into us?
I certainly hesitate to say that all individuals are always good! Clearly that’s not true, but I think there’s a balance between tendencies to be altruistic and tendencies to be selfish. In different individuals, the balance comes out as different sides. There are certainly a minority of people who are totally selfish and who are always on the lookout for opportunities to cheat or steal. I mean, if you or I found a purse in the street, we’d pick it up and hand it in to the police, or look to see if there’s an address in it, but about one in five people wouldn’t hesitate to put it straight into their pocket.

The theme of this issue of Glass is passion. You are certainly very passionate about atheism and of religion being the cause of much of the world’s ills. With this in mind, what would you consider to be your utopia?
A world in which people like thinking for themselves, in which they are sceptical, and believe only in things for which there is evidence. Where they do not believe things because of tradition, blind faith, holy books or personal revelation, but always ask the question, “What is the evidence?”

But my utopia would also include a great amount of altruism. It would be a place where people are brought up to want to live in a society where everybody is nice to everybody else, which seems to work, because a lot of people are very nice and altruistic and care for not just humans but for other beings as well. I think that there is a sort of niceness in humans that can be fostered even if it goes against the Darwinian imperative. And we can go against the Darwinian imperative even though it is Darwinian natural selection that put us here in the first place.

by Aaron Trinidade

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six – Passion


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