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Saturday, December 06, 2003

Inherited obedience? Suzie Jones, age two, says "No!"

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Richard Dawkins called "The Science of Religion." An unapologetic atheist, Dawkins is trying to understand how evolution could have shaped humans such that they have a propensity for religious beliefs.

He points out that religiosity is widespread among human societies and consumes a significant amount of time and energy. People have toiled long hours, spent great sums, killed, and died for their religious beliefs. However, in trying to understand why people do this, he diverges from the typical cost/benefit analysis. Rather, he suggests that there is no direct evolutionary benefit to religion at all, but that religiosity is simply a byproduct of other behaviors that do have an evolutionary basis.

Dawkins proposes that trying to understand religion in humans is roughly equivalent to trying to understand the instinct that causes moths to fly into a flame. If we focus on the action itself, we end up asking questions like "Why are moths suicidal?". This is clearly the wrong question. Instead, by focusing on their other behaviors, we have learned that moths will fly into a flame as an unintentional result of the method they use to navigate by starlight.

The majority of the lecture was dedicated to introducing this idea. Myself, I was ready to let him (provisionally) assume "religion is a byproduct" by slide five, and was hoping to learn which essential human behavior leaves us vulnerable to believing in mystical forces. Oddly, Dawkins tentative answer to this question was: obedience. That is, those of us who believed our elders when they said not to swim in the crocodile pond were the same ones who believed them when they told us not to offend the deity Og by sacrificing anything less than a virgin ewe at harvest time.

What? Obedience? No way. Obedience can be learned, but anyone who has ever spent any time with children will tell you its not an instinct. ("Don't touch that. Don't touch that. Don't touch that. Stop it. Please don't touch that. Please?")

If I had to hypothesize which human behavior leaves us open to religion, I would say it's language. To understand someone speaking, we must suspend disbelief in that with which we have no direct experience. Even if you don't know me and have never been to Boston, you'll probably believe me when I tell you that I took the red line to Filene's this past weekend, the stores were crowded, and instead of buying gifts for my sisters, I bought a handbag for myself (the truth). This is not obedience on your part, but a necessary part of language. Unfortunately, it leaves you vulnerable to believing me if I tell you there was also a sale on magic ruby slippers, and I got the last pair.

The problem with my hypothesis, however, is that it doesn't address Dawkins' original question because we don't know how language evolved. Perhaps language is also a byproduct of some other critical behavior, one that directly affects reproductive efficacy, which is the only thing that really counts when considering Darwinian evolution. Regardless, there is far more evidence that language is an instinct than obedience. And even if language itself is a byproduct of another behavior, and not a direct substrate for evolution, it is still possible that religion is a byproduct of language.

In his commentary after Dawkins' lecture, Stephen Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct", drew parallels between language and religion but didn't propose a causal connection. This leads me to believe there might be a problem with my argument. Perhaps this will be addressed in Dawkin's new book "A Devil's Chaplain", which I have yet to read.

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