Who’s More Embarrassing, Ted Haggard or Richard Dawkins?

Over at Goth House Comics you’ll find a “a really long essay about the nature of religion” which I think merits some attention, though I disagree with parts of it. It was, apparently, written in response to this interview with the wonderful, terrible, fascinating Richard Dawkins, whose latest book, The God Delusion, is on my to-read list though, with the number of books I brought back from Canada, it may be quite a while until I actually read it. (And, I should add, Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels is on the very same reading list.)

The post reminded me of another atheist criticism of Dawkins elsewhere, on the excellent site mssv.

My thoughts–and my feelings–on Dawkins are conflicted. I mean, say, 85% of his ideas are sensible enough to be beyond objection. This is no small feat for a mind — I have more objections to the thinking of most people I know than I have to what Dawkins expresses publicly. I also understand why he speaks as he does, why he seems to feel as he does. He’s a complicated figure, but I have to say, I’m surprised at how many atheists I’ve encountered who criticise him without also praising him.

When I watched his documentary on religion, titled–as everyone by now should know, against his wishes–Root of All Evil (to which Wikipedia is offering links to streaming and download versions), one conversation in particular stuck out in my mind, and that was his conversation with Ted Haggard. Haggard was a famous evangelical Christian leader who, stunningly, counseled Dawkins, “… don’t be arrogant.”

Of course, my impression of Haggard was a lot like the mashup/spoof presented elsewhere on YouTube, here. Haggard struck me as the more arrogant of the two, by far, and that he could feel it within his rights to counsel Dawkins to beware of arrogance struck me as, well… symptomatic.

I’m not going to complain that it’s still not okay to be an atheist. It’s not that it is socially acceptable yet–far from it, even today–but reality is still, basically, a parody of good sense. That a man who claims to have a direct line to transcendant beings and wisdom, to know the ultimate truth and what is expected of us by those invisible beings, to know in an absolute way the difference between good and evil, and to appoint himself as the figurehead of a religion, that is utterly laughable. That is why I disagree with my wonderful classmate Julie, when she writes:

Religion encompasses three things: moral philosophy, metaphysics, and tribal identity.

I would like, instead, to note that, as Dawkins himself points out, “In the New World, religion is free enterprise.” With the emphasis on enterprise. Religion is not just about moral philosophy, metaphysics, and tribal identity; it is also, very often, about power, profit, and claims to authority.

I’ve been blown away by the way so many Korean Christians I know don’t really know the history of Christianity in Europe. Wariness of Taoists, doubt in the powers of shamans, and disgust with the corruptions they’ve seen in a long familiarity with Buddhism abound, but decontextualized, Christianity appears to many to be pure, unsullied by all of the historical baggage that educated Westerners at least are familiar with and, at least, grapple with. (Even the Western Christians who seek to criticize what they see as the “unfair” criticisms of the Inquisition, have to grapple with it.) Religion, you see, invented the original marketing agency–as George Carlin points out in this clip, where he presents a pretty strong criticism of the Ten Commandments, including pointing out the reality of whether religions actually have a problem with killing, or whether all parents in fact deserve respect. Religion is the original authoritarian regime–it sought to define reality and to blot out all competitors. If you disagree, tell me: what happened to the Manicheans? to the Cathars? to the Lollards? to anyone trying to publish religiously “seditious” texts in the Middle Ages? Did you know that the fellow upon whose translation work the King James Bible was based, one Mr. Tyndale, got burned for his troubles? I don’t mean burned politically, or financially screwed over. I mean they held a bullshit trial, convicted him, tied him to a pole, and set him on fire, because he was trying to translate what everyone believed was the Word of God into the language of the people.

Nice folks, those clerics.

The reason why Dawkins looks arrogant to us isn’t because he’s very extreme. To me, he’s not any more extreme than any mainstream religious person who, say, mentions God in passing in conversation, or who assumes that someone who is mourning the death of a loved one will, or ought to, find consolation in their supernaturalist blather. It’s not more arrogant than the people who imply, as knowingly as they can, that someday you might discover you were wrong about God. It’s no more arrogant than someone like Haggard who, if you think about it, makes some pretty drastic claims about the extent of his knowledge of reality–about the metaphysics of the universe and how they intertwine with moral philosophy, and who takes full advantage of the human tribal instinct to promulgate messages that ensure repeat attendance, personal dedication, and maximum profits.

And if Mr. Haggard knows so much about sin, about evil, and is such a great moral leader, and if, as he claims, he knows how much God hates homosexuality–because “It’s written in the Bible!”–why in the hell did he lie outright when the gay male prostitute with whom he’d been having (paid-for) sexual relations for several years disclosed this fact to the media? And why in the name of all that’s holy was he having that relationship at all, given the kind of claims he was making about ethics, morality, and metaphysics?

Oh yes, brothers and sisters. The light shines hard, and it shines unflinchingly. The behaviour of this Mr. Haggard would suggest, to anyone who is not fully brainwashed to favour him, that he didn’t believe what he was saying at all. That he didn’t believe in good or evil, or that gay sex was wicked, or that it was sinful and constituted a turning away from God. Doesn’t that make sense, when you hear reports like this, or an interview like this one? (It seems pretty unbelievable that he’d admit to being gay all his life, and maintain that he only had massages from a male prostitute… or that he would claim to have bought, but not used, crystal meth. These don’t sound like believable claims, given how some others in the religion business, and the local gay community, claimed to have already been aware of his same-sex behaviours. I don’t believe that Haggard actually truly believes the rhetoric he spewed originally, the hate of gays. I’m not even sure it was fully closeted-homophobia, as much as that gay-hate is simply the kind of talk that pays very well in America–or, at least, in Colorado Springs.

Hate is big business, and atheists know it. They are a group of people who for most of recorded history have, in essence, spoken in code, in whispers, and only after the secret handshake ensured safety. When they came for the gays, the atheists were silent. When they came for the Muslims, the atheists were silent. Then they came for the atheists. This is pretty much how it feels to be an atheist. Theists feel they can blame war and mass murder on atheists; they feel fully within their rights to imply atheists are arrogant.

But isn’t preaching that an all-powerful deity hates homosexuality, and paying for gay sex on the side with the money earned teaching that very notion, the supreme summit of arrogance? (Albeit, a peak that many preachers never scale, but, anyone who claims to know the real, hidden truth of the world as revealed in this or that scripture is still somewhere on the slopes of Arrogance Mountain.)

Here’s the thing, and as I say, I’m not whining, I’m just speaking from experience, is this: in North American culture, which includes Canada, one of the most unacceptable things to be is an atheist. (It may not be the most unacceptable thing, but it is one of the most unacceptable. I’d put it on par with being a Muslim fundamentalist.) It causes rifts in families, it can get you fired or run out of town, it most certainly would prevent serious political office from being attainable, were it admitted publicly… there are politicians who are openly gay, but I haven’t heard of one who is openly, vocally atheist, even though there surely are some who do not have any religion.

Dawkins, therefore, is a rarity. Yes, he’s harsh, but then, he perceives himself as fighting for education, and for the separation of religion from government. He is fighting for the right things, and part of the reason he alienates people who are religious is simply because they, and all of us, are not used to criticism of religion that is as pointed and open as his. Most atheists I know, including myself, instinctively adopt a very neutral, polite position in many situations, out of what we think is social necessity. It’s not necessity, of course–it’s expedience. If atheists all walked around making the same kinds of accusations toward religion that religionists routinely make, and imply, towards atheism–claiming that religion makes people moral (and thus atheism encourages amorality or immorality), claiming that religion civilizes people (and thus atheism is uncivilized or an enemy of civilization), or that religion is about truth (and thus atheism is patently false)–then things would be much harder for atheists in general. Steven Darksyde describes eloquently what it’s like to be an atheist in a world full of theists. The fact that anyone could criticize this explanation as disrespectful or arrogant–and some people have, it’s an absolute certainty–reveals that Dawkins is right: there is a deep, long-ingrained expectation of us that, buy it or not, we pay undue respect to religion, the kind of respect we don’t pay to, say, economic theories, or scientific claims, or artistic movements, or political systems.

Dawkins is not a fundamentalist, but I think part of his struggle is that he is trying to tap into the tribalism-drive in atheists. C.S. Lewis once described Christians as being stranded in enemy-occupied territory, in what finally became the book Mere Christianity. One of the reasons that metaphor struck me so powerfully, and stayed with me so long, is because to me, it describes the experience of atheists in our world today… the way rationalists feel surrounded by religionists of all stripes on every side. They all disagree with one another fundamentally on most of their claims, both metaphysical and moral, and tribally they often exclude one another without remorse, but it is atheists, those who don’t even have an analogous system to fit themselves into, that they all can hate together with impunity. And atheists are scattered, individual, atomized by the pressures of this all-encompassing denigration of the heretics… and after all, most of us have people we care about who are less than open to these ideas of ours, but who matter to us all the same. (However, if we really cannot express ourselves openly to them, what does this say about how much we as people matter to them?) Anyway, it’s understandable how a little silence on the subject can lubricate the wheels of life a little. It’s not like atheists need to be on the offensive all the time, anymore than we appreciate religionists who are on the offensive all the time.

But while I sometimes wince at specific things Dawkins says, I think that one thing he might be doing that’s useful is saying the unsayable. He might go too far, and thus may not be helping “defuse” things between atheists and religionists, but, then, the alternative form of defusing things–putting up and shutting up–has long been tried by freethinkers, and done little to aid us in gaining social acceptance. It seems that respect can only be gained when it is, in no uncertain terms, demanded. Why the things Dawkins says are so very objectionable, even–or perhaps especially–among us atheists, deserves to be scrutinized. I’m certain that comparable criticisms of political, economic, and philosophical ideas would provoke responses, arguments, but nothing like the shame, shock, and embarrassment that seemingly surrounds Dawkins everywhere he goes, and seems to make so many other atheists want to disassociate themselves from him. He’s not perfect, but he is one of us, and maybe engaging with his ideas publicly is what he’s trying to get us to do? If he draws us out, maybe we’ll band together instead of just tiptoeing politely through this demon-haunted world?

It’s worth thinking about, anyway.

13 thoughts on “Who’s More Embarrassing, Ted Haggard or Richard Dawkins?

  1. Oh, wow, I got all the tags right! Go me! :D

    (I hand-code html in environments that have tools for it, just to have the practice for when I don’t have the tools. Dan thinks that’s a little weird.)

  2. Huh. Of course, Peter Singer’s thoughts on wealth and poverty are interesting, and from what I remember of how he lived by his convictions, I was impressed. At some point he had the minimal possessions imaginable.

    Of course, the fact that he endorses infanticide, and at the same time cries out for animal liberation, strikes me as odd. But on the other hand, it sounds like how mainstream ethics in a society 10,000 years from now could well be.

    I’m wondering which area of Singer’s philosophy you’re criticizing specifically? Has he gotten into the religion subject lately, too? I’ll email you and ask you to comment more.

  3. An excellent post, Gord, particularly the bit about theists advising atheists not to be arrogant. A recent article on atheism over at the WSJ made the same mistake, which annoyed me.

    On the other hand, I have a few criticisms. I think you gloss over the fact that being an atheist is actually intellectually quite fashionable–if not in Korea, then certainly in much of Europe and Canada, too–except, perhaps, for the Prairies or the Atlantic provinces. Richard Dawkins, to take just one example, with a #1 best seller in Canada, isn’t suffering or alone. Bertrand Russell is high school reading material everywhere. Academia, including university departments of philosophy, religious studies, literature, women’s studies, etc., is not dominated by theists.

    Meanwhile, I’m curious (and this is a question rather than a criticism) what you mean by “atheism.” Most of what I call classical atheism is concerned with showing that the God of Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism could not be true. Fair enough. How about pantheism or a vague belief that life is somehow imbued with something spiritual? That would take me to my own position (or lack thereof), which I call “post-Christian.”

  4. Nathan,

    Thanks. The bit about the accusation of arrogance is what spurred me to post, from the get-go.

    Atheism is certainly not the fashion in Korea, not even, I think, in intellectual circles. At least, open, public atheism isn’t. Bertrand Russell wasn’t in high school reading for me, but I was stuck in a Catholic school. (In which I wasted one course a year studying “Christian Ethics” with ex-gym teachers and their ilk.) When you exclude the Atlantic provinces and prairies from Canada, you’re left with BC, Ontario, and Quebec, by the way. And a few basically empty territories, plus a basically empty Nunavut. I know jack all about Ontario, but I think that, rather than atheism per se, a kind of anticlericalism is popular in Quebec. And from what I’ve seen of Ontarians, while some intellectual types are atheist, many more people are what you call “post-Christian”. They’re convinced in all kinds of magical, Bronze-age myths, just not the ones that are labeled Christianity. In other words, I know plenty of people who aren’t practicing Christians, but they read Deepak Chopra, they tell people that their dead loved ones are certainly somewhere looking down on them lovingly, or otherwise mumble platitudes about being “spiritual”.

    I don’t imagine Dawkins is really suffering, or alone, but I also find there is a distinct lack of public associations for atheists, which is one reason they haven’t achieved much political capital. Perhaps we don’t need it in most places, but I get the feeling that in the USA and parts of Canada, packs of so-called Christians are going to do their best to take over.

    As for a definition of atheism: first of all, I consider your definition of “classical atheism” to be erroneous. I don’t think atheism is concerned with showing that God, YHWH, or Allah doesn’t exist… it’s simply a refusal of the whole claim as nonsense, or, at best, as old-fashioned myths about the world that simply make no sense from a rationalist point of view. There have always been atheists, and, as Dawkins points out, most people are already practicing atheists about most deities. Most human beings on Earth are atheists about Zeus and Odin. Self-declared atheists simply apply the same response to the mythologies that are still widely popular.

    As for pantheism or the vague belief that life is somehow imbued with something spiritual, calling it post-Christian makes no sense since it seems to me much more like pre-Christian religious notions common among, say, hunter-gatherers. What I think the term “post-Christian” reveals is something more psychological: I find many people reject the notion of the God of the religion they grew up in, but never quite manage to move past the more general belief that there is some supernatural, magical, or other special element in the universe. They mistake their own genuine sense of wonder and amazement at life and the sublime elegance of the universe — how it can be so complex, and yet so simple, all at once, and how so much complexity can arise from such a simple basis — for evidence of something beyond the physical.

    If one were to think in terms of Dawkins’ notion of memes, namely ideas that infect minds, this “spirituality” is simply an incompletely eradicated infection of the larger memeplex transmitted in a religious upbringing. (And Wendy Kaminer’s book Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials discusses the idea, though in far different terms, rather convincingly by her analysis of the basic principles of the New Age industry.) I know that, in terms of my own experience, using the term “spiritual” to refer to myself was a stage I found necessary in which I was affirming that I was still a person with a sense of reverence for things, for meaning and ethics and morals and humanity and nature, while discarding the specific truth-claims of the religion I’d been raised in. Just as when I flirted with the term agnostic, it was a result of a category error in my thinking.

    Then I realized a couple of things: that a person who has absolutely no belief in the supernatural can (and normally is) still an ethical, moral, and reverent human being, and that agnosticism, by claiming the impossibility of knowing whether the supernatural exists, entertains the question. Atheism is in fact the clearest position from which the whole question can simply be done away with, where someone can ask, “Do you believe in God,” and the response can properly be, not, “Not, and let me prove to you why you shouldn’t either,” but rather, a similar response to, “Do you believe in Invisible Pink Unicorns?” Which is just, “Huh? I’m sorry, the question just doesn’t make sense.”

    So I’d class pantheism and spiritualism and all kinds of other pre-Christian or New Age beliefs as squarely in the theist category. Or, should one (interestingly, since most people never figure out it’s possible) reject the existence of a God or gods, but insist on the existence of souls, reincarnation, or what have you, I’d say there’s a bigger category which those people share with theists, something like “supernaturalists” or “religionists” or something.

  5. Hi Gord!

    Many thanks for your excellent response to my question and criticism. I agree with you on much of what you’ve written. A few minor points of my own:

    1. As far as Canada goes, the Prairies and the Atlantic provinces are the least populated parts of the country (except for the North). Ontario, Quebec, the North, and BC in terms of population account for about 77% of the country. Anyway, that was nitpicking, I guess…

    2. Your point about what boils down to what is nowadays called “New Age” stuff is right on the money (reincarnation, Spiritualist stuff).

    3. I’m not sure of what you meant when you responded to my comments on what I called classical atheism. I do know that this is a point on which you’re going to be much more knowledgeable than I, but it seems like, historically, most atheists in North America have attacked Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and haven’t really commented to the same degree on other notions of deity or divinity.

    4. I agree with your comments about the psychological nature of my term “post-Christian,” but I was thinking not about “something beyond the physical,” but rather about the physical itself being something that can be discussed in spiritual terms. As such, that is pantheism, which at its simplest does not posit anything beyond the physical. But perhaps it’s a question of semantics, of how one chooses to describe one’s wonder at the universe? (This is actually why I prefer to call myself a “post-Christian” rather than “a pantheist. My “post-Christian” term doesn’t claim to have any answers; it’s just a statement about where I’ve come from.) Fascinating stuff!

  6. Nathan,

    Thanks for expanding on your point, and for the interesting questions. Here’s what I’d offer as answers to your points:

    I should have written more slowly. I also happen to suspect, when you talk about BC, Ontario, and Quebec, that you’re mapping the main cities onto the whole province. Atheism isn’t completely unknown in Saskatoon or, I imagine, Regina or Swift Current… but I think it’s probably much more of an aberration in any of the smaller communities across Saskatchewan, and for that matter across Canada… including Ontario and BC, and perhaps Quebec. So I’m glad you nitpicked, as it helped me to clarify.

    3. Most atheists in North America and Europe have indeed mostly focused their dissent with regards to the religions of the book–not just Christianity but also Judaism, and more marginally, towards Islam. However, I’d say the reasons for this are largely rooted in the fact that their assumed audience has already rejected the literal, if not the essential, “truth” of all other religions in the world. In other words, both Christian theists and atheists in North America have rejected most of the gods that have ever been revered. Dawkins puts it patly that atheists just go one god further. Given that, it makes sense that atheism in the West is construed as a rejection of notion that the god of the Christians (and Jews and Muslims) exists. The rest just hasn’t been worth bothering with, for practical reasons. (Though the rise of New Age and all kinds of funny ideas borrowed from the East, and adulterated, has changed that slightly.)

    As well, it’s important to note that of the religionists seeking to impose their beliefs on North American and European freethinkers and atheists, the vast majority of them are Protestant and Catholic. If the Church of Islam were a major political force in America, one that was taking on massive political power and seeking to impose Muslim prayer in schools and change American currency to read, “In Allah We Trust”, atheists would be tackling Islam.

    For that matter, I imagine that if there are any vocal atheists in India who actally feel motivated to argue with anyone, it’s Muslims and militant Hindus that they argue with. As Dawkins himself points out, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with significant objections to Jainism.

    4. I am distrustful of this notion of a “spiritual” that is also physical. If it is physical, then why do we need recourse to words that, let’s be honest, are explicitly referential to the nonphysical? After all, the “spirit” in “spiritual” doesn’t refer to whiskey, or to the firmness of human longing and will. It refers to spirit, an invisible, preternatural force that in some way awakens, animates, or suffuses the human (or the living) world but is not mundanely physical. It’s a word that explicitly refers to the sacral, and in doing so, implies a profane sphere that is not within it.

    I believe that’s not merely a case of semantics, but rather a result of the rather forceful co-opting of reverence, wonder, and humility by religionists, who claim that life without religion leaves human beings devoid of such things.

    As far as I understand the term “pantheism”, it means that the divine, the “god” connoted by “theos” in the word, is not outside of the world, but rather ubiquitously distributed throughout it… that divinity instead resides in all things and people. Yet what is this “theos”? Since it is not measurable–unless, of course, the term “theos” is perverted to encompass something already called something else by science, such as “biochemical processes” or “physical existence”, it absolutely must connote “something beyond the physical”. Otherwise, “pantheism” is the same as atheism, and that doesn’t seem to me to be the case.

    In other words: I reject the notion that there is a sacred sphere separate from the profane sphere. Churches, or mountaintops, or toilets… none is more, or less, sacred than another, none is more, or less profane than another. Now, perhaps Pantheism achieves this by implying, on some level, that the divine is universally distributed. But an atheist would note that you don’t need to have a universally-distributed divine to have such an attitude to the universe.

    That’s why “post-Christian” doesn’t seem to convey much about a position, but rather merely to say something about how far one seems to be willing to repudiate one’s religious upbringing and the penchant for belief in the supernatural that was contracted during this prolonged exposure to these ideas.

    After all, a devout atheist who was raised Anglican is as much a post-Christian as is a dabbling New Ager, a sloppy agnostic, a lifelong Unitarian, a Heaven’s Gate cultist, or an atheistic-but-practicing reform Jew. Hell, I’d even argue, after Harold Bloom, that certain forms of Christianity in America (and abroad) are mostly, for all practical purposes, devoid of God the Father… they’re certainly post-Christian for a lot of mainstream definitions of Christianity up to, say, a few hundred years ago.

    In a world like that, a term like “post-Christian” doesn’t convey much at all! Or so I think…

  7. A fascinating reply, Gord!

    A minor but perhaps important detail that I may have misunderstood: how can an atheist Jew be “post-Christian”? Wouldn’t he be “post-Judaism”?

    Anyway, if I may respond to the most important point, I would respond by saying that (I think) there would be many practicioners of many religions who would also not distinguish between the sacred and the profane; this would be particularly true of the mystics. I suppose some might say that divinity is distributed throughout everything, but others would say that it’s not a question of distribution: they would say that everything is itself divine. At that point, perhaps it is less religionists coopting the language of wonder as it is modern people coopting the language of religion to express their wonder. I suspect you might say that it would be better to drop the language of religion altogether, and perhaps you’re right, but there is something to be said for tradition and continuity, even if the beliefs themselves have become unbelievable.

    We will probably have to disagree on the question of the intellectual fashionability of atheism in Canada. I think that most people in the populous provinces of Canada do live in the cities, and it is in the cities where trends are set and policies are made and books, such as Dawkins’, are purchased.

    Keep well!

  8. Nathan,

    Damn, you’re right about an atheist Jew not being post-Christian. (Unless you consider the Nazis and the Holocaust to be Christianity, since as far as I know, atheist reform Judaism emerged after that. But even I wouldn’t argue that.) I’ll add a strikethrough to the original post.

    I’m interested in the third paragraph of your comment, and shall think about it some more. I think the point is that organized religions co-opted the whole “sense of wonder” and the concept of sacrality, language or otherwise, and that’s why atheists are left with little other than bastardized religious terms available to convey their own reverence and wonder. As for arguing tradition and continuity, I don’t know. I’ve clashed with Josue Andreas enough to know I’m unlikely to buy that line of reasoning, perhaps just because I’m neophilic, but also because, well, have you ever noticed it’s almost always men who argue that? I wonder if that’s because traditional cultures worldwide have been sexist?

    As for “the question of the intellectual fashionability of atheism in Canada”, yeah, we disagree, but I will look around sometime for some statistics, and see if any exist. While most people live in cities, I’m not sure that most people are so intellectually fashionable. I think most people aren’t intellectually active at all, because TV and video games and magazines about makeup and fashion are just a lot easier. I also would remind you not to mistake buying a book for agreeing with it. I’m certain a certain number of people actually bought the book to read it from a hostile POV. Maybe not the majority, but possibly a significant minority.

    Take care!

  9. Hi Gord!

    I hope I can comment just one more time in this highly interesting discussion you and I are having.

    Funny you should make that remark about the Nazis. While their program was definitely not Christian, I do draw a direct line between the New Testament (particularly the Gospel of John) and the Holocaust.

    About for organized religions coopting the whole sense of wonder, I think we need to remember that the sense of wonder is the origin of all religion (back to the cave man frightened of the thunderstorm). The ability to consciously wonder and the religious impulses that led to organized religion have been with humankind from the very primordial beginning.


  10. Comment as many times as you like, it’s an interesting enough discussion to keep me engaged!

    Re: the Nazis and John, well, okay, I’d like to know more about the specifics of that, but I’d say John is kind of the kooky Gospel anyway… it’s weird how it made it into the official collection, even though it’s so different from the others in so many ways. I’m not averse to listening to an argument that claims that the seeds of a form of Christianity that focused the tribalism in Europe specifically towards a formulation of “Christendom vs. Semites”–that Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in a long tradition of official and unofficial Christian vilification of Jews–but I’d also note that other regimes carry out some pretty scary genocidal acts on the basis of other belief systems, be they political ideology, religious hate-sanctifications, or otherwise.

    Genocide, like rape (which I’ve discussed elsewhere recently on this blog) is squarely in the range of human behaviours, and something that we have been doing, well, since before we’ve even been human, probably. Our closest primate relatives engage in these behaviours, too, just on a scale that non-toolmaking primates can manage.

    Likewise for a sense of wonder at the universe, at visual beauty, and so on. Your claim that “a sense of wonder is the origin of all religion” reads, to me, a bit simplistic. I have a sense of wonder, and it didn’t lead to religion in me. Dawkins has one, certainly, and it doesn’t lead him to religion.

    I think Pascal Boyer’s masterful evolutionary psychology work, Religion Explained and Susan Blackmore’s fascinating study of the idea of memes in the context of human social evolution in The Meme Machine both take a more careful look at the actual origins of human behaviours and belief systems, and they are, albeit mutually contradictory to some degree, both quite fascinating.

    I probably buy Boyer’s argument more, and Boyer argues that human susceptibility to specific kinds of religious thought is a result of very specific congitive processes (“cognitive templating”), the evolutionary effects of social interaction and the interpretation of social relationships, and the complex, jarring psychological experience of the death of others around oneself. I’ve highly simplified it, but I recommend the book highly. It’s available through Whatthebook.com.

    Anyway, I sort of agree that those impulses have been around basically, from the human context, forever… but I’m not sure cowering in a cave fearing thunderstorms has as much to do with it as our understanding of how to interact with, and form alliances with, other seemingly sentient beings, human, animal and otherwise, and our sense of whether invisible, supernatural agents might actually exist. The bit you skip to in your description is actually an afterthought in Boyer’s book, covered basically by a more in-depth claim that, “And then, after aeons of this original form of supernaturalist religious thinking, specific specialists and specific sets of belief became tools of the first cities, nations, and ‘states’, and were concretized and developed reasons to seek the eradication of other, competing belief systems, either by massacre, conversion, or co-opting important and popular elements of competing religions.” Sort of, but with all the ambiguity taken into account.

    It’s a great book, seriously.

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