The philosopher and Darwinist Daniel Dennett is puzzled by the continued existence of religious belief. How, he wonders, does it have survival value? The fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins is similarly perplexed by the persistence of religion, 500 years after the beginning of the scientific revolution. I, on the other hand – an ironclad atheist just like D² – am not at all surprised by the persistence of religious belief.
First of all, a few notes on my own stance. I’ve always been an atheist. My novels often have the theme of exposing religion and spirituality for what they are (eg the ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy). I utterly reject any notion of deities, soul or spirit, and the afterlife. I’m also a Darwinist in that I entirely accept Darwin’s wonderful theory of evolution by natural selection. In other words, I’m remarkably like D². Why, then, the difference?
In this blog post I’d like to answer Dennett’s question for him. Why do spirituality (by which I mean belief systems up to 3,000BC or thereabouts) and religion (what came after) continue to exist in societies suffused with and dependent upon the modern evidence based way of thinking? After all, spacefaring nations East and West go to the moon because of science, not prayer. Hospitals work by science, not prayer. Vaccines were discovered by science, not prayer. When you want anything mended you go to a mender, not a priest. In short: prayer obviously doesn’t work in the world. Yet it remains a major focus for the greater proportion of the world’s population.
Spirituality and religion answer four major questions that all human beings must have answered if they are to live coherent, sane lives. Those questions typically revolve around the themes: (i) how did the universe come into existence; (ii) how did I come into existence; (iii) what is the meaning of my life; and (iv) how should I live? No human being can live sane and whole without some basic answer to these four questions. That’s part of being human. In other words, meaning is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. D² have answered the four questions through science. Others answer them through religion. Science, spirituality and religion are all meaning frameworks.
A better reframing therefore of Dennett’s question is: what is the survival value of meaning frameworks? Now we see where D² have gone wrong. Religion is merely an imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks. Atheism is also a human meaning framework. Science is a non-imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks, working through the scientific method, which spirituality and religion explicitly deny.
In other words, from perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago, spirituality was an absolutely inevitable invention for all hunter-gatherers, who could not under any circumstances have survived without it. Human beings profoundly live via metaphor. We tell stories. This is what the Darwinist and the fundamentalist atheist don’t understand. They apply Darwinism to social life. Darwinism in fact applies to bodies created by genetics. Applying Darwinism to social life – asking “What is the survival value of religion?” – is like applying the mechanical processes in clockwork to the notion of eleven o’clock. Eleven o’clock is a human concept emerging from the mechanical processes inside a clock. You don’t ask what eleven o’clock is by observing the precise positions of cogs, levers and hands inside a stopwatch. You enquire as to its meaning in human life.
If human beings are to live happy, just, peaceful lives we have to expose the true nature of spirituality and religion. Pretending it’s all just a bunch of fairy stories, although literally true, strips metaphor from human minds, and without metaphor we are destined for insanity. We need stories to survive, and for the vast majority of human existence we had to invent them, because we didn’t know the truth about the real world. But now we do. Scientists accept that we defer to the real world, not the other way around. It is the real world which teaches us, not some book written 2,000 years ago, or some imaginary collection of principles invented in the depths of the last Ice Age. A new story is therefore required.
Yuval Noah Harari recently pointed out that for the first half of the twentieth century there were essentially three human stories: Capitalism, Socialism and Liberalism. After WW2 there was one human story: Liberalism. But now, we have no human story. That observation should send a chill through the hearts and minds of all who care about the future of the human race.