Interview with Scientist Richard Dawkins
‘Religion? Reality Has a Grander Magic of its Own’
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The American geneticist Dean Hamer postulated the God Gene hypothesis, proposing that humans are genetically hardwired for religious faith.
Dawkins: I’d prefer to say that we have a lot of genetic predispositions for a lot of psychological attributes, which can under the right circumstances add up to religion. But I’m also thinking of things like a predisposition to be obedient towards authority, which might even be useful under certain circumstances. Or a predisposition to be afraid of death or, when frightened, to run to a parental figure. These are all separate psychological predispositions which under the right cultural circumstances end up pushing one into a religion, whichever the religion of one’s cultural upbringing. I wouldn’t call it a God Gene.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has religion not been very successful in an evolutionary sense?
Dawkins: The thought that human societies gained strength from religious memes in their competition with others is true to a certain extent. But it is more like an ecological struggle: It reminds me of the replacement of the red by the gray squirrel in Britain. That is not a natural selection process at all, it is an ecological succession. So when a tribe has a war-like god, when the young men are brought up with the thought that their destiny is to go out and fight as warriors and that a martyr’s death brings you straight to heaven, you see a set of powerful, mutually reinforcing memes at work. If the rival tribe has a peaceful god who believes in turning the other cheek, that might not prevail.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But following a religion that does not promote the chances for survival seems to contradict evolutionary logic…
Dawkins: Oh yes, clearly there is a conflict between meme and gene survival. We are familiar with such conflicts. They sometimes work out one way, sometimes the other.
The other day it occurred to me–while I was sticking wet laundry in the dryer–that the religious impulse, viewed as artifactual event and acquisition, could have done duty as a buffer against the fragile web of contingency human life is entangled within. But, then I recognized by confirmation bias at work, because the human awareness of contingency, chanciness, and interdependency is itself acquired.