Dawkins on Religion. Reflections on religious wars and the adaptive function of religion

Richard Dawkins and Mehdi HasanOn December 23, 2012, Aljazeera broadcasted an interview with Richard Dawkins. As a biologist he published ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976), as an atheist ‘The God Delusion’ (2006). The interview happened at the Oxford Union. The University of Oxford started as a theological faculty. Dawkins was interviewed by Aljazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, not your average interviewer, who was sharp, sought controversy and did not easily let go.

You will find the debate on: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/general/2012/12/2012121791038231381.html

With a ‘Atheists cannot claim to be better than believers’ a first shot was fired. Directly thereafter the commentator’s voice (of the introductory film) asked if science is any better than religion and he continues saying that science is responsible for poisoning the environment and for unleashing killing on an industrial scale. Apparently a point that needed no proof, let alone scientific proof. Atheists as Hitler and Stalin are cited as being mass murderers.

In the interview/debate one shot is fired after another:

  • Dawkins. The god of the old testament is … a vile vindictive monster
  • Did Dawkins say that “Faith is one of the world’s great evils.”? Mehdi Hasan cites him.
  • Dawkins “That’s why religion is evil because it can make you  do evil things, believing it is good. ”
  • Robert Pave is cited. There is no connection between terrorism and faith. True?
  • Dawkins does not deny that many wars were not for religious reasons as e.g. ‘My country right or wrong.’
  • Mehdi Hasan puts science against religion.
  • Mehdi Hasan: “In your book you cite lots of evidence for the bad things religion has done. I wonder, if you were being fair wouldn’t you have included some of the good things that religion has done? ”
  • Dawkins: “Do you believe that Muhammad split the moon in two. (…) And flew to heaven on a winged horse.”
  • Dawkins is questioned about a statement that religious indoctrination (protestant: children would burn forever in hell) may be worse than child abuse by a priest.
  • Dawkins: science should not answer e.g. what is good and bad, but religion cannot either.
  • About the multiverse (the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes).


This was a debate on a high level. Richard Dawkins stayed calm all along the interview and defended science and atheism in a sublime way.

Yet, there was a weak point with which Dawkins was confronted, is religion evil or not? Let us not go into individual believers, Dawkins confirmed and every other reasonable person agrees that there are billions of believers and non-believers that do not use violence because of their convictions.

Religion and religious wars

What about the global picture, collective behaviors, religions as a whole? The Baha’I (born out of islam), Quakers (part of Christianity), the first centuries of christianity prove that religions can be peaceful. Religions can be violent. Christianity and islam (or parts of these religions) oppressed and assassinated other believers during a very long time. Sometimes for pure religious reasons.

Most of recent times economic and/or political reasons played an important role in wars and conflicts. In fact religious wars made their appearance late in human history. If we agree that man is here since 2.4 million years, pure religious wars appeared when Christians fought the first heretics. Then what about the bible, when Jews and Philistines fought each other relentlessly? The Jews under the banner of Yahweh. All religions have the ancestor cult as their original religion. Jews are not an exception. Originally, Yahweh was the ancestor of the tribe of the Jews. All human clans and tribes had one or more ancestors they worshipped and prayed to. It would lead us to far to elaborate this point. One aspect that points to the ancestor cult is that even today it is ‘God, the Father’. Before the current epoch it was obvious: every clan or tribe had its own ancestors. Fighting over that was senseless. The ancestors were asked to help in battles but the wars were not about religious beliefs, just about land, treasures and women. Since the Babylonian exile Judaism had changed. Especially the priests had a conception of religion that was more theoretical, the ancestor had evolved into a god, was in that process purified from a lot or most human petty details. (Not all, even this more abstract god – all gods, spirits etc. – is anthropomorphic.)

The adaptive function of religion

In my doctoral thesis (abstract on http://wp.me/p1jvXp-4B ) I developed the hypothesis that the most important function of religion was the transmission of ideology. Ideology defined as the entirety of human ideas, knowledge, motivational ideas etc. In the earliest societies of man these played a important, ever growing role in the reproduction of humanity.  In the ancestor cult the transfer of human ideology had an important role. The young had to learn from the elder. It was essential for their survival. On the cultural level this was the adaptive function of the oldest religion. Clans that worshipped their ancestors transmitted in myths and stories their knowledge. They must have reproduced better than clans that did not.

Atheism and the appraisal of religion

A problem in the study of religion is that believers and non-believers inevitably had their own bias. Every one searched for confirmation of their own point of view. This is not necessary for the function religion has played in history. It was a means to help to transfer human ideology which had become a necessary condition for reproduction, a positive role.


Other posts on religion:
The origin of religion
“In order to reproduce himself man must also reproduce himself ideologically” Ph. D. of Marc Vermeersch


Abstract of the Ph. D. of Marc Vermeersch

AbstractHypothesis. “In order to reproduce himself man must also reproduce himself ideologically”Higher animal species reproduce themselves through food and sex. In a long development, lasting millions of years, hominini had to constantly adjust themselves in East and Southern Africa. This led to new capacities such as Theory of Mind, spoken language and a bigger brain. The development of the brain allowed to better analyze, synthesize, symbolic thinking, to have joint attention, patternicity, motivation etc.

Many of these properties make learning easier. Human children have a prolonged childhood and a much longer learning time than Pan. Attachment between children and parents facilitates children to learn from their parents and allo-parents. The function of these adaptations allows humans to cooperate on a high level and to accumulate and transmit knowledge.

After a long period man had to reproduce his ideology. (For the purpose of the study we defined ideology as the entirety of human views: tribal, philosophical, moral, educational, technical, totemistic, exogamous, aesthetic, legal, religious ideas etc.) This had become necessary just as food and sex were necessary for reproduction.

The hypothesis was further examined in three areas:

• How was the effect of Westermarck (children that are raised together avoid sex with each other) translated on the cultural level? The Australian Aboriginals had very strict exogamy laws, so that inbreeding was avoided, incest was forbidden. Incest was sometimes preferred in royal families but also amongst the people in ancient Egypt and ancient Iran.

• The position of women in six societies of hunter-gatherers and farmers (without a state) show big differences. Extreme oppression (Baruya, Achuar, Kwaio) was accompanied with ideological oppression. Sometimes women had an equal position in comparison with men as was the case with Pygmies, Iroquois and Buid (Mindoro, Philippines). Their ideology was one of equality.

• The hypothesis helps to provide a Darwinian explanation for the existence of religion. This complex cultural phenomenon is very old, at least hundreds of thousands of years. It has obvious disadvantages (violence, investment of time and goods … are non-adaptive). The benefit for the reproduction of humans was that the ancestor cult gave knowledge transfer (and motivation for knowledge transfer) an important place in society. The striking parallels between the relationship parents-children and the relationship adults-ancestors in the ancestor cult, ensured that with every new generation the basis for the reproduction of religion was also reborn. In that regard religion was adaptive.

Research in these areas shows that, on the same biological basis, different, including diametrically opposite, cultural practices are possible and do exist. In the area of e.g. incest and inbreeding some very long accepted practices are counterproductive but other cultural practices increase the fitness for reproduction.

Ph. D. defended on September 18, 2012 at the University of Ghent.


Résumé français: Résumé. Thèse de doctorat de Marc Vermeersch. Pour se reproduire l’homme doit aussi se reproduire idéologiquement

Nederlandse abstract: abstract doctoraat Marc Vermeersch

The study was published in Dutch as: ‘Om zich te reproduceren moet de mens zich ook ideologisch reproduceren. Menselijke ideologie als factor van menselijke reproductie
ISBN: 978-908134-772    Price 25€.
Distribution is done bij: EPO vzw, 2600 Berchem (Antwerp), Belgium. uitgeverij@epo.be
The book of the Ph. D. study

The book of the Ph. D. study

If you would like to buy the book and you are lving outside the Benelux
The book can be obtained by paying 25€ +  10€ shipment = 35€ on the account of P&P Publishers, in Belgium
Bank: BNP Paribas Fortis
Account, IBAN nr.: BE 96 2900 2398 6505 ; BIC Code GEBABEBB
Mention: Ph. D. Marc Vermeersch

Position of women was examined for different continents. Buid live on the island of Mindoro (Philippines). Kwaio live on Malaita (Melanesia). Baruya live in New-Guinea.

The position of women was examined for different continents. Buid live on the island of Mindoro (Philippines). Kwaio live on Malaita (Melanesia). Baruya live in New-Guinea.