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).

Etcetera.

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.

Marc.Vermeersch@gmail.com

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

7000 BP: The Thinker and the Sitting Woman

The Thinker and the Sitting Woman. Hamangia culture, Romania, 7000 - 6600 years ago.

The Thinker and the Sitting Woman. Hamangia culture, Romania, 7000 – 6600 years ago.

In history, there are works of art that have a special place and that almost everyone knows: the golden mask of Tuthankhamun, the Pantheon in Rome, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, the sunflowers of Van Gogh, … an endless list. Art works from a much older past are barely known to the general public but often they earn to be known. Some have of an extraordinary quality. One of my favourite works in this regard is “The Thinker and the Sitting Woman” thatwere found in Romania and are between 6,600 and 7,000 years old.

We know that these people were farmers. Chances are that they were resting after a day of working. The woman sits relaxed just like the man. He is thinking. About what is open for speculation.

A paradox

Both statuettes have a modern look. If we would see them for the first time, without prior knowledge, then we might think that these are very recent works of art, that is not more than 100 years old. Compare The Thinker with the bronze statue of Rodin[1], ‘Le penseur’, from 1902. We may spontaneously think that this is older than ‘The Thinker and the Sitting Woman ‘.

Rodin, statue known as 'Le penseur' (The thinker). Rodin created it as an image of Dante Aleghieri, the Italian writer. Its was 'The Poet'

Rodin, statue known as ‘Le penseur’ (The thinker). Rodin created it as an image of Dante Aleghieri, the Italian writer. Its was ‘The Poet’

Surprisingly, it is also true that some very old works of art sometimes show style characteristics that were reinvented in the 20th century. Paul Levy wrote about ‘The Thinker and the Sitting Woman’: “Their elongated necks and small heads are compellingly reminiscent of Matisse and the Cubist painters and sculptors, and a curator told me that it is just possible that Brancusi saw them.”[2]

Egyptian royal couple.  27th century BCE. Very static in comparison with 'The Thinker and the Sitting Woman'

Egyptian royal couple. 27th century BCE. Very static in comparison with ‘The Thinker and the Sitting Woman’

Hamangia culture. Headless stauette. Very stylised. It was probably worn as part of a necklace.

Hamangia culture. Headless stauette. Very stylised. It was probably worn as part of a necklace.

The Hamangia culture and woodworking

The Hamangia culture in Romania began around 5250/5200 BCE and lasted until around 4550/4500 BCE. It was a culture of farmers who lived in small communities, without a state. Technically, they were at the same level as the first European farmers that came from Anatolia had moved to Europe more than 1000 years before. The statuettes were found in 1956. They were made of clay and baked in an oven. Remarkable is that the man sits on a small stool. It is one of the oldest depictions of furniture in history. Such a seat is not difficult to make but like so many things it is very difficult inventing it, starting from zero. The stool indicates that almost 7,000 years ago farmers in South-East Europe had developed woodworking and the necessary stone tools.

The figurines ‘ the thinker and the seated woman’ undoubtedly belong in the gallery of the greatest works of art created by man. Today they look as fresh and intriguing as almost 7000 years ago.

Marc.Vermeersch@gmail.com


[1] The statue of Rodin was originally called the poet and represented Alegieri Dante
[2] Paul Levy, Beautiful Ashmolean Exhibition Offers Glimpse of ‘Old Europe’, May 21, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB127438940492094541.html

If you are interested in art you might like these blogs:
Art in Olduvai 1,74 Million Years BP, Baboonhead Rather unknown, undeserved, the oldest known art in the world
The Origin of Aesthetic Feeling and Art Fundamental: How our aesthetic feeling originated in reproduction of man, a darwinian explanation.
The oldest statuettes adapted by man are between 233,000 and 800,000 years old
“Lion Man”, the oldest statuette with a combination man-animal ‘Der Löwenmensch” was found in Germany.
The oldest Love Statuette in the World They keep on loving for ever in the British Luseeum.
A virtual visit to the Lascaux Cave is mind blowing!
Nerja Caves: the oldest Cave Art in Europe, 42,000 years old Rock paintings , probably made by neanderthals

The Origin of Aesthetic Feeling and Art

The Makapansgat pebble was taken by an australopithecus to its cave

The Makapansgat pebble was taken by an australopithecus to its cave, between 2.5 and 3 million years ago

People have (a gift for) aesthetic feeling, the capacity to recognize beauty. It is through the senses that feelings and ideas that evoke a sense beauty are recognized by the brain of man. This gift is probably the result of three aspects that have a strong connection with the reproduction of man. That this gift may already exist in a forerunner of man is possible. In Makapansgat (South Africa) a pebble was discovered that has a likeness with a face. The australopithecus that found this pebble, between 2.5 and 3 million years ago, must have found the similarity with a face beautiful and took it to his cave. Australopithecus had aesthetic feeling.

 First aspect. Sight is as far as aesthetic feeling is concerned probably the most important of the senses. People like other people. Hunters and gatherers could not live without their clan. The African San, better known under their old name Bushmen, e.g. paid frequent and long visits to neighboring groups. There was the attraction for the other (or same) sex. People are passionate about other people, their eyes, their voice, their ways of moving, their play, their touches and so on.

Second aspect. People usually have much interest in animals. Chimpanzees and bonobos also have a large, spontaneous interest in animals. People love animals, they observe, learn to know their behaviors and share their interest and love for animals. For many hunters and gatherers this interest was closely related with the fact that animals were their most prized food. They had a great anatomical knowledge of animals and knew about the biological similarity between man and animal. The behaviour of humans and animals showed a lot of similarities: care for the young, aggression, flight, hunting tactics and so on.

The sight of animals that could serve as food for humans had to provoke a ‘good feeling ‘ and that is essentially nothing else than the emotion of beauty which is aesthetic feeling.

A third aspect was plant food. To find edible food, leaves, fruit, nuts and so on man had to recognize odors, colors, textures, patterns, shapes, sounds and so on. He also liked colors and shapes in landscapes, looked at the sky and liked or disliked the weather that was coming. All these feelings provoked a good feeling, which is a feeling of beauty. This capacity was an advantage in gathering plants, in evaluating where the clan had to move to find food.  

The enthusiasm of man for humans, animals and plants and their derived shapes, colors, gestures, drawings, in theatre, singing etc. is in its origin is closely linked to the reproduction of man. Thinking of something as beautiful is connected with life, with reproduction, with other people and with food: a tree with ripe fruit, edible leaves, a weakened animal, to recognize a potential partner and the enthusiasm that this awakens. On this basis man could like an infinite number of combinations and derivatives.

This aesthetic sense is part of the creative intelligence of man has. It is obvious  that smell, feeling, hearing, and taste are heavily involved in finding food and partners. Hearing allows us to appreciate sounds like singing and music. What we like with our senses, what we think is beautiful or pleasant is strongly influenced by the culture that we inherited. Summarized: properties that were developed in humans and essential for the (re)production of people and food were the basis for a highly developed aesthetic sense.

What is Art?

What is not is made by man may appeal to the aesthetic sense but is not considered art. Art is everything that is created by man and awakens his aesthetic sense. One may think that a natural landscape is beautiful but that is not art in this definition, because it is part of nature, not man made. Any realization by a human or humans may be art for someone: this may be a tool, a building, music, perfume, a car, a poem, a song, a sound, a theatre piece, an ashtray, an abstract drawing or a painting with a gypsy woman.

marc.i.vermeersch@gmail.com

If you are interested in art you might like these blogs:
Art in Olduvai 1,74 Million Years BP, Baboonhead 
Rather unknown, undeserved, the oldest known art in the world

The Origin of Aesthetic Feeling and Art Fundamental: How our aesthetic feeling originated in reproduction of man, a darwinian explanation.

7000 BP: The Thinker an the Sitting Woman

Chauvet Cave, the oldest known cave art in Europe The recently discovered cave shows that the European late palaeolithic culture lasted at least 20,000 years.

The oldest statuettes adapted by man are between 233,000 and 800,000 years old.

The oldest European Venus figurine was found in the Hohle Fels cave (Germany) It is between 35,000 and 40,000 years old.

“Lion Man”, the oldest statuette with a combination man-animal ‘Der Löwenmensch” was found in Germany.

The oldest Love Statuette in the World They keep on loving for ever in the British Museum.

A virtual visit to the Lascaux Cave is mind blowing!

Chauvet Cave, the 2nd oldest known cave art in Europe

Chauvet Cave, rhinoceroses

Chauvet Cave, rhinoceroses

The oldest known cave art in Europe is the Chauvet Cave in France. It is a rather recent discovery (1994) in comparison with the well known Lascaux Cave (1940). The rock art of both caves is comparable for their style but also because they are an expression of the same genius.

The oldest paintings from the Chauvet Cave were made by hunters and gatherers around 32,400 years ago. Man had probably long traditions in making art on skins, wood and tattooing his own body. The makers of this rock art may have discussed what they would paint and how to do it. They had to make strenuous efforts to make these paintings. They had to crawl  in the dark through long and narrow corridors with their material. Paint had to be taken in their mouth and sprawled on the rock, often from a very uncomfortable position.

Lascaux is, with paintings up to 17,000 years old, much younger than Chauvet. Time between today and Lascaux is about as much as between Lascaux and Chauvet. The paintings of another cave famous for its paintings, Altamira  (Cantabria, Spain), is estimated to be 15,000 years old.

On the follwing link you will find a trailer of a coming documentary made by Werner Herzog on the Chauvet Cave, the ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ . http://vimeo.com/18964665

Dr. Marc Vermeersch. The oldest known cave art in Europe:
Nerja Caves: the oldest Cave Art in Europe, 42,000 years old Rock paintings , probably made by neanderthals.
The oldest known art in the world: Art in Olduvai 1,74 Million Years BP, Baboonhead Rather unknown, but undeserved,

If you are interested in art you might also like these blogs:
The Origin of Aesthetic Feeling and Art Fundamental: How our aesthetic feeling originated in reproduction of man, a darwinian explanation.
The oldest statuettes adapted by man are between 233,000 and 800,000 years old
“Lion Man”, the oldest statuette with a combination man-animal ‘Der Löwenmensch” was found in Germany.
The oldest Love Statuette in the World They keep on loving for ever in the British Luseeum.
A virtual visit to the Lascaux Cave is mind blowing!

Parts of this blog were taken from ‘Marc Vermeersch. De geschiedenis van de mens. Deel I. Jagers en verzamelaars. Boek 2, de maatschappij van jagers en verzamelaars. p.185.

Chauvet Cave Art (France) Horses bisons rihoncerosses 31,000 BP

Chauvet Cave Art (France) Horses bisons rihnoceros 31,000 BP

Chauvet Cave Art (France) Horses, bisons rihnoceros 31,000 BP

Chauvet (France) Cave Art. Lion/lionesses heads.

Chauvet (France) Cave Art. Engraving of an owl.

Chauvet (France) Cave Art. Engraving of an owl.

The Chauvet has not only paintings but also engravings such as this beautiful owl.

Chauvet (France) Cave Art painting of hyena's. 20,000 BP.

Chauvet (France) Cave Art painting of hyena’s. 20,000 BP.

Chauvet (France) Cave Art painting of hyena’s. 20,000 BP. At that time hyena’s were living since a long time in Europe.

If you are interested in art you might like these blogs:
Art in Olduvai 1,74 Million Years BP, Baboonhead
7000 BP: The Thinker an the Sitting Woman
The oldest statuettes adapted by man
“Lion Man”, the oldest statuette with a combination man-animal
The oldest Love Statuette in the World
Chauvet Cave, the oldest known cave art in Europe
A virtual visit to the Lascaux Cave
Nerja Caves: the oldest Cave Art in Europe, 42,000 years old Rock paintings , probably made by neanderthals
general:
The origin of aesthetic Feeling and Art Basic text about the significance of art in a darwinian point of view.

7000 BP. The Thinker and the Sitting Woman. Two extraordinary statuettes from Romania.

The oldest Cartoons in the World? 14,000 BP They were engraved in the La Marche Cave in France. They are as fresh as they were 14,000 years ago.