the god delusion chapter 5

the roots of religion

jeeebus was this chapter boring. This is why it’s taken me so long to read it. It goes on and on and on about evolution and then ‘memetic selection’. We all know what a meme is. Starwars kids is a meme. All your base are belong to us is a meme. In Soviet Russia cars drive you! is a meme. But it turns out that just about any imaginary/intellectual concept which is transmitted from human to human is a meme. There is too much evolution and selection in this chapter. It goes on forever about evolution being great and seeks to find evolutionary reasons for believing in a religion. He spends a lot of time exploring the idea of an evolution-given property ‘misfiring’, i.e. being activated in a context different to what it originally evolved for, and getting it wrong. Then he explores religion as a meme and looks at how memes spread through communities.

It’s all very exciting as you can imagine, but it seems to go on forever. Although towards the end it talks about John Frum, a man from the 1940s whom we don’t even know actually existed, who became a religious icon to inhabitants of small islands for some reason. This is genuinely entertaining because they believed he would return in a shining aircraft so they set up a airfield complete with an air traffic control tower where people would sit wearing headphones made of wood. He never came back but people still believe he will return. After 19 years a believer was questioned and replied: ‘If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an’ ‘e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.’.

And an amusing extract talking about David Attenborough visiting the island to investigate the religion: They found plenty of evidence of the religion and were eventually introduced to its high priest, a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak regularly to him, by ‘radio’. This (‘radio belong John’) consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall into a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum.. Hilarious!

I think the evolutionary aspect is a bit optimistic; while an argument could be made that every part of human psyche can be explained by evolution, evolution itself is an incredibly blunt tool which arrives at A SOLUTION. It’s not necessarily a good solution and it has no regard for how it may need to adapt itself to a new situation tomorrow. If evolution was a programmer it would be a 14 year old rotund child using a maze of gotos in Visual Basic. He would say “look, I added an arm!” and you would say “well that’s good but I’d prefer two” and he would say “okay, give me 3 months to repeat what I’ve just done!”. Whereas the Java developer would say “okay, I factored my code into an abstract template so I can reuse all the definitions and logic, give me 30 seconds”. Evolution is rubbish. It throws out lots of things that don’t work and happily lets them fail. It doesn’t only keep the good things, it keeps everything that isn’t outright terrible. I think that once you get into the realms of psychology, which doesn’t even map directly to physical brain structure, you’re not really looking at evolutionary cause and effect, you’re looking at “this happened and it has these incredibly convoluted effects which didn’t get us killed yet”.

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