North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Dawkins vs. Scruton

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Roger Scruton, one of my favourite British writers / philosophers, takes on Richard Dawkins’ theory that ‘religion is a nasty meme‘:

I am not entirely persuaded by this extension by analogy of genetics. The theory that ideas have a disposition to propagate themselves by appropriating energy from the brains that harbour them recalls Molière’s medical expert (Le Malade imaginaire) who explained the fact that opium induces sleep by referring to its virtus dormitiva (the ability to cause sleep). It only begins to look like an explanation when we read back into the alleged cause the distinguishing features of the effect, by imagining ideas as entities whose existence depends, as genes and species do, on reproduction.

Nevertheless, let us grant Dawkins his stab at a theory. We should still remember that not every dependent organism destroys its host. In addition to parasites there are symbionts and mutualists — invaders that either do not impede or positively amplify their host’s reproductive chances. And which is religion? Why has religion survived, if it has conferred no benefit on its adepts? And what happens to societies that have been vaccinated against the infection — Soviet society, for instance, or Nazi Germany — do they experience a gain in reproductive potential? Clearly, a lot more research is needed if we are to come down firmly on the side of mass vaccination rather than (my preferred option) lending support to the religion that seems most suited to temper our belligerent instincts, and which, in doing so, asks us to forgive those who trespass against us and humbly atone for our faults.

So there are bad memes and good memes. Consider mathematics. This propagates itself through human brains because it is true; people entirely without maths — who cannot count, subtract or multiply — don’t have children, for the simple reason that they make fatal mistakes before they get there. Maths is a real mutualist. Of course the same is not true of bad maths; but bad maths doesn’t survive, precisely because it destroys the brains in which it takes up residence.

Maybe religion is to this extent like maths: that its survival has something to do with its truth. Of course it is not the literal truth, nor the whole truth. Indeed, the truth of a religion lies less in what is revealed in its doctrines than in what is concealed in its mysteries. Religions do not reveal their meaning directly because they cannot do so; their meaning has to be earned by worship and prayer, and by a life of quiet obedience. Nevertheless truths that are hidden are still truths; and maybe we can be guided by them only if they are hidden, just as we are guided by the sun only if we do not look at it. The direct encounter with religious truth would be like Semele’s encounter with Zeus, a sudden conflagration.

Religions survive and flourish because they are a call to membership – they provide customs, beliefs and rituals that unite the generations in a shared way of life, and implant the seeds of mutual respect. Like every form of social life, they are inflamed at the edges, where they compete for territory with other faiths. To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name, however, is like blaming love for the Trojan war.

Bonus points for recognizing which of the three metaphysical philosophies Edward Fesser wrote about (yesterday’s post) each of these writers represents. Tip: Neither of them is a universal realist. Scruton only sounds like it from time to time.


Written by Curt

January 15, 2006 at 7:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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