Chapter Six is entitled “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?”
That’s a good question. Another good question would be “Why are we bad?” and yet another good question would be “Why are we both good and bad?”
The Bible, to put it too simplistically, chalks our moral dilemma up to the presence of options in the world that require each individual in every generation to make choices that in turn build upon the consequences of all of the choices that have been made by all of the individuals in all of the generations that have gone before us. There are individual and communal factors in our goodness and in our badness, in other words.
Dawkins, to no one’s surprise, chalks our goodness up to natural selection.
Before he does that, though, he gets some more shots in at religious people by quoting some hateful diatribes penned by allegedly “Christian” people and addressed to Dawkins and other proponents of evolutionary theory. The missives that he quotes are juvenile loads of bile that, were they actually reflective of the attitudes of most Christians, should fill us with shame. I’m just irritated at his citing of them because I know that’s not how most Christians think or talk. But, to be sure, some do. Beyond taking more potshots at Christians, though, Dawkins does siphon at least one valid point from those letters: many Christians do believe that to embrace evolutionary theory is to take God out of the picture (a conclusion with which Dawkins would agree) and that removal of God eliminates the basis for human morality (a conclusion with which Dawkins would not agree).
Indeed, Dawkins champions morality (what sane person would not?) and tries to make a case for human morality emerging out of the process of natural selection. Given that his hypotheses in this area are not testable, it’s really hard to argue with him. Of course, given that my belief in the involvement of God in the creation process is also not testable, it’s really hard for him to argue with me.
Dawkins’ basic argument is that genes would “selfishly” insure their own survival by influencing their host organisms to behave in altruistic fashion. For instance, in the earliest stages of human development, we would have been inclined to be kind and helpful either to our close kin or to those who could reciprocate our kindness. In time, Dawkins says, the need to limit our kindness to our kin or to those who could reciprocate went away, but the impulse to kindness did not. He says this is a “misfiring” of the earlier survival instinct, but one that is to be seen as a “blessed, precious” “Darwinian mistake” (p. 221), much like the impulse to sexual attraction that continues even without a reproductive motive.
My response to this argument is “maybe, maybe not.” Who can know? I just don’t see how his thesis, while somewhat logical, can be tested, and where is the science in that?
Dawkins does raise an interesting philosophical question when he asks, “If there is no God, why be good?” He says that there is some evidence that people who believe in God are not more moral than those who do not. The only “evidence” he cites is a section from fellow atheist Sam Harris who wrote about the higher crime rates in “red” and thus predominantly Republican and thus allegedly more Christian states. That’s pretty weak.
Dawkins speculates that atheists may actually be more moral than theists, not because they are atheists, but because of the “possibility…that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counter criminal impulses” (p. 229). I had almost forgotten Dawkins’ belief that atheists are just smarter than people who believe in God.
The only way that Dawkins can envision a belief in God having an impact on morality is that people who believe in God think of him as a cosmic policeman who is always looking to catch us in the wrong so he can do something bad to us. Thus, our belief in God influences us negatively; if we do good and don’t do evil, it’s because we don’t want God to get us. Such is a gross mischaracterization of the motive that most Christians actually have for serving God and for following Christ and for trying to live by the Bible. We in fact love God and believe that he loves us and wants what is best for us. We believe that in being connected with him we are connected with the source of life and love. We serve him because he loves us and because we love him. I for one stopped being afraid of God a long time ago, if by “afraid” you mean “afraid of what he might do to me.”
Dawkins does seem at the conclusion of the chapter to throw religious folks a bone by saying that “it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” (p. 232). He says that in the course of dealing with the argument that belief in God does at least provide a standard by which what is evil and what is good can be determined. It’s a bone tied to a string, however, because Dawkins goes on to say that such moral absolutism is usually based on allegiance to a holy book. Unfortunately, he will spend his next chapter trying to dismantle the legitimacy of the Bible. I suspect that his arguments are going to sound pretty tired.