another shitty day in paradise

I am not a fan of Richard Dawkins. This is not to say that I dislike him, I haven’t familiarized myself enough with him to develop an opinion. I am aware of his name and have a general concept of who he is, but I have never read a single one of his books. I’ve never seen him interviewed. He is a shadow in my peripheral vision.

I ran across this shortened transcript of an interview with him. One of the questions was “How do you explain its prevalence?” (it being the belief in a supernatural god). His response has been kicking around in my brain as vaguely interesting.

When you ask a Darwinian like me, how we explain something, we usually take that to mean, “What is the Darwinian survival value of it?”

Quite often, when you ask what is the survival value of “X”, it turns out that you shouldn’t be asking the question about “X” at all, but that “X” is a by-product of something else that does have survival value. In this case, the suggestion I put forward as only one of many possible suggestions, is that religious faith is a by-product of the childhood tendency to believe what your parents tell you.

It’s a very good idea for children to believe what parents tell them. A child who dis-believes what his parents tell him would probably die, by not heeding the parent’s advice not to get into the fire, for example. So child brains, on this theory, are born with a rule of thumb, “believe what your parents tell you.” Now, the problem with that — where the by-product idea comes in — is that it’s not possible to design a brain that believes what its parents tell it, without believing bad things along with good things. Ideally we might like the child brain to filter good advice like, “Don’t jump in the fire,” from bad advice like, “Worship the tribal gods.” But the child-brain has no way of discriminating those two kinds of advice. So, inevitably, a child-brain that is pre-programmed to believe and obey what his parents tell it, is automatically vulnerable to bad advice like, “Worship the tribal juju.”

I think that’s one part of the answer, but then, you need another part of the answer: Why do some kinds of bad advice, like, “Worship the tribal juju,” survive and others not?

Beliefs like “life-after-death” spread because they are appealing. A lot of people don’t like the idea of dying and rather do like the idea that they’ll survive their own death. So the meme, if you like, spreads like a virus because people want to believe it.

It brought to mind the whole Santa Claus thing.

Of course, on days like today, it sure would be easier to pick my sobbing daughter up off the floor and try to cheer her up with an elaborate story of how her bird is now enjoying flying around in heaven and she’ll see it again one day. I don’t think it is just a matter of it sticking and spreading because people want to believe it, I imagine the telling of it is a comfort too, for the speaker. Even if the speaker does not firmly believe it themselves, it is an easier, and on the surface perhaps a seemingly kinder response than “That sucks.

nightly news report
This is from an official sign that I saw at the doctor's office today:

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