Donate to RNS

Is Faith a Genetic Condition or a Natural Phenomenon?

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ The recent debate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was nominally called “The Future of Atheism.” But the heart of the dialogue explored a related question: Can mankind’s age-old belief in God be explained purely as a stubbornly recurring natural phenomenon, not much different than the common […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ The recent debate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was nominally called “The Future of Atheism.” But the heart of the dialogue explored a related question: Can mankind’s age-old belief in God be explained purely as a stubbornly recurring natural phenomenon, not much different than the common cold?

There is provocative evidence that is so, argued Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University philosopher, atheist and author of “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.”

But that “evidence” is suspect even in terms of good science, countered Alister McGrath, an Oxford University biophysicist-turned-Christian theologian. And even if it could be demonstrated that mankind is biologically predisposed to the idea of religion, he said, that still would not settle the ages-old “God question.”

The two met for two days of conversation and debate for the seminary’s third Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture. The annual forum pits an evangelical scholar against a nonevangelical in an intellectual wrestling match on a major cultural or faith topic.

The two staked out their ground before an audience of about 800. Dennett was good-humored, less formal and sometimes droll, while McGrath was quicker, livelier and trying to make quick points in the style of an Oxford debater.

“I am a student of religion,” Dennett said by way of self-description. “I am an atheist, but that does not mean that I hate religion.”

Dennett’s basic argument is that some ideas _ including religion _ are like genes or viruses with their own evolutionary history. They jump from generation to generation. Weak ones die; strong ones survive.

“They spread because they can spread. They’re fit, and you can’t get rid of them any more than you can get rid of the common cold,” he said.

Fellow atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins in the early 1970s first proposed this idea, calling such ideas “memes.”

In “Breaking the Spell,” Dennett calls for a thorough scientific study of the incidence of the idea of religion in man, based on the idea that certain ideas _ religion among them _ are “memes” that successfully perpetuate themselves across generations for their own sake, not the good of their hosts.

That makes a certain sense, he argued. Consider that some exceptionally successful religions, like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, have endured for thousands of years.

“They can’t all be true,” he said. “So if your religion has survived because it is true, the other religions that are robust and well today have survived for other reasons. What might those reasons be?”

For example, he asked, might there be a genetic or other natural explanation for why some people are deeply moved by a religious ritual or service, while others have tin ears?

“Could there be a genetic basis for this?” Dennett asked. “There could,” he answered himself.

“Do we know yet? No.

“Could we find out? Yes.”

McGrath’s primary counter was not theological, but scientific.

A former atheist who enrolled at Oxford to study chemistry, McGrath discovered Christianity there and found it a “much more interesting and intellectually satisfying worldview than atheism.”

Still, the scientist in him challenged the scientific legitimacy of Dawkins’ concept of “memes.” He noted that Dawkins first proposed memes as cultural entities replicating themselves across generations, analogously to genes.

But postulating their existence merely by way of analogy is not science, McGrath said. It might be true, he acknowledged, that mankind has a “God-center” in the brain, “a so-called mystical gene favored by natural selection.”

“But _ and it’s a big `but’ _ I wonder where the science is? Where is the rigorous evidence for this? … It’s a huge way from `might’ to `is,”’ he said.

“It seems to me the real issue is whether memes exist, irrespective of their implications for religion.”

McGrath said the idea that memes exist is unnecessary. Other social sciences like cultural anthropology do a better job than hypothetical “memes” in describing the cultural role of religion over the ages, he said.

McGrath laid another charge against Dawkins: Belief in God is a mere trick of evolution; but disbelief isn’t, and is therefore “right.”

“That’s dangerously subjective judgment,” McGrath charged.

Near the end, a member of the audience asked both men to address the title of the forum, “Does Atheism Have a Future?”

“No,” answered Dennett, half-joking. “Because we’re going to destroy the planet before the future arrives.”

“Yes,” countered McGrath, the Christian, in the same half-joking vein, “because people don’t know a good thing when they see it.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

KRE/LF END NOLAN

Editors: To obtain photos from the Dennett-McGrath debate, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.