Has Rowan Williams misunderstood Richard Dawkins?

By Richard Skinner
13 Dec 2007

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, a noted theologian and philosopher in his own right, gave a lecture at Swansea University entitled ‘How to Misunderstand Religion’. He was responding in particular to the writings of Richard Dawkins, arguing that in applying evolutionary thinking to religion Dawkins is making two mistakes: first, in doing so he is reducing religion to the status of a “survival strategy”, and second, in opposing a scientific theory to religion he is reducing religion to a pre-scientific explanatory system now superseded by real science.

I have no quarrel with Dr Williams’ second point, but I wish to take issue with his view that the application of evolutionary theory reduces religion to a form of “survival strategy”, since I find the understanding of evolutionary thinking implicit in this argument too simplistic. It is important to clarify the matter, because many people, myself included, have criticised Richard Dawkins for having a misguided, indeed crass, understanding of what religion is about. We have claimed that he sets up a ‘straw god’ in order to knock it down, that he misquotes and misunderstands religious texts and arguments, that philosophically he is stuck in the nineteenth century, that he fails to bring to his scrutiny of religion the same scrupulous scholarship that he brings to his scientific work, and so forth. Given that Professor Dawkins’ critics launch into him thus, it is only fair, as well as being crucial in the interests of reasoned debate, that in criticising the application (or the attempted application) of Darwinian theory to religion we do not fall into the same trap by misrepresenting the former. But I think that in his use of the term “survival strategy” Rowan Williams does just that.

Two further points before I look at his analysis. First, it is important to understand that Dr Williams is not, of course, attacking Darwinian theory in its biological setting. He is no closet creationist or advocate of the current Intelligent Design arguments. Second, in what follows, I use the terms ‘Darwinian theory’ and ‘evolutionary theory’ synonymously, although strictly speaking this is not the case (theories of evolution were around long before Darwin, and it was his theory of natural selection which provided the mechanism), but this does not affect my argument.

Williams’ main target is the way that Richard Dawkins applies to culture in general, and religion in particular, ways of understanding which Williams considers properly belong to the world of biological explanation, not cultural explanation. Dawkins, Williams states, assumes that “loosely speaking, Darwinian Theory is a theory of everything... [and that] every feature of culture must be in some sense a survival strategy”. That is to say, Williams’ premise is that Dawkins claims the theory of biological evolution to be all about survival strategies, and that Dawkins errs in claiming that religion, a cultural phenomenon, is in effect one more such survival strategy.

Williams goes on to dismiss Dawkins’ theory of memes, introduced in his first and most famous book The Selfish Gene, which has attracted some pretty heavyweight advocates such as the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett and the psychologist Susan Blackmore (who has written a very readable book called The Meme Machine). Memes are presumed units of information – analogous to genes – by which culture allegedly propagates itself and they are said to replicate themselves by being transmitted from human brain to human brain. But despite the efforts of Dennett, Blackmore and others, the meme theory remains highly contentious and has not won widespread acceptance in the scientific community. In Williams’ view, “one of the most abidingly difficult and problematic aspects of Richard Dawkins’ approach to religion remains this attempt to transfer biology onto culture, to suppose that there is a science of cultural transmission exactly like genetics only with different material. I find this, I have to say, philosophically crass, undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst”. He then summarises the position thus: “The Dawkins’ view assumes that all culture is about survival, that if something like religion appears to survive when in many ways it apparently shouldn’t, there must be an under-the-surface explanation revealing those aspects of religion which initially in some unknown pre-history made for survival even if they don’t do so any longer”.

Although I concur with Williams’ view that the theory of memes is deeply flawed, Dawkins, if I understand him correctly, does not use this theory to argue that religion is a survival strategy, at least not in the way that Williams suggests. I say this because, as is well known, Dawkins likens the concept of God to a virus: it is, in his view, an idea that infects people’s minds in a way analogous to a biological virus infecting the body. A biological virus patently is not a “survival strategy” for the host it infects. A virus is, in a manner of speaking, only interested in its own survival and reproduction (of course, viruses have no purposive intent; strictly speaking we should say that the way that viruses propagate themselves is as if they had such an intent).

Now, on the face of it, the continued survival of the host body would seem to be to the advantage of the virus, and the host’s death a distinct disadvantage, but that is not necessarily so if the death of the host were to result in a more effective spread of the virus genes to other bodies. But either way, whether the host lives or dies, having a virus is most certainly not a survival strategy for the host. It may well be a survival strategy for the virus, but not for the host. So likewise, when Dawkins likens the concept of God and the whole of religion to a virus, he is not saying that religious people believe in God as a survival strategy, he’s in fact saying that it’s the other way round: namely, that the ‘concept of God’ meme is “creating” religious believers in order that it (the God meme) might survive and reproduce in the minds of other potential believers. Moreover, in the Dawkins’ analysis, just as a biological virus gives rise to nasty symptoms in the host body such as fever, delirium, rashes and so forth, so the God meme virus gives rise to pernicious symptoms in the minds of religious believers such as dogmatism, irrationalism, bigotry and so forth - hence the need, in Dawkins’ view, to kill off the religion virus with multiple doses of bracing rationalism.

Having said all that, it might superficially seem curious for me now to repeat that I agree with Williams in his dismissal of the whole idea of memes. I will not elaborate my arguments against memes here, since my purpose is to address some points that Williams, not Dawkins, is making, but see Alister McGrath’s Dawkins’ God: genes, memes and the meaning of life for a good account. The point I am making, though, is that contra Williams the memes concept does not entail the notion that religion is a survival strategy.

But there is a more general point I wish to make about Williams’ use of the term “survival strategy”. It is this: his view is that any connection between Darwinian theory and religion (whether or not mediated by alleged memes) entails religion being reduced to a survival strategy; but this implies that Darwinian theory itself is simply a theory about survival strategies. This, I maintain, is far too simplistic an understanding of evolutionary theory.

Clearly survival is an important aspect of evolutionary theory, but the theory has become increasingly sophisticated with many ramifications developing since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, and even then it was not solely about survival. Herbert Spencer’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is misleading. For a start, at the very least it concerns survival and reproduction. Central to evolutionary theory is that organisms reproduce! It concerns how organisms survive, or fail to survive, long enough to reproduce and so pass on their genes to the next generation (and remember that the vast bulk of organisms that are born, or sprout, or hatch, or otherwise come into being, fail to reproduce successfully: of the thousands upon thousands of ‘toadpoles’ that a mature female toad will produce in her reproductive life-time, on average all but two will die before maturity. That has to be so for the toad population to remain stable, because if on average more than two survived, the entire planet would be knee-deep in toads within a few generations, and if on average fewer than two survived, toads would rapidly plunge to extinction).

But if evolution is not just about survival, neither is it just about survival and reproduction. E.O. Wilson, the godfather of sociobiology, and whose book of that name caused immense controversy when it was published in 1975, has pointed out that the central problem of evolutionary theory is the existence of altruism. A simplistic understanding of the Darwinian mechanism suggests that altruism should not exist since any organism exhibiting altruism is, in effect, enabling rival organisms to flourish, and their genes to be passed on at the expense of the altruist’s genes. In the jargon, altruism should be selected out. But it clearly hasn’t been, for altruism is manifested in a whole range of ways: in the human world it ranges from parental care to blood donors to Good Samaritan actions and beyond, including acts of literal self-sacrifice – witness Captain Oates, or, given that one partner of the current dialogue is religion, Jesus of Nazareth.

Puzzling out the apparent paradox of altruism has resulted in a much deeper understanding of the mechanisms of natural selection, with the development of concepts such as ‘kin selection’ (which takes into account the fact that near kin share a sizeable percentage of genes), ‘reciprocal altruism’ (which takes into account the fact that my genes and your genes both benefit by our co-operating rather than beating each other up) and so forth. I do not intend to elaborate much on this topic here (I am currently developing a taxonomy of altruism), other than to underline that such mechanisms are unconscious and are therefore not survival strategies in the sense of being deliberately and cynically chosen courses of action. The very title of the Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ emphasises that the processes of evolution are non-conscious. My point, I repeat, is to emphasise that evolutionary theory cannot be reduced simply to ‘survival’ or ‘survival strategies’.

To conclude: if there are links between evolutionary theory, our genetic endowment and religion (and I believe there are) this does not necessarily entail the reduction of religion (or culture in general) to some sort of evolutionary survival strategy. Evolutionary thinking is considerably more subtle than that. And its subtleties and insights need to be taken on board and understood by advocates of religion just as much as opponents of religion are called upon to take seriously the subtleties and insights of religious discourse.

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© Richard Skinner is a poet, performer and therapist. His first degree from Cambridge University was in Natural Sciences, and he is currently conducting research into evolutionary psychology and spirituality for a PhD at Exeter University. His earlier eassay “Why Christians Should Take Richard Dawkins Seriously” was published by Ekklesia site on 19 September 2007 and can be found at http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5721.

Dr Rowan Williams’ lecture “How to Misunderstand Religion” is available on his website at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1533?q=how+to+misunderstand+religion

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