The Divinity Code

Well, in addition to receiving a few requests for me to start posting again, Ian Wishart’s new book, The Divinity Code, quotes me extensively. Seeing as I pointed put that whole Marx not-quite-quote debacle in Eve’s Bite, I should have a look at Code and let you know what I think.

Firstly, if anyone’s interested, Ian Wishart did not quote me out of context in chapter 17, and he references the full conversation in a footnote. I am not unhappy with how I was portrayed. Ian did not “pull a Marx” on me. And so he shouldn’t, but for some reason I feel grateful.

Chapter One: The Quest for Fire

This chapter can be summed up as follows.

1. What do we know? Maybe there was an Atlantis. Oooh! Therefore, no one knows what they’re talking about. Therefore, Dawkins and Geering and others don’t know what they’re talking about. Keep reading! Cos Ian knows what he’s talking about.

2. Lots of people believe in God. Not just stupid Americans. New Zealanders do too! And fewer people believe in ghosts and reincarnation and astrology, which are apparently New Age, despite all being pretty goddam old. So lots of people believe in the supernatural. YOU JUST THINK ABOUT THAT. Also, Fox News!

3. Some people say we evolved to believe in God. Ha! How did single-celled organisms know that believing in God would be useful? They couldn’t, therefore theism cannot be an evolved trait.

Ian’s pulled out this bizarre primary-school misunderstanding of evolution before, and I’m quite certain he understands it better than that. But I’ll clarify. Evolutionary theory does not suggest that traits are intentionally evolved. That is, if anything, Lamarckism, or perhaps a New Agey kind of guided-evolution thing. Traits arise randomly, and if they are useful or not an impediment, they survive. The simple rule of evolution is this: What tends to survive, tends to survive.

There are ideas that the tendency for theism is an evolved trait. They tend to go along the lines of assignment of agency to unexplained phenomena. If animals evolve a trait to assume the rustling in the trees behind them is caused by a conscious agent rather than the environment, they are at an advantage. If it is a predator, they are better off running. If it is prey, they are better off hunting. If it is neither, and is simply the wind, they don’t lose much by looking a bit silly assuming agency. Darwin actually cited an example of this – his dog barking at something blowing in the wind.

So it’s possible that the assumption of agency is an evolved trait. That would go some way to explaining the widespread belief in the supernatural with regards to natural phenomena. Animism, believing in spirits for each tree and river, is an example. Lightning as thrown by a god, etc. But really, such beliefs can be explained by sociological and psychological theories no less believable than a genetic-tendency theory.

In fact, the idea that we have a genetic tendency to assume agency doesn’t really deserve the title “theory”, because it’s just an idea. It’s not as ridiculous as Ian makes it out to be, but it’s not the cornerstone of many people’s attitude towards theism either. It’s certainly the kind of thing that would be evolutionarily advantageous, and nothing in the behaviour of animals or humans contradicts the hypothesis, but it’s not a testable theory, unless some odd fellow went about trying to isolate a gene responsible for it, which would be an absurdly difficult and basically pointless venture.

It’s worth noting that “an evolved tendency to assume agency when faced with unexplained phenomena” is a bit more of a complex idea than “the idea that evolution created the idea of God in our heads”, which is the way Ian phrased it. It’s a little like describing gravity as “the idea that chunks of stuff are in love with each other, but like each other less when they’re further away”. It’s easy to dismiss ideas out of hand when you frame them in ways that make even a cursory analysis seem like a waste of time.

But then, that’s just the introductory chapter, and frankly, it’s already much better than Eve’s Bite, which was more of a paranoid diatribe about Capitalised Nouns that are out to get you because everyone’s out to get Christians, which just goes to show how right they are. Eve’s Bite dealt with values, however misrepresented and caricatured, and that makes it a tricky topic to cover without resorting to, “What are you, insane?” The Divinity Code deals with actual concrete arguments, and that is refreshing as all hell. Gives a fellow some traction.

Anyway, next, chapter two.

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