An Exchange with Richard Dawkins

Date: February 6, 2005

Dear Richard Dawkins,

If my name doesn’t ring a bell, I was one of your table companions on the recent “free inquiry” cruise. I have debated whether or not to write you about my theory concerning the role of religion in evolutionary biology and had decided against it, but after watching a C-SPAN discussion led by Steven Pinker in which both your name and the question of the evolutionary value of religion came up, I decided to give it a shot. The reason I am writing to you is that I met you and you are a “great man” in the field of evolutionary biology and one tiny good word from you would lend credibility to my point of view — if you thought it had any merit. I also enjoyed meeting you and thought you were a nice and non-pompous and approachable person — in spite of your considerable stature. And, since I sit down here in Georgia thinking away every day and have few connections in the field which most interests me, meeting you seemed like a gift.

My education is in literature and theology and I have spent many years studying the Bible — especially the two creation myths — as literature, as a collection of powerful writings written by people who were very skilled in marketing a set of ideas which would create what we have come to call western society — a set of ideas which are having a tremendous effect on our society today. To me, one of the most interesting things about literature — especially religious literature — is the use of imagery and symbols to reach deep into the unconscious of the reader in order to arouse powerful emotions.

In addition, I have spent many years in the company of biologists in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and have worked closely with Costa Rica’s INBio (the national institute for biodiversity), so biology and the protection of the environment are of great concern to me.. I also spent 10 years working for a computer company — marketing and consulting. While I worked for them, I came up with the idea of a biodiversity information management system and persuaded my employers to work with INBio in developing the system. It was to assist them in their species inventory. It was a gift of hardware, software, and services worth approximately $750,000.00 So, since I have helped out biologists, maybe a biologist could give me a few minutes. And, finally, I am a woman living at a time when the status and roles of women are changing drastically, and I have personally experienced some of the more bizarre behavior directed at women in our society, behavior which has its origins in the JudeoChristian tradition.

Some years back, my head was so filled with cognitive dissonance that I felt I was going nuts. It seemed then and it seems now that we were determined to self destruct. I couldn’t understand why, when it was so clear that environmental pollution was going to do us in, that we seemed hellbent on continuing to pollute. I couldn’t understand why, when our weapons are so destructive and total annihilation is such a real possibility, war seems to be the default mode and peace is a subversive idea. I couldn’t understand why women’s work — the work ordinarily associated with women , childcare, eldercare, domestic work, teaching, nursing, etc. — was so devalued that only those who have no other choice do it, which means that we literally put our lives, our children’s lives, the lives of our parents, in the hands of people who are poorly paid, frequently incompetent, and resentful. I started my own personal quest for answers, for I was sure that although nothing seemed to make sense on the surface, there must be a logic somewhere. It seemed as if our thinking — or more importantly our feelings — was programmed. Because logic and reason didn’t seem to be making much headway. And since I was writing about computers every day, I thought I would give that metaphor some serious thought.

Since both the human brain and computers process data, perhaps thinking about the way computers work might provide some insight into the human brain. After all, by their fruits ye shall know them — and computers are the creation of our brains. As you know, a computer must be running a program in order to make sense of data. You can key in letters and numbers all day long, but if there is no program running to take this information in, then there is no where to put it, nothing to organize it. Without the appropriate program running, the data cannot be taken in. Additionally, the structure of the programs a computer can run is determined by a computer’s operating system.

I used to think that the way the human brain took in information was in an ad hoc fashion, that stuff happened –we saw it, heard it, tasted it, felt it, read it, smelled it, etc.– and we dealt with it as it came along. I now think that we, like computers, have to be running programs in order to take information in, organize it, and make sense of it. We are bombarded with so much sense data that we could never process all of it, so at an unconscious level our brains must make millions of judgments about what to take in, about what is significant enough to be brought to consciousness so we can deal with it. (I think the new book “Blink” may deal with this unconscious decision making.) The programs we run make those decisions for us. These programs are installed in us by our culture — through repetition of thought patterns (memes???) carried by all of our cultural institutions. And, our cultural value system is the operating system which all the programs must be compatible with. Which brings us to religion. It is my belief that what shapes a culture, what gives a culture its unique feel, is its dominant religion. So, in the case of western civ, Christianity installs our system of values — our operating system. And all other socio/cultural programs must be compatible with that system of values. Our system of values is the filter through which we deal with reality.

For example, God the Father, God the symbol, among other things, is a carrier of values. God is, in fact, the source of value. We create a symbol, project our values onto it, and call it God. God is male. God is transcendent. God is mind/spirit. God is omniscient. God is omnipotent. God is creator and owner of creation. Therefore, our culture values God over creation, male over female, spirit over matter, human over nature, mind over body, mental work over physical work, owners over owned, etc. Since God is a powerful, knowledgeable, authoritarian male, we value powerful, knowledgeable, authoritarian males. And although it is said that humans are made in God’s image, really only some humans are made in God’s image — powerful authoritarian males. And one of the ways to prove one’s maleness and godliness is to dominate everything in sight — pollute nature, abuse women, make war on Iraqis, etc. So George Bush who would like to punish women for their reproductive role, who is aiding and abetting the pollution of the environment at every turn, and who makes war — not love — is tapping into the deeply-held God archetype. (You wonder about the resistance to the idea of evolution; well it’s an image thing. Believing we are made in God’s image gives us license to exploit everything in sight; if we no longer see ourselves as separate from nature, but as part of nature, we lose our justification and rationalization for everything from industrial pollution to colonialism to the careless killing of those of us who can be sorted out on the nature side of the equation. ) The second cultural role model is God the Son. Because an authoritarian leader needs an obedient people. So, Jesus provides a role model for those of us who do not measure up to godliness — women, laborers, indigenous people, slaves, and all those who were born to serve. Jesus exemplified absolute obedience to absolute authority, selflessness, and sacrifice. Identifying with Jesus makes us feel good about ourselves while getting screwed. It is the genius of Christianity to provide models for the chief and the Indians. Christianity is the religion of empire — which was not news to either Constantine or George Bush.

Regardless of how some of us may view the dominant system of values today, we cannot survive without one (and those of us who are disenchanted must develop alternative systems). For not only does it provide us with a way of sorting out data and processing it, it also provides us with a collective view of reality without which we could not function, without which we could not survive. For in the same way that inborn, intrinsic “programs” enable non-human animals to process sense data and function collectively, a cultural value system, carried in a culture’s dominant religion, enables human animals to deal with sense data and function collectively. As Clifford Geertz says without humanity there is no culture, but without culture there would be no humanity. Geertz understands humanity and culture as developing interactively and I agree. And Emile Durkheim did a lot of work on the importance of religion in creating a collective reality and in giving a culture an individual stamp.

Anyway, just as a non-human animals’ survival is at risk when their environment changes, when it loses its habitat, etc, human survival is at risk when its value system is no longer in synch with its social and physical environment. That is what is happening today. A culture whose value system promotes belief in power over and domination as a survival strategy is self destructive when domination of the earth and other peoples means pollution and nuclear catastrophe. But, it is very hard to change our thinking when these thought patterns are reinforced at every turn, from the top-down structure of the family to the structure of the military, the church, the state, educational institutions, etc. So when logic and reason clash with our values, logic and reason lose out — at least to begin with. But it is my belief that the drive to survive will win out in the long run — so long if the long run isn’t too long. And when we realize that the current system of values is leading us to death and not life, we will install a new operating system. It will be interesting to see if human consciousness has evolved to the point where we no longer need a religious symbol to carry a value system.

Well, its getting late and I’m getting tired, but I hope you get the drift. For more of same, please visit my website. The above only scratches the surface of a very deep subject.
I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best,


Date: February 10, 2005

Dear Eleanor

This certainly makes a lot of sense, thank you

All best wishes

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