One of the oddest things about Richard Dawkins’ scathing opinions about religion is that in forming them he has ignored phenomena that inform his life’s work: inheritance and mutation, which I think he would agree apply to memes as much to genes.
The concept of inheritance is relevant to religion because it describes the transmission, generation to generation, version to version, language to language, context to context, culture to culture, oral history to written word, via which concepts and histories and traditions are passed down.
But what of mutation and evolution? Dawkins himself extended these to cover memes. For each new iteration of manuscripts, concepts, histories and traditions, for every passage from one mind to the next, there are invariably mutations and changes.
So when we read in the Bible that “the Lord said to Moses, or Joseph, or Isaiah …”, the connotations of these statements are vastly different for us and our peers to how they seemed to those who originally heard and wrote them.
Was “the Lord” in each instance a spirit? Was he visible or invisible? Was he merely a compelling presence in the mind of the awed prophet? Was he a voice in the head, or an urgent feeling or sensation, or even an impulse? What did the particular word that is translated as “said” mean to those who first wrote or heard it? Certainly scholars of ancient Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek may give us a more precise idea – but they cannot be certain of all the varieties of ways in which the word was used at the time, for we know that ambiguity in play or relation to context is inherent to the human use of language.
In other words, evolution applies to meaning as much to beasts. But Dawkins ridicules and parodies religion as if he has access to the meaning of its original concepts, while ignoring the best contemporary interpretations. In his ignorance of the original meaning of religious concepts and his blindness to the most blessed of modern interpretations, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the fundamentalists he abhors.
Update: 31 May
After visiting churches involved in refugee relief, and seeing what good they do, quietly and without fanfare, I cannot help thinking what self-indulgent, ignorant fools Richard Dawkins and the rest of the militant atheist crowd are, with their sweeping condemnations of religion.