Atheists for Jesus - A Richard Dawkins Essay

An essay by Richard Dawkins:

The argument, like a good recipe, needs to be built up gradually, with the ingredients mustered in advance. First, the apparently oxymoronic title. In a society where the majority of theists are at least nominally Christian, the two words are treated as near synonyms. Bertrand Russell's famous advocacy of atheism was called Why I am not a Christian rather than, as it probably should have been, Why I am not a theist. All Christians are theists, it seems to go without saying.

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
My second ingredient is another paradox, which begins in my own field of Darwinism. Natural selection is a deeply nasty process. Darwin himself remarked,

"What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature."

It was not just the facts of nature, among which he singled out the larvae of Ichneumon wasps and their habit of feeding within the bodies of live caterpillars. The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican. My paradox comes from the un-Darwinian fact, which any of us can observe in our own circle of acquaintances, that so many individual people are kind, generous, helpful, compassionate, nice: the sort of people of whom we say, "She's a real saint." Or, "He's a true Good Samaritan."

We all know people (is it significant that the ones I can think of are mostly women?) to whom we can sincerely say: "If only everybody were like you, the world's troubles would melt away." The milk of human kindness is only a metaphor but, na?ve as it sounds, I contemplate some of my friends and I feel like trying to bottle whatever it is that makes them so kind, so selfless, so apparently un-Darwinian.

Darwinians can come up with explanations for human niceness: generalisations of the well-established models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, the stocks-in-trade of the 'selfish gene' theory, which sets out to explain how altruism and cooperation among individual animals can stem from self-interest at the genetic level. But the sort of super niceness I am talking about in humans goes too far. It is a misfiring, even a perversion of the Darwinian take on niceness. Well, if that's a perversion, it's the kind of perversion we need to encourage and spread.

Human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection. It is also, although I haven't the space to go into detail about this third ingredient of my recipe, an apparent perversion of the sort of rational choice theory by which economists explain human behaviour as calculated to maximize self-interest.

Let's put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged - which is the purpose of my article. How can we do it? How shall we take the minority of super nice humans that we all know, and increase their number, perhaps until they even become a majority in the population? Could super niceness be induced to spread like an epidemic? Could super niceness be packaged in such a form that it passes down the generations in swelling traditions of longitudinal propagation?

Well, do we know of any comparable examples, where stupid ideas have been known to spread like an epidemic? Yes, by God! Religion. Religious beliefs are irrational. Religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb. Religion drives otherwise sensible people into celibate monasteries, or crashing into New York skyscrapers. Religion motivates people to whip their own backs, to set fire to themselves or their daughters, to denounce their own grandmothers as witches, or, in less extreme cases, simply to stand or kneel, week after week, through ceremonies of stupefying boredom. If people can be infected with such self-harming stupidity, infecting them with niceness should be childsplay.

Religious beliefs most certainly spread in epidemics and, even more obviously, they pass down the generations to form longitudinal traditions and promote enclaves of locally peculiar irrationality. We may not understand why humans behave in the weird ways we label religious, but it is a manifest fact that they do. The existence of religion is evidence that humans eagerly adopt irrational beliefs and spread them, both longitudinally in traditions and horizontally in epidemics of evangelism. Could this susceptibility, this palpable vulnerability to infections of irrationality be put to genuinely good use?

Humans undoubtedly have a strong tendency to learn from and copy admired role models. Under propitious circumstances, the epidemiological consequences can be dramatic. The hairstyle of a footballer, the dress sense of a singer, the speech mannerisms of a game show host, such trivial idiosyncrasies can spread through a susceptible age cohort like a virus. The advertising industry is professionally dedicated to the science - or it may be an art - of launching memetic epidemics and nurturing their spread. Christianity itself was spread by the equivalents of such techniques, originally by St Paul and later by priests and missionaries who systematically set out to increase the numbers of converts in what turned out to be exponential growth. Could we achieve exponential amplification of the numbers of super nice people?

This week I had a public conversation in Edinburgh with Richard Holloway, former Bishop of that beautiful city. Bishop Holloway has evidently outgrown the supernaturalism which most Christians still identify with their religion (he describes himself as post-Christian and as a 'recovering Christian'). He retains a reverence for the poetry of religious myth, which is enough to keep him going to church. And in the course of our Edinburgh discussion he made a suggestion which went straight to my core. Borrowing a poetic myth from the worlds of mathematics and cosmology, he described humanity as a 'singularity' in evolution. He meant exactly what I have been talking about in this essay, although he expressed it differently. The advent of human super niceness is something unprecedented in four billion years of evolutionary history. It seems likely that, after the Homo sapiens singularity, evolution may never be the same again.

Be under no illusions, for Bishop Holloway was not. The singularity is a product of blind evolution itself, not the creation of any unevolved intelligence. It resulted from the natural evolution of the human brain which, under the blind forces of natural selection, expanded to the point where, all unforeseen, it over-reached itself and started to behave insanely from the selfish gene's point of view. The most transparently un-Darwinian misfiring is contraception, which divorces sexual pleasure from its natural function of gene-propagation. More subtle over-reachings include intellectual and artistic pursuits which squander, by the selfish genes' lights, time and energy that should be devoted to surviving and reproducing. The big brain achieved the evolutionarily unprecedented feat of genuine foresight: became capable of calculating long-term consequences beyond short-term selfish gain. And, at least in some individuals, the brain over-reached itself to the extent of indulging in that super niceness whose singular existence is the central paradox of my thesis. Big brains can take the driving, goal-seeking mechanisms that were originally favoured for selfish gene reasons, and divert (subvert? pervert?) them away from their Darwinian goals and into other paths.

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

The Enlightenment wounded the beast, but the killing blow has yet to land...

I haven't read much

I haven't read much Dawkins...and was curious why he even desires this world to be filled with 'super nice people'??  It would seem to me that most atheists would desire the natural propagation of the human species wherever that lead.  I just wonder why he would desire 'niceness' to be 'selected' and propagated to the coming generations and not one of the other numerous qualities/fallibilities of humanity.

thoughts?

Jesus said among other

Jesus said among other things I came as a sword,to separate  father from son etc,he was a radical end of days who thought that judgment was at hand. A fanatic  Evolution and specifically natural selection do not exist on the sub atomic level. natural selection is a tautology.  Jesus was not some sweet puppy he had a set of teeth. Dawkins atheism is in fact a symptom of his attachment to Theism at some subconscious level. Otherwise  he simply would not care.

The singularity is a metaphysical concept with no more or less metaphysical than a creator God mathematical realism can produce realities which simply do not exist in the lab or nature. I broke with the Bible when i was about nine years old because it was philosophically absurd. However i have had no need to convince anyone else of this.

 

 

butterbattle's picture

Zenshin wrote:Dawkins

Zenshin wrote:

Dawkins atheism is in fact a symptom of his attachment to Theism at some subconscious level. Otherwise  he simply would not care.

How do you know that?

 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, | As I foretold you, were all spirits, and | Are melted into air, into thin air; | And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, | The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, | The solemn temples, the great globe itself, - Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, | And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, | Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff | As dreams are made on, and our little life | Is rounded with a sleep. - Shakespeare
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BobSpence's picture

guest wrote:I haven't read

guest wrote:

I haven't read much Dawkins...and was curious why he even desires this world to be filled with 'super nice people'??  It would seem to me that most atheists would desire the natural propagation of the human species wherever that lead.  I just wonder why he would desire 'niceness' to be 'selected' and propagated to the coming generations and not one of the other numerous qualities/fallibilities of humanity.

thoughts?

Atheism implies no such desire. That would be a matter of personal outlook on life, which can vary hugely - lack of belief in God does not automatically imply not caring about how mankind develops. It does remove some artificial constraints tied to the dogmas of religion and the claimed prescriptions of the imagined Deity.

But a desire for a more peaceful world is an entirely natural thing for all but psychopaths, certainly does not depend on belief in a God, rather it is at least part of the inspiration for religious beliefs in the first place, at least the more positive, non-violent ones.

It is certain that at least some aspects of religious dogma and teachings can inspire in some people actions which are anything but 'nice', even when that is not the intention of the writers. It can definitely get in the way of pursuing the goals of a more peaceful, friendly world by introducing entirely irrelevant imperatives, and claiming they are 'moral'.

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology

BobSpence's picture

Zenshin wrote:Jesus said

Zenshin wrote:

Jesus said among other things I came as a sword,to separate  father from son etc,he was a radical end of days who thought that judgment was at hand. A fanatic  Evolution and specifically natural selection do not exist on the sub atomic level. natural selection is a tautology.  Jesus was not some sweet puppy he had a set of teeth. Dawkins atheism is in fact a symptom of his attachment to Theism at some subconscious level. Otherwise  he simply would not care.

The singularity is a metaphysical concept with no more or less metaphysical than a creator God mathematical realism can produce realities which simply do not exist in the lab or nature. I broke with the Bible when i was about nine years old because it was philosophically absurd. However i have had no need to convince anyone else of this. 

The 'singularity' is a mathematical abstraction, a model, which may or may not correspond well with the state of reality at around the origin of our Universe.

Whereas a creator God is a poorly defined concept which is full of logical problems, and explains nothing about ultimate origins, since such an entity is infinitely more difficult to reconcile with current scientifically derived knowledge, and it is vastly more difficult to explain its own origins. Whereas the well established observation that higher processes and the complex entities that depend on them can and do emerge from simpler elements makes the idea of a God utterly unnecessary. 

Not really comparable ideas, except maybe in the context of the confused nonsense that is metaphysics.

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology

JKLarson's picture

This is central to atheism

Almost every atheist that I know has rejected religion for two reasons. The first is that supernatural theism simply makes no sense. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, atheists reject religion because they find it to be in contradiction with their own moral conscience. We believe in two things, truth and beauty. We want people to be kind, honest, and intelligent because that would make the world a better place. It's too obscure a thought to worry about promoting genetic evolution when we will not live long enough to see its consequenses. We want the world to be a better place and for all human beings to have the oppurtunity of a happy and fulfilling life. The evolution of ideas is much more important to humanity now than the evolution of genes could ever be. I can't speak for other atheists, but I myself place an enormous value on faith. I think that it is vital to believe in a power greater than ourselves. For me that power can only be embodied by truth, beauty, reason, math (as dull as that may sound), evolution, and morality. We simply believe that principals are more important than mythologies.

Dawkins on Jesus

 All the big religions have something about niceness, even though they get used by the power-hungry or socially insane, and became big by politics.   I did a long, careful thinking project and came up with a conclusion that after supernaturalism has been abolished, much of the divine spirit survives.  That is the ethical/aesthetic part, and also the common feeling of conscience or needing to deserve some irrationally sensed benevolence.  In other words, a spirit in which to live best is an idea and an ideal, perhaps deep in culture or basic to psychology.  When I looked for a non-religious symbol, I found that mathematics provides the notion of an attractor.  I really don't know whether somebody could actually construct phase space for ethics;  but the philosophy of goodness has always had to use metaphors, because this is abstract thought about imagination!

I was pleased to read Dawkins' essay here, especially the sentence about how "the argument" needs to be built up precisely and connectedly and presented slowly and clearly!   My suggestion is that even if Jesus wouldn't really be an atheist, a term much older than the prophets of about 600BC, who preached compassion all over the world -  must have been a discovery of those times -  is the divine spirit and it is still a valid term, atheists can use it meaningfully, and there are even suitable symbols in contemporary thought-forms to be found.   

I also suspect that a discussion about teleonomy as compared with teleology isn't resolved merely by abolishing supernatural beings.  But I don't think there are any apt terms for such a discussion, yet.  That is -   as atheists, we are up against the "barrier" of language changing too slowly and science also coming together too vaguely yet.  However, I definitely have to report that spirituality hardly misses a beat, when you lose supernaturalism, but instead, some beautifully consistent notions suddenly become obvious:  notions that most religions have always had to reject.

 If I understand

 If I understand correctly... Richard Dawkins now wants to start his own church!!!