The Preposterous Claims of the New Atheist Movement: Why “The Selfish Gene,” “Meme Theory,” and “The Evolution of Religion” are Baseless and Unscientific

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett have made a killing in their recent media blitz over the past 10-15 years. Nevertheless, I find many of their claims are just a preposterous and baseless as those of Ken Ham, for they too are ultimately biblical literalists who hold to an Enlightenment-based worldview.

The New Atheist Movement, having obviously denied the existence of God, have insisted that biological evolution must account for all of reality. Daniel Dennett has said, the theory of natural selection is either all or nothing. These men assert that evolution by means of natural selection is inherently godless, and that the entire process of evolution consists of just blind, mechanical laws acting without any purpose. Simply put, they claim that biological evolution proves atheism. The fact is, though, not only is their claim not true, but it also forces them to make further claims that ultimately are nonsensical.

The Selfish Gene
One such claim is that of Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene. He claimed the “survival of the fittest” that Darwin talked about happening at the level of the species group really happens at the genetic level. Basically, Dawkins argued that genes compete for their own survival by making lots and lots of replicas of themselves—the more genes an organism has, the more advanced that organism will be.

As it turns out, the findings of the Human Genome Project has shown that Dawkins is flat out wrong. As Francis Collins stated in the BBC documentary, Did Darwin Kill God?, the theory of the selfish gene was “Much too narrow a view.” He said, “A gene is just a packet of DNA. Evolution acts on the organism, or even on a group of organisms. And so I don’t think one can understand natural selection in anything like its real force by reducing it to something as simple as a selfish gene that’s the only unit at work there.”

Contrary to Dawkins’ claim that the more successful genes will replicate more, the more advanced creatures in the world (human beings) have only 20,000 genes, whereas both a bottle of wine and a bowl of rice contain almost three times as many genes than a single human being. Simply put, having more genes does not mean being more advanced. Dawkins has been proven flat-out wrong.

UPDATE: Since my area of expertise is not science, occasionally I don’t explain something quite right. A friend of mine (whose background is in science) wrote something to further explain precisely what “the Selfish Gene” entails. 

When Dawkins talks about numbers of genes he means the copy numbers of individual genes, not the total number of genes in a genome. This is his explanation for the evolution of efficient biochemical mechanisms of DNA replication. His idea requires the notion of “replicators first” as opposed to origin of life starting with metabolic cycles (which is now much more favored by consensus). You are right that gene numbers in genomes have nothing to do with biological complexity, but Dawkins would agree with that. Selfish gene theory is still wrong, because the evidence is that (as Collins says) genes are not the center of life, but are an equal part of cell function (see Denis Noble). The selfish gene idea also implies a high degree of genetic determinism, which was never proven, and is now discredited by evidence of much greater complexity in biology than such an idea would allow.

Meme Theory
Another invention of Dawkins is that of meme theory. One can forgive Dawkins for being wrong with his idea of the selfish gene. He wrote it in 1976, and it was simply disproven by the Human Genome Project. By contrast, there is simply no excuse for meme theory. Here’s why…

Since Dawkins believes natural selection is all or nothing, he is compelled to explain everything in evolutionary terms—not just biological organisms, but everything: culture, ideas, art, music, literature…everything. After all, if human beings are just the products of blind evolutionary forces, then anything that humans produce, feel, or think must equally be the products of blind evolutionary forces.

Enter meme theory: Dawkins’ attempt to “scientifically” explain human culture in evolutionary terms.

According to Dawkins, anything in culture that gets passed on from person to person, from songs and art to philosophical and theological ideas are, what he has called, “memes,” basically cultural genes, that compete for survival. Therefore, “Let it Be” by the Beatles is a “meme,” and in order to survive, it has to get people to listen to it and pass it along to other people. It has to compete with other “music memes” like “Baby Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. By the same token, Christianity is a “meme,” and in order to survive, it has to get people to believe it and then pass its teachings to others. It therefore has to compete with other theological/philosophical systems like Buddhism, Islam, Epicureanism, atheism, and countless others.

The point of all this is simple. Meme theory states that ultimately you don’t choose to like “Let it Be” as opposed to “Clair de Lune” and you don’t choose to become a Christian as opposed to a Buddhist. No…The “Let it Be” meme chooses you, and the Christian meme chooses you, to colonize your brain and replicate within your brain. Therefore, you might think that you have chosen to become a Republican, Christian, NRA member who likes classic rock, opera, and “The Muppet Show,” but, according to Dawkins’ meme theory, the Republican meme, Christian meme, NRA meme, classic rock meme, opera meme, and Muppet Show meme have all simply taken up residency within the gray matter within your skull, and you are nothing more than a host, a carrier, and transmitter of these memes as they struggle to survive.

Now, if meme theory is true (don’t worry, it isn’t), then that has huge implications for how we understand reality. If it is true, then that means that you don’t really exist—there is no free will, there is no individuality, there is no real personhood. What you think is “you” is really just a bunch of matter being controlled and colonized by essentially parasitic memes. In fact, if meme theory is true, not only did I not choose to become a Christian, but Richard Dawkins did not choose to become an atheist.

Furthermore, if meme theory is true, then there is no real way to determine whether or not Christianity or atheism (or meme theory itself!) is, in fact, true. There simply is no way of knowing if anything is true or false—for there is no “you” or “I” to observe the world, to rationally analyze it and to discover truth about it in the first place. There is no way of determining if anything is real, meaningful, or true. The very concept of “truth” is rendered meaningless and absurd.

Rest assured though. Memes don’t exist. Dawkins made them up, much like Ken Ham made up power tools for Noah. There is no scientific evidence to support either claim whatsoever. Given the fact that Richard Dawkins has gotten famous by arguing that Christianity isn’t true because it cannot be scientifically proven, I find it extremely ironic that he has put forth a supposed scientific theory that cannot be scientifically proven. It mystifies me that meme theory is even taken seriously, for by completely destroying the possibility of knowledge, truth, reality, or meaning, it completely destroys the possibility of scientific inquiry itself.

In his attempt to make evolution by natural selection the sole explanation for life, purpose and meaning, Dawkins has come up with a meme theory that tries to make a meaningful argument that everything is unknowable and meaningless. Meme theory, by its sheer absurdity, actually proves the opposite: the natural sciences, and even the biological theory of evolution by natural selection itself, cannot be the whole story to reality.

Is Religion an Evolutionary Phenomenon?
Another argument made by the New Atheist Movement is one that was first made by Sigmund Freud in his book Future of an Illusion: namely that “religion” is favorable evolutionary trait that initially helped the survival of the human species, but that, now with the rise of scientific knowledge, has proven itself to be a disadvantageous trait that impedes human progress.

The problem with such an argument, I believe, is that evolutionary theory itself completely discredits it. There are two fundamental things that we need to realize about evolutionary theory: (1) it is limited to the biological world of nature, and (2) it postulates that physical characteristics evolve over millions of years in light of an organism’s natural surroundings. Neither one of these two things have anything to do with the evolutionary argument regarding religion.

First of all, religion is certainly not a physical characteristic that adapts and evolves. Practically speaking, to argue that religion is simply a product of evolution to aid the survival of the human species is to, in fact, treat religion like a meme. But the fact is that evolution is a biological theory that is applicable only to biological features.

Therefore, to attempt to use evolution to explain religion is simply a categorical error. The only way to justify doing so is to start with the presupposition that religion is just an evolutionary trait—but then you haven’t “proven” anything. All you’ve really done is say, “Religion in an evolutionary trait that has been beneficial to the human species, and I’ll prove it by saying that religion is an evolutionary trait, because it benefits the human species.” You’re just talking in circles, and throwing in the scientific term “evolution” to try to give your unscientific presupposition legitimacy.

Grandfather Clocks Don’t Disprove Time
To try and claim that the biological theory of evolution somehow disproves God carries about as much sense as someone saying, “Now that I’ve studied grandfather clocks, and have understood all the inner workings of clocks, I have decisively proven that time does not exist!” A grandfather clock is a physical object that can be studied and observed; time, though, is not a physical object—but it is nonetheless real. In fact, the whole purpose for the grandfather clock is to bear witness to the reality of time. The grandfather clock helps us to understand time, and to order our lives in a more precise, coherent way so that our lives can have more purpose and meaning throughout our time on earth.

To claim, though, that understanding the mechanical workings of a physical object somehow disproves the reality of metaphysical realities ultimately will bring you to the point of absurdity, purposelessness, and meaninglessness. For you are denying the very thing that gives true purpose and meaning to the physical object you are trying to understand. Far from disproving God, the natural world should lead you to belief in God.

The Flaw in the “Evolution of Religion” Claim—History Says Otherwise
There is yet another reason why the theory of evolution itself shows that the whole “religion is an evolutionary trait” argument is highly suspect. As I mentioned before, the man who popularized this notion was Sigmund Freud, in his book The Future of an Illusion, in which he tried to provide a “scientific explanation” for the origin of religion. In a nutshell, this is what Freud said about religion. Back when mankind was still in its infancy (think “cavemen”) the overall psyche of mankind was immature and undeveloped. When those cavemen experienced thunder, lightning, and hurricanes, those things frightened their primitive brains. Even hiding in their isolated caves couldn’t make them feel safe. And so, individual cavemen sought each other out and decided to live together in primitive tribes and communities—for there was safety in numbers. Now that they lived together, though, they found they didn’t always get along…but they had to, or else they’d have to face brutal nature alone.

According to Freud, it was this challenge to live in communities, coupled with a fear of nature, that gave birth to religion in the lives of the primitive cavemen. Psychologically they were no better than children—and what do children do when they wake up in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm, and think that there are monsters under the bed? That’s right, they call out from their beds, “DAD!!!! I’m scared! Help me! There are monsters under my bed!” Freud surmised that the primitive cavemen did the same thing, only they projected their childhood experiences of crying out for daddy in the middle of the night onto a “heavenly father” in the sky.

Furthermore, just like mommy and daddy force their children to “play nice” and not hit each other in the head with Lincoln Logs, primitive cavemen came to see this imaginary “heavenly father” as someone who would come and spank them if they didn’t “play nice” with their fellow cavemen—and in this way, morality was born. According to Freud, this infantile religious impulse actually served humanity well. It forced people to develop civilization, provided a basis for morality, and was like Linus’ security blanket. Even though in reality there really wasn’t a God who listened to their prayers or protected them, the “security blanket” of religion eased their minds and made them feel better.

Over time, basic animism gave way to polytheism, which in turn gave way to monotheism, then deism. But now, with the rise of science and reason, mankind must “grow up” from its infantile, childish wish-fulfillment of a “big daddy in the sky.”

Many in our modern world just assume this to be the case. What this really shows, though, is that, even though Freud’s theories, however fanciful and untrue as they may be, still have had a tremendous impact on popular culture. Freud’s claims regarding the evolutionary characteristics of religion simply are not true: there hasn’t been a gradual evolution of religious belief throughout history. You can go around the world today and find instances of tribal gods, forms of paganism, polytheism, monotheism, and no belief at all. You can go back to ancient Greece and find instances of all of the above as well. The point being, there simply has not been some sort of “evolution” of religious belief. The claim is historically false.

Another Flaw in the “Evolution of Religion” Claim–Time
Secondly, assuming evolution’s claim that the earth is millions of years old, how far back into the past can we see creatures like modern human beings existing? If you go all the way back to the Stone Age, you have gone back to about 10,000 BC. If you want to go back to when the first civilizations developed (the ones Freud talked about that gave rise to religion), you’d have to go back to the Bronze Age, which was approximately from 3300 BC to 1200 BC. So that means from when known civilization began (3300 BC) to our present day, there has been a little over 5,000 years. Is it reasonable to believe that in the course of a mere 5,000 years—a mere nano-second when viewed from the perspective of an earth that is 4.5 billion years old, that anyone could “scientifically” decipher the evolution of religious beliefs, in the same way, let’s say, as the fossil record deciphers the evolution of biological life over the course of millions of years? I think not.

Not only is religion not in the same category as physical traits that evolve over time, even if religion could be categorized in the same way, any kind of evolutionary changes would not be able to be observed or even noticed within a mere span of 5,000 years. Given this fact, the arguments of Freud, Dawkins, and the New Atheist Movement regarding the supposed evolution of religion are simply poor attempts to hijack science to legitimize their baseless and unscientific claims.

6 Comments

  1. This is great, Joel. I am thrilled to see your intellect applied to the new atheists. I love your discussion of memes and Freud. And your emphasis that evolution is strictly a biological theory needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

    I would love to reblog this post, and also link it elsewhere. But I would ask you to fix one error. Everything you say about the selfish gene hypothesis is right on, except for one thing. When Dawkins talks about numbers of genes he means the copy numbers of individual genes, not the total number of genes in a genome. This is his explanation for the evolution of efficient biochemical mechanisms of DNA replication. His idea requires the notion of “replicators first” as opposed to origin of life starting with metabolic cycles (which is now much more favored by consensus). You are right that gene numbers in genomes have nothing to do with biological complexity, but Dawkins would agree with that. Selfish gene theory is still wrong, because the evidence is that (as Collins says) genes are not the center of life, but are an equal part of cell function (see Denis Noble). The selfish gene idea also implies a high degree of genetic determinism, which was never proven, and is now discredited by evidence of much greater complexity in biology than such an idea would allow.

  2. Much of what you say here is true. However, the bottom line concerning religion is that somehow many different religions arose and then either died out or stuck around for many years. We know that all of those religions cannot be 100% true as they are contradictory. So, we are left with trying to figure out if one religion is 100% true and the rest false (when they differ), or is there partial truth in many religions, or are no religions true. Or could it be that all religions contain some truth, but none have a divine origin? Or, do some have divine origins but ended up being corrupted by their followers over the years?

    My study of religions over the years led me to conclude that while all religions contain some truth since humans ARE capable of determining some truth on their own, no religion has a divine origin. All religions came from the minds of men, thus leaving us with no absolute divine standard by which to live. We must use our observational skills and reason to determine the best way to live.

    And please note that the lack of divine religions has nothing to do with the existence of God. God may exist and chose to create humans with certain skills that allowed them to determine the best way to live without a divine handbook.

    1. Well, yes–but as you can tell, the problem with the “evolution of religion” argument is that it is taking a biological theory and trying to apply it to something that is not biological. Simply put, evolution does not apply to beliefs–and when Freud tries to make that leap, he’s really doing it to serve a preconceived agenda.

      And you’re right, I think too often (especially in the West) “religion” is seen as a claim to some “divine absolute standard” of either things to believe that happened or morality. Specifically, if we view Christianity as just “God’s user’s manual,” we’re misunderstanding what the Bible actually bears witness to.

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