Dawkins, Haidt and Harari on Religion

It’s fascinating to compare the different views of Dawkins, Haidt and Harari on religion. All three approach it from a sociological/evolutionary perspective but small differences in assumptions lead to quite large differences in conclusions.

Dawkins, as is well known, sees religion as a parasitic meme. It’s common across humanity simply because it’s good at spreading and we should examine how different religions grow purely on the basis of how optimised they are for growth, not on any impact they might have on the humans they ‘infect’. For Dawkins, religion is almost wholly negative and it would be better for humanity if it were abolished.

Haidt, on the other hand, sees religion as a beneficial cultural adaptation. Religion – and other sacralised concepts such as nationhood – are essential in allowing large-scale human cooperation and that separate us from chimpanzee-level cooperation (i.e. with those immediately known to us). By supporting the sacred/degradation and loyalty/betrayal moral foundations, they help to anchor moral codes and give a foundation for cooperating with strangers, allowing humans to escape the trap of Dumbar’s number. While not disagreeing with Dawkins analysis of memetic spread (particularly as to which religions dominate), Haidt also argues that religion was a cultural adaption that allowed groups of humans to outcompete and replace those without it, rather as agricultural communities displaced hunter-gatherers. Haidt would still tend to see religion, or similar binding phenomena, having an important role in the world today.

Finally, Harari largely agrees with Haidt about the impact of religion, but disagrees that these impacts are beneficial. For Harari, it’s debatable whether humanity is better off for having adopted agriculture and to claim that religion is a beneficial adaptation because it’s supported humanity in building great nations, civilisations and cultural artefacts is, for him, begging the question. In this view, religion has only been successful on its own terms, which are not necessarily those of humanity (even if we’ve allowed ourselves to temporarily adopt them).

Fifteen years ago I was definitely in the Dawkins camp; I now lean more strongly towards Haidt. Harari’s view is the one I find most alien – ultimately, it seems a form of nihilism and so not correct, even if some of the pathways in which he gets there are thought-provoking.