Lewis Wolpert makes no bones about being a “a reductionist materialist atheist” but, unlike Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion, he is not out to rubbish religion, rather to inquire into the origins of belief. The book’s title is taken from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and its subtitle, The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, makes Wolpert’s stance clear, but where Dawkins employed bombast and cynicism, Wolpert constructs a far more elegant thesis.
From an evolutionary point of view beliefs have benefits for both individuals and groups, so much so that we are genetically hard-wired towards them, says Wolpert, who finds the origins for all this in the human ability to make tools, an activity which requires an awareness of cause and effect. “Tool use, with language, has tranformed human evolution and led to what we now think of as beliefs,” he writes. “Humans began to think about the causes involved in all sorts of activities, not just hunting and food gathering but also the meaning of life and death.”
Most people conflate belief with religion but in fact we hold sets of beliefs (often erroneous) about many other things and Wolpert examines those related to the paranomal, health, morality and even science.
Wolpert builds up a convincing argument, all the more so because he is not shy of admitting to the occasional gap in the evidence. He’s also even-handed and acknowledges that the idea that religious belief may be genetically programmed and will possibly offend those who are religious and “may even irritate those who are not”.
Unlike Dawkins, Wolpert is not out to rid the world of religion, arguing that “people have the right to hold whatever beliefs appeal to them, but with a fundamental provision that those beliefs must be reliable if they lead to actions that affect the lives of other people … It is the action based on beliefs that ultimately matters, and respect for the rights of others is fundamental.”