Dawkins thinks that religious belief comes about through some third factor; he thinks that it is a kind of by-product from another action, such as the tendency for children to obey their elders, and that it has no intrinsic value. He thinks it is parasitic; religions are parasitic memes, and this is no contradiction—since religions have been around, so far as we can tell, since the dawn of man—because parasites and hosts can become symbiotic. Occasionally, the relationship can be mutually beneficial—although Dawkins obviously thinks that this is not the case with religion, not in the modern world anyway.
This is a fairly common scientific thought pattern; similarly, in the The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains how the self-interested actions of individual genes can lead us to observe or experience quasi-altruistic behaviour in an organism. The true cause of what we experience is some third force, operating with no particular intent to cause certain outcomes, that we cannot usually perceive and possibly can only confirm completely when particular instruments have developed sufficiently to confirm what we have inferred through our logic and observations. Well, nothing wrong with all that; it is part of what gives science its power.
The problem with the suggested origin for religion Dawkins puts forward is that it is not parsimonious. He thinks religious beliefs are incidental piggybacks on a tendency for children to trust their elders and receive instruction from them; and it is important for him to produce this convoluted explanation because he must demonstrate that religion has no inherent evolutionary survival value, given it has lasted so long and always seems to feature in man’s life; if it has survival value, atheism would be suicidal or self-harming even in Dawkins’s own purely evolutionary schema. Hence religion has to be, for Dawkins, a by-product of how we transmit information to small children.
All religions encourage pro-social behaviour through various means, basically injunctions to heed divine will. Religions tell us not to murder, steal, lie, rape, and commit adultery—or else. Inspired by Dawkins, men like Christopher Hitchens used to say that pro-social or “moral” behaviour simply comes into being spontaneously without any injunctions; evolution made us pro-social, apparently. Yet the fact we have to reiterate warnings not to murder and so on indicates that man very often does so; we have to repeat the warnings—along with reference to God or the hangman—to prevent our general tendency to do these things; especially since many people are not intelligent enough, as Dawkins and his colleagues are, to see that cooperation is always the best strategy—Dawkins countenances neither hangman nor religion, in fact. Hence the simpler explanation is that religion is an adaptive trait that facilitates cooperation, particularly at a large scale, through pro-social injunctions.
Further, given that societies that have abandoned traditional religion in favour of atheism (really the religion of secular humanism), such as the USSR and revolutionary France, always seem to end up enmeshed in murder and theft (communism is theft) it seems to me that the evidence is fairly clear that religion is an adaptive trait. Men like Dawkins are curious; they say man has a natural tendency towards selfishness and yet they think he needs no compulsion or restraints to prevent his worst traits dominating him—or, rather, they accept none of the traditional constraints.
Since they accept no mild voluntary restraints, such as participation in a religion, they are forced to resort to maximum central coercion; hence for Dawkins religiously instructed children are “abused” and the implication is the state should intervene to make sure they go to state school—where they are taught there are no restraints and nothing matters. An attitude that leads to the feral children we see today; for Dawkins says we naturally incline to selfishness and yet, somehow, without religion we are naturally good—really, he wants to swap in his religion, secular humanism, for the old; even though we know it ends in murder and theft.