Wednesday, September 30, 2009


According to a Newsweek reviewer cited on the back cover of Breaking the Spell, Dennett and Sam Harris are both writing "bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as pernicious and outdated superstitions". Bone-rattling? Surely Dennett blushed. Maybe he had no control over blurbs; or maybe he just went along because nowadays, strident sells. But in fact Dennett is quite different from the other Three Guys. All three are doing a full-court press on the opposition. They flat-out deny God and denounce religion. Dennett takes a different tack. He will examine religion scientifically.

If not necessarily objectively. He makes no bones about where his principles (and his presuppositions) come from (well, I guess that's better than pretending to be unbiased when you're not). Early in the book he self-identifies as a "bright". Even Christopher Hitchens, to his credit, had his yuck-factor triggered by what he described as the "cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly" (his terms) call themselves "brights". I couldn't agree more. Once again, there's this social tone-deafness that's so common among atheists (I wonder how many are Asperger's cases). Plus the smugness that sent P.Z. Myers and the rest of the Pharyngula bunch ape-shit when some Christian blogger called them on it (it was laughable to see how many of them totally misunderstood what the "smugness" accusation was about).

But that's by the way. More importantly, Dennett has practically defined his quest out of relevance by pages 10-11. There, he takes issue with William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience focused on the dealings of individuals with whatever they "consider(ed) the divine". Dennett, on the other hand, defines religion as "a larger social system or community". And he decides to go with that because "there are reasons for trading in James's psychological microscope for a wide-angle biological and social telescope" (ibid.) He neglects to tell us what those reasons are.

He would have been wiser to survey things from James's perspective as well as from his own. Both are valid; either one without the other does not begin to embrace the whole phenomenon of religion. Using either one on its own ignores one of the most basic characteristics of religion: its Janus-facedness. Individual religion can be (isn't always!) something pure and noble; social religion can be (and often is) repressive, destructive, even actively evil. It is precisely this tension between the Jamesian side and the Dennettian side that has to be investigated if we are ever to understand religion, and I hope to go into this a lot more deeply in future posts.

For now I'll just note the absence, not just from Dennett's work but from that of all four Guys, of virtually any reference to the Via Negativa, mystics, or mysticism. One would have thought that the mere term "mysticism" would have raised atheist hackles, with its false connotations of "mystification" and consequent identification as that hobgoblin of "freethinkers" since the Enlightenment: "Superstition!" One would have thought they'd mistake it for an easy target. Were they really smart enough to see it isn't? Or were they just so ignorant of what they were writing about that they had never heard of these things, or didn't understand them?

I say "virtually" because there is one reference in BtS to the "apophatic" (p. 232). Kudos (NOT, please, in the plural!) to Dennett for dredging up this rare word. It's one of those "blind-'em-with-science" terms of art that theologians use to make their work look more heavy-duty intellectual than it really is. But all Dennett does with it is have fun with some wannabe-postmodern claims by a straw-man "Professor Faith".

I'm sorry. Unless you know what mystics are, what they do, and why they do it, you are ignoring what for many is the very core of religion. But enough of that for now. Let's see how well Dennett does with those mainly public aspects of religion that he does investigate.

Well, again the issues are narrowed and prejudged, and this in a way that I've had occasion to complain about in my day job. I'm talking about the singular-plural distinction. Professionally, I encounter this in dealing with people who play fast and loose with the distinction, using "language" and "languages" alternately and indiscriminately, saying things like "language is still evolving" when it's clear they mean "languages are constantly changing."

Dennett performs this trick with religion/religions: "But it is obviously false that RELIGION is natural in this sense [i.e. not a product of culture, DB] . RELIGIONS are transmitted culturally, through language and symbolism, not through the genes" (p. 24, my emphasis).

It may be worthwhile to compare religion/religions with language/languages. Languages are particular instantiations of a general faculty, language. Likewise, religions are particular instantiations of religion. Religions and languages are culturally transmitted, but language is deeply rooted in human biology. Is religion too, maybe?

Dennett, under the influence of a heavy dose of evo-psych, has to hedge his bets here. Religions may be cultural, but whatever's cultural must be reclaimed for science somehow, so in his chapter entitled "The Roots of Religion" he opts for the source of religion(s) in the abuse of perfectly natural evolutionary mechanisms. We meet, for the zillionth time, "the intentional stance" , followed by HADD, the Hyperactive Agent Detection Device (previously detected only in a five-page article in a cognitive science journal) and guess what, language, so we can spin endless webs of words around our HADDS and our intentional stances, convincing ourselves of all manner of nonsense. And of course in addition to that...

What? You surely can't mean THAT'S ALL THERE IS?

Sorry, folks, that's all he wrote. To get a "folk religion" going--and you can learn, of course, from any nineteenth-century musings on "savage tribes" that when you've met one folk religion, you've met 'em all--it seems you don't need much. All you need is a need to identify other organisms that might have intentions different from yours, a preference for false positives over false negatives (if you mistake a boulder for a leopard, nothing really bad happens; vice versa, you could be supper), and the gift of the gab to make up explanations for anything you can't immediately explain.

This image of the poor pre-human schmuck, cowering at the trembling of a leaf, wondering if the devil's in it, and inventing a whole slew of supernatural entities to explain things is so insufferably patronizing (not to mention old-fashioned) that you feel like dumping Dennett in the bush (that's "the jungle" to you tenderfeet) and seeing how long he'd survive. Seriously, any preliterate tribesperson has a more sophisticated understanding of the natural world than your C21urbanite, and if that's the case now, why should our ancestors, who had an even tougher life, have been any dumber? Just as patronizing is the evo-psych obsession with the hangovers from our ape days that lurk unchanged in the depths of our psyche and, hidden from all but the likes of Dennett, determine all we do. Or, as he himself puts it in one of those Dennett-for-Dummies summaries that end each chapter, "The false alarms generated by our overactive disposition to look for agents...are the irritant around which the pearls of religion grow" (pp. 114-5).

Nice image, but like the HADD itself, right off the top of Dennett's head, with no empirical foundation whatsoever. Unless--could it be?--he actually wants to give us an example of the kind of magical thinking he's describing?

Dan has an earned reputation as a jokester, which of course is what makes him more fun to read than most philosophers. But the Dennett of BtS is far from the relentless trawler along the cutting edges of computing and cognitive science, dragging up pearls (if I may borrow his metaphor) with which to revive shopworn philosophical controversies, that we used to know and love. This is Dennett in full armchair mode, a very different kettle of fish.

So, having exposed religion's sorry roots, he's onto what keeps the bush so vigorously growing. And it's...(roll of drums while Dan opens the blue envelope)...guess what? Cui bono!

Yes. To Dennett, the ultimate mantra is: ASK NOT WHAT I CAN DO FOR MY FAITH; ASK WHAT MY FAITH CAN DO FOR ME.

But that deserves another post.


  1. I haven't read "Breaking the Spell" yet, but I think you'd get something out of David Sloan Wilson's books. I also haven't read "Darwin's Cathedral" yet, which is most focused on this topic, but I enjoyed "Evolution for Everyone", and it discussed the main themes there.

    In any case, the bias of humans toward seeing agency has, um, a bit more support than "a five-page article in a cognitive science journal". Consider: the maladies of paranoia and pronoia, where everything is seen as resulting from agency (malign or beneficial, respectively), is vastly more common than the delusion that nothing happens due to agency, that everything including what other people do is entirely chance.

  2. Huh, when you said "Christian Jokes" or "NPR Jokes", I kind of assumed you meant things like "[ethnic] jokes", which those certainly were.

    If you want jokes by atheists for atheists, they're not that hard to find...