Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

I’ve made little secret on these pages of my disdain for the crop of neo-atheists who have gotten so much acclaim over the past several years. Most of their arguments wouldn’t merit a passing grade for a high school sophomore.  (No offense intended to our exceptionally bright high school readers, especially those from MUHS.)

Nonetheless, Pope Paul VI in 1966 entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission to make a “stout, united stand against atheism,” so I’ve devoted some time in my philosophy studies to the work of these neo-atheists.  Of the bunch, Daniel C. Dennett has a reputation for seriousness in part because he is a philosophy professor at Tufts, so I decided to review his book Breaking the Spell for a philosophy of religion class—and to share parts of my critique with you, dear readers of Whosoever Desires.

Dennett frames his book as a plea for the rational study of religion, a rather innocuous suggestion to which believers themselves should pose no objections.  I wish, in fact, that Catholic leaders would study seriously the research done by sociologists such as Christian Smith or Rodney Stark.  (Stark’s analysis disproves the common assumption that the growth of religious communities comes by loosening religious demands, when quite the opposite is true.)  Dennett claims that the only “prescription” he intends to make “categorically and without reservation” is to “do more research.”

Unfortunately, Dennett’s true agenda is revealed at the end of the book when he advocates a program of worldwide reeducation into a “historically and biologically informed” view of religion in order to combat “those who would betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious agendas.”  Such reeducation would be conducted “gently, firmly,” Dennett reassures us, but would necessarily involve depriving parents of the right to bring up their children in their own religious tradition.  Rather more than research is involved in the spell Dennett attempts to cast.

Dennett’s real aim in Breaking the Spell is not the advance of knowledge but an attack on religion’s social influence.  Though he cites critics of Christianity throughout his book—Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, Dawkins, Harris, even Andy Rooney—Dennett simultaneously argues that religion has enjoyed “a traditional exemption from certain forms of analysis and criticism.”  To which, I would suggest that Dennett pick up a recent copy of the New York Times.  Or Time.  Or Newsweek.  Or that he poll his colleagues in the Tufts philosophy department about their views of religion.

Exemption from criticism?  Dennett needs to do a little more research.

The research method he does employ in the book leaves me scratching my head.  He claims his understanding of religion comes from interviews he conducted “with quite a few people.”  Given such rigorous methodological standards, it’s small wonder Dennett falls back again and again on stereotypes and caricatures.  So, for example, rather than engage with any of the Church’s bioethical objections to stem cell research, Dennett describes the Catholic position on the subject as “you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because that is what God has told you.”  Well, not exactly.

That Dennett does not want to engage with any intellectually rigorous versions of religious belief becomes even clearer when he dismisses all of academic theology in three sentences—enclosed in parentheses.

(A milder and more constructive response to relentless skepticism is the vigorous academic industry of theological discussion and research, very respectfully inquiring into the possible interpretations of the various creeds.  This earnest intellectual exercise scratches the skeptical itch of those few people who are uncomfortable with the creeds they were taught as children, and is ignored by everybody else.  Most people don’t feel the need to examine the details of the religious propositions they profess.)

One wonders where such “relentless skepticism” comes from, given religion’s immunity from criticism or critique, but the paragraph is most noteworthy because it amounts to a more or less open admission that Dennett is not attacking the strongest version of theism, but rather that taught to children.  Imagine Dennett’s “argument” if applied to medicine:  All medicine must be quackery because most people who say they believe in medicine would be hard-pressed to explain complex questions about how the endocrine system works.  (Sure there are doctors who investigate those questions, but they’re a tiny minority.)

Dennett is doing what in philosophy is known as creating a straw man, attacking a construct so weak nobody would really defend it.  The widespread religious ignorance Dennett attacks is indeed a real problem, but it’s the sort of thing serious believers should lament—and the reason we have forums like this humble little blog.

Dennett’s strategy of creating a straw man, however, is both the heart of his argument and the fundamental flaw of his project.  Dennett is arguing against a murky notion of God and a murky notion of religion, claiming that these notions are incoherent.  And I agree with him.  So would any serious adherent of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  Serious adherents to these faiths would disagree among themselves over how to speak about God, but they would all agree that it is a mistake to attribute to him a mishmash of vague characteristics pilfered from discrete religious traditions.

Put in another way, Dennett’s enemy in Breaking the Spell is “Religion,” but I do not believe in Religion.  I believe in Roman Catholicism.  I do not feel compelled in any way to defend an Islamic conception of God, nor polytheistic beliefs and practices.  In fact, I would argue that many of those beliefs and practices are false.  Likewise, it should not count against an Islamic conception of God if Dennett finds belief in the Trinity implausible.  To paraphrase the late Richard John Neuhaus, I don’t believe in the God Dennett doesn’t believe in either.

Making his opponent Religion, however, is clever for Dennett strategically.  It allows him to group together a whole range of beliefs and practices, many of them quite objectionable, and then criticize the followers of Religion for their incoherence.

So Dennett’s idealized opponent, Religion, believes in:  the End Times (no doubt including the Rapture); creationism; all varieties of miracles; “bigotry, murderous fanaticism, oppression, cruelty, and enforced ignorance”; Shiva and Vishnu; goat sacrifice; a triune soul; bamboo icons; the Ten Commandments; ghosts; the Book of Common Prayer; shamanism; merely the concept of God; a heterodox notion of transubstantiation; Deism; extra ecclesia nulla salus; and shameless appeals to sacred texts to disguise ignorance and deflect “well-meant criticism.”

Some of these beliefs are good, others not so good, but the unspoken question behind Dennett’s treatment of religion is how could anyone believe in all this stuff?

To which the answer is, of course:  nobody does.


Next we’ll turn to the mileage Dennett tries to get out of his straw man as he tallies up the pluses and minuses of Religion.


11 Responses to Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

  1. Will Akinson says:

    Really, you should run for political office, one sided views would make you a front runner in any race. Biggest problem in todays religious social societies is way leadership thinks and treats the common believer, as if they are uneducated sheep. Religions today, especially mainline religions, and more special Roman Catholic need to come to 21st century utilizing the new world of vast communications to spread gospel message with more intense acuracy and truth telling. We are seeing the prolification of “God sayings” that have no truth or validity in real word of God as preached and written in historical teachings. And how does God speak to us in todays world of mumbo jumbo religious prolification of churches and religions. People in todays world ger lost up in all the religious chaff, especially in catholic circles, when really folks strive for the real message sometimes mostly lost in the religious retoric of millions of words and preachers that run amok in our lands.

  2. Pete Lake says:

    Anthony, thank you (and happy belated Feast Day). Pope Paul (and St. Ignatius) would be proud.

    Perhaps you could devote one of your future posts to let us know how the Company is doing in its mission entrusted to it by Paul VI. I say this because I find it interesting that you mention Dennett being at Tufts when in fact I’m sure the Theology Department (and to a much lesser degree the Philosophy Department) at the Jesuit university accross the bridge and up Comm. Ave from Tufts would probably be a more receptive audience to Dennett’s idea than to yours (than to the Church’s) – i.e., would the results be much different if Dennett polled his colleagues at BC? Holy Cross?


    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I can’t really speak to the particular institutions you allude to, but I’ll put up all of Pope Paul’s words on atheism when I track them down again. (I’m away from Chicago and my books for the summer.)

      Henri de Lubac has an intersting book on atheism (something like “The Drama of Atheist Humanism”.) It’s published by Ignatius Press.

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    I have not Dennett, so thank you in advance for doing us this favour. Personally, I have never met an atheist who did not think eugenics or social engineering (or both) was a “good idea”. When you eliminate God, someone has to be entrusted with “playing god”. And of course, the only one’s capable of doing this are those who have eliminated God (circular argument).

    Great post as always.

  4. I was with you till the last sentence which is, unfortunately, untrue. Many folks believe “this stuff” and that’s why parents are in the crosshairs of the US gov’t/NEA etc re: the type of education they choose for their children. Or read what Cass Sunstein wrote before we started paying him to be a czar…
    I hope it’s true that the minority of people believe “this stuff” but they are a very vocal, highly educated & highly placed minority in this country today. Sad to say, many many of them products of Catholic education. That’s why Paul VI’s mandate to the Society in ’66 needs a champion. Thank you for taking up that Standard!

  5. Qualis Rex says:

    Will – wrong as always.

    Glenna – well said. The “squeeky (atheist) wheel gets the grease” syndrome is rampant across secularized societies these days. Even here in Italy, a few years back some whiney atheist Finn went shnutz (I believe that is the clinical term) over the fact that her Finnling (I believe that is the zoological word) had to go to public school where there is a crucifix in each classroom. Adding insult to injury, the European High Court sided with her and awarded her I believe 5,000 Euros in “damages”. Ironically, this made Italians (even the atheists) upset as it looked like the EU was (yet again) encroaching on the rights, laws and sovereignty of a member nation. And since Italy (along with Germany) is economically carrying the EU at the moment, the ruling was struck down just this year.

    The point is 1 Finn was able to accomplish what thousands of Italian atheists couldn’t (or didn’t care enough to) do. We should never discount the impact of a small but constant dull whine.

  6. […] Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.” […]

  7. […] my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by […]

  8. Clearly presented as always, Tony. Thanks.

  9. […] noted at the beginning of my series on the “new atheists” (Contra Dennett 1, 2, and 3) that Pope Paul VI entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission of combating atheism […]

  10. […] of hatred, a violence in the rhetoric of many of the Church’s contemporary opponents (think of Daniel Dennett advocating the “re-education” of children against the wishes of religious parents), that is […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: