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.