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.”
Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)
His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.
Because of his vague notion of religion, Dennett is able to tally up the worst features of mankind’s religious history and make them count against Religion, though they would not be a minus to most particular religions. So, for example, Dennett uses suicide bombers to discredit Religion, though there’s no reason they should be a blemish on the face of, say, Mormonism.
No doubt adherents of every major religious tradition have done things that might appear objectionable to those outside that tradition; in fact, they may have done things they admit are objectionable themselves. I’ll confess that I’m a pretty poor Christian at times, but that hardly means Christianity is untrue.
Different traditions have different resources for dealing with difficulties. So, for example, when confronted with the acts of violence in the Book of Joshua, a Jew will give a different explanation than will a Catholic or a Christian fundamentalist. And a Hindu need not find such passages an affront to his faith at all. It remains a mystery to me how a philosopher, as Dennett claims to be, could believe that the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice somehow invalidates Christianity. Insinuation is not an argument.
Of course, Christians throughout history have committed many sinful acts, sometimes using deranged theology to do so. We’re all familiar with the usual historical bugaboos trotted out by anti-Christians, the cruelties of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, phenomena which certainly do merit careful study even if they loom far larger in the popular imagination than they ever did in the faith lives of the overwhelming majority of Christians.
Unfortunately, careful study is not what we get from Dennett since he doesn’t want us to approach these usual suspects in their historical context nor even to think very deeply about what they prove. This is because Dennett’s argument, such as it is, relies on the unstated assumption that because we find “bigotry, murderous fanaticism, oppression, cruelty, and enforced ignorance” among religious adherents, these things must therefore be caused by religion.
My advice to Dennett, however, is to put his hypothesis to the test, in other words, to do more research. If religion were the cause of bigotry and fanaticism, we would not expect to see these problems cropping up in non-religious contexts. So, for example, was their any oppression in the atheistic Soviet Union? Any enforced ignorance in North Korea or China? Have those inspired by Nietzsche, Freud, or Marx ever succumbed to cruelty?
When Dennett has finished his research, I would offer him an hypothesis that better suits the facts, namely that violence, cruelty, and sin are features of human nature and we can expect them to crop up in any human endeavor, religious or otherwise.
As for the pluses one might attribute to religion, Dennett never outlines exactly what standard he has in mind for judging religion beyond a vague claim that he wants the world to be a better place. He gets a little more specific when he indicates he will acknowledge no intrinsic values beyond biological pleasure and pain.
Here, however, Dennett is testing for the wrong hypothesis, for Christianity never promises to deliver biological pleasure. Dennett dismisses any notion of spiritual goods, claiming that Buddhist or Christian monks who do not engage in acts of obvious social utility are no better than those who “devote their lives to improving their stamp collections or their golf swing.” By assuming a purely materialist standard by which to judge Religion, Dennett already presupposes the answer to the question he purports to be investigating.
To be fair to Dennett even some believers can fall into the trap of thinking and speaking like practical atheists. The news media in particular tends to treat religion as primarily a political force, even adopting political terminology (liberal/conservative, progressive/moderate) to describe internal Church dynamics. Many believers may have unconsciously adopted the view Dennett pronounces that the “secret to spirituality has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.” Dennett has defined God out of “spirituality”.
Dennett’s assertion allows him to separate “spirituality” and other “neighboring phenomena” from religion. And he distinguishes the focus of his research (or, to be more accurate, polemic) from that of William James by declaring that he is interested in “religion,” not religious experience.
Here Dennett is engaged in a kind of logical gerrymandering, defining religion in such a way that he can bypass the primary reason people believe in God or participate in religious observances—because they have had some experience of God. Dennett’s methodology leaves him utterly unable to deal with such religious phenomena as conversion, something that would require reference to believers’ religious experience. Instead, he simply remarks that conversion is “curious”.
I’ll wrap up with a note of my own about religious experience and a remark from a far better philosopher than Daniel Dennett. Religious experience need not be the sort of mysticism that fascinated William James. It could be something as simple as a sense of being called during prayer. It might even be a sense of absence, something as mundane as not feeling quite right after skipping Mass one Sunday or as profound as St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul.”
From St. Augustine to the present day, much of our religious experience—just like many of our human relationships—is marked by desire, and attending to our desires is important. The felt absence of God is no obstacle to religious belief, for as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, the possibility of feeling the absence of God is inseparable from the possibility of feeling his presence: “To experience the absence of something or someone is not just different from, but incompatible with, treating that something or someone as nonexistent.”
Next week, I’ll comment on the religious idea of “mystery,” where Dennett comes close to saying something sensible about religion. (But not quite.)