Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

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.”

Billions, huh?

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.)



8 Responses to Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve, Anton. A very successful (TKO) “round 2” here. Admittedly, I still have not read Dennett, but from your description he appears to utilize the standard tactics I have heard from most atheist apologists; I’ll cite Hitchens as an example. In a debate with Dinesh D’Souza (whom I admire deeply) he takes the same route, seeking to discredit ALL religion by singling out the evils of one- in this case he cited Shi’ite Mohammedanism. He detailed how it was against Shari’a to kill a virgin woman, so standard practice for one who was condemned for whatever reason (i.e. apostacy) was to have said victim raped so she could then be eligible for the death penalty (Sts Nunilo and Alodia pray for us!) He then makes the chasmic jump to position Shi’ite Mohammedanism as the equivalent in hierarchy and practice to Catholic Christianity (as opposed to Sunni = Protestantism) to show how all religion is at the very least CAPABLE of commiting such perversions.

    Aside from the utter ridiculousness of this premise with a hole wide enough to drive a bullet-train through, Hitchens shows the hypocrisy of his convictions (as to most atheists) by refusing to wear the shoe on the other foot. Meaning, when confronted by the evils and miscarriages of justice committed by notable atheists (or atheist regimes) such as Stalin, Mao and Pot they dismiss this as being uncharacteristic of atheism itself, but rather a consequence of political ideals or agendas. The fact is, atheism itself has a very political agenda whenever it is manifested publicly. Anyway, kudos to your well-thought research and rebuttal. Great job as always. I have a feeling you are currently in some remote part of the world this summer, so wherever you are I hope you enjoy yourself!

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      The new atheists seem fairly interchangeable to me, from what I’ve seen. With Dennett I think there’s a bit less theatrics than with some of the others.

  2. willbearak says:

    Proliferation of religious thinking after 3200 years of Jewish/Muslim/Christian god philosophy and theology creates an extremely confused environment for the new minds of today, imagine what all this religious stuffing will be like in 50 years and centuries beyond. If religious division continues at even current rate everyone of 16 billion souls in near future will have to really make their God environment in their own image with their own ideals and self loves. A long long way from the Gospel and ways of Abraham, Melkisedek, Jesus and Mohammed.

  3. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Firstly, in our current time many are likely to equate, “suicide bombers” as mentioned in the third paragraph, solely with the Moslem extremists but, the term for the Japanese Kamikaze Pilots of Second World War translates as divine wind. I’ve often wondered if they were named after the storm which sunk many of the ships in the invasion fleet that Kublai Khan sent to Japan.
    At any rate, I haven’t read anything by Dennet since I have read so many atheistic stuff over the years and have finally given up listening (or reading or whatever) to what has always appeared to me like a either a tedious wandering or an effort to make the facts fit pre-conceived notions. However, your description of his work sounds like a court judging on guilt or innocence solely on the testimony of witnesses put forth by crown (prosecution) counsel with neither cross examination by defense counsel nor witnesses put forth by defense counsel. Why not have a public debate with both sides revealing ahead of time as in court disclosure so that each can both present and re-but? Is he; and others like him; afraid of having to prove what he says? Is it all about a poor choice between “who’s right” and “what’s right” or, perhaps, fear of admitting to the intangible; and that reminds me of a work place where a group of us came to a barricade warning of radiation hazard. We all stopped but one co-worker looked around and, when seeing nothing out of the ordinary, crawled under the barricade and proceeded into the area – while both management and the rest of the crew shouted for him to return.
    When he returned to the safe zone he was a bit miffed and expressed a belief that everyone was being silly because, if there had been a “real” hazard there would have been a blue glow or something.
    Just because I can’t feel, hear, see, smell, taste Salvation, damnation, beatification or a whole lot of other stuff in the same category doesn’t mean that I’m willing to leap to proven disaster.
    People who claim that religion is unscientific may wish to consider reading the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, where he teaches one of Nebuchadnezzer’s senior administrators how to conduct a basic scientific experiment, along with a bit on Thales of Miletus, who was in Babylon about that time searching for a logical alternative to a common belief at the time that natural phenomenon were at the whim of a variety of capricious spiritual beings. From there he went home tho Greece (of the time) and began the scientific thought of their classical age.
    But, commenting on polemic, people who present controversial alternatives that could result in us feeling uncomfortable, or uncertain, about our world view may not be as obnoxious as one might feel at first but, in my 58+ years I’ve observed what I feel to be a growth in controversy being stirred just for the sake of seeking validation by stirring controversy rather than to express what one believes to be true – even if it is controversial.

  4. Tom Piatak says:

    Excellent work dealing with Dennett.

    You might also enjoy my review of Hitchens’ book:

  5. Rachel Lu says:

    I imagine you know the work of David Hart? He’s been taking the new atheists to task these past few years, and he’s done the job pretty thoroughly. I think Hart is one of the brightest theological minds of his generation, and in a way it almost seems like this fixation is a little beneath him (at least as a multi-year project), but his last article about it (published in First Things a year or so ago) sort of helped me understand. Hart thinks atheism provides a healthy counterpoint to Christianity, sort of helping to keep our wits and arguments sharp as it were. That’s why he admires, for example, Nietzsche. But it frustrates him that the atheists of our time are such dopes. Anyway, you’ve probably read some of his stuff already, but if not you definitely should. He’s very smart and very funny. Just an excellent writer generally.

  6. […] sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical […]

  7. […] 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 in […]

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