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

June 21, 2011

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.

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A holy day of opportunity

October 26, 2010

This year All Saints Day is not a holy day of obligation.  I have to confess, I’m a little sad about that.

I’m sad because, absent the threat of sin, most people won’t go to Mass.

Too cynical a way of putting it?  Maybe.  But am I wrong?

Human nature being fallen, there’s a certain legalistic streak in each one of us, and the most common form of legalism is minimalism.  Ever asked yourself, “How late can I show up at Mass for it still to count?”  Or calculated how many minutes into Mass communion is likely to be so that you can squeeze in one last donut before heading out the door?  Come on, admit it.  I have, too.  (The donut had sprinkles.)

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Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

March 23, 2010

If anyone has both the ambition and the ability to complete a critical history of God, philosophy, and universities in 193 pages, who better than Alasdair MacIntyre?  Now a hair over eighty and still teaching a very-hard-to-get-into undergraduate seminar at Notre Dame, the Scottish-born philosopher and trenchant critic of modern morality has done just that in God, Philosophy, Universities:  A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I have been a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre since he made a guest appearance in one of my undergraduate ethics courses and warned the roomful of over-eager philosophy majors not to let our minds be ruined by philosophy.  Though he admits God, Philosophy, Universities is by no means a comprehensive history of any of the three, MacIntyre’s insights into all of the above are worthwhile.  What is particularly valuable is MacIntyre’s conviction that the three should somehow fit together.

As one might expect, many sections of the book are dense, summarizing centuries of philosophical arguments in a few paragraphs.  MacIntyre delivers a succinct summary of Aquinas’ metaphysics in a single memorable chapter, and his treatment of Pascal, the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, and the soul/body problem is enlightening.  He quotes Newman on conscience—“Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that moreover superior, to itself”—and even draws on Nietzsche’s criticism of the presuppositions of philosophers.

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