Contra Dennett I: Stuffing a straw man

June 14, 2011

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.

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Nietzsche in November

November 21, 2010

We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too.  Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.

Some people have a problem with that.

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.

This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him).  Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves.  If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth.  Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”

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