Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell 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 flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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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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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Moral Opposite Day

October 10, 2010

Do you remember “Opposite Day” from childhood?  “Sure, I’ll give you half my candy bar if you give me your fruit Roll-Up…just kidding: it’s Opposite Day!”

When adults play Opposite Day, the results are far more sinister.  This year the Nobel Prize Committee played Moral Opposite Day by awarding their prize for medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, the inventor of in vitro fertilization.  A Vatican official quickly condemned the Committee’s actions, and rightly so.

The Church’s objections to in vitro fertilization are perhaps not as well known as they should be:  the procedure turns reproduction into a technical process instead of an act of love and involves the mass-production of embryos, the majority of which will be discarded when they are no longer deemed useful.  Because the procedure’s rate of success is low, a larger number of human embryos are created than what are normally needed, and those that are deemed defective or prove to be “unnecessary” are killed or frozen.

A more thorough and expert discussion of the problems with in vitro fertilization, as well as the morally acceptable alternatives to it, can be found on the USCCB website.  However, even a brief consideration of all that the procedure involves should be sufficient to understand how it results in the reduction of human life to a commodity.  Any time we find ourselves applying the adjective “unnecessary” to a human life, we have already entered a brave new world of moral horror.

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The Soul’s Journey into…New Jersey?

September 8, 2009

cold

With a subtle touch writer/director Sophie Barthes offers a brilliantly conceived film on the relationship between the body and the soul. This nettlesome little issue has a long pedigree, going back to Plato, at least, and probably back much further. What exactly is the soul? What does it do? and does it really exists? These are questions being hashed out among theologians, scientists, and now filmmakers.

In “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul” (2007), Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary make a strong case for the nonmaterial origin of religious experience. Read the rest of this entry »


The Wisdom of Old Age

August 27, 2009

Psychiatry+AMDG+  

In his exuberance for the progress of scientific knowledge, Francis Bacon coined the paradox, antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi—“Antiquity is the youth of the world.”  By this he meant only the now commonplace view that human knowledge progresses.  What we commonly regard as ancient is so only according to a backward reckoning from the present.  By the forward reckoning of the world itself, however, the present age qualifies as the eldest of epochs.  Therefore, the views of the present—not those of the remote past—ought to enjoy the prestige and deference ascribed to hoary old age.  

At least on occasion, however, it seems that Bacon got his age typology backwards.  The most recently founded fields of study, for instance, often show a peculiar and youthful zeal for proving the obvious. Read the rest of this entry »


Who Am I? Who are You? Why Does Cilantro Taste Funny?

August 10, 2009

genome-567

Soul searching, self-evaluation, meditation, and prayer–step aside! I can tell you who you are at the deepest level (and all for about $25). If you appreciate my ability to predict your doom then you might like my ability to explain why you cannot roll your tongue, why cilantro tastes bad in your tacos, or why you seem more likely than others to get angry in the same situation. It’s a treasure map. And I know where it is. And I can get it. And it is in your genes. Read the rest of this entry »