a particularly annoying blob of atoms

By Leila Marie Lawler ( articles ) | Jan 22, 2006

In today’s New York Times Magazine interview, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University Daniel C. Dennett offers his thoughts, such as they are, on God and belief. It seems he has writing a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

First off, he strikes me as just unpleasant, willfully deflecting the questions as if he doesn’t really understand what’s being driven at. Deborah Solomon asks, “Why would you hold a scientist's microscope to something as intangible as belief?" He pretends this is a question about bricks and mortar. Maybe it’s his idea of a joke to answer, “I find St. Paul's and St. Peter's pretty physical.”

So right away I just don’t like him. But let’s move on. Next question, good naturedly trying to get back on track, not that I usually have much sympathy for Times reporters, but I immediately have the feeling that she would like to strangle him and I’m on her side.

But your new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, is not about cathedrals. It's about religious belief, which cannot be dissected in a lab as if it were a disease.

That itself is a scientific claim, and I think it is false. Belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, "Oh, let's just tiptoe by this, we don't have to study this." People think they know a lot about religion. But they don't know.

Actually, people study religion a lot, and in a scientific way. But that’s not the point either, as someone who draws a salary as a teacher of philosophy must realize. Something can have an existence beyond the physical. If Dennett doesn’t think so, then one wonders why he doesn’t profess biology, just out of intellectual honesty.
[Desperately trying to get an interview, it seems to me] So what can you tell us about God?

Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world-- that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.

That’s about as bald and unscientific a claim as I’ve seen. Apart from the many examples one may sputteringly wish to hurl at his annoying head, including miraculous cures attested to by agnostic doctors, “there is no such thing” doesn’t exactly rise to the level of scientific method. Hypothesis, anyone? Experiments? Testing? Reproducibility? Peer review?

Yet faith, by definition, means believing in something whose existence cannot be proved scientifically. If we knew for sure that God existed, it would not require a leap of faith to believe in him.

Isn't it interesting that you want to take that leap? Why do you want to take that leap? Why does our craving for God persist? It may be that we need it for something. It may be that we don't need it, and it is left over from something that we used to be. There are lots of biological possibilities.

Sorry, but C. S. Lewis made mincemeat of this particular argument. If religion is merely the product of some sort of concatenation of biological forces then why isn’t materialism also the result of those very same forces, and therefore just as ridiculous as a world view? Dennett subtly and underhandedly takes the intellectual high ground here, ascribing to those with faith a craving left over from “something that we used to be.” But this criterion could equally be applied to the view, held by him, that all is simply biology; a view, by the way, which makes its proponent particularly pitiable in its lack of consistency. He is simply deluding himself by thinking he is saying anything meaningful if he truly believes in the ultimate claim of biological forces . In fact, in his belief system, there could be no meaning as such, which would make a religious person just as reasonable or unreasonable as a materialist.

Didn't religion spring up in its earliest forms in connection with the weather, the desire to make sense of rain and lightning?

We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof.

Why is finding agency in biology more convincing than finding it God?
There was so much infant mortality in the past, which must have played a large role in encouraging people to believe in an afterlife.

When a person dies, we can't just turn that off. We go on thinking about that person as if that person were still alive. Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us.

But they are still with us, through the process of memory.

These aren't just memories.

Huh? I take it he believes in ghosts all right.

Here even Deborah gets huffy.

That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.

Love can be studied scientifically, too.

But what's the point of that? Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?

How about if we study hatred and fear? Don't you think that would be worthwhile?

Why? If everything is a result of biological forces, who cares about love or hate? Time to read your Lewis again. From That Hideous Strength: “If you reflect for a moment,” said Frost, “you will see that your question has no meaning except on the level of the crudest popular thought. Friendship is a chemical phenomenon; so is hatred….what you mistook for your thought was merely a by-product of your blood and nervous tissues.”
I take it you are not a churchgoer.

No, not really. Sometimes I go to church for the music.

Yes, the church gave us Bach, in addition to some fairly spectacular architecture and painting.

Churches have given us great treasures. Whether that pays for the harm they have done is another matter.

Leaving aside the issue of the harm religion has done (which the length of the interview conveniently precludes investigating) materialism has done harm to reason itself and left us with precisely no treasures at all.

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