Belief Meets the Universal Acid—Daniel Dennett Strikes Again

Daniel C. Dennett is at it again. In his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett applies his radical vision of Darwinism to belief in God, and the entire question of faith and belief. As you might expect, Dennett doesn’t think much of belief in God.

Dennett is famous for his idea that Darwinism functions as a “universal acid” in contemporary thought–an idea that relativizes all other ideas and reshapes the intellectual culture so that all other ideas must give way or disappear.

Atheism is a central tenet of Dennett’s faith, and he has previously argued that the belief in a personal and self-existent God–any kind of God for that matter–must simply give way to the inexorable progress of evolution. As he sees it, belief in God is a “meme” that functioned for some time as an evolutionary advantage, but has long since outlived its usefulness and now serves as an impediment to the forward progress of the human species.

Accordingly, the concept of God might continue as an intellectual concept that offers a mythological explanation for wonder and beauty, but not in the form of theism or theological realism. In other words, it’s alright to believe in God so long as you do not actually believe that He exists.

In his new book, Dennett calls for what he calls a “common-sense” understanding of religion. For too long, this issue has been avoided out of social politeness, he argues, and now is the time to confront believers with the danger of their belief and the nonsensical nature of their convictions.

The persistence of belief in God does pose something of a difficult question for evolutionists like Daniel Dennett. “According to surveys, most of the people in the world say that religion is very important in their lives. Many would say that without it, their lives would be meaningless,” Dennett concedes. “It’s tempting just to take them at their word, to declare that nothing more is to be said–and to tiptoe away. Who would want to interfere with whatever it is that gives their lives meaning?”

Nevertheless, Dennett argues that to do that is to willfully ignore serious questions. He suggests that some forms of religious belief are more inherently dangerous than others, but wonders whether right-minded (which is to say atheistic) observers should leave believers “to their comforts and illusions” or, in the service of humanity, “blow the whistle?”

Never underestimate Dennett’s capacity for condescension. “Dilemmas like that are all too familiar in somewhat different context, of course. Should the sweet old lady in the nursing home be told that her son has just been sent to prison? Should the awkward 12-year-old boy who wasn’t cut from the baseball team be told about the arm-twisting that persuaded the coach to keep him on the squad? In spite of ferocious differences of opinion about other moral issues, there seems to be something approaching consensus that it is cruel and malicious to interfere with the life-enhancing illusions of others–unless those illusions are themselves the cause of even greater ills.”

The diversity of religious beliefs and the persistence of belief itself provides Dennett with evidence that faith in some form must have served as an evolutionary meme that helped the species to perpetuate itself against the fear of death and tragedy. In other words, the experience of death, he argues, provided the need for some mythological projection of an afterlife in order to assist survivors to continue life and productive work. In an interview with The New York Times, Dennett said: “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 make no mistake, Dennett does not allow for a moment that the afterlife, or the soul, can possibly be real. “I don’t believe in the soul as an enduring entity,” Dennett told the Times. “Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.” Got it?

Dennett’s biological reductionism is almost breathtaking in its inflexibility. Throughout Breaking the Spell, Dennett applies biological reductionism to every conceivable aspect of life–from a parent’s commitment to take care of children to the experience of love. Beyond this, he seems even to suggest that parents should provide their children with an adequate sex education in order to give evolution something of a boost.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dennett’s new book is his suggestion that belief is a less interesting question than “belief in belief.” Accordingly, he attempts to take something of an intellectual step back from the question of belief (at least at some points) and suggests that many persons who appear to be believers actually do not believe in the tenets of their faith, but only in belief itself.

He enters this issue through the prism of the modern cult of tolerance. He suggests that those who call themselves believers in God but advocate tolerance of other belief systems are either disingenuous or confused. That is to say that those who believe in God but are satisfied to see others accept alternative belief systems either do not understand the importance of the question or they do not actually believe in the God they claim as the object of their worship.

Dennett is on to something here, but not what he thinks. He seems to lack any understanding of religious liberty as a social compact and he avoids the idea that persons can be sincere believers and still accept the right of others to disagree. Christians can never be satisfied to know that others reject faith in the one true and living God and resist the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we can accept the fact that we have no power to coerce the soul and we would seek no state coercion, even if available.

A key insight from Dennett’s eccentric theory is the fact that “moderates” in matters of belief are truly in a most awkward situation. “There are moderates who revere the tradition they were raised in, simply because it is their tradition, and who are prepared to campaign, tentatively, for the details of their tradition, simply because, in the marketplace of ideas, somebody should stick up for each tradition until we can sort out the good from the better and settle for the best we can find, all things considered.”

A close look at that statement reveals something of genuine importance–there are persons who believe in the tradition simply because it is traditional–whether or not it is true. To a great extent, this explains the quandary of mainline Protestantism and the inherent weakness of revisionist theologies.

As Dennett looks at the moderates, he sees their faith as something more like “allegiance to a sports team.” Such “belief” can give zest and meaning to life, but is not to be taken seriously as a worldview. He refers to his own allegiance to the Boston Red Sox as “enthusiastic, but cheerfully arbitrary and undeluded.” “The Red Sox aren’t my team because they are, in fact, the Best,” he concedes. Instead, “they are the Best (in my eyes) because they are my team.”

Those who hold to such moderated views of theistic belief are actually affirming belief in belief, rather than the truths themselves. They see religious conviction as something that can provide meaning to life and solace in the midst of sorrow, but not something that is to be understood in terms of a realist conception of truth. In other words, belief in God is helpful and potentially healthy even if untrue.

This is the very formulation Dennett just will not accept. His own self-designated intellectual superiority leads him to look upon moderates with disdain even as he looks upon true believers with pity. Belief in belief is actually no less dangerous than belief itself, if for no other reason than it helps to foster the illusion of widespread faith in God.

As in his previous writings, Dennett straightforwardly suggests that theists should be excluded from all public conversation. Those who base their worldview in theism “should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously,” Dennett argues. Believers are “excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.”

Those who base their worldview on the existence of God and the centrality of that belief are “taking a personally immoral stand,” he asserts.

In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dennett suggests that those who believe in God are “disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate.” So, “your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.”

His conclusion: “It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God–in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purportive God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love, is worthy of worship.”

All this verbiage amounts to a display of Dennett’s own Darwinist fundamentalism. He is at least as unbending and fideistic in his acceptance of the central tenets of Darwinism as any orthodox believer in God.

This point was eloquently made by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic in his review of Breaking the Spell in the February 19, 2006 edition of The New York Times. Wieseltier describes Dennett’s book as “a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.” As Wieseltier explains, Dennett’s book is not even based, “in any strict sense,” on scientific research. Instead, Dennett is telling a story and Breaking the Spell “is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology.” Wieseltier asserts that Dennett provides “no scientific foundation” for the book’s basic argument. “I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion . . . . We don’t yet know,” Dennett admits.

Wieseltier’s rejoinder is classic: “So all of Dennett’s splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and ‘generating further testable hypotheses’ not withstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.”

Even more important, Wieseltier points to the central flaw in Dennett’s argument. “He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing state. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason,” Wieseltier concludes.

Our contemporary world is a circus of competing worldviews, and Daniel C. Dennett is, along with Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, one of the most radical theorists in the Darwinian camp. Nevertheless, we owe him his due in acknowledging that he (and Dawkins) are simply more willing to say what other evolutionists surely think, for the strident and condescending atheism of Dennett and Dawkins is actually the logical conclusion of the Darwinian project.

In this sense, Breaking the Spell is a truly revealing book, but it doesn’t reveal much insight concerning belief in God. Instead, it reveals the hardening contours of the Darwinian worldview.