A Review by Dave Dentel
Note: This was originally posted in 2006. Dennett’s book was one of the first I read as research for my own work, The God Imperative.
To anyone familiar with his career, it’s no surprise that Darwinist philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a problem with religion. What is surprising, however, is the ardor with which Dennett delivers what Richard John Neuhaus of First Things characterizes as a “mugging of religion” in his latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Dennett’s work is one of several in wave of post-9-11 anti-religious bestsellers that have caught the notice of the media and a large portion of the reading public. Sam Harris’s current book looks to copy the success of his 2004 title, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion closed 2006 gracing the top 10 of the New York Times list, making the Oxford University atheist once again a much-sought-after personality for high-profile interviews.
Taken together, the ire of the so-called new unbelievers amounts to what Wired magazine writer Gary Wolf insists is a “war against faith.”
If it is indeed a war, then it is one the atheists claim was started by those of faith. Dennett says as much in explaining why he is so troubled by religion. As far as he’s concerned, jihadists and their ilk have proven that religion can be dangerous—even deadly. And it is Dennett’s purpose to help society diminish that danger.
In leading the call toward making society (especial liberal, democratic Western society) safer and better, Dennett relies on two primary tools—his own sense of morality and his reason. Both are flawed. As a result, he delivers an analysis of religion that purports to be profound but is instead facile, that bludgeons where it claims to illuminate. And in the name of justice and tolerance Dennett concludes by hinting at a course of action that smacks of something as intolerant as the evil he wishes to restrain.
In essence, Dennett’s argument against religion is fairly simple.
He’s disturbed by theistic faith because he says it not only fails in its pledge to inspire kindness and good works, it often works in quite the opposite way, goading its adherents into committing all kinds of evil. This especially exasperates Dennett because, as a Darwinist, he is certain that religion is a sham and that God doesn’t exist. He therefore feels that religion should be examined thoroughly from the only true perspective—evolutionary science—so that reasonable people (like himself) can determine whether any aspects of this global farce serve any useful function. Just what should be done once this examination is concluded, Dennett fails to state explicitly. But his implications are obvious—and worrisome.
One would think that the author of such an audacious proposal would take care less he appear presumptuous. But Dennett is not fazed by his call for dissecting and regulating religion because he’s so certain that religion is merely a lesser product of evolution. He insists it’s obvious that religion contains no objective truth because religion is, in his own words, just a fairly new phenomenon in the history of evolution.
And yet it is here that Dennett makes his first major blunder. By blithely dismissing ideas and institutions that are so intrinsically human, that for so long have helped us grapple with the questions and problems that perplex us most, Dennett betrays how his reasoning is more tainted by bias then would like to let on.
Dennett does spend a good portion of his book trying to support his main premise by sketching a loose evolutionary model of how religion might have arisen in human society (deftly skipping many baffling problems such as the genesis of human consciousness and language, for instance). He suggests that early shamanism, ancestor worship and other rituals helped shape religious memes (what he calls information packets and habit-recipes that allegedly can exist and evolve independent of rational beings). He suggests that those memes were then embraced or “domesticated” by certain humans. He suspects these memes can either be benign or virulent, and it is partially due to this suspicion that he wants so badly to place religion under a reductionist microscope.
Dennett wraps up his book with a quick discussion of why he’s unimpressed by arguments for the existence of God, and by analyzing the relationship between morality and religion. He fails, however, to offer any nonreligious basis for a system of ethics. Mostly Dennett crows about why he doesn’t think one need be religious in order to be a moral person.
So ultimately, Breaking the Spell is not so much a careful examination of religion in general but an evangelistic tool for swaying the unenlightened into embracing Dennett’s own brand of godless goodness. As such, it fails because it is built on a rather disappointing kind of intellectual duplicity.
Dennett refuses from the onset to seriously consider that religion may indeed be what it claims—divine truth revealed by God—because he says it is merely the recent product of evolution. And yet Dennett fails to apply that same rationale to science itself, particularly evolution, which has been around only a fraction of the time as organized religion.
Indeed, if science is merely another product of evolution—a collection of memes subject to the same laws of mutation and selection as biological entities—how is it that science gets a free pass from the kind of pernicious disdain Dennett casts at religion? Of course, one could argue that even if the theory of evolution (as a meme or whatever) is merely the product of evolution, then evolution is still true. But what if evolution isn’t true? What if it is just another delusion humans have concocted (or have been allowed to concoct)—like religion—to salve our discomfort as we grapple with problems such as why we exist or why evil is so rampant. Conversely, if evolution has developed science into a useful tool for discovering objective truth, why couldn’t it achieve the same thing with religion?
The point is that Dennett does recognize that objective truth exists, and that it may be understood by human beings. It’s just that he’s already closed his mind to anything that seems to point to the truth of a creator God who still involves himself with his creation.
In Science We Trust
Of course, Dennett’s reply is that religion can’t be trusted because any assertion it makes about reality is too nebulous and difficult to verify. Dennett flat out states that he chooses to believe instead in the reality described by science because science has proven itself accurate and reliable.
And so Dennett declares without irony, “There is a big difference between religious faith and scientific faith: what has driven changes in concepts in physics is not just heightened skepticism from an increasingly worldly and sophisticated clientele, but a tidal wave of exquisitely detailed positive results.” For instance “you can build something that depends for its safe operation on the truth [of physics] and risk your life trying to fly it to the moon.”
One wonders how Dennett would have reacted to technology critic Neil Postman, who confessed to spoofing the vagaries of modern science by sometimes trying to make his colleagues believe in phony “studies,” including one that suggested gorging chocolate éclairs would promote weight loss.
As for the exquisite “positive results” of science, does anyone really need to be reminded of the field’s repeated history of bungled analyses and bogus theories? Remember abiogenesis? The steady-state model of the universe? Junk DNA?
Then there’s the fact that the very example Dennett offers as verifiable truth—physics—is based on mathematics, which as a pure abstraction can never be proven in strictly physical terms. Of course, every educated person understands the concept of the number five, for instance. But no one has ever actually seen the literal, physical number five, because the number five does not exist as a literal, physical object.
The point is, again, that Dennett believes it is reasonable—based on recurring evidence—to hold with confidence in the substance of things unseen. It’s just that he believes in physics, and not in a creator of physics.
But there is one more point in which Dennett shows himself to be disingenuous in declaring why he clings to science at the expense of theistic faith. Because Dennett believes in science above all else, not merely despite its poor track record and abstract underpinnings, but also despite the fact that it, like all human culture, supposedly consists of memes that are constantly evolving.
Imagine the implications. If what Dennett declares about memes is true, then how can we be sure that what was true yesterday in physics will still be true tomorrow? How can we be certain that the moon rocket built from last year’s design is still safely engineered for the present reality of the cosmos?
Posing these kinds of questions is more than a little absurd, of course. But frankly, it represents the kind of absurdity one comes to expect when confronting the intellectual machinations posed by uber-Darwinists such as Dennett. They aren’t above muddying the waters to disguise the fact that the leap of faith required to reach their own position is so vast.
Consider, for instance, Dennett’s explanation of why human beings find babies so attractive. In laying the groundwork for trying to prove the creative powers of natural selection in shaping both physical and behavioral development, he declares:
It is not that baby faces are somehow intrinsically darling (what on earth could that mean) but that evolution hit upon facial proportions as the signal to trigger parental responses …. We don’t love babies and puppies because they’re cute. It’s the other way around: we see them as cute because evolution has designed us to love things that look like that.
And yet, more astounding than the notion that Dennett expects readers to swallow such a facile bit of reasoning is that fact he asserts it at all on the basis of so little evidence. Can he point to a gene that switches this baby-loving compulsion on and off? A neurotransmitter? What about evidence from social history? After all, infanticide is quite common. It is similarly quite usual for fathers to show little interest in their offspring. Then there’s the chicken-and-egg paradox. Which came first? How many generations of apathetic parents did human babies have to endure before evolution (or coevolution) got it right? Then there’s the simple fact that many babies (God bless them) are just downright unattractive.
Even cute babies are often trying to care for. Parents lovingly raise them anyway for a number of complex reasons: out of a sense of duty and hope, as well as a desire for progeny. This often includes a strong desire to pass on adherence to a particular religious faith.
But if Dennett is unwilling to discuss the complex realities of the human condition, he’s certainly ready to belittle the willingness of some to try and reconcile those complexities by embracing religious paradoxes. Indeed, Dennett cites Dawkins in proposing that in this regard religion poses a form of intellectual boasting, “that my faith is so strong that I can mentally embrace a bigger paradox than you can.”
If this is true, then what does it say about Dennett? When he declares his belief that humans are merely a happy accident, that their apparent rationality may just be an illusion caused by parasitic ideas, is he merely bowing to the most reasonable view of reality? Or he is he parading his ability to wrap his mind around one of the most incredible paradoxes ever proposed?
Ultimately, Dennett’s arguments as to the authority of science are unimpressive, and his arguments that religion’s failures discredit it as a moral authority are even more so.
This is not to say that Dennett’s lament over human cruelty and hypocrisy is unfounded. All evil is lamentable, and all calls for human beings to eschew it and embrace true morality are to be commended.
Nevertheless, Dennett’s cry on behalf of justice ultimately is as disingenuous as his attack on theistic faith. Being but a man, he lacks the power to ensure that justice ultimately will be served, and consequently, lacks moral grounds for denying the existence of a divine judge. Still, he insists that religion has lost its power to inspire good, and that the time has come consider that “something else we could devise might do it as well or better.” But what that something might be, Dennett does not say.
Presumably it would include a system of ethics based on a human understanding of what is reasonable and fair, but what good is that? Dennett himself admits to a fear of what people who believe differently from him consider to be fair. And it is this fear that compels him to insist that religion be put under a microscope so that “we can formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future.”
Here is the reality that Dennett fails to recognize. All people are deeply flawed. Religion tells us this. It also tries to point us to someone outside ourselves who can redeem us and ultimately save us—from ourselves.
Now surely here is an idea worth keeping around.