Science turns its lens on religion, with controversial results

There’s been a lot of discussion around the web with insults, comments, retorts, counter-retorts and more over a recent book by Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), wherein he turns the lens of scientific inquiry on the biology behind religious belief. Clive Cookson gives an ineresting overview of the subject matter.

According to Tim Adams of The Observer, Dennett

has been called a ‘Darwinian fundamentalist’ in that there is no area of life or experience that he believes cannot be understood in terms of natural selection.

This is a subject that has sparked a nontrivial amount of debate on this blog recently. It seems he has taken Dawkins’ suggestion of the ‘meme’, sort of a virus of the mind, very seriously.

It also seems he shares my aims with regard to taking religion off of its untouchable pedestal:

Breaking the Spell opens up a new front in this engagement. ‘It just became clearer and clearer to me that there were too many presumptions in the air about the elevated status of religious presuppositions,’ he says. ‘I thought that wasn’t right. I wanted to find out why religion still has such a hold on people.’

I find his ‘bright’ moniker for himself and others of like mind (including me) a little arrogant. He’s certainly not out to tread softly with this stuff. On the other hand it’s a nice example of framing (similar to the pro-abortion vs. pro-choice, pro-life vs. anti-choice name-wrangling of that debate), as he states in the article,

Dennett has written editorial pieces in the New York Times about the brights being America’s most persecuted minority these days; the godless worse than jihadists in some eyes. Is the term gaining currency?

‘Well,’ he says ‘there was a flurry at first and then it sort of died down and people said, “Ha! It’s not going to catch on.” But it took the term “gay” quite a few years to catch on. So let’s come back in five years and see what is happening to “bright”. I think it would be good if there was a familiar novel term for people who don’t believe in the supernatural. There are such negative connotations to the word atheist in that it defines an opposition. I’d like a word that stands on its own.’

Dennett does not make the comparison with gay liberation tritely. For a while now, he has cheerfully been announcing to anyone who will listen that he is bright and he is proud.

‘When I came out as a bright at this wonderful conference of high-school kids up in Seattle, the effect was electrifying,’ he recalls. ‘Many of them came up to me afterwards and said, “Thank you! Thank you! I have never heard an adult say that before.”‘

The children had apparently held these private doubts about God for years, but they’d had to keep them to themselves, worried about being different, or strange. ‘Let’s shout it out,’ Dennett exclaims. ‘We’re brights! We don’t believe in God!’

There are still circles of my life where I feel the shame of being an atheist. I’m not ashamed myself, but I know that the responses I’d get for ‘coming out’ would have the intent of making me feel ashamed. This is sad. Since becming a for-sure atheist, I’ve had much more sympathy for homosexuals. And they generally don’t have a choice in the matter, which makes my situation somewhat less traumatic. He seems to have the same spirit that I do about the whole issue of ‘tolerance’ for religion:

Dennett is clearly a profoundly generous-spirited man in person, but he gives no quarter intellectually to anyone. ‘The only meaning of life worth caring about,’ he says, ‘is one that can withstand our best efforts to understand it.’

There’s no reason to abuse anyone because you disagree with them, but attempting to disabuse them of their religious beliefs should not be off-limits.

Dennett sees the world of the future polarising between rationalists and believers and, from the corner of his quad, watches that fracture deepening daily. When he wrote his seminal book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, people used to ask him: why is it so dangerous? They don’t ask him that any more. Dawkins wrote that people had ‘evolved to be Darwinists’, but some people are clearly taking a lot longer than others.

I think this polarization is becoming more evident by the day. Amusingly, his father was a historian specializing in Islam,

‘Here was a man who intimately understood the Middle East, and who was deeply interested in politics, who loved the Arab world. It would have been great to have him in the State Department for a few decades.’

He also shares my worries about Bush’s high regard for a Higher Authority.

Dennett has a major critic at the NYT, but because of their registration BS, I won’t link to it. The [Un]intelligent Design people are loving this and another exchange between Dennett and a fellow proponent of evolution, Michael Ruse. Bill Dembski of that camp quites the exchange here.

I think that Ruse has a good point, in that the antagonistic approach might be considered rash and provocative. I also think that the time for that caution is past. All of this intelligent design nonsense being pushed into schools is a sign that the other side has moved first, while the rest of us sat calmly thinking that we were slowly winning.


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