Saturday, April 01, 2006

Dennett: Breaking the Spell excerpts (1)

Here are some more brief excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- rather than putting them in a number of shorter posts with attached comments, I decided to combine them together into longer posts, of which this is the first.

Please note that I didn't select these particular excerpts in order to accurately represent the thrust of Dennett's book, nor to establish an argument of my own -- they're simply passages that struck me as interesting as I was reading the book, and which caused me to dog-ear the page for future reference. (I'm a confirmed dog-earist.) I hope that, collectively, they will give a sense of the tone and scope of the book

As before, I've occasionally broken up one of Dennett's long book-oriented paragraphs into shorter ones for ease of reading. As always with material I've typed in, all typos are mine.


Dennett uses as a epigram to one section this quote from philosopher Thomas Nagel's The Last Word (1997) that I found particularly striking:
It isn't just that I don't believe in God and naturally hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.


Dennett is not reflexively anti-religion:

The daily actions of religious people have accomplished uncounted good deeds throughout history, alleviating suffering, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. Religions have brought the comfort of belonging and companionship to many who would otherwise have passed through this life all alone, without glory or adventure. They have not just provided first aid, in effect, for people in difficulties; they have provided the means for changing the world in ways that remove those difficulties. As Alan Wolfe says, "Religion can lead people out of cycles of poverty and dependency just as it led Moses out of Egypt" ([The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith] 2003, p.139). There is much for religion lovers to be proud of in their traditions, and much for all of us to be grateful for.

The fact that so many people love their religions as much as, or more than, anything else in their lives is a weighty fact indeed. I am inclined to think that nothing could matter more than what people love. At any rate, I can think of no value that I would place higher. I would not want to live in a world without love. Would a world with peace, but without love, be a better world? Not if the peace was achieved by drugging the love (and hate) out of us, or by suppression. Would a world with justice and freedom, but without love, be a better world? Not if it was achieved by somehow turning us all into loveless law-abiders with none of the yearnings or envies or hatreds that are wellsprings of injustice and subjugation.

It is hard to consider such hypotheticals, and I doubt if we should trust our first intuitions about them, but, for what it is worth, I surmise that we almost all want a world in which love, justice, freedom, and peace are all present, as much as possible, but if we had to give up one of these, it wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- be love. But, sad to say, even if it is true that nothing could matter more than love, it wouldn't;t follow from this that we don't have reason to question the things the we, and others, love. Love is blind, as they say, and because love is blind, it often leads to tragedy: to conflicts in which one love is pitted against another love, and something has to give, with suffering guaranteed in any resolution.


Religionists have methods for protecting themselves from skeptical inquiry:

If I were designing a phony religion, I'd surely include a version of this little gem -- but I'd have a hard time saying it with a straight face:
If anybody ever raises questions of objections about our religion that you cannot answer, that person is almost certainly Satan. In fact, the more reasonable the person is, the more eager to engage you in open-minded and congenial discussion, the more sure you can be that you're talking to Satan in disguise! Turn away! Do not listen! It's a trap!
What is particularly cute about this trick is that it is a perfect "wild card," so lacking in content that any sect or creed or conspiracy can use it effectively. Communist cells can be warned that any criticism they encounter is almost sure to be the work of FBI infiltrators in disguise, and radical feminist discussion groups can squelch any unanswerable criticism by declaring it to be phallocentric propaganda being unwittingly spread by a brainwashed dupe of the evil patriarchy, and so forth. This all-purpose loyalty-enforcer is paranoia in a pill, sure to keep the critics muted if not silent.

Did anyone invent this brilliant adaptation, or is it a wild meme that domesticated itself by attaching itself to whatever memes were competing for hosts in its neighborhood? Nobody knows, but now it is available for anybody to use -- although, if this book has any success, its virulence should diminish as people begin to recognize it for what it is.


The impulse to do good which motivates many religious people can go wrong:

Here is a well-known trajectory: You begin with a heartfelt desire to help other people and the conviction, however well or ill founded, that your guild or club or church is the coalition that can best serve to improve the welfare of others. If times are particularly tough, this conditional stewardship -- I'm doing what's good for the guild because that will be good for everybody -- may be displaced by the narrowest concern for the integrity of the guild itself, and for good reason: if you believe that the institution in question is the best path to goodness, the goal of preserving it for future projects, still unimagined, can be the most rational higher goal you can define. It is a short step from this to losing track of or even forgetting the larger purpose and devoting yourself singlemindedly to furthering the interests of the institution, at whatever costs. A conditional or instrumental allegiance can thus become indistinguishable in practice from a commitment to something "good in itself." A further short step perverts this parochial summum bonum to the more selfish goal of doing whatever it takes to keep yourself at the helm of the institution ("who better than I to lead us to triumph over our adversaries?")

We have all seen this happen many times, and may even have caught ourselves in the act of forgetting just why we wanted to be leaders in the first place.


Dennett examines the dilemma of the moderate religonist in a world in which radical religious belief is in the ascendant:

[W]hat [is] the prevailing attitude today among those who call themselves religious but vigorously advocate tolerance? There are three main options, ranging from the disingenuous Machiavellian--
1. As a matter of political strategy, the time is not ripe for candid declarations of religious superiority, so we should temporize and let sleeping dogs lie in hopes that those of other faiths can gently be brought around over the centuries.
--through truly tolerant Eisenhowerian "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply religious belief -- and I don't care what it is" --
2. It really doesn't matter which religion you swear allegiance to, as long as you have some religion.
--to the even milder Moynihanian benign neglect--
3. Religion is just too dear to too many to think of discarding, even though it really doesn't do any good and is simply an empty historical legacy we can afford to maintain until it quietly extinguishes itself sometime in the distant and unforeseeable future.
It it no use asking people which they choose, since both extremes are so undiplomatic we can predict in advance that most people will go for some version of ecumenical tolerance whether they believe it or not. ...

We've got ourselves caught in a hypocrisy trap, and there is no clear path out. Are we like families in which the adults go through all the motions of believing in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids, and the kids all pretend still to believe in Santa Claus so as not to spoil the adults' fun? If only our current predicament were as innocuous and even comical as that! In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.

If this is the precious meaning our lives are vouchsafed thanks to our allegiance to one religion or another, it is not such a bargain, in my opinion. Is this the best we can do? Is it not tragic that so many people around the world find themselves enlisted against their will in a conspiracy of silence, either because they secretly believe that most of the world's population is wasting their lives in delusion (but they are too tenderhearted -- or devious -- to say so), or because they secretly believe that their own tradition is just such a delusion (but they fear for their own safety if they admit it)?


[More to come. Previously posted excerpts are here and here.]

Back to unfutz top.

Update: Part Two is here.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/01/2006 01:24:00 AM | write me | | | HOME | MAIN SITE

Ed Fitzgerald

Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right,
Here I am...
back to main site
original content
copyright 2004 - 2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take