Sunday, July 22, 2012

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (4th Most Unpopular Review)

We continue our ascent towards Amazon glory today, with my fourth most unpopular book review of all time.  We're almost on the home stretch!  I say "unpopular," not "least popular," by the way, because the books on this list tend to get a lot of positive AND negative votes.  (The rating is determined by multiplying the gross number of down votes by the ratio of down to up votes -- though I don't try to be too scientific, as you'll see when we close in on numero uno.  The most popular reviews, by contrast, are determined simply by aggregate total of positive votes.  This difference is because reviews don't get a LOT of negative votes unless they get some positive votes, in the Amazon system.)

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena

 "Amateur Hour" (** ; 41 + / 91 -)

At the core of this book (which meanders a lot), Dennett synthesizes the work of William James, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and the early Rodney Stark into a multi-disciplinarian theory of religion. Dennett follows Boyer in supposing that religion derives from the co-option of several distinct mental faculties that evolved independently: mechanisms that enable us to sort memories, recognize "cheaters" in a transaction, act as moral (therefore trustworthy) members of society, share stories, and recognize what Dennett calls the "intentional stance." The "disposition to attribute agency to anything complicated that moves," as he describes this latter, is crucial, the "irritant around which the pearls of religion grow." Echoing Edward Tylor's theory of animism, Dennett argues that we "over-attribute" intentionality to natural objects. When a loved one dies, we deal with fear of decay and her ongoing life in our minds by ceremoniously removing the body and projecting our thoughts as a "spirit," a "virtual person created by the survivors' troubled mind-sets."

I see four major problems with Dennett's argument. First, he seems to know very little about religion. Second, he simply ignores most contrary data. Third, often his "new ideas" actually echo orthodox Christian insights, of which he appears ignorant. And fourth, he overlooks a key phenomena -- awareness of God in primitive cultures.

Dennett's knowledge of religion appears derivative and weak. He buys the long-discredited notion that the Medievals thought the world was flat. He finds Elaine Pagel's ill-informed "Gnostic Gospel"theories persuasive. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, for why Pagels is wrong.) But his deepest error has to do with the usual  misunderstanding of faith and reason. He assumes that Christianity, in particular, recommends "blind faith," and spends much of the book lecturing believers to finally critique our faith rationally.

It is painful to see a philosopher so badly informed on this subject. Not once does he interact with a single Christian or Jewish philosopher, scientist, historian, or theologian. (Even though he has co-written a book with Alvin Plantinga on related topics.)  One would have hoped he would have at least read the previous pope's 'Fides et Ratio.' But that might not have helped. In a parallel apologia for atheism, Michael Shermer quoted John Paul's words on the complementary nature of faith and reason, took a poll which showed that a plurality of theists believe for rational reasons, yet still managed to buy the "blind faith" meme. (See my anthology of quotes by key Christian thinkers for the past two thousand years in an article around about here called "Faith and Reason.")

A related problem is that Dennett entirely neglects to consider empirical reasons for faith. Many people I have met claim to have experienced miracles. Millions credit their faith to supernatural events, even sophisticated believers like Augustine and Pascal. While he tries to be measured and careful in his criticism, Dennett disdains to even speak of this wealth of empirical data. How can one explain a phenomena that one disdains to even mention?

Thirdly, Dennett appears ignorant of how orthodox some of his points are. Dennett warns against "over-attributing intentionality" to artifacts - what Christians call "idolatry." He criticizes what Jesus called "vain repetition" in religion. He thinks his most "shocking" conclusion is that it is unwise to trust poorly credentialed preachers too strongly! Yet Jesus warned against "wolves in sheep's clothing" -- a phrase that makes use of (I count) five different key "discoveries" Dennett mentions about human memory, thus making Dennett's most important point 2000 years before the "Father of Brights" thought them up, and far more memorably.

Dennett spills rivers of ink on "memetics." Memes work "unobtrusively, without disturbing their hosts any more than is absolutely necessary." They may "conceal their true nature from their hosts." They "acquire tricks" "exploit" romance, "proliferate," and "benefit" from adaptation. Wicked religious memes teach "submission" (Islam) and love of "the Word" (Christians) over life. It almost sounds as if Dr. Dennett has invented a new theory of demon possession!

The root fallacy here lies in confusing subject and object. Dennett himself warns that our "built-in love for the intentional stance" encourages us to see "invisible agents" as "secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena." Admittedly, it is often  hard to understand why people fall for bizarre beliefs! But blaming the ideas themselves, rather than the people who buy and sell them, is to confuse subject and object.  People exploit, spread ideas, and benefit when those ideas are accepted. The ideas themselves are deaf to all desires and temptations, even the temptation to publish silly arguments. 

If Dennett finds agency where it does not exist, he also overlooks it where it may. Assuming the view, common since Hume, that people were originally polytheistic, he writes of "the historical process by which polytheisms turned into monotheism," and "dramatic deformation" between ancient and modern ideas of God.

Here, Dennett has not even read his own sources carefully enough. Emile Durkheim, it is true, argued that religious beliefs have "varied infinitely," and none of them, therefore, "expresses (truth) adequately." (Elementary Forms, 420) But earlier in the same work, Durkheim noted that among Australian tribes (which he took as the testing ground for theories of primitive religion), concepts of the Supreme God "are fundamentally the same everywhere." The Supreme God was always "eternal," "a sort of creator," "father of men," "made animals and trees," "benefactor," "communicates," "punishes," "judge after death," "they feel his presence everywhere." Stark and Armstrong also touch on this subject, to name only Dennett's own sources. (See the chapter "The Non-History of God" in my Jesus and the Religions of Man, for the longer story.)

It is untenable now to simply assume the triumph of secular thought. The oft-prophecied reign of irreligious man has been delayed so long that theorists like Boyer throw up their hands and declare faith congenital. Philosophical theists have staged a comeback. Astronomers have learned (often to their horror) that the universe had a beginning, after all. Anthropic coincidences have led some to call for a repeal of the Copernican Principle. The origin of life remains shrouded in mystery. An historian of the stature of N. T. Wright has written a book like The Resurrection of the Son of God. Great 20th Century social experiments conducted in the names of Hegel, Feurbach, Marx, Engels, and Tylor led to horror.

A cynic might suppose that this is a good moment to try bluffing. But Dennett's ignorance seems sincere. Next time, professor, please do your homework, and give us an argument, rather than a question-begging free-association intellectual ramble.

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