For our atheism episode (which has, incidentally been pushed back to be recorded in late May or possibly June… sorry, Russ!), I’m trying to read through the most popular of the “new atheist” books, and I’m sure we’ll only end up discussing some select portions of the books in any detail, so as I’m going through these, I’m going to generate a few blog posts to fill readers in on some additional points and help myself remember what I’m reading. My point here is primarily to give points from the books, not to cast judgment upon them, so don’t take this as an endorsement (or rejection).
Daniel C. Dennett is the only actual philosophy professor among the most popular of these folks. (Sam Harris was a philosophy undergrad when he wrote his major works and has just recently earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience; Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and Hitchens is a “columnist and literary critic.” I know Peter Singer also argues for atheism, and he’s as famous a philosopher as they come, but he’s not been considered part of this movement for some reason.) We read a little bit of him and devoted maybe 10 minutes of our discussion to him in our philosophy of mind episode, which didn’t go very well, in that Wes at least really dislikes him, yet we didn’t go into enough detail on the arguments of his article to clearly convey why Wes dislikes him. To sum up the critique, he’s not known for, say, clearly and charitably presenting the views of past philosophers and saying exactly how his position differs from them. Instead, he uses a popular style to make his points, with a heavy emphasis on specifically citing scientific work
Part I of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenonincludes three chapters and runs up to around page 90. Surprisingly, given that this is reputed to be a militant atheist text, Dennett doesn’t here make any challenge to the truth of people’s religious beliefs, but merely argue what to me seems a point barely worth arguing: that religion should be studied scientifically, i.e. systematically. Where did religion come from? Why are people religious? What do they get out of it? He’s coming from a point of disgust, I think, with the utter baselessness of most arguments given in these God wars: if someone says religious people are on the whole more moral or less moral than non-religious people, then anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to ground either claim. On p. 34-38, he lays out several predictions often given about the future of religion: it is in its death throes and will be gone soon; the false promises of Enlightenment science have been revealed and the value of religion is being rediscovered; religion will some day be barely tolerated as a private vice, as smoking is today; etc. Predictions in the social sciences are always risky, but Dennett claims that we lack the basic understanding of religion to necessary to persuasively argue for any of those predictions.
In chapter 3, Dennett reveals the kind of science he has in mind: evolutionary biology, giving a pretty clear explanation of “memes,” i.e. any non-genetic information that becomes more or less frequent as usage adapts to local condition. For instance, the split from Latin into French/Spanish/etc., or how customs for building boats change, or any number of other things. By conceiving these on analogy with natural selection of genes, we can ask “who benefits?” about any given practice or behavior. Some memes persist because they help their bearers; some persist because they encourage behaviors that spread the meme but don’t benefit their bearers at all (e.g. germs get us to sneeze, not because that’s good for us, but because it’s good for spreading the germs). Seemingly, the direction Dennet is heading with this is looking at religion as some kind of parasite, but at this point (p. 84-85), he’s just arguing for the general approach:
When we look at religion from this perspective, the [who benefits?] question changes dramatically. Now it is not our fitness…that is presumed to be enhanced by religion, but its fitness… It may thrive as a mutualist because it benefits its hosts quite directly, or it may thrive as a parasite even though it oppresses its hosts with a virulent affliction that leaves them worse off but too weak to combat its spread. And the main poing to get clear about at the outset is that we can’t tell which of these is more likely to be true without doing careful research. Your religion probably seems obviously benign to you, and other religions may well seem to you to be just as obviously toxic to those infected by them, but appearances can deceive. Perhaps their religion is providing them with benefits you just don’t understand yet, and perhaps your religion is poisoning you in ways that you have never suspected. You really can’t tell that from the inside… If (some) religions are culturally evolved parasites, we can expect them to be insidiously well designed to conceal their true nature from their hosts, since this is an adaptation that would further their own spread.
So, as with other things I’ve read by Dennett, he’s set up a point of view that seems weird and interesting from which to study something, but whether his approach is worth anything or not is a matter of how well it’s actually argued for in the rest of the book. I think actually seeing an attempt to persuasively explain meme theory is valuable, as opposed to merely hearing about it second-hand and dismissing it as obvious nonsense. In light of Dennett’s explanation it seems perfectly plausible to do this kind of analysis of how social practices change over time and try to figure out what’s a matter of random drift and what’s a matter of adaptation of a practice according to some rationale, and evolutionary theory gives the conceptual tools to think about such rationales apart from thinking and planning agents: we can say that animals have nice sharp teeth “in order to” bite without thinking about an agent designing those teeth; instead, it’s a matter of that kind of teeth becoming more frequent in a population over time because they work better. On the other hand, this kind of analysis is inevitably highly speculative; like Freudian analyses, these kinds of explanations are interesting, but seem always to admit of multiple reasonable options; we’ll just have to see how plausible his particular analyses of religion seem.
One other point seems worth making here: On p. 9 we get Dennett’s definition of religion: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” That characterizes typical Western religious practice, but not theologies of the Kant-approved, non-personal, and/or individualistic types.