As we were well aware at the time, our discussion of Dan Dennett in the episode was lame. He didn't fit with the other authors, we'd nearly run out of steam by the time we got to him, and the other guys were certainly not interested enough in him to warrant a follow-up recording or anything of that sort. So, it was mostly me giving a half-assed recap (which I edited down considerably, as the monologue was getting tiring), and frankly, he deserves better than that. So, for those of you that are interested, here he is giving an in depth account of the very same section of the book we discussed:
Watch on YouTube.
Note that Dennett's speech starts around 11 minutes in (though the story about his illness that Dawkins tells in the introduction is interesting, I thought: the point being the Nietzschean secular one that being grateful to God shouldn't lead one to ignore all the actual people and institutions that there are to be grateful to).
There are plenty of propositions that we personally can't justify but which we believe are true based on deference to expertise, such as the more technical parts of science that we hear about and sort of understand. On the episode, I described this fact about the human condition as being hijacked by religious authorities, who encourage their flocks to similarly cede intellectual authority to them. Dennett is actually more charitable to all parties than I described, but he makes a more daring point: it's not that the clergy themselves pretend to understand theological truths just like professional physicists understand the minutae of mathematical physics in our stead. It's that the clergy (at least those arguing in favor of an apophatic theology, unlike, say, Swinburne) proudly declare that the central tenets of their faiths cannot be understood by we limited mortals.
In this lecture, we can see where Dennett and Harris are similar: they both slam moderates. Whereas Schleiermacher sees it as a matter of maturity in religious thought that we outgrow a concrete God with a Zues-like personality, Dennett sees this a gradual, historical retreat in the face of skepticism. He likes using the "emperor has no clothes" analogy: it's as if the spectators in that story in the face of the observance that the emperor has no clothes just redefined "clothes" so that we mortals were no longer competent to say whether such "clothes" were present or not.
I'll admit to some sympathy with this point. The religious urge has a basis in experience; I think part of our emotional data certainly suggests that more is going on than is observable, but appropriating this into the "brand loyalty" of theism seems a historical artifact to me.
Re. his point about belief in belief, I find his analogies compelling. Love, as he states, is one of those phenomena where pretending is part of the act of creation. If you've proclaimed your love to your partner, but then the both of you are constantly analyzing, out loud, whether you really love each other, that's not going to help the relationship. He had a couple of other vivid ones. Are these comparable to the believer-in-belief's fear that if he or she admits doubt, this will lead to social collapse? I don't see any evidence that this is actually a wide-spread fear, and he freely admits that we can't know how wide-spread it is (because, of course, those afraid-to-doubt people can't admit they're in doubt). Whenever you second guess people's own reports to make generalizations like this, you're on shaky ground, and if Dennett is as much in favor of science as he claims, then I'd like to see at least something on par with Gilligan's interviews to back up this claim that there's widespread fear-based fakery going on among intelligent believers. Instead, his claim is specifically designed to resist such investigation. Now, there are many interesting philosophers (Nietzsche, again, comes sharply to mind) that rely on such an anecdote/personal-insight-based methodology (i.e. they're bullshitting), but we should not be seeing that out of someone who specifically scolds those philosophers for not backing up their claims with empirical data.
As Wes said on the episode, Dennett is "interesting." He provides a fresh framework for thinking about things: in this case the historical evolution of ideas. So I walk away from it with a new toy to bat around, but not much of a sense as to whether it amounts to much of anything scientifically.
Edit: Thanks to Evan for pointing me after I posted this to some actual interviews Dennett did about this (http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf), so maybe he has met the Gilligan minimal threshold. In Breaking the Spell, he talks in general about having done a lot of interviewing of religious folks about what they believe, why, and how, but those details are not generally given in the book itself. Regardless, the generalization still seems very much a hypothesis, not a finding to be reported on with the confidence that he is in this video.
Evan Guiney says
You said ” I’d like to see at least something on par with Gilligan’s interviews to back up this claim that there’s widespread fear-based fakery going on among intelligent believers” and then asserted that Dennett has made no effort to scientifically address this issue.
That, though, is the opposite of the truth. Dennett has conducted a series of really interesting interviews with priests who are privately doubting or even atheistic, yet remain in the closet. Check it out at http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf
I suspect that this pilot study is an entry point into the difficult experimental dilemma of how to ask people who cant admit to doubt about their doubt.
Daniel Horne says
The interviews are interesting, but they don’t support the assertion that there is widespread fear-based fakery among intelligent believers.
One quote says:
And a footnote says:
It’s one thing to find 5 examples of people who make a living as religious professionals, and no longer buy their own PR. That’s being going on in religious institutions since the beginning of religious institutions. But it’s another thing to say — as Dennett does — that intelligent believers are being being intimidated by troglodytic church communities from speaking their minds.
Certainly it’s a truism that — humans being humans — groupthink can stifle dissent within a social group, but that’s not uniquely true of religion. It can be just as true of left-wing or right-wing political associations, or, say, for ethnically- or ideologically-organized groups.
Evan Guiney says
Dan, if I could quibble:
The assertion isn’t that there’s fear based fakery; the hypothesis of “belief in belief” is that for many christians the very act of believing is its own justification.
I wasn’t trying to make any strong claims by referring to that paper- I was simply pointing out that even though its a very difficult experiment, Dennett has begun a pilot study attempting to get some empirical verification for “belief in belief”.
Both you and Mark point out that the interviews in no way prove the hypothesis; in fact, the interviews are more interesting for other reasons. Thats fine, and its absolutely normal science. Experiments rarely do what you expect setting out, but if the results are interesting, often still merit publication. And the abstract explicitly describes these interviews as a pilot.
Daniel Horne says
Thanks for engaging!
I’m reluctant to speak for Mark. But I’m confused by your comment “the assertion isn’t that there’s fear based fakery.” Whose assertion? A core element of Dennett’s speech was his assertion that fear-based faked belief prevents rational atheists from engaging in reasoned discourse with thoughtful theists. I’m assuming you submitted the Evolutionary Psych. article as evidence that Dennett has empirical support for his assertion that fear-based fakery is taking place on any meaningful level among intelligent members of religious communities.
Dennett’s assertions start around 28:00 in the video:
Dennett continues around 36:00:
As someone who is _not_ a theist, I find this a pretty condescending characterization of “intelligent believers”. According to Dennett, believers are all sincere fools or intelligent frauds. That’s a bit harsh. And it’s counterproductive. (Unless, of course, the goal was to make atheists at an atheism seminar feel good about themselves, at the expense of others outside their self-defined peer group.)
I’d like to see Dennett provide substantial empirical (and not merely anecdotal) evidence in support of this “fear based fakery” claim. While Dennett tossed off some cites to studies and books, I don’t see how those cites support his claim that “fear based fakery” takes place in any meaningful or unique sense within religious communities. Of course, I grant that one can find members of religious communities who “fake it” for any number of reasons, not just fear. But, as I wrote above, that’s not a phenomenon unique to religious communities. That’s a characteristic of _any_ social group. You can find people self-censoring their doubts about “organizational principles” in Greenpeace, the NRA, the NAACP, the Tea Party, etc.
I think this is a serious problem with Dennett’s speech above, not just a quibble. It goes to the heart of how so many of the “new atheists” come to be despised by smart and stupid believers alike. Folks like Dennett stereotype, and therefore mischaracterize, the nature and motivations of religious believers, and they do so in part because folks like Dennett are too aloof to _truly_ engage them. We therefore get spurious (and self-serving) explanations as to why the new atheists can’t or won’t engage intelligent theists in discussion or debate about the viability of religious belief.
Andrew C says
“it’s as if the spectators in that story in the face of the observance that the emperor has no clothes just redefined “clothes” so that we mortals were no longer competent to say whether such “clothes” were present or not.”
Interesting (?) historical sidebar to this: Fundamentalism first formed as a movement against Schleiermacher and his ilk. The fundamentalists (and other believers such as the apostle Paul – “If Christ has not been raised, we are of all men, most miserable”) probably agree with Dennett and Mark about letting God get away Cheshire-cat style.
These were apparently serious engagements with problems for the church from modernism, aiming to show that believers could believe and yet claim to be rational human beings, in touch with the real world.
I think some of the confusing (to me) associations of Liberal and Conservative in America come from confusions of theologically Liberal/Conservative with politically liberal/conservative and economically liberal/conservative (which three axes should be almost completely independent of each other).
Maynard Dixon says
To the extent that people do oppress others in order to make a change of mind punishable–and it is
patent to me that it happens– it is condemnable and contemptible. People who want to be in the club
–be in the club; those who don’t or want another club– let them.
Ejecting someone from the club because you think they don’t conform to the rules—is common.
(see the instructive biography of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island)
But to threaten hurt for perceived differences in conception–is to me the height of stupidity and intolerance. And such is done commonly. Check out Saudi Arabia–jail for minute departures from dogma, execution for apostasy, and using spurious religious grounds to punish political dissent.
But Dennet has absolutely no spiritual intuition. To him religion is just another kind of bureaucracy –and indeed the social institution of religion is a bureacracy.
But the direct observation within of deity–of that being eternal and spotless–that indubitable knowing, as well as that beyond knowledge which, when it happens, after it happens informs knowing without a doubt; that direct, and I would say absolutely empirical thing—is the base of the deepest spiritual
understanding—-experienced over and over again over the ages –that bare thing, is as patent as your hand to those who know it.
This, Dennett has no inkling of apparently.
The direct knowing of the one source needs no church nor followers, but some with this knowing are moved to express to others, who gather round in intuitive recognition of the actuality, and comes then bureaucracy, often filled by those for whom the accumulation of power over others is primary.
Dennett is right, bureaucracy can really suck. But there are always groups outside the bureaucracy aimed at enabling the direct experience of the source for others, enabled by those who have tread the same path. Sufism within Islam is one of these groups— which are often persecuted by the bureaucrats.
All this, apparently, Dennett is ignorant of or knows of but arrogantly dismisses–and clearly he has no direct experience of the source.
He is entitled to his ignorance and his arrogance, but it makes him an ignorant and arrogant man arrogantly speaking ignorance.