Beware the benign

2009-04-01 00:00

The publication of Breaking the Spell saw Daniel C. Dennett, co-director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher professor of philosophy at Tufts University, Boston, join the growing line-up of prominent and vocal atheists in print. While Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion grabbed the headlines (and the top of the bestseller lists) there are also books punting an atheist world-view from Sam Harris, Lewis Wolpert and Christopher Hitchens, among others.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Dennett intrigues with an elegant inquiry informed by science: following questions to their logical conclusion in the manner of Socrates (to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance). “I am a philosopher,” dryly points out Dennett, who is currently in South Africa attending the Grahamstown Science Festival and lecturing in Durban, Cape Town and Stellenbosch.

So why does this philosopher want to break the spell of religion? A spell which holds so many of us in thrall and declares religion out of bounds to rational, scientific inquiry? “Religion is too important a phenomenon to ignore,” says Dennett. “The public concerns of this century all have religious dimensions of one sort or another,” and he cites issues such as water, energy, poverty, war, disease (think HIV/Aids and the Pope’s recent comments regarding condom use during his visit to Africa), global warming and economic interrelationships.

“How can we deal with these issues if we don’t understand the religious dimension? They are all intertwined. We need to study religion just as intensively as we study all the other important phenomena in the world.

“The fact is nobody knows what’s going to happen to religion in the 21st century. But religion is a natural phenomenon, so we can study it, understand it and we can repair that ignorance and steer things as best we can.”

Currently, relatively little is known about “religion as a natural phenomenon” — the subtitle to Dennett’s book — but he has no doubt religion has come about as a natural process of evolution with a bit of help from humans. Rather like the domestic cow. “It is descended from the extinct aurochs but it was designed by humans over thousands of years.” Now we have a well-designed milk-producing animal.

“It’s the same with religions. They started wild then got domesticated,” he says. “Religions are brilliantly designed products. Many religions have gone extinct. Those we have today are the survivors with an evolutionary history.

“Religions are fascinating, beautiful machines, as ingeniously designed as a bird or a flower and they are designed by evolution.” While they are not alive in a biological sense, religions are self-perpetuating and self-protecting. They are highly effective at finding new hosts and harnessing their allegiance and labour.

In some instances, this leads to what, under another banner, would be regarded as criminal behaviour. “What are the limits we place over that?” Dennett asks. “In the past, some religions practised human sacrifice. Today that would not be allowed, but what about other things still being done in the name of religion, such as genital circumcision, the subordination of women and the ritual sacrifice of animals?

“We don’t have a fine basis for thinking about this. We haven’t thought through the need for religion, the loyalties and love for religion. We need to learn if it is useful for us, and if so, why and how.”

Presumably there must be an evolutionary benefit derived from religion. “That’s a presumption,” Dennett counters. “Many things have evolved that don’t do us any good, but they have persisted. Bedbugs and the common cold, for example. What are they good for? They are good for themselves. Maybe some cultural universals are not good and need to be got rid of.”

Is religion one of those? Dennett notes that some of his fellow atheist authors “are not tolerant of religion, but don’t know what to replace it with, but they will encourage its evolution into something more benign”.

Most religion is neutral to benign in character, says Dennett, it can bring out the best in people, support them in times of trouble and prevent them from doing harm to others. But, beware the benign, he cautions, “Benign religions give protective colouration to toxic movements.” Think 9/11, suicide bombers or the Christian fundamentalist belief that we are now in the End Times — “that’s one of the most obscene enthusiasms in the world today”, says Dennett. “It effectively says: ‘There’s no tomorrow, so anything goes.’ ”

Was a fundamentalist Christian like George W. Bush trying to hasten the Second Coming by the war in Iraq? That might sound paranoid but then James Watt, secretary for the interior in the Ronald Reagan administration, happily approved cutting down swathes of forest on exactly that basis. “He said: ‘What’s the point, the Second Coming is imminent, why conserve now?’ ” recalls Dennett. “That’s irresponsible, ignorant, superstitious hogwash.”

Another minus point for religion is that it deliberately encourages irrationality. “A feature of religion is its glorification of irrationality,” says Dennett. “This is quite central to even quite benign religions.”

In his book Dennett quotes Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict XVI) 2000 declaration on what Catholics must “firmly believe”. “How do you firmly believe?” asks Dennett. “You can’t just make yourself believe something by trying, so what are you to do? Cardinal Ratzinger offers some help on this score: ‘Faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which ‘makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently [quoting Pope John Paul II]’.’ But how do you believe this? It takes faith.

“If hellfire is the stick, mystery is the carrot,” adds Dennett.

Dennett says it is important that religion evolves away from its toxic forms. But how? “Education is the key. The enabler of toxicity is the forced ignorance of the young.

“Make sure all children are educated about the variety of religions, their dogmas, their rituals and requirements, and their prohibitions.” And Dennett means all children, whether in state, private or home schools. “Teach them the same way we teach them about geography, history and arithmetic. I don’t think the churches have the right to keep children ignorant.”

Dennett says parents should be allowed to teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like but on the condition that their children are given the facts regarding the competitors. “If you have to hoodwink — or blindfold — your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.”

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