In the fourth chapter of Breaking the Spell, “The Roots of Religion” (see previous posts, Sept. & Oct., 2013), Daniel Dennett claims that “at the root of human belief in gods lies an instinct…to attribute agency—beliefs and desires and other mental states—to anything complicated that moves.”
He doesn’t really prove this claim or make a serious argument for it. He certainly doesn’t consider counter-arguments. His goal seems to be to speculate on possible natural evolutionary explanations for the origin of religion in order to show that we can explain religion without recourse to the supernatural.
His underlying naturalistic assumption is that every phenomenon has a material origin. Again, he never really makes an argument for this assumption, nor does he consider counter-arguments. I’m puzzled how he thinks he can persuade religious adherents who don’t share his assumption without addressing it directly.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to consider that humans developed this instinct or “intentional stance,” as he calls it, for purposes of survival and that this attribution of agency associated with movement becomes the basis of supernatural belief. It might explain the rise of animism, totemism, and animal deities among early humans. Dennett also uses this idea to explain the rise of burial and funeral ceremonies. To the extent that early humans considered each other animistic agents, they would have been deeply conflicted by the association of a rotting corpse with such animism. One way to resolve the conflict would be to bury the corpse with an accompanying ceremony to affirm the spiritual value of the dead.
If Dennett’s goal is to show that religion can be explained naturalistically, he is largely successful. The problem is that he has no way to counter the claim of human ensoulment by supernatural means and therefore no way to convince those who start with a non-naturalistic assumption or those who find naturalistic explanations alone to be inadequate to account for the fullness and richness of human experience.
Denial of the supernatural based on the lack of empirical evidence is hardly an argument against it. By definition, the supernatural would be non-material and non-observable. All that is required for belief in the supernatural is a conviction that it is possible or a deeply felt experience that one interprets as spiritual or mystical or transcendent in some way. If the supernatural is possible, then it is not unreasonable to believe in it. And many believers can offer logically thought out reasons, as well as experiential claims to support their belief. Of course, there are also many believers who simply accept uncritically what they have been taught or base their beliefs on little more than wishful thinking.
I personally find it difficult to invalidate anyone’s deeply held religious beliefs, especially when they are based on reason and/or experience. Even if I don’t agree with them, they deserve my respect.
By the same token, I can respect the strongly held beliefs of a naturalist like Dennett.
Where I have a problem is with dogmatism, whether it be the dogmatism of a religious fundamentalist or of a scientific materialist.
Dennett is playful enough in his speculations to avoid a dogmatic tone. Yet his uncritical assumption of naturalism and his barely concealed contempt for religious believers as inferior to himself is off-putting, to say the least, unless of course the reader shares his assumptions and his sense of superiority.