Monday, June 23, 2014

Breaking the Spell VII

Family medical issues arose on multiple fronts and for the first time I missed a month of blogging.  It’s been weeks since I finished Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I’m just now concluding the series on this provocative but, at times, maddening book. (See previous posts starting in Sept. 2013.)

I largely agree with the skepticism Dennett expresses in chapter 10 that religion is the foundation of morality.  I know too many atheists and non-religious people who are upstanding, ethical, responsible folks to think that religion is necessary to morality.  Likewise, we read every day in the news of devoutly religious people, including religious leaders, committing unspeakable acts of violence, sexual crime, and moral corruption, sometimes in the very name of religion.

Dennett argues that religious institutions themselves are responsible for those who use religion as a cloak for their own nefarious behavior, and that religious moderates, even when they denounce the fanatics, are allowing themselves to be used by the lunatic fringe when they fail to recognize the way religion discourages critical questioning and rational thought.  By promoting faith in certain sacred dogmas over philosophical and scientific inquiry, religion, by its nature, enables irrational extremism.

I don’t quarrel with this reasoning, but Dennett goes on to blame, not only institutional religion, but a broader cultural belief in philosophical dualism over materialism.  Any belief in a non-material reality, whether under the guise of religion or generalized spirituality or the paranormal, it seems, reinforces the popular notion of “materialism” as the root of evil and “spirituality” as the source of goodness.  This na├»ve dualistic belief enables those with a religious or “spiritual” world view to, in effect, deny their own capacity for evil and rationalize any behavior done under the perceived guidance of “supernatural” powers. 

Just as he reduces religion to a system of literalistic belief in symbols, metaphor, and myth, he reduces the debate between dualism and materialism to a simple binary, with one element on the side of the angels and the other on the side of the devil.  I find this to be too simplistic.

As usual, Dennett fails to recognize the power and efficacy of symbolic thought, even though he makes repeated references to such abstract values as love, justice, joy, beauty, and freedom, none of which can be satisfactorily reduced to empirical reality alone. 

He claims that “all” of these values are “material benefits” without even addressing the long-standing philosophical debate between dualism and materialism or the role played in this debate by modern physics.

It is those times when Dennett makes such blanket assertions or assumptions without a supporting argument, which takes into account counter-arguments, that Dennett’s book becomes maddening.  I expect more from a philosopher.

In the end, Dennett’s conclusion in chapter 11 struck me as anti-climactic.  The best recommendation he could come up with for addressing the failures, excesses, and destructive tendencies of religion is more and better education.  I’m all for that, but after his long, extended build-up, I was expecting more. 

And I can’t help but wonder if the goal should be, not to eliminate religion, but to improve it.  To me the greatest fault with religion is literalistic thinking.  What if religious leaders spoke and acted like artists and storytellers, presenting their claims in figurative terms instead of facts?  What if religious believers were less literal and “materialistic” in their convictions and more symbolic and metaphorical?\

More and better education could certainly help with this, but even an educated philosopher like Dennett seems to have a problem understanding and/or appreciating symbolic thought.


In the end I do agree with Dennett’s statement that “we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning.  The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least nonmalignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions.”  And I agree that religious institutions have a responsibility for promotion of such avenues, but so do the materialists, atheists, agnostics, and non-believers among us.  I trust Dennett will help with that effort as well as the effort to explain religion as a natural phenomenon.