Friday, May 6, 2011

Breaking The Spell, by Daniel Dannett

Unlike the arrogant and aggressive approach of most militant atheists, Dennett’s approach to critiquing religion is quite diplomatic and respectful. He seems to be aware that to address religious folk in an arrogant and haughty manner is to alienate the religious reader straight away.

So rather than verbally bashing the religious reader into submission, Dennett strives to convince the reader instead. This was quite refreshing.

To a large degree he is successful in departing from the traditional approach of the new atheists. There were very few times that I found myself rolling my eyes in reaction to the typical atheist drivel that is found in abundance in Dawkins and Hitchens works. But Dennett seemed to have set the bar a bit higher.

Despite the refreshingly tactful approach that Dennett took, he still managed to fall into some of the same old traps.

One of the usual dirty tricks that other militant atheist authors are guilty of is overstating the validity of evolution. In attempting to reject the need for a creator in nature, these new age atheists tend to greatly exaggerate how valid the theory of evolution actually is.

And Dennett is no less guilty of this. At one point he actually says that “Evolution is about as well established as the fact that water is H2O.” Suffice it to say, that water is in existence right now so we can put it to the test, and then retest it, at any time. The evolution of life through common descent on the other hand, is something that is alleged to happen in the deep past. And as such, can not be observed, and therefore can not be scientifically tested. No event of prehistory can ever be as scientifically established as water is H2O.

Another dirty trick – or maybe wilful ignorance – is his comment that there are no reputable scientists who reject evolution. This old canard can easily be rejected by noting the large lists of scientists who do unashamedly reject evolution. Lists, such as from Creation Ministries International or the Discovery institute, amply testify to this fact. These lists not only include hundreds of reputable scientists, but also include many dozens of science Professors of secular universities.

After admitting that certain religious aspects can have very good influences on people (something that almost all new-age atheists are loathed to do), Dennett seems obliged to offset this fact with the comment that atheists too could be better people than religious people. What is his reasoning for this? Well, he says that no survey has shown otherwise! Apparently, the moon is populated by pink elephants too, well no evidence has proven otherwise!

Dennett makes the claim that morals need to be grounded in reason, not blind faith. But, he says, blind faith is reasonable when we trust the source.

He then goes on to criticize Christians for having blind faith, but he somehow misses the point that Christians trust their source, just as his criteria demands! Christians trust that our omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God is worthy of trusting over the fallible reasoning of man.

So in areas such as homosexuality, where God’s command conflict with man reasoning, Christians trust God, by virtue of his omniscience, that God would know. But human reasoning on the other hand, is based on a very poor understanding of the functioning of the human mind and sexuality. Because of this, human reasoning is always being revised and changed.

So when the two collide, Christians always place human reasoning in a subservient position to God’s reasoning.

Dennett makes the point that Christians need to make religion less of a “sacred cow”, and more like a “worthy alternative”. I have no doubt that this would be a virtuous exercise. Christianity could gain a lot from a critical examination, and a subsequent purge of all the dross that has infected it from the wider society over history.

But one must not make the mistake of rejecting religion outright simply because it contains a few faults.

Ultimately, if Christianity is the one true religion, then it will emerge from such a purge much stronger. But for this to happen it must cease compromising itself with the amoral tendencies of wider society, such as with evolution. The strength of Christianity is only in it’s whole form. As soon as Christianities protective shell of inerrancy is breached with the corrupting influence of compromise, it’s integrity rapidly fails and it is deformed into a feeble false religion. Such a religion is easily killed off.

Dennett opines that there is no reason why the materialist would be less caring or less moral than a theist. While this is undoubtedly true, the simple fact is that there is no reason why the materialist should, or even has to be, moral or caring.

For a materialist to be caring and moral is to embrace traits that are entirely superfluous to existence. Atheists can only hold on to these virtues as a mere matter of opinion, because in a materialistic world there are no transcendent morals or values.

It is only those materialists who have had a moral upbringing who continue to hold on to these values.

But what of those children, typically of today, who have not had such a privileged virtuous upbringing? Many of these children have not had these virtues installed in them during their formative years, and see no reason to adopt them later on in life. For them the questions are: Why stay faithful to a monogamous life when you can sleep with whoever you want to? Why donate to charity when you can spend the money getting drunk. Why be kind to a stranger when it makes you late for a movie?

Being caring and moral are just useless excesses in a materialist universe.

Dennett counters the claim that religion, if it has evolved, must be beneficial. After all, evolution is meant to eliminate harmful traits, and only perpetuate the beneficial ones.

He provides the analogy that tobacco isn’t good for us, yet it survives just fine. So he reasons that traits that have a negative effect on us, can still evolve. Thus religion could still have evolved even if it is bad for us.

The fault in this analogy is in the fact that tobacco’s existence is totally independent of humans existence, religion is not. The fact that tobacco is harmful to humans has no effect at all on it’s survival. Tobacco would still evolve regardless of it’s effect on humans.

Religion, on the other hand, is an idea that only exists in the minds of humanity. Therefore if religion was bad for humanity, then evolution would have had eliminated it from the human mind a long time ago. And because religion doesn’t exist outside the human mind, when it is eliminated from the human mind, it is eliminated from existence totally.

Thus, it is still true that if religion really was bad for humans then evolution definitely would have eliminated it.

On the topic of religious education in schools, I was very surprised to see that Dennett departs from the standard antireligious dogma of the other militant atheists who demand that religion should be totally wiped from schools. In contrast to this draconian position, Dennett believes that more religion should be taught in schools.

He believes that students should be taught about all religions, not just the one that they have been brought up in. While it is somewhat impractical to teach students all religions, I think that in the multicultural society that we live in today, it would be highly beneficial to teach about the most prevalent ones.

He also believes that, contrary to the absurd claims of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, that parents should teach their children whatever they want – within reason- as long as it doesn’t “close their minds through fear and hatred or disable them from inquiry.”

Overall this book was a refreshingly diplomatic break from the usual antireligious diatribe of the new atheists. Dennett’s exploration into “religion as a natural phenomenon” was quite genuine and thought provoking. But it’s major downfall was that it is quite boring. Something about Dennett’s writing style left me rather flat and unenthused, which is quite odd for an antireligious book. Something about the book just didn’t flow as well as Dawkins or Hitchens books, I can’t quite pin down what it is though. Maybe a provocative and aggressive style is what keeps the readers attention?

So based on the content of the book I would give four stars, but on style two. This leaves an average of three stars.

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