The Crusade Against Religion

The battle between naturalists and supernaturalists.

BY: Gary Wolf


Continued from page 1

The doctor for these difficulties looks like Santa Claus. His name is Daniel Dennett. He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard. I suspect he must have designed this Father Christmas look intentionally, but in fact it just evolved. "In the '60s, I looked like Rasputin," he says. Children have come up to him in airports, checking to see if he is on vacation from the North Pole. When it happens, he does not torment them with knowledge that the person they mistake him for is not real. Instead, the philosopher puts his fingers to his lips and says conspiratorially: "Shhhh."

Dennett summers on a farm in Maine. Flying in, I have a fine view of the old New England tapestry, which grows more and more rural as we move north: symmetrical fields with pale borders like the membranes of cells, barns and outbuildings like organelles, and, at the center of every thickening cluster of life, always the same vestigial structure, whose black dot of a cupola is offset by a whitish gleam. I know something of the history of the New England church, which began in fanaticism and ended in reform -- from witch burning to softest Presbyterianism in a few hundred years. Now, according to the atheists, these structures serve no useful purpose, and besides, they may be conduits for disease. Perhaps it is best that we do away with them all. But can it be done without harm?

Among the New Atheists, Dennett holds an exalted but ambiguous place. Like Dawkins and Harris, he is an evangelizing nonbeliever. He has campaigned in writing on behalf of the Brights and has written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In it, the blasting rhetoric of Dawkins and Harris is absent, replaced by provocative, often humorous examples and thought experiments. But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school. After all, he argues, "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."

When I arrive at the farm, I find him in the midst of a difficult task. He has been asked by the President's Council on Bioethics to write an essay reflecting on human dignity. In grappling with these issues, Dennett knows that he can't rely on faith or scripture. He will not say that life begins when an embryo is ensouled by God. He will not say that hospitals must not invite the indigent to sell their bodies for medical experiments because humans are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ethical problems must be solved by reason, not arbitrary rules. And yet, on the other hand, Dennett knows that reason alone will fail.

We sit in his study, in some creaky chairs, with the deep silence of an August morning around us, and Dennett tells me that he takes very seriously the risk of overreliance on thought. He doesn't want people to lose confidence in what he calls their "default settings," by which he means the conviction that their ethical intuitions are trustworthy. These default settings give us a feeling of security, a belief that our own sacrifices will be reciprocated. "If you shatter this confidence," he says, "then you get into a deep hole. Without trust, everything goes wrong."

It interests me that, though Dennett is an atheist, he does not see faith merely as a useless vestige of our primitive nature, something we can, with effort, intellectualize away. No rational creature, he says, would be able to do without unexamined, sacred things.

"Would intelligent robots be religious?" it occurs to me to ask.

"Perhaps they would," he answers thoughtfully. "Although, if they were intelligent enough to evaluate their own programming, they would eventually question their belief in God."

Dennett is an advocate of admitting that we simply don't have good reasons for some of the things we believe. Although we must guard our defaults, we still have to admit that they may be somewhat arbitrary. "How else do we protect ourselves?" he asks. "With absolutisms? This means telling lies, and when the lies are exposed, the crash is worse. It's not that science can discover when the body is ensouled. That's nonsense. We are not going to tolerate infanticide. But we're not going to put people in jail for onanism. Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries."

This sounds to me a little like the religion of reason that Harris foresees.

"Yes, there could be a rational religion," Dennett says. "We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things." He understands that this would create constant tension between prohibition and curiosity. But the borders of our sacred beliefs could be well guarded simply by acknowledging that it is pragmatic to refuse to change them.

I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us.

Dennett replies that exceptions can be made. "Philosophers are the ones who refuse to accept the sacred values," he says. For instance, Socrates.

I find this answer supremely odd. The image of an atheist religion whose sacred objects, called defaults, are taboo for all except philosophers -- this is the material of the cruelest parody. But that's not what Dennett means. In his scenario, the philosophers are not revered authorities but mental risk-takers and scouts. Their adventures invite ridicule, or worse. "Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled," Dennett says. "Socrates drank the hemlock. He knew what he was doing."

With this, I begin to understand what kind of atheist I want to be. Dennett's invocation of Socrates is a reminder that there are certain actors in history who change the world by staging their own defeat. Having been raised under Christianity, we are well schooled in this tactic of belated victory. The world has reversed its judgment on Socrates, as on Jesus and the fanatical John Brown. All critics of fundamental values, even those who have no magical beliefs, will find themselves tempted to retrace this path. Dawkins' tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris' vision of apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery -- this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy.

In Breaking the Spell, Dennett writes about the personal risk inherent in attacking faith. Harris veils his academic affiliation and hometown because he fears for his physical safety. But in truth, the cultural neighborhoods where they live and work bear little resemblance to Italy under Pope Urban VIII, or New England in the 17th century, or Saudi Arabia today. Dennett spends the academic year at Tufts University and summers with family and students in Maine. Dawkins occupies an endowed Oxford chair and walks his dog on the wide streets, alone. Harris sails forward this fall with his second well-publicized book. There have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows or crosses.

Prophecy, I've come to realize, is a complex meme. When prophets provoke real trouble, bring confusion to society by sowing reverberant doubts, spark an active, opposing consensus everywhere -- that is the sign they've hit a nerve. But what happens when they don't hit a nerve? There are plenty of would-be prophets in the world, vainly peddling their provocative claims. Most of them just end up lecturing to undergraduates, or leading little Christian sects, or getting into Wikipedia edit wars, or boring their friends. An unsuccessful prophet is not a martyr, but a sort of clown.

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I've decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism -- this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism -- is too much for me.

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

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