The Spell-Breaker

Daniel Dennett on why faith should be investigated scientifically, and why he's coming out of the closet as a nonbeliever.

Continued from page 1

 

Where would you start with your suggested investigation of religion?
Religion is a fairly recent phenomenon by biological standards, and organized religion is younger still. So if you want to understand the roots of religion, you have to go back into prehistory and look at what might have laid the groundwork, in our ecology and our psychology and in our biology for the attitudes and the habits that permitted and encouraged religion to flourish.
 
You mention the validity of intercessory prayer as one aspect of religion that could be studied.
I talk about some of the ongoing research. The [Herbert] Benson study from Harvard Medical School on the effects, if any, of intercessory prayer is one that people have been waiting for some time to see the results of. It's heavily funded and presumably very effectively done. This is carefully controlled science. The study is now several years overdue. People are wondering, Is that because they didn't get any effect, and they don't like that result? Nobody quite knows, but it will sure be interesting when that report comes out.
 
What will happen if that report does come out and shows that intercessory prayer has no effect?
Well, it will certainly irritate a lot of people. That's the trouble with science. If you disconfirm your pet theory, then what do you do? You do another study and another study. If all the studies show the same thing, then you have to say, Look, you were just wrong. Recently in the papers there was the result of a multiyear study on whether a low-fat diet was really all that wonderful for women. The results are negative. And a lot of people are deeply embarrassed. But there have been articles in the scientific press for a number of years that have suggested the low-fat bandwagon was based on bad science in the first place, and that it was largely maintained and propelled by the low-fat food industry.
 
If the negative studies mount, then I think religions are going to have to face the same things that the pharmaceutical companies face. You can't say that these prayers perform miracles. It's false advertising.
  
You said that you're willing--although reluctant--to be the Village Atheist for now. Who would you draft to do it with you?
I'm sure hoping a lot of people will join hands with me. I'm coming out of the closet--I'm a Bright. I would love to see the day when people in other parts of the country can be as calm as I am. I'm living in Massachusetts, and this is the land of the Brights. But I get mail from people in the Bible Belt, in the Midwest, and in the South, people who say "If I made that declaration, I'd lose my job, I'd be driven out of town, nobody would do any business with me."
 
Are you anti-religion?
I'm actually not anti-religion. I'm certainly opposed to the presumption that religion is wonderful and a necessary part of human life. I feel about religion the way I feel about music, about art, and about smoking. There are wonderful things about all of them. I don't smoke anymore. I'm really glad I don't, and I hope other people don't smoke, but if they do, that's fine. It's not that bad, and some people may really need it. Music and art are better, but people can be addicted to those too.
 
What would your ideal vision for the role of religion in society?
I think the organizational genius of religion, its capacity to muster wonderful throngs of devoted and selfless actors in major moral efforts is something quite wonderful. It played a huge role in the Civil Rights movement, it played a huge role in upsetting apartheid in South Africa, and it played a role in overthrowing the Shah of Iran (though I feel a little differently about that).
 
Religious teams have done a lot of excellent moral work. On the other hand, religious teams have done a lot of harm. This is a very powerful force that is very hard to control. And I have not been able to figure out myself whether we can have the power without too much risk.

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