Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett is accustomed to creating media firestorms. His 2003 op-ed in the New York Times launched a heated debate over the use of the term "Bright" to describe nonbelievers. His latest contribution to the discussion of belief and nonbelief, is no different: the controversial book "Breaking the Spell" has been continuously hailed and criticized in newspapers and weblogs since its release in February 2006. Dennett suggests that many religious adherents are more loyal to "faith" than to God. He spoke recently with Beliefnet about why he has taken on the role of 'village atheist,' and why, though he thinks belief in God is irrational, he thinks religion can occasionally do good.
Your book calls for a scientific investigation into religion. Why is now the right time for this?
Since religions influence people's lives so much, since their loyalties to their religions play such a role in how they respond to every issue, we need to understand it. If you go in with the best of intentions to solve the problem of poverty or the problem of injustice, and you trample over people's religious practices in the process, you're just going to make matters worse.
In your book, you write that loyalty to religion often trumps what people might really believe. What is the difference between believing in God and believing in belief?
Every successful religion has managed to create a sense of obligation. [People think:] "Gosh, it would be terrible if I stopped believing in God. My whole life would lose meaning."
People are anxious about this, and so they say they believe even when they don't, and they work to regenerate the belief if it ever flags.
The name of your book implies that religious believers are under a spell, that they don't have a choice about what they believe. If this is the case, how can you get people to change their minds?
First, I want to point out that many religious people insist on that. They say, "I am completely helpless in the face of my faith; it's much stronger than I am. It's not like deciding what car to buy. It's not a rational choice--it's something that overwhelms me."
How do you deal with someone in that state? First of all, you take what they say seriously, and ask them, "Are you really disabled by this, or not? Let's explore and see if you can actually be reasonable." Some people can and some people can't. Let's find out which are which.
Is it possible to be both religious and rational?
That's what I'm trying to find out. I've tried to write a book that reasonable, rational people, however religious, can read. They might be uncomfortable, they will be upset at times, they may be offended, though I'm not trying to offend or insult them.
You write that loyalty to religion is a bit like falling in love, and that's why people take such great offense when you try to counter their views. How are they similar?
The emotional passion with which people declare their love for their religion should be taken very seriously. Whenever there is a love object, whether it is another person, or a nation or a religious creed or the Boston Red Sox, there is a built-in, outraged response to anything that threatens or demeans or is even skeptical [of that love object]. If you start saying something skeptical of my loved one, my dukes are up. That's a response which I'm quite sure is genetically favored in our species, in the same way it's favored in mammals in general to protect their young.
Your book implies that many people believe in God or at least believe in "belief" because they don't know how else to lead meaningful lives. How can you explain to someone how life can be meaningful without God?
Well, by leading a meaningful life. As I look around the world, I see all sorts of heroes in every walk of life. But there is a prejudice against this because a lot of [atheists] are reluctant to point it [their lack of belief] out. Nobody wants to spend their life going around being the 'village atheist.' They're much more interested in just leading a good and normal life.
So a lot of people, I find, are surprised to see me so candidly and cheerfully acknowledging my atheism. Not because they're not atheists, but because they don't go around mentioning it. I think that's unfortunate.
You helped promote the term "Bright" a few years ago, as a way to describe nonbelievers. What does that term mean?
The term was coined by Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert in California. What they saw was that the homosexual community did something politically wonderful by essentially kidnapping the word "gay," which had its own meaning before, and turning it into a word that meant homosexual. It was a positive, happy word. Similarly, Bright is a positive word. I suggest that just as if you're not gay, you're straight, we could say if you're not Bright, you're Super. After all, they believe in the supernatural and we don't. That's the difference. Brights are those people who don't believe in anything supernatural.
You mentioned that nobody wants to be the village atheist. Do you feel that atheists today need one?
The fact that I have written this book shows that I do think that. I'm not relishing the role. I think there are much more interesting things that I could be working on--my life work on consciousness, wrinkles in evolutionary theory. But this is a job that somebody's got to do, so I guess I'm going to do it.
Have you had an experience of converting from belief to nonbelief?
When I was a child I was confirmed in the Congregational church. I went to Sunday school. I took it all quite seriously.
There was no big conversion moment for me. I just gradually realized I didn't believe any of it. I loved the stories, I loved the music, I loved religious art, and the King James version of the Bible. But I don't believe any of it.
Do you believe science and religion must be in conflict, or are they ever compatible?
I think there is quite a conflict. I've never been persuaded by those self-appointed moderates in science who keep insisting there's no real conflict between science and religion if they keep to their proper bailiwicks.
If you look at what the proper bailiwick for religion turns out to be, it's pretty darn narrow. If you think that religion is a path to any kind of factual truth, on any matter--like the creation of the biosphere, the age of the earth--if you think that religion has anything at all to say about that, or if you think that religion has anything to say about the truths of the stories in its own sacred texts, then you're just wrong.
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.