Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Candyass Agnostic

Daniel C. Dennett has written a book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon," that promotes the idea that religious devotion is a function of biology.

You can read an essay adapted from the book here. And there's a brief Q and A with Dennett on the occasion of the book's publication in the New York Times in which he comes off, in sound bytes, with distilled acerbicity: "Belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. ... Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us. ... I certainly don't believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul. ... Churches have given us great treasures. Whether that pays for the harm they have done is another matter."

In some of that, he seems to me to make dangerous leaps on very thin evidence.

Dennett is, in one sense, one of my heroes for doing the patient work of explaining how evolution works, and for boldly asserting the central role of biological factors in shaping human behaviors. In so doing, he has crossed swords not only with the more brutish fundamentalists, but with Marxists in the ivory towers, like the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (a hero himself, in his own way) and with stranger ideologues of the left like Chomsky.

I am not a Christian; my faith is a personal matter, none of your business. At times I would have called myself an agnostic; at times you would have called me a pagan. But I will tell you you may count me among the zealots in the cause of separation of church and state (for the good of both), and the sanctity of the scientific method.

But when I watch Dennett walk head-high into the holy of holies, the results, in many places, make me cringe. Dennett falls into the trap, for instance, of equating all fundamentalisms.

But such well-intentioned people are singularly ineffective in dealing with the more radical members of their own faiths. In many instances they are, rightly, terrified of them. Moderate Muslims have so far been utterly unable to turn the tide of Islamic opinion against Wahhabists and other extremists, but moderate Christians and Jews and Hindus have been equally feckless in countering the outrageous demands and acts of their own radical elements.

Robert G. Ingersoll, the great 19th century American agnostic, once said, "The Agnostic does not simply say, 'I do not know.' He goes another step and says with great emphasis that you do not know." Yes, of necessity, he does.

Dennett seems to define himself as an atheist, which is a different thing than an agnostic. He told the New York Times, "Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world - that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing." Which looks like atheism to me, or deism at best.

Which makes his advice to people who embrace both reason and faith a bit specious:

It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God — in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love is worthy of worship.

Having denied that reason and belief in a personal god can share the same head sanely, any more than cancer and health can share the same body, and that religion is a sort of brain dysfunction or atavistic relic, what grounds does he have to offer guidance to people who accept it as authentic and vibrant force in their lives?

If you're an intelligent person of faith, this must seem like the kind of moralistic scolding you detest. Does a person who disavows his own faith have the right to hector you about how to live with yours? Any more than a celibate priest has the right to order your sexual decisions?

You have to work every day to make the irrational and the rational bed down together under the same skull. That's faith. Faith comes a flare through the hollow of the ear, the thing that flows in from beyond what you know and can explain. It takes you where you're afraid to go. It sent Saul into a ditch and Thomas Merton to the Little Flower. It makes your hair stand on end.

I have some sympathy for the struggles involved in reconciling faith and reason. I don't feel that Dennett does, after reading all this, or that he thinks a co-existence is possible.

I would stand against your faith when it tries to enter my son's classroom, or invade my Constitution and my courts. When it perverts science and literature in the name of a prudish morality, I will be against it.

But if your faith tells you you will meet your dead child again in another world, or you will live again in this one and have another chance to overcome what has dragged you into the dunghill, or that your suffering friend is at peace and in a better world than this when he closes his eyes, I have no desire to take that away from you. Not for anything. I don't think Ingersoll would, either.

This critique of a program by Richard Dawkins (another hero of modern biology) suggests he is making some of the same mistakes.

Hollywood, of course, has been a faith-free zone for years. At least for humans who are not villains:

Despite the claims of the anti-religious crusaders - especially in the US - that the Christian right is on the rise, in fact in cultural terms it is increasingly marginalised. Films with a Christian message find it difficult to convey a powerful sense of faith and meaning. Instead, religious values and beliefs tend to be transmitted through non-human anthropomorphic forms. The attempt to endow even the behaviour of penguins with transcendental meaning - in the widely acclaimed March of the Penguins - is symptomatic of this theological illiteracy. The enthusiasm with which Christian organisations embraced March of the Penguins showed up their disorientation, if not desperation, rather than their aggressive confidence. After the penguin it is the turn of another animal - Aslan, the lion in the Narnia film - to serve as a symbol of innocence, sacrifice and resurrection. What beast will Christian filmmakers pick next?

Could you even make "Ben Hur" today? No Oil for Pacifists has some balance sheets on the good and bad that faithful Christans do in the world.

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