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What Dennett Got Wrong

tangerines's picture

Our universe is incredibly enormous, and in attempting to understand our species' place within it, humans have used various stories to explain both observable patterns and inexplicable randomness. The stories we endorse depends largely on personal preference, but at the end of his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett makes a case for the collective abandonment of religious belief. He tells us that we must “grow up” and “cast off the myths” of religion, replacing these stories with science (514). Beyond that, he fears the consequences of unchecked religious “fanaticisms” (515) and uses cultural proofs to support his intolerance of religion. However, I disagree with Dennett's claims based upon my religious experiences and traditions.

The first point upon which I disagree with Dennett is his statement that Darwinian thinking proves the uselessness of a “moral algorithm” (514) in attempting to resolve questions of morality. I would challenge this idea by saying that religion does not give us moral algorithms. Instead, my experience as a practicing Muslim has been that religion merely provides a framework upon which to base our decisions, or a support system while exploring these questions. No holy book or scripture is a complete guide to daily life, with answers for every single question that might pop up. Rather, I believe religion creates a basis for an individual to attempt to answer difficult questions subjectively. Dennett gives the following example of a question without an answer: “Which is worse, taking 'heroic' measures to keep alive a severely deformed infant, or taking the equally 'heroic' (if unsung) step of seeing to it that such an infant dies as quickly and painlessly as possible?” (514). My religious scriptures don't give me an answer to this question. Instead, they give me basic moral codes, such as “be kind to others,” “do not kill,” and “God is merciful and forgiving”. These beliefs not only allow me to answer Dennett's question in my own way, but give me the comfort of knowing that it's fine if others answer this question differently. Rather than giving me a “moral algorithm” as Dennett puts it, my religious beliefs give me a supportive framework with which to make my own decisions when faced with a moral quandary. My religious traditions create an open, safe forum for me to explore, not the restrictive, formulaic “algorithm” Dennett describes.

Perhaps because of his focus on religion as restriction, Dennett incorrectly conflates religion with culture, hindering his argument in the process. He insists that religion is all well and good, as long as “dangerous … fundamentalism” is contained. He says that “safety demands that religions be put in cages … when absolutely necessary. We just can't have forced female circumcision, and the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism and Mormonism, to say nothing of their status in Islam” (515). I appreciate Dennett's point here: namely, that equality and fairness should be enforced above religious doctrine. However, as a feminist and a practicing Muslim I take issue with his confusion of cultural practice and religious practice. No one practices a religion perfectly, and often cultural traditions alter the ways in which a religion is practiced in a given region. Although some may interpret certain verses to support personal agendas, when one goes to the sources of Islamic teachings (the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), equality fairness between the genders is clearly very important. For example, some point to a verse that supposedly proves the superiority of men: “God has given the one [men] more (strength) than the other [women]” (Qur'an, 4:34). What this verse means is that men are physically stronger than women - which is scientifically true. From an Islamic standpoint, men have a responsibility not to abuse their strength but to treat women with fairness and respect. In regions of the world where the degradation of women is part of the culture, this verse and others can be manipulated to support an unfair, patriarchal system that disenfranchises women. But that's a cultural problem that can be solved with education – not a religious one.

Dennett's discussion of aspects of religious culture worth preserving is also flawed. Dennett says that “ignorance is a necessary condition for many excellent things” (514) and that children, ignorant of the truth, enjoy awaiting Santa Claus. This, he claims, is worthwhile as long as the parent recognizes when belief in Santa has “outlived its value” (514). However, Dennett later states emphatically that “misinforming a child is a terrible offense” (516) when it comes to teaching intelligent design in schools. I was somewhat incredulous when I read this. First Dennett says there's some value in ignorance, and in believing what is untrue, but then reverses course and says that by giving a child an alternative perspective on evolution one is lying and committing a “terrible” crime. I am not in any way championing the idea of inculcating children in schools with religious doctrine rather than science. But I do see a contradiction in Dennett's work that leaves no room for alternative viewpoints. His example of a child waiting for Santa is indicative of an extreme intolerance for religion on Dennett's part, because Santa Claus is a fantasy parents tell their children, one that has no real connection to the religious holiday of Christmas (the Santa Claus story is in fact rooted in Pagan mythology).


The implication is that religion, too, is merely a story which children soon grow out of when they are old enough to see its flaws. I believe this is unfair; simply because Dennett himself outgrew the religious stories he was told does not mean that those stories are useless to everyone else. As a child, my parents taught me their religious views, and as I grew older I learned to think critically about these ideas and to interpret these religious stories for myself. My understanding of my religion is different in many ways from my parents', but I don't begrudge them their beliefs. Similarly, although I and my friends (who represent a wide spectrum of religious belief, whether they are atheist, agnostic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or identify in some other way) have different religious beliefs, we are able to respect one another's practices and learn and benefit from the stories that are different from our own.

I think the biggest problem I have with Dennett is his closed-mindedness. I am a person of faith who believes in science and evolution; I don't appreciate being spoken to (written to?) as though I'm an idiot simply because I am spiritual. Interestingly, he creates a binary (oh how we love those): either you believe in a “literally … anthropomorphic God” or you believe that anyone who does believe in such a God is “in a word, wrong” (514). Yet through discussions in our class, The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, I have come to the conclusion that science and religion are merely stories. Dennett does not see it this way: He treats science as his own personal gospel and is a bit condescending in his treatment of any other belief. Although his points may apply to some forms of religious practice, my religious experiences directly contradict Dennett's conclusions, and I would have appreciated his arguments much more had he allowed more room for other opinions.


Anne Dalke's picture

Science and the spirit


last month, three of your classmates also wrote about science and religion as complementary spheres; be sure to read Juxtaposing Religion & Science, The How and Why of our World, and The Quest for Truth: Science & Religion--as well as my comments on the essays, which hereby become, by extension and linking, comments on yours as well!

Ashley, Organized Khaos, and vlopez, however, weren't taking on Dennett directly, as you do here. So where might your project go, if you were to enlarge it beyond just putting Dennett in his place (by illustrating how narrow, inaccurate and misleading his portrayal of religion is) and taking on instead the more general dismissal of religious ways of being by many practicing scientists?

As I told your classmates, my own work on Science and the Spirit presumes a process of "continuing revelation," or constantly "testing," that can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms. So I'm not @ all questioning your claim that they are compatible; what I am nudging you towards is an opponent who is larger than Daniel Dennett--and perhaps more capacious. For instance, I just LOVE one particular passage in the book by Karen Barad that we are reading for our "other" class together:

Specialness is anathema to physics. There is a long-held, principled belief among physicists that the world is ontologically democratic in the sense that everything... applies equally for all (for all time, for all space, for all beings).... Universality is a given; particularity needs explanation. Sameness is assumed; difference occurs for a reason. Specialness is an unnatural affair requiring justification... any existing asymmetry or variation must have a cause... there is an obligation to provide a mechanism for symmetry breaking. Similarly there is a principled aversion to granting privileged status to one thing over another without a good reason.... privileged status provokes unease. Perhaps this is why physicists find any suggestion to the effect that the work they are engaged in is any way partial to one kind of human over another... downright objectionable, even repugnant...

Now that sounds like science-filled religion (or is it religion-filled science?) to me!