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Dennett vs Religion: An Analysis

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

In Kevin Smith’s Dogma, a film that simultaneously satirically ridicules and seriously discusses the pros and cons of modern religion, one of the characters criticizes religion for having “got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure out of it” (Smith, 90). “You can change an idea,” Smith’s character Rufus, the “thirteenth disciple of Christ,” explains, “Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable, but beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth—new ideas can’t generate and life becomes stagnant” (Smith, 90). This same issue of religious beliefs is one of the focal points of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett almost never mentions religion by name until the conclusion of his book, but he is almost constantly talking about it. In fact, Dennett basically wants to disassemble religion; prove not only that it is illogical and antiquated, but oppressive and dangerous. Dennett believes that when applied to human life, the theory of evolution proves that humans are not “special” or “inherently good”—or, in fact, inherently anything. As he explains, “the Darwinian perspective lets us see with unmistakable clarity why there is no hope at all of discovering a telltale mark, a saltation in life’s processes, that ‘counts’...There is no ‘natural’ way to mark the birth of a human ‘soul,’ any more than there is a ‘natural’ way to mark the birth of a species” (513).


Dennett wants to replace belief in religion by ideas about its function and influence. He admits that “religions has drawn attention to love” and provided hope and spirit to people throughout history, and even have “kept Homo sapiens civilized enough” to learn to understand who we are (518-519). Now, however, they are no longer necessary and cause more destruction than good. Instead of trying to preserve the cultural influence of religions for all eternity, we must try our best to understand them and move on. As Dennett writes:

To watch, to have to participate in, the contraction or evaporation of beloved features of one’s heritage is a pain only our species can experience, and surely few pains could be more terrible. But we have no reasonable alternative, and those whose visions dictate that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path or two that may come to seem acceptable. (519)

This passage conveys roughly how close Dennett comes to offering us any suggestions for the path future humans should take. But it is a suggestion that is deeply faulty.


According to Dennett, we must respect and study those ideas which we no longer find acceptable. “It must be scholarship, not human game preserves—ethnic or religious states under dictatorships—that saves superannuated cultural artifacts for posterity,” he writes (517). But who decides what cultural artifacts are superannuated? Dennett no less than assumes that all religious beliefs are out of date, an assumption that roughly 86% of the world’s population would find more than a little presumptuous (Barrett, 2001).


In fact, Dennett’s final chapter is something of a disoriented rant against the problems of the world, all of which are ultimately blamed upon religious beliefs. “You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, as long as it does not become a public menace,” he says (516). But is religion ever a public menace? Other forces are at work when religious institutions start holy wars or holy countries. I, for one, do not believe that religious creed causes “the pronouncing of death sentences on those who blaspheme against a religion” so much as the cynical misuse of religious creed causes such murders (Dennett, 517). According to Dennett, “many, many Muslims...are bravely trying, from the inside, to reshape the tradition they cherish into something better, something ethically defensible” (517). Are Muslims trying to reshape Islam? Or are they trying to reshape Islamism?


It is not religion but the political misuse and distortion of religion that causes the oppression Dennett so deeply wants to prevent. Dennett’s mistake is to fail to see the lethal concoction that is political religion. Perhaps we could say that religious beliefs are only religious ideas until they are swept into conflicts over land use, limited resources, maimed ecosystems, and racism. One of my favorite examples is from the 2004 US presidential campaign: the infamous “Vote with Christ” bumper sticker. They were ubiquitous in my hometown: simple, white bumper stickers adorned with a cross that reminded good citizens to “Vote with Christ.” Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think there’s any clear evidence that Jesus is a registered Republican. But what is more politically convenient and more threateningly effective than to associate His name with smaller government and laws against gay marriage?


Dennett tells us that he believes “there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism” (514). I am inclined to agree. But he seems blind to the political reality of fundamentalism: bin Laden is less a Muslim who is fanatically devout to the most “fundamental” teachings of Islam than he is a cunning and cruel politician. When Dennett describes the good side of religion (above), he seems to have missed the crux of the matter: which has been more significant in human history, religious beliefs or the political misuse of them? It is not an argument anyone can win, but it is my personal opinion that society would not function without religious reverence for hope and love.


Nonetheless, Dennett makes an excellent point when he tells us that “until we can provide an environment for all people in which fanaticism doesn’t make sense, we can expect more and more of it” (517). The problem of religion in the modern world is not that it is superannuated, but that it must find a positive way in which it can promote the economic and social development of deeply impoverished and unequal parts of Earth. And if the social movements of figures like Mother Theresa and Ghandi say anything, it is that the positive influence of religion on social development is possible. As Jane Addams once said, “What after all has maintained the human race on this old globe despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities and courage to advocate them.”


Paul Grobstein's picture

Dennett, religion, and ... advocacy

"faith in new possibilities and courage to advocate them"

There's a very interesting issue here, perhaps several.  For some people, creation and advocacy of new possibilities might be understood as the antithesis of religion.  On the other hand, if I'm reading you correctly, it is for you the essence of religion?  And what about Dennett?  He is certainly "anti-religious."  Is he also opposed to "new possibilities and courage to advocate them"?

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Sources Cited Barrett,

Sources Cited

Barrett, David B. “World Christian encyclopedia : a comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world.” Oxford University Press, New York. 2001.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.” Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York. 1995.

Smith, Kevin. “Dogma.” Grove Press, New York. 1996. Accessed via Google Books, March 14, 2009.