Religion from the Outside – NYRB on Dennett's Book

A super interesting piece (free) in the New York Review of Books on Daniel Dennett’s new book on religion. Worth a careful read if you’re interested in this stuff. Excerpts:

He observes that belief, which means accepting certain doctrines as true, is different from belief in belief, which means believing belief in the same doctrines to be desirable. He finds evidence that large numbers of people who identify themselves as religious believers do not in fact believe the doctrines of their religions but only believe in belief as a desirable goal. The phenomenon of "belief in belief" makes religion attractive to many people who would otherwise be hard to convert. To belong to a religion, you do not have to believe. You only have to want to believe, or perhaps you only have to pretend to believe. Belief is difficult, but belief in belief is easy. Belief in belief is one of the important phenomena that give a religion increased transmissibility and consequently increased fitness. Dennett puts forward this connection between belief in belief and fitness as a hypothesis to be tested, not as a scientifically established fact. He regrets that little of the relevant research has yet been done. The title Breaking the Spell expresses his hope that when the scientific analysis of religion has been completed, the power of religion to overawe human reason will be broken….

I see no way to draw up a balance sheet, to weigh the good done by religion against the evil and decide which is greater by some impartial process. My own prejudice, looking at religion from the inside, leads me to conclude that the good vastly outweighs the evil. In many places in the United States, with widening gaps between rich and poor, churches and synagogues are almost the only institutions that bind people together into communities. In church or in synagogue, people from different walks of life work together in youth groups or adult education groups, making music or teaching children, collecting money for charitable causes, and taking care of each other when sickness or disaster strikes. Without religion, the life of the country would be greatly impoverished. I know nothing at first hand about Islam, but by all accounts the mosques in Islamic countries, and to some extent in America too, play a similar role in holding communities together and taking care of widows and orphans.

Dennett, looking at religion from the outside, comes to the opposite conclusion. He sees the extreme religious sects that are breeding grounds for gangs of young terrorists and murderers, with the mass of ordinary believers giving them moral support by failing to turn them in to the police. He sees religion as an attractive nuisance in the legal sense, meaning a structure that attracts children and young people and exposes them to dangerous ideas and criminal temptations, like an unfenced swimming pool or an unlocked gun room. My view of religion and Dennett’s are equally true and equally prejudiced. I see religion as a precious and ancient part of our human heritage. Dennett sees it as a load of superfluous mental baggage which we should be glad to discard.

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