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.

4 comments on “Religion from the Outside – NYRB on Dennett's Book
  • One must realize, though, that its not religion that has caused bloodshed in the past, it is the way people have used and interpreted it.

  • Okay – I finally got around to reading the NYRB piece. It is interesting for the most part, but it is less a book review than an intellectual debate posed by Dyson with no space for rebuttal by Dennett.

    Debates between science and religion can never be won or lost, just as debates between religions can never be won or lost.

    Some people just need to belong – and that’s okay. Some people truly believe in the doctrines – and that’s okay too. Then, as put forth, some people just need to believe in belief – that belief in itself is a good thing. If “belief” or faith helps people during adverse times, then go for it…

    Dysan likes all the community value of religion (helping others, etc.). No debating that helping others is good and not evil.

    Perhaps what is evil about “religion” (my turn to debate ) is really what’s evil about us. People. A majority of poeple believe today that many of the old testament miracles are allegorical and not factual. That they teach morality the same way as Aesops Fables. What may be evil is that the message has been usurped by the organizations and used to control behavior, create cultural centrality, and influence or outright dominate the governance of people.

    Organized religions, with their hierarchies, rules, self-funding mechanisms (tithing, etc.) absolutely and undeniably provide social services that may be otherwise unavailable. They provide communities, and identies and in these senses they are good.

    They also promote intolerance. Humans are “small group” beings. We, like our biological cells, are always dividing and sub-dividing ourselves. There is most certainly something genetic that has an anthropological underpinning in our desire to always create that new level of specialization of belief/action/characteristic.

    Humans, we know, like distinctions: religion, class, skin color & race, sex, and many other characteristics. Many misguided people feel superior to others based on this (light-skinned blacks feel superior to dark-skinned blacks, many light-skinned northern Europeans feel the same way about European neighbors with mediteranean skin tones). It never ends…

    If Judaism was the first widespread monotheistic religion, from which both Christianity and Islam both inherit, as we are all three considered “Sons and daughters of Abraham,” look how far we have come in dividing and subdividing over the last 2 and a half millennia.

    As we divide and sub-divide, we create “us” and “them” mentalities (catholic v protestant, reform vs. orthodox, shia vs. sunni, etc.). These divisions give us excuses when things don’t go our way. “We’re down-trodden, must be the Jews, or Presbyterians who did this to us. Let’s kill them, or trod them down.”

    So, is religion an evil that needs to be resolved? Or, do we need a new “system of the world.” One that channels our natural need to divide into a positive experience, and away from our propensity to use those divisions to propogate hate. A division that promotes helping others, community and goodwill but rejects all notion of superiority or hate. A belief system that starts will believing in ourselves and goodness, and not in others and dogma. A religion that makes each and every one of us the deity, and promotes a doctrine of how we, with our godlike powers, can make the world a better place.

    Honestly, I cannot conceive the form of such a new system of the world in any workable fashion. But for all the good done in the name of God under today’s organized religions, there is still too much bad. So we are back where we started – Dennett’s thoughtful book, and Dysan’s thoughtful editorial.

    “Imagine no religion. I wonder if you can…” John Lennon

  • Ben,

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve actually taken a couple of days to let this sink in. I’ve actually never learned of the philosophy of belief in belief, but it makes sense.

    You and I have talked about this in the past, anything that divides will ultimately need to conflict.

    A few times you have mentioned the value of heritage. It just seems to me that the future is a derivative of our past with things like heritage as the path.

    I don’t think religion is bad or good, but I know it divides. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could all just admit that?

    I know when I take the next step (ok throw religion out or…well it does tons of good, so justify keeping it, etc.) using a merit-based evaluation tool, it’s a certain ticket to a life of suffering.

    Thanks again.

  • John:

    That’s a very thoughtful and eloquent response. Thanks. We agree. I still think religion does more good than bad, but there is “too much bad” if and of itself.

    Tim: Thanks. When you “take the next step,” I would pose this question: Does your life of love need to have a higher power in it, or can you find love in this chaotic mass of atoms alone?

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