The current issue of The New York Review of Books features this article by physicist Freeman Dyson. The subject is Daniel Dennett’s recent book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dyson begins as follows:
Breaking the spell of religion is a game that many people can play. The best player of this game that I ever knew was Professor G.H. Hardy, a world-famous mathematician who happened to be a passionate atheist. There are two kinds of atheists, ordinary atheists who do not believe in God and passionate atheists who consider God to be their personal enemy.
Describing an atheist as believing that God is his personal enemy is a bit too casual. Atheists do not believe that God exists, after all. A more accurate dichotomy might be to say that the second kind of atheist is someone who is actually hostile to religious belief in general, as opposed to someone who merely rejects the existence of God.
It is often said that religious belief is not the enemy. Rather, it’s the intolerant, fundamentalist strain of religion that is dangerous. The point is well-taken. Most religious believers have no desire to brandish their faith like a weapon, and have no particular beef with modernity. I strongly disagree with the religious opinions of those people, I think their beliefs are irrational, I think they frequently provide aid and comfort to the more extremist sort of religion, but I do not regard them as enemies to be combatted. Fundamentalism is not like that. By its very nature fundamentalism can not be reasoned with, and can only be opposed by every legal means.
But this distinction doesn’t quite get at the really important issue. It is not religious belief per se that is dangerous, nor even fundamentalism by itself. Rather, it is the combination of religious belief and government power that must be combatted. Individuals living how they want to live is no danger to anyone. It is when those individuals have the power to force others to follow their religion, either by having the power of the state behind them or by having the state look the other way when they commit their abuses, that we have to worry.
Thus, it is not God that is my personal enemy. It is the combination of religion and state power that is the enemy. (Of course, large numbers of fundamentalist believers tends to lead to government intrusion into religion. Fundamentalism is certainly an enemy, it’s just not the most fundamental issue.)
Now back to Dyson:
James is examining religion from the inside, like a doctor trying to see the world through the eyes of his patients. James was trained as a medical doctor before he became a professor of psychology. He studied the personal experiences of saints and mystics as evidence of something real existing in a spiritual world beyond the boundaries of space and time. Dennett honors James as an explorer of the human condition, but not as an explorer of a spiritual world. For Dennett, the visions of saints and mystics are worthless as evidence, since they are neither repeatable nor testable. Dennett is examining religion from the outside, following the rules of science. For him, the visions of saints and mystics are only a phenomenon to be explained, like falling in love or hating people of a different skin color, mental conditions that may or may not be considered pathological.
Dyson doesn’t quite come out and say it, but he sure implies that Dennett is being unfair in rejecting as scientific the visions of saints and mystics. Both here, and in his other writings, Dyson has suggested that such visions count as genuine evidence of a spiritual world. If he really believes this, then I’d like him to explain how he distinguishes the genuine spiritual visions from the various hallucinations and delusions that produce the same effect. Such visions as mystics have seem to occur only when the mind is first placed in a highly suggestive state, either through drugs or deprivation. When a mystic reports having an experience of spiritual realm, surely that by itself does not count as evidence for the existence of such a realm.
Dyson spends llittle time discussing the merits of Dennett’s book, but I did find this paragraph interesting:
Like Hardy and Erdös, Dennett plays the game of breaking the spell by making religion look silly. Many of my scientist friends and colleagues have similar prejudices. One famous scientist for whom I have a deep respect said to me, “Religion is a childhood disease from which we have recovered.” There is nothing wrong with such prejudices, provided that they are openly admitted. Dennett’s account of the evolution of religion is on the whole fair and well balanced.
Hardy and Erdos are two of my mathematical heroes, so it was nice to learn, from Dyson, that both were passionate atheists.
But the part of Dyson’s essay that really caught my eye was the following:
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.
Now that’s an interesting paragraph. Dyson begins by prasing religious organizations for their role in bringing communities together in the face of increased pressure from the growing disparity of wealth in this country. But if class differences are driving things apart, surely the more sensible approach is to criticize the economic policies, promoted mostly by Republicans, that exacerbate those differences.
But Dyson does make an important point in stressing the social functions of religious organizations. For a great many people, churches and synagogues aren’t about praying and getting right with God. They are merely social organizations, serving the same function for their members that, say, various chess clubs over the years have served for me. That’s fine, but I wonder, then, what the purpose is behind schlepping around all of that religious baggage. Youth groups and adult education classes are fine things, but why must they be organized around silly religious fairy tales? There may be sound psychological reasons why people need those incentives to participate, but explaining those sound reasons was precisely the project of Dennett’s book.
What Dyson overlooks is the great cost at which that community spirit is often bought. Dyson, I suspect, has been in Princeton too long. Let him go live in a small Midwestern or Southern town for a while and then let him gush about the benign influence of religion on those towns. If his experiences match mine, he will find that such community spirit is purchased at the price of regarding outsiders as threats. It comes only by the propagation of extraordinary quantities of ignorance. Let him walk into any Christian bookstore in one of these towns and see the contempt with which scientists are treated. He might end up less sanguine about the good produced by religion.
One final excerpt:
The control of education is the arena in which political fights between religious believers and civil authorities become most bitter. In the United States these fights are made peculiarly intractable by the legal doctrine of separation of church and state, which forbids public schools to provide religious instruction. Parents with fundamentalist beliefs have a legitimate grievance, being compelled to pay for public schools which they see as destroying the religious faith of their children. This feeling of grievance was avoided in England through the wisdom of Thomas Huxley, a close friend of Charles Darwin and a leading proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. When public education was instituted in England in 1870, eleven years after Darwin’s theory was published, Thomas Huxley was appointed to the royal commission which decided what to teach in the public schools.
Huxley was himself an agnostic, but as a member of the commission he firmly insisted that religion should be taught in schools together with science. Every child should be taught the Christian Bible as an integral part of English culture. In recent times the scope of religious instruction in England has been extended to include Judaism and Islam. As a result of this policy, no strong antagonism between religious parents and public schools has arisen, from 1870 until the present day. The teaching of religion in public schools coincided with a decline of religious belief and a growth of religious tolerance. Children exposed to religion in public schools do not as a rule take it seriously. We do not know whether Thomas Huxley foresaw the decline of religion in England, but there is no doubt that he would have welcomed this unintended consequence of his educational policy.
I think Dyson is being naive here. England has never has the same problem with fundamentalism that we have in this country. The people who believe that secular education is destroying the faith of their children will not be mollified by some vague presentation of the Christian Bible as one religion among many. Nor will they accept the teaching of evolution in a serious way in science classes (at the very least it had better be watered down with the inclusion of “other theories&rdquo). Likewise for anything that smacks of tolerance of homosexuals.
In principle I have no objection to a comparative religion class being part of the education of every school child. But as a practical matter, in many parts of the country such classes will be overtaken by people with no scruples about using the forum to promote their own beliefs. Comparative religion will rapidly dissolve into full blown religious indoctrination. I don’t believe Dyson’s suggestion will solve anything.
For the people who just can’t abide secular education, we have the options of private schools and home schooling. That will have to suffice.
Anyway, I recommend reading all of Dyson’s essay.