Dennett Among the Faithful

Via Jerry Coyne comes this report, from Daniel Dennett, of a symposium on science and faith held at Cambridge. It sounds like his experience was very similar to mine at the recent NAPC conference. Dennett writes:

I am attending and participating in the big Cambridge University Darwin Week bash, and I noticed that one of the two concurrent sessions the first day was on evolution and theology, and was ‘supported by the Templeton Foundation’ (though the list of Festival Donors and Sponsors does not include any mention of Templeton). I dragged myself away from a promising session on speciation, and attended. Good thing I did. It was wonderfully awful. We heard about the Big Questions, a phrase used often, and it was opined that the new atheists naively endorse the proposition that “There are no meaningful questions that science cannot answer.” Richard Dawkins’ wonderful sentence about how nasty the God of the Old Testament is was read with relish by Philip Clayton, Professor at Claremont School of Theology in California, and the point apparently was to illustrate just how philistine these atheists were–though I noticed that he didn’t say he disagreed with Richard’s evaluation of Yahweh. We were left to surmise, I guess, that it was tacky of Richard to draw attention to these embarrassing blemishes in an otherwise august tradition worthy of tremendous respect. The larger point was the complaint that the atheists have a “dismissive attitude toward the Big Questions” and Dawkins, in particular, didn’t consult theologians. (H. Allen Orr, they were singing your song.) Clayton astonished me by listing God’s attributes: according to his handsomely naturalistic theology, God is not omnipotent, not even supernatural, and . . . . in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it.

Sounds exactly like the sort of nonsense I heard at the NAPC.

This business about God not being supernatural is something I find especially frustrating. I literally have no idea what it means. Just as one cannot be a married bachelor, I don’t see how one can be a natural God. If you are natural, you are not God.

While we’re at it, we should note that it is a ludicrous distortion to say that Dawkins dismisses the Big Questions. In reality he dismisses only the idea that theology has any contirbution to make towards answering them.

Dennett continues:

In the discussion period I couldn’t stand it any more and challenged the speakers: “I’m Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I’ve heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort–evolutionary theology–but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You’ve clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I’m missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren’t already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?” (Words to that effect) Neither speaker had anything to offer, but van Huyssteen blathered on for a bit without, however, offering any instances of theological wisdom that every scientist interested in the Big Questions should have in his kit.

Exactly right. If it amuses you to graft some evidence-free metaphysical superstructure to what science is telling us about reality then you go right ahead and do it. But please stop pretending that in doing so you are making some contribution to the store of human knowledge. And definitely stop pretending that this sort of vacuous, high-minded argle-bargle is anything more than a blip on the landscape of religion.


  1. #1 Dogbert
    July 10, 2009

    I am of the opinion that theology is only useful as a means of employment for theologians.

  2. #2 Leni
    July 10, 2009

    Exactly right. If it amuses you to graft some evidence-free metaphysical superstructure to what science is telling us about reality then you go right ahead and do it.

    Nicely put! I was trying to think of a way to say this very thing to chas, so thanks for doing my work for me… And for doing it much better than I would have 🙂

  3. #3 Robert O'Brien
    July 15, 2009

    A foolish empiricism is the hobgoblin of little minds. I should think that a representative of algebraic topology, one of the most boring and real-world-application-free subdisciplines of mathematics would appreciate that.

  4. #4 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    August 1, 2009

    Theology is the subject about making a square circle- the incoherent attributes that conflict with each other, revealing no there there- the ignostic argument.
    Furthermoe, the atelic/ teleonomic argument argues that as the weight of evidence presents no cosmic teleology, and teleology conflicts with natural causes and explanations, there is no need for Him. That affirms the Ockham against Him.
    And the presumption of naturalism presents that not not only are natural causes and primary and sufficient; Leibniz notwithstanding, they are the sufficient reason.
    God no more adds explanation than gremlins or demons! And as the ignostic argument notes, He is vacuous as an explanation and anything else!
    So creationist evolution [ theistic evolution] is an oxymoron.
    Google skeptic griggsy.

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