Wisdom From Dennett

The reason for the recent blog drought, I am happy to report, is that the book writing has been going well lately. I shot past the 80,000 word mark the other day, which leaves just 20,000 to go. Alas, it is now clear that the first draft will be somewhat overlength, so I am not quite as close to finishing the draft as it might seem. Still, I managed to polish off a few chapters that had been giving me a hard time. There will probably be substantial rewriting, of course, but revising is always easier than creating. At any rate, I have been hammering the book so hard lately that other forms of writing have had to take a back seat.

Anyway, I did want to poke my head up briefly to call attention to this fine op-ed from Daniel Dennett, in the New York Daily News. His subject is the recent Pew Study about religious literacy in this country. You know, the one that shows that atheists, agnostics and Jews are the most religiously literate.


Dennett writes:

The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals – all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.

So what’s a religion to do? There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone’s creed – not even your own.

As part of the research for the book I have spent the last year reading rather a lot of high-brow theology. Dennett’s Plan A so perfectly captures my main reaction that I am so glad to hear someone else say it.

A good example is the large literature reconceptualizing original sin in the light of evolution. The classical version is based on a literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve. Obviously, though, no such interpretation is possible in the light of modern science. One approach to salvaging the notion is to reinterpret original sin as the general state of selfishness we inherit from the evolutionary process. Is not sin ultimately about selfishness, after all? Does not even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins talk about selfish genes?

I suppose people can redefine words however they like, but there is something insidious about this. The interesting part of original sin was its connection to a specific event in human history. Original sin was just the name that was attached to the general state of sinfulness we inherit as the result of Adam’s transgression. What existence does it have apart from that story? In the reinterpretation it is science that is doing all the work of explaining human nature, with theology just coming along for the ride. For theologians to paste the label, “original sin” onto what science is telling us is tantamount to taking credit for the ideas of others. It allows theologians to pretend that science and religion are converging on the same truth, when the reality is that people applying religious “ways of knowing” have routinely been led astray, while science has had to come in later to clean up the mess.

It is like arguing that, while it was surely naive to think of phlogiston as a literal substance that actually existed within combustible substances, we can be grateful to modern theories for leading us to a superior understanding of the phlogiston concept. You see, today we realize that phlogiston actually refers to the exquisite dance between oxygen and fuel in the process of combustion. In this way ancient wisdom and modern knowledge are brought into harmony.

Anyway, Dennett has many other quotable nuggets, so go read the whole thing!

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    October 6, 2010

    I plan on attending a talk by Daniel Dennett on Monday, topic: “What should replace Religion”. I am sure it will be quite interesting and entertaining.

  2. #2 Jason Creighton
    October 6, 2010

    There is a commonly followed “Plan C” which Dennett fails to mention: Deny outright the evidence for the age of the earth and evolution, and teach this doctrine to adherents from an early age and convince them that if those things were true, life would have no meaning or value.

    I wish I could say that this strategy is doomed to failure because it is so clearly and empirically false, but in America at least, there don’t seem to be any signs that literal creationism is going away.

  3. #3 Anonymous Coward
    October 6, 2010

    “In the reinterpretation it is science that is doing all the work of explaining human nature, with theology just coming along for the ride. For theologians to paste the label, “original sin” onto what science is telling us is tantamount to taking credit for the ideas of others. It allows theologians to pretend that science and religion are converging on the same truth, when the reality is that people applying religious “ways of knowing” have routinely been led astray, while science has had to come in later to clean up the mess.”

    See here for a humorous comic on that point.

  4. #4 The Phytophactor
    October 6, 2010

    Anyone who can write a book in year simply does not have enough to do, or those of us who have labored for 4 or more, or 8 or more years, to finish a tome, have way too much else to do! More power to you Jason, but really, if you have to count the words, well, ….

  5. #5 Beth
    October 6, 2010

    The beginning of the Pew study executive study states “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions”. Was there a reason you only included the first three groups (atheists, agnostics, and Jews) when describing the results of the study?

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 6, 2010

    Beth -

    Yes. The reason was that I based my statement on what I had heard at second-hand about the study and not on the study itself. I am happy to acknowledge the success of my Mormon bothers and sisters in answering the questions in the study.

  7. #7 Lenoxuss
    October 6, 2010

    Original post:

    One approach to salvaging the notion is to reinterpret original sin as the general state of selfishness we inherit from the evolutionary process.

    Huh, I’d never heard exactly that one before.

    One response that occurs to me… if Genesis is meant to entreat on evolution, there are about five thosand other ways the ancient Hebrews (working under divine-inspiration-of-some-sort) could allegorize actual evolutionary history. And already I smell the Christian objection — ancient Hebrews? Evolution? What could the one have to do with the other? What are you on about?

    Urgh. People tend to think of scientific topics as being “rarified” and inapplicable to “plain” reality. All those quarks, for instance — surely they don’t correspond to anything “everyday”?

    Well, the plain reality is that the stars are suns, that many diseases are caused by tiny organisms, and that human beings are physically, sexually descended from (other) apes. The Bible doesn’t even hint at any of that, and frequently contradicts it.

    As it happens, that’s part of why I love science fiction; it’s the only literature in which humankind is a species, not a sort of generic template for sentient entities that the rest of reality ought to imitate or map itself on.

  8. #8 eric
    October 6, 2010

    Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

    I don’t think its that steady, or as planned/nefarious as the quote implies. While not an expert on the history of Christianity, I’m sure someone will be along soon to point out that x-and-y sects believed the Book of BlahDiBlah was allegorical way back in Umpteen A.D.

    I think the explanation that best fits the variety of sects we see through history and today is that religion evolves. Teachings propagate with variation to the next generation, with some doing better than others and some variations dying out. What you see today are the descendants of the winners. In this model, background knowledge such as science is part of the ecology. As the ecology changes, so too does the survival value of various traits. In some environments, literalism may be a positive trait. In others, its a negative trait.

    By missing this evolutionary aspect of it, Dennett’s Plan A gets two important factors wrong. First, there’s no grand master plan about what Christianity 2120 will look like. The change is not intentional at all. Much more likely, every generation thinks their version is the one true religion that ought to be preserved…and those crazy different ideas the kids have are just as wrong as those dated ideas their grandparents had.

    Secondly, Dennett forgets that most ecological influences (like science, or culture, or whatever) are local. A religion can get less literal in some ecologies while getting more literal in others. His Plan A pictures non-literalness as a global, consistent change. Its neither global nor consistent. If we think its global and consistent, we will underestimate movements like young earth creationism. We will think it will just go away over time, as religious planners organize that long slow retreat into allegory. But nobody is planning such a retreat, and it won’t go away on its own. Today’s religious teens will vary from their parent’s beliefs. Some will be more allegorical. Some will be less. And tomorrow’s “mainstream” christianity will depend on which of those variations prospers, and which die out. The literal ones could very well flourish if we allow the cultural environment to get to a state where the belief provides more benefit than cost to the believers.

  9. #9 Anonymous
    October 7, 2010

    I never thought I’d see Dennett in the NY Daily News if I lived to be a hundred. Well done by him (and the DN)!

  10. #10 Jim Harrison
    October 7, 2010

    The most obvious and significant trend in religion over the last couple of hundred years has little to do with the tenants of particular faiths and certainly not with the rhetorical approaches taken by sophisticated apologists. The big fact is that most people, most places used to have their day-to-day lives organized and controlled by religious rituals and institutions and now most people, most places do not. Belonging to a religion is now mostly a matter of holding certain opinions rather than of adhering to a specific life style or submitting to particular authority figures. Whether or not people go on claiming to believe in God, they live in an increasingly secular fashion. Atheism may or may not become more common; but secularism has already triumphed. Isn’t that the big thing?

  11. #11 Valhar2000
    October 7, 2010

    Eric:

    It is amazing, isn’t it, that Dennet forgets all the points you bring up right after discussing them in his book “Breaking the Spell”. Must be old age creeping up on him, I guess. Still, what a beard! Right?

  12. #12 gotryhag
    October 7, 2010

    >Original sin was just the name that was attached to the general state of sinfulness we inherit as the result of Adam’s transgression.

    Huh, I always thought that in traditional theology the fault for original sin was securely settled on Eve’s womanly shoulders.

    Aside from that, the “A approach” for religions inevitably leads to their obsolescence. Either religions that take the “B approach” supplant them in the case of fanatics, or they simply fade into irrelevance. Like the Finnish Lutheran church, they’ll have their Christian/other denomination revival movements that gather up all the damaged goods and people with fucked up wiring, and their own power and prestige in society fades into a role of media commentator.

    And then there are those who take the other route, the route of conservatism and violent rejection of external values. These religious communities, like most of Islam, do become immensely powerful for the fact that they can instil a strong sense of tribalistic belonging in their subjects. Which consequently leads to a rather strong society in terms of survival. I’m waiting rather giddily to see what kind of cultural evolution Islam is going to go through now that it has asserted this kind of ideology. From the safety of a fortified bunker, of course.

  13. #13 Kevin
    October 7, 2010

    @12:

    Eve was punished by having childbirth be made difficult, and by putting the man in control of her. Yep, patriarchy is right there at the beginning.

    Adam was punished by being forced to work the land for food, instead of having everything provided as it was in the garden.

    The snake was punished by having to slide on its belly and “eat dirt”.

    God was an equal-opportunity punisher.

    But to be fair, before he kicked them out of the garden forever he made clothes for them (out of skins).

  14. #14 eric
    October 7, 2010

    Valhar2000: It is amazing, isn’t it, that Dennet forgets all the points you bring up right after discussing them in his book “Breaking the Spell”.

    Okay Valhar, I’m willing to admit I’m wrong. But I think I had an honest reading of the quote given above. So why don’t you tell me how the idea of religion ‘using the tactic’ of Plan A is consistent with the evolutionary ideas I’ve described above.

  15. #15 Lenoxuss
    October 7, 2010

    Eric @ 8: Very good point.

    I’ve come to feel that the actual ratio of literalists to metaphorists to not-sure-what-ists has been roughly the same throughout religion’s history.

    The priest(s) who first compiled the different texts into what we now call “The Old Testament” didn’t nearly as much about building a coherent account of reality as did their differently-tribed ancestors who wrote the distinct texts; the compilers’ concerns were much more about political compromise (hence all the redundancies and obvious contradictions.) And the story of the composition of the New Testament is likewise one of competing interpretations of competing dogmas. Some admonishments against nascent Christian “heresies” are already there in the Gospels.

    Most of the Bible is a com[ilation of fanon arguments between people centuries apart, over questions that still rattle today (like “How does the afterlife work?”, etc).

    I’m now reminded of this Daylight Atheism post: Smoothing Out the Rough Edges.

  16. #16 Dan L.
    October 7, 2010

    Eric:

    I don’t understand your objection. Why do you assume Dennett is making a prediction instead of describing the current historical view of the evolution of religions? Seems bang on if you interpret it that way.

  17. #17 eric
    October 8, 2010

    Perhaps I’m just put off by the phrasing. When he talks about religions doing planning its ascribing intent where there is none. Of course, I don’t really have a problem with biologists who use ‘vernacular’ intentional language to describe evolving systems. At worst its sloppy but that’s a quibble, most of the time it its perfectly reasonable. So I guess I withdraw my complaint.

  18. #18 Peter T
    October 11, 2010

    Attitudes to religion change over the years. The ancient Greeks were not fools, but they apparently believed simultaneously in Zeus the Law-Giver, in whose name Antigone defied the king, and Zeus the divine seducer, who argues with his wife. Arguments over, say, transubstantiation, have the same flavour – it’s not really bread in one way, but it is in another. Depends if you ask “in what way is it holy?” or “is it made from flour and water?”

    The key change is that when we ask “is this true?” we mean pretty much only is it literally (“scientifically”) true? Pre-modern (and modern) people have several different standards of “truth”, but our culture requires that we submerge all but one of them. But we have them anyway – things we know to be true in some sense that does not refer to the literal truth. We often have a problem articulating how whatever it is is true. Pre-moderns did not bother – they accepted on the same level that it was literally true that the world was round, but religiously true that it was flat, and maybe poetically true that it was some other shape.

  19. #19 Tyler DiPietro
    October 12, 2010

    “Pre-modern (and modern) people have several different standards of “truth”, but our culture requires that we submerge all but one of them.”

    From the standpoint of logic there can be multiple values of truth, even infinite ones as in fuzzy logics. But I doubt that you can make a case that the general notion of truth is nearly as plastic.

  20. #20 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    October 12, 2010

    I shot past the 80,000 word mark the other day, which leaves just 20,000 to go.

    Do keep in mind that quality is more important than quantity.

  21. #21 another Jim
    October 12, 2010

    Bayesian:
    I’d be willing to wager that the 100K word goal is a contractual obligation, not a personal hurdle.

  22. #22 SAWells
    October 19, 2010

    The Original Sin thing is even simpler than that; it’s a fairy tale to explain why people die. Most cultures have one, because we don’t like to think that dying is normal and inevitable.

    In Gilgamesh, the hero goes to the underworld and obtains a fruit which will make him immortal. But he falls asleep and a snake steals it. Which is why people have to die, but snakes can shed their skins and renew their youth. Obviously.

  23. #23 Maths private tutor
    October 25, 2010

    Hi

    Great information shared in this post and I think there will probably be substantial rewriting, of course, but revising is always easier than creating.

  24. #24 ILEAD India
    October 25, 2010

    Thanks. It was an interesting post. I could see other side of religious wisdom through Dennett’s eyes.Thanks again.Hope to see more of such posts here.

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