Dyson on Religion

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.


More like this

They exist, which is very good news in a country that is 85% Catholic…and the reality of a Croatian atheist community was acknowledged in a major newspaper (google translation, for those of us who don't know the language). The Enlightenment is busting out all over, it's good to see. Never mind the…
I'm about to hop on a plane and fly off to New York for a few days, and now it seems like everyone is sending me op-eds from all over the place that are screaming against the "new atheism". We must be effective to inspire such denunciations, and we must be striking deeply to cause so much obvious…
Brown has posted a reply to my angry criticisms, and as is increasingly common among the accommodationists, he gets everything backwards, upside down, and inside out. Let's start with the first paragraph. PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a…
Mitt Romney gave his big religion speech yesterday. It is a standard piece of anti-atheist propaganda. America is a relgious nation, those darn secularists are trying to take God out of the public square, I'm as crazy religious as all those evangelicals I'm pandering to even though they regard my…

I agree that the social functions of religious communities should not be underestimated. A found a similar thought here: http://pandagon.net/2006/06/13/symbiotic-growth-of-republicanism-and-fu…

This made me think about creating some sort of an 'Atheist & Agnostic Church' (does not have vto called that way), which has a similar community, like discussions, day care groups, and so on. This could be an alternative for non-religious people.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 Jun 2006 #permalink

"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. "

I think it's rather that he's saying scientific evidence isn't the only evidence, ie that because religion is about metaphysical truth rather than empirical reliability, Dennett is being unfair in asking for scientific evidence. As Dyson says: "Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating th material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe"
Now this is perhaps true, but I think it is fair to ask why something most of whose variants make demonstrably false empirical claims should be a reliable indicator of a any sort of truth beyond psychology (which is surely a naturalistic fallacy - religion is good because our minds tend to crave religious or quasi-religious experiences). As far as I can see the only vaguely plausible rational argument for religion is a utilitarian one, and Dyson certainly suggests that he is sympathetic to that with his focus on the social role of religion. I wonder if he is as happy about the way the likes of Hamas and various Pakistani extremists use social welfare as a proselytising and political tool. Furthermore I think that the utilitarian argument for religion, at least for morality, is fundamentally flawed by its reliance on faith and authority. If the morality of your actions are only based on what you believe on faith somebody said a long time ago, what happens to your moral compass if you lose that faith or it is manipulated by others? So much of Christianity (which is obviously what I have most personal experience with) seems concerned with avoiding doubt, uncertainy and challenges to faith - and I think that is based on a fear of losing that moral compass.

I don't have any particular brief for Dennett's book - I haven't read it and I don't really agree with the underlying premise - but I do strongly sympathise with Dennett's philosophy (and his philosophy of science). In the interests of full disclosure I should also say that Dyson went to my school, which was originally founded as a religious institution and has a magnificent 14th century chapel, and I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly at an honouring ceremony. But I can't agree with his interpretation of the British situation. He implies that British children's rejection of religion is a result of their exposure to and education in it. This ignores the strong tradition of British atheistic philosophy from Hume onward which has infused the mainstream British intellectual and thus educational culture, despite the best efforts of Matthew Arnold and various public (ie boarding) schools. He also ignores the disillusionment engendered by verbal, phsyical and even sexual abuse at religious schools - I know far more lapsed Catholics than practising ones, and all hated their religious schooling. He can hardly think that is a good thing. He also dismisses Dennett's attacks on religion as being directed at fundamentalism, which doesn't reflect the religious experience of most people. Yet he ignores the vast influence that the fundamentalists have on the rest of the population, because their own, moderate version of the same faith makes them reluctant to criticise or oppose the nutters. This is most obvious in the US where Bush, who by all accounts has no personal bigotry against gay people, is willing to promote a constitutional amendment to appease the fundamentalists, and this is just one example among many I'm sure you're familiar with. But even in the UK, where the evangelical/fundamentalist population is much smaller, albeit growing rapidly, a similar effect prevails. State funded schools are allowed to discriminate between potential students on the grounds of religious belief. High Church Anglican Tony Blair has pointedly refused to condemn or stop the teaching of creationism as fact in schools partially funded by the creationist Vardy foundation, and even tried to outlaw the ridicule of religious beliefs. Blasphemy is still illegal, and the monarch may not be, nor marry, a Catholic. This isn't some lunatic fringe, it's the established church.

Finally, I don't understand what Dyson is doing with the conclusion to his article. Whether it results mainly in "in-group love" or "out-group hate", religious fundamentalism drives the Islamist terrorists. Whether they want to improve the religious standing of their own states or destroy the heresy of others, it's still religion-inspired moralism that feeds their murderous passion. As for the bit about kamikaze pilots, I can't see what the relevance is at all. Does Dennett talk about them in the book?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 Jun 2006 #permalink

> England has never has the same problem with fundamentalism that we have in this country.

Well, there was that whole thing with the Civil War, when the Puritans took over and (literally) banned Christmas, and being Episcopalian or Catholic was punishable by death.

But since 1660? Not so much, no.

I enjoyed Professor Dyson's sparkling and provocative review and certainly agree with you that he is far too isolated to comment on the benign influence of religion in an America he doesn't seem to know much about. On the other hand, Dennett's final prescriptions and predictions boggle the mind and one wonders where he has been hanging out, too. What I do like in his book is a relentless spirit of inquiry into what we believe as well as putting everything on the table for examination. I recommend this review by Charles T. Ruhr (sp.?), a faculty member at Duquesne University. Cheers.

By edward hessler (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

There are many things that are the first to go, the mind is merely one of them. Here, the URL, referred to in the previous post. Sorry! ( < http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/12/rubin.htm >). And it is Professor Charles T. Rubin. Another oops.

By edward hessler (not verified) on 16 Jun 2006 #permalink

Hardy and Erdos are two of my mathematical heroes, so it was nice to learn, from Dyson, that both were passionate atheists.

You can have them, Jason. I am glad to have Newton, Leibniz, Gauss, Euler, Pascal, Fermat, Descartes, Cauchy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Goedel, Fibonacci, Maria Agnesi, Anthemius of Tralles, RA Fisher and most other great mathematicians in my camp.

"Visions" and such may not be evidence of an unseen world, but they certainly seem to represent some sort of unseen phenomena, which a naturalist can reasonably presume are in the subject's brain.

Also, many of those visions are more "reproducible" than you might expect! Consider the work on induced NDEs, not to mention Michael Harner's "simplified" version of shamanism. (www.shamanism.org)
Personally, I'd really like to know just what's going on in the various visual "buffers" during a shamanic journey....

By David Harmon (not verified) on 25 Jun 2006 #permalink