Daniel Dennett's Theory of Religion

By Levine, Dan | Tikkun, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Daniel Dennett's Theory of Religion


Levine, Dan, Tikkun


WHERE IN THE HUMAN MAKEUP DOES religious fanaticism come from? The possibility that fanatics, of any faith, with access to modern technology could threaten civilization compels us to learn as much as we can about the root causes of their behavior. And while some cultures and some historical periods encourage militant faith more than others, the phenomenon is clearly universal. Could there be something in our evolutionary programming that inclines so many of us toward the kind of beliefs that provoke harmful actions? Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher of science and of mind, and author of several prominent books on consciousness and on evolution, thinks so. His latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which Bill Moyers recently discussed with him on American public television, is one of the most serious recent explorations of the biological roots of religious belief.

Dennett spends considerable time in his early chapters arguing for the social benefit of the scientific study of religion-that is, the study not of the claims of religion itself, but of why people are motivated to be religious. He notes that many likely readers of his book are true believers who would be offended by the very notion of subjecting the sacred to scientific scrutiny. But Dennett states that religion is no different from any other phenomenon occurring in nature, and the more we know about it, the better we can understand its effects. By analogy he recalls what a hornet's nest Alfred Kinsey, and later Masters and Johnson, stirred up by scientifically studying human sexuality and yet how valuable their contributions were in the end. To the fear of many religious people that the study and analysis of religion will diminish the value of faith, he answers, "I have been unable to come up with a case of some valuable phenomenon that has actually been destroyed, or even seriously damaged, by scientific scrutiny."

What Does "Religion" Mean?

anyone with a socially progressive outlook can endorse the idea of expanding our knowledge of religion as of any other human pursuit. Yet many readers of Tikkun will probably take issue with how Dennett defines the object of his study. His definition of religion is "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." By contrast, the first definition of the word "religion" in the Second College Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary reads "belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe." As an alternative definition, the same dictionary lists "any specific system of belief, worship, conduct, etc., often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."

Hence, what the self-described atheist Dennett calls "religion" is much more restrictive than the first dictionary definition, which is in turn more restrictive than the second dictionary definition. The difference between the dictionary's "superhuman" and Dennett's "supernatural" is instructive (although some other dictionaries use "supernatural" in their definitions). A supernatural being stands apart from, and transcends, nature, whereas a superhuman being is more powerful than we are, but can still operate within understandable natural laws. This means that belief in the supernatural, but not belief in the superhuman, inherently limits scientific investigation of the world. Also, belief in the supernatural tends to promote authoritarian structures within organized religions, because a priesthood can argue that its domination is required to intervene between powerless people and an incomprehensibly powerful deity.

The New World dictionary's second definition of religion is even more expansive. In addition to more orthodox religions, "any specific system of worship or belief" includes both theists and non-theists practicing what Michael Lerner calls "Left Hand of God" religions that require understanding and conscience rather than obedience.

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