Religion as a Natural Phenomena

by Daniel C. Dennett

In his review for The New York Times, Leon Wieseltier said it is a sorry example of scientism, which he regards as a contemporary superstition. Mr. Wieseltier knows nonsense when he sees it. I’ll be identifying and discussing the more egregious errors and omissions in Mr. Dennett’s book.

Discussing the meaning of word materialism, Professor Dennett says:

In its scientific or philosophical sense, it refers to a theory that aspires to explain all the phenomena without recourse to anything immaterial—like a Cartesian soul, or “ectoplasm”—or God. The standard negation of materialistic in the scientific sense is dualistic, which maintains that there are two entirely different kinds of substance, matter and …whatever minds are supposedly made of. (p. 302)

Dennett is right not to think we have an immaterial substance inside our brains. Dualism is indeed irrational. However, it was abandoned by philosophers a thousand years ago and replaced with a rational view of man. Of course, many people think of man in dualistic terms. You hear it when people speak of “keeping body and soul together” or “Mother’s soul is in heaven.” Advocates of laws against abortion frequently argue that life begins at conception, the idea being that God infuses babies at this point in time with an immaterial substance.

The modern metaphysical view of man is that man is a being, man is one. It is not an entirely modern concept, since Plato discussed the problem of the “one and the many.” According to Thomas Aquinas, man is a metaphysical composition of two incomplete beings: a material incomplete being and a immaterial incomplete being. I understand this to mean we can comprehend man because we know everything that happens to man and everything that man does. However, we can’t define man because we can’t define knowledge and free will. Saying that man is a rational animal or that which evolved from animals sheds no light on the question: What is man?

The philosophy that God does not exist is not materialism, it is naturalism. Materialism (sometimes called physicalism to avoid hedonistic connotations) is the view that all that exists is matter. Materialists frequently say that free will is an illusion and that the experience of the existence of oneself is some kind of epiphenomena. (In a quote below, you will see that Dennett puts free will in a list of things people believe in.) Materialists deny that man is a being in a metaphysical sense, which can be construed as denying that man exists. Presumably, this is what materialists mean when they say all that exists is matter.

It is not clear from his book whether Dennett is a materialist, but he is certainly a naturalist. Concerning the proof of God’s existence, he says:

The Cosmological Argument, which in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God—doesn't stay simple for long. Some deny the premise, since quantum physics teaches us (doesn't it?) that not everything that happens needs to have a cause. Others prefer to accept the premise and then ask: What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused. (p. 242)

Professor Dennett got his rebuttal from David Hume who misunderstood the proof. The principle of causality is not that everything needs a cause but that every contingent being needs a cause. An example of a contingent being is ourselves. We are contingent because we are finite, that is, we are different beings from one another. Since a finite being needs a cause, there must be at least one being which is not finite. Such a being is infinite and supernatural.

The following quote comes at the beginning of a chapter “Belief in Belief”:

At the end of Chapter 1, I promised to return to Hume’s question in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the question of whether we have good reasons for believing in God, and in this chapter, I will keep that promise. (p. 200)

We know God exists, as I argue above, as a matter of reason. God’s existence gives rise to the possibility of revelation which means there are two kinds of knowledge: faith and reason. In reason, we know a proposition is true because we can see the truth of it. We can see it is true that E = mc2, to use one of Dennett's ill-conceived examples of faith. In faith, we know something is true, not because we can see it is true, but because God is telling us.

Faith is a positive response to revelation. Jewish people living in the first century (BC and AD), responding in faith to the Bible, believed that God would deliver them from death, just as He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Dennett’s phrase “believing in God” refers not only to the knowledge of God’s existence, but to the belief that God will not abandon us in our hour of need.

To explain what he means by “good reasons” I can quote Mr. Dennett quoting an orthodox Christian:

According to Avery Cardinal Dulles (2004), apologetics is “the rational defense of faith,” and in the past it was often supposed to prove rigorously that God exists, and Jesus was divine, was born of a virgin, and so forth, but it fell into disrepute. “Apologetics fell under suspicion for promising more than it could deliver and for manipulating the evidence to support the desired conclusions. It did not always escape the vice that Paul Tillich labeled ‘sacred dishonesty’” [p. 19]. Recognizing this problem, many of the devout have retreated to a less aggressive avowal of their creed, but Cardinal Dulles regrets this development, and calls for a renewal and reformation of apologetics. (p. 363)

Mr. Dennett imagines that he is giving reasons not to believe in religion. Let’s look at some of his reasons. The first quote is at the end of the chapter “Belief in Belief” and the second quote at the beginning of the chapter “Morality and Religion”:

So much for the belief in God. What about belief in belief in God? We still haven't inquired about the grounds for this belief in belief. Isn’t it true? That is, isn’t it true that, whether or not God exists, religious belief is at least as important as the belief in democracy, in the rule of law, in free will? The very widespread (but far from universal) opinion is that religion is the bulwark of morality and meaning. (p. 245)
Religion plays its most important role in supporting morality, many think, by giving people an unbeatable reason to do good: the promise of an infinite reward in heaven, and (depending on tastes) the threat of an infinite punishment in hell if they don’t. Without the divine carrot and stick, goes this reasoning, people would loll about aimlessly or indulge their basest desires, beak their promises, cheat on their spouses, neglect their duties, and so on. There are two well-known problems with this reasoning: (1) it doesn't seem to be true, which is good news, since (2) it is such a demeaning view of human nature. (p. 279)

In the first quote, he mentions “bulwark of morality” and “meaning.” But in the second quote, he drops out “meaning.” To understand why Mr. Dennett sidesteps the question of the meaning of life or the purpose of life, it may help to quote a nonbeliever who tackled the question. Susan Jacoby in her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism on page 169 attributes to Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) the following statement:

While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. This creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed.

The Great Agnostic (as he was called) mentions the great mystery of life: people who devote themselves to their own happiness will not be happy and those who devote themselves to the happiness of others will be happy. If he left this out, it would sound like his creed was hedonism.

It is to be expected that someone prone to, if not guilty of, scientism would avoid the question of what our purpose in life is if it is not to get to heaven because there is no experiment that sheds light on this question. However, whether religion supports morality can be determined by correlating moral conduct with religious belief. Mr. Dennett does this to the detriment of religion by citing the high divorce rate of fundamentalist Christians.

There are worse things than divorcing your spouse. Disingenuousness can be worse and can take the form of leaving unsaid what should have been said. Mr. Dennett should have explained why he did not discuss the idea that religion gives meaning to life.

Apologetics includes reference to miraculous historical events, such as the parting of the Red Sea. The only miracle mentioned in Mr. Dennett’s book is the Shroud of Turin:

Even the Roman Catholic Church, with its unfortunate legacy of persecution of its own scientists, has recently been eager to see scientific confirmation—and accept the risk of disconfirmation— of its traditional claims about the Shroud of Turin, for example.5 (p. 274)

The Shroud of Turin has on it a mysterious image of a crucified man. Since no one claims to know how the image got there, it can be called a miracle. The footnote does not give more information about the shroud and what scientists think about it, but discusses evolution. Information about the relic is at www.shroud.com.