Dennett in The Chronicle Review
Daniel Dennett's essay “Common-Sense Religion” has just appeared in the current issue of The Chronicle Review (a supplement to The Chronicle of Higher Education). It is adapted from his forthcoming book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Here are some excerpts:
So what is the prevailing attitude today among those who call themselves religious but vigorously advocate tolerance? There are three main options:
- The disingenuous Machiavellian: As a matter of political strategy, the time is not ripe for candid declarations of religious superiority, so we should temporize and let sleeping dogs lie in hopes that those of other faiths can gently be brought around over the centuries.
- The truly tolerant: It really doesn't matter which religion you swear allegiance to, as long as you have some religion.
- The benign neglecters: Religion is just too dear to too many to think of discarding it, even though it really doesn't do any good and is simply an empty historical legacy we can afford to maintain until it quietly extinguishes itself sometime in the unforeseeable future.
It is no use asking people which they choose, since the extremes are so undiplomatic we can predict in advance that most people will go for some version of ecumenical tolerance, whether they believe it or not.
So we've got ourselves caught in a hypocrisy trap, and there is no clear path out. Are we like the families in which the adults go through all the motions of believing in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids, and the kids all pretend still to believe in Santa Claus so as not to spoil the adults' fun? If only our current predicament were as innocuous and even comical as that! In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many adherents afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.
If that is the precious meaning our lives are vouchsafed thanks to our allegiance to one religion or another, it is not such a bargain. Is that the best we can do? Is it not tragic that so many people around the world find themselves enlisted against their will in a conspiracy of silence?
The argument is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I'm against stem-cell research because "my friend Fred says it's wrong, and that's all there is to it," you will just look at me as if I were missing the point of the discussion. I have not given you a reason that, in good faith, I could expect you to appreciate. Suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because God has told you so. Even if you are right — that is, even if God does exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong — you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept that as a reason. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can't) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can, but you won't consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is God's word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide by the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.
And later still:
It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God — in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love is worthy of worship.
Well said. I can't wait to read the book.