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Blindness + Deafness + Eloquence = Danger

Yesterday I read a review of Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Leon Wieseltier, who is the literary editor of The New Republic. I have not seen such a raving, scathing, diatribe like this in a long, long time. In a nutshell, Wieseltier's complaint is that Dennett's position is just as irrational and superstitious as the position of many irrational, superstitious religions. Wieseltier refers to the tenets of evolutionary psychology as "orthodoxies," putting them on a par with the orthodoxies of religious faiths. He claims that Dennett forces us to choose believing in "the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism," again equating scientific and religious thinking.

Of course, Wieseltier sees himself as far above the "naturalist and supernationalist superstitions," above the "excesses of naturalism and supernaturalism." Wieseltier's sophisticated supernaturalism is immune from "the crudities of religious myth" and, apparently in principle, immune from scientific analysis.

What sickens me is that Wieseltier's erudition and sophistication blinds and deafens him to the fundamental untenability of any religious position, whether crude or complex. He is but one more example of someone with a very powerful brain that has been infected by a religious upbringing, and he is now using his intelligence and eloquence to write extremely clever-sounding but misguided critques of books that threaten his world view.

x-posted to atheism, richarddawkins

Wieseltier's NYT review behind the cut.

'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,' by Daniel C. Dennett
The God Genome

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
By Daniel C. Dennett.
448 pp. Viking. $25.95.

Published: February 19, 2006

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a
scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the
view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions,
mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant
superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say
so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard
to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a
work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry
anthology of contemporary superstitions.

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its
tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its
legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing.
The excited materialism of American society I refer not to the
American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities
may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the
adoption by American culture of biological, economic and
technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence
abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book
is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous
polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption
that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine
statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in
the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely
naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in
the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century
England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in
the sky.

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of
emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an
accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked
in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano
Bruno, with tenure at Tufts! He wonders whether religious people
"will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book
through." If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you
fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of
religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism." But people
who share Dennett's view of the world he calls "brights." Brights
are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better.
Did you know that "brights have the lowest divorce rate in the
United States, and born-again Christians the highest"? Dennett's
own "sacred values" are "democracy, justice, life, love and truth."
This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his "impeccably hardheaded
and rational ontology," then your sacred values must be tyranny,
injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of
rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of
American obscurantism, this is not helpful.

Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume's heir. Hume began "The
Natural History of Religion," a short incendiary work that was
published in 1757, with this remark: "As every enquiry which
regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two
questions in particular which challenge our attention, to wit, that
concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin
in human nature." These words serve as the epigraph to Dennett's
introduction to his own conception of "religion as a natural
phenomenon." "Breaking the Spell" proposes to answer Hume's second
question, not least as a way of circumventing Hume's first
question. Unfortunately, Dennett gives a misleading impression of
Hume's reflections on religion. He chooses not to reproduce the
words that immediately follow those in which he has just basked:
"Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits
of the most obvious, at least, the clearest, solution. The whole
frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational
enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment
with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and

So was Hume not a bright? I do not mean to be pedantic. Hume
deplored religion as a source of illusions and crimes, and
renounced its consolations even as he was dying. His God was a very
wan god. But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true
or false as any other theism. The truth of religion cannot be
proved by showing that a skeptic was in his way a believer, or by
any other appeal to authority. There is no intellectually honorable
surrogate for rational argument. Dennett's misrepresentation of
Hume (and his similar misrepresentation of William James and Thomas
Nagel) is noteworthy, therefore, because it illustrates his
complacent refusal to acknowledge the dense and vital relations
between religion and reason, not only historically but also

For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking
philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or
false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either
proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very
important." It is history, not philosophy, that will break
religion's spell. The story of religion's development will
extirpate it. "In order to explain the hold that various religious
ideas and practices have on people," he writes, "we need to
understand the evolution of the human mind." What follows is, in
brief, Dennett's natural history of religion. It begins with the
elementary assertion that "everything that moves needs something
like a mind, to keep it out of harm's way and help it find the good
things." To this end, there arose in very ancient times the
evolutionary adaptation that one researcher has called a
"hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD." This cognitive skill
taught us, or a very early version of us, that we live in a world
of other minds and taught us too well, because it instilled "the
urge to treat things especially frustrating things as agents with
beliefs and desires." This urge is "deeply rooted in human
biology," and it results in a "fantasy-generation process" that
left us "finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us."

Eventually this animism issued in deities, who were simply the
"agents who had access to all the strategic information" that we
desperately lacked. "But what good to us is the gods' knowledge if
we can't get it from them?" So eventually shamans arose who told us
what we wanted to hear from the gods, and did so by means of
hypnosis. (Our notion of God is the product of this
"hypnotizability-enabler" in our brains, and it may even be that
theism is owed to a "gene for heightened hypnotizability," which
would be an acceptable version of a "God gene.") To secure these
primitive constructs and comforts against oblivion, ritual was
invented; and they were further secured by "acts of deceit" that
propounded their "systematic invulnerability to disproof." Folk
religions became organized religions. The "trade secrets" of the
shamans were transmitted to "every priest and minister, every imam
and rabbi." Slowly and steadily, these "trade secrets" were given
the more comprehensive protection of "belief in belief," the idea
that certain convictions are so significant that they must be
insulated from the pressures of reason. "The belief that belief in
God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of
disconfirmation or serious criticism," Dennett instructs, "has led
the devout to 'save' their beliefs by making them incomprehensible
even to themselves." In sum, we were HADD. Here endeth the lesson.

There are a number of things that must be said about this story.
The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any
strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back
to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing
more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary
biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic
narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming
that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We
don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence
and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses"
notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant
speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious
account of his own atheistic longing.

And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the
most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever
as primitive as its origins? Has Dennett never seen a flower grow
from the dust? Or is it the dust that he sees in a flower?
"Breaking the Spell" is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined
originalism. In perhaps the most flattening passage in the book,
Dennett surmises that "all our 'intrinsic' values started out as
instrumental values," and that this conviction about the primacy of
the instrumental is a solemn requirement of science. He remarks
that the question cui bono? who benefits? "is even more central in
evolutionary biology than in the law," and so we must seek the
biological utilities of what might otherwise seem like "a
gratuitous outlay." An anxiety about the reality of nonbiological
meanings troubles Dennett's every page. But it is very hard to
envisage the biological utilities of such gratuitous outlays as
"The Embarkation for Cythera" and Fermat's theorem and the "Missa

It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived
to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into
belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief.
This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief
unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can
disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by
describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In
this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be
outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of
rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures
depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's
natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It
portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product
of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural
selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational
argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the
independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect,
rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.)
Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it
destroys it.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not
a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the
fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the
confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and
to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No
confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are
animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the
ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling
observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the
same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact,
visible to natural science, and something that requires an
explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to
say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does
not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our
independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of
biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are
an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from
natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic
imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a
difference in degree, not a difference in kind a doctrine that may
quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a
biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions
and ideas into evo-psychobabble. "It is in the genetic interests of
parents . . . to inform not misinform their young, so it is
efficient (and relatively safe) to trust one's parents." Grief for
the death of a loved one is "a major task of cognitive updating:
revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less
familiar intentional system in it." "Marriage rituals and taboos
against adultery, clothing and hairstyles, breath fresheners and
pornography and condoms and H.I.V. and all the rest" have their
"ancient but ongoing source" in the organism's need to thwart
parasites. "The phenomenon of romantic love" may be adequately
understood by reference to "the unruly marketplace of human
mate-finding." And finally, the general rule: "Everything we value
from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion we
value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are
evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been
endorsed by natural selection." Never mind the merits of
materialism as an analysis of the world. As an attitude to life, it
represents a collapse of wisdom. So steer clear of "we
materialists" in your dark hours. They cannot fortify you, say,
after the funeral of a familiar intentional system.

BEFORE there were naturalist superstitions, there were
supernaturalist superstitions. The crudities of religious myth are
plentiful, and a sickening amount of savagery has been perpetrated
in their name. Yet the excesses of naturalism cannot hide behind
the excesses of supernaturalism. Or more to the point, the excesses
of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism.
Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion,
because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The
move "away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and
depersonalized concepts," or the increasing philosophical
sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as
"strategic belief-maintenance." He cannot conceive of a thoughtful
believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of
religion's strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact
the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms.
Dennett is unacquainted with the distinction between fideism and
faith. Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a
literalist in matters of religion.

But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so
many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically,
allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically? We see
kernels and husks everywhere. There are concepts in many of the
fables of faith, philosophical propositions about the nature of the
universe. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are
there. Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons.
In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of
philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this
shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively
is that there are many spells that need to be broken.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 18th, 2006 02:02 pm (UTC)
That which remains after everyone gets their say...
Feb. 18th, 2006 02:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Truth
Or, in the words of Philip K. Dick,

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Feb. 19th, 2006 11:36 pm (UTC)
Wieseltier's erudition and sophistication blinds and deafens him to the fundamental untenability of any religious position, whether crude or complex.

Well said and my sentiments precisely. I think his disgust with Dennett's book simply reflects the fact that his own religious sensibilities were offended. Dennet is a philosopher and an expert on the subjects of evolution and consciousness. Wieseltier is none of the above. His simply adopting a withering and erudite tone does not make him correct. I'm sure the clergy railed against Galileo with similar erudition.

Interesting, too, that Wieseltier casts his ire as a defense of philosophy and not just religion. Philosophy is great. Sometimes it may even be helpful. But some philosophy is junk, too, and however enjoyable the mental calisthenics involved in philosophizing may be, it certainly helps if they're rooted in reality. And science is the one discipline that seeks to determine reality.
Feb. 20th, 2006 09:04 am (UTC)
I've had this book on my wishlist for a while, but can't seem to find it here in Pakistan. I plan on reading Pinker's How the Mind Works, and then Alas, Poor Darwin (critiques of ev psych) -- mind if I hit you with some questions now and then?
Feb. 21st, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
Not only do I not mind if you throw questions my way, I welcome questions from you. You have an agile mind, and I enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:07 pm (UTC)
Coming from you, this is the hugest compliment ever. :-)

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )