by Denyse O'Leary
While most people who have paid any attention to the current spate of anti-God books have heard of Richard Dawkins, they may have overlooked the much greater academic influence of Tufts philosopher of mind, Darwinist guru, and Darwin look-alike Daniel Dennett.
In his recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , he candidly announces,
"I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here. They will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that--that's what I am, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do."
"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. And most shameful are the priests, rabbis, imams, and other experts whose response to the sincere requests from their flock for moral guidance is to conceal their own inability to give reasons for their views about tough issues by hiding behind some 'inerrant' (read 'above criticism') interpretation of the sacred texts. It is one thing for a well-meaning layperson with a deep allegiance to a religious tradition to delegate authority to his or her religious leaders, but it is quite another for those leaders to pretend to discover (thanks to their expertise) the right answers in their tradition by a process that has to be taken on faith and is inaccessible to even the most well-meant criticism."
In Dennett's Breaking the Spell, as in the entire recent spate of atheist books, there isn't a single new idea of any significance, as noted earlier. The two main things that the current crop of atheist books have going for them is the unperturbable certainty of their authors that they are conferring a great public benefit - a certainty that they uncritically project onto others - and the assurance of a good deal of flattering attention from the legacy media.
The flattering attention will usually not include references to the highly illiberal elements of the anti-God extremists' message - elements that typically come to the fore whenever Darwinism is questioned, on whatever ground. For example, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga notes, regarding an earlier Dennett work, Darwin's Dangerous Idea ,
Dennett doesn't confine himself to matters just of theoretical interest. He sees serious religion as steadily dwindling with the progress of science, but suggests that we should keep a few Baptists and other fundamentalists around in something like cultural zoos (no doubt with sizable moats to protect the rest of us right-thinking nonfundamentalists). We should preserve a few Baptists for the sake of posterity--but not, he says, at just any cost. "Save the Baptists", says he, "but not by all means [Dennett's emphasis]. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world." Save the Baptists, all right, but only if they promise not to misinform their children by teaching them "that 'Man' is not a product of evolution by natural selection" and other blatantly objectionably views.
Essentially, he doesn't mind children knowing about religions other than Darwinism; the problem comes when they take any other religion seriously and act on it.
Recently, Dennett had major heart surgery and announced his belief in a sort of "goodness" (in "Thank goodness" ), about which Gonzaga law prof David DeWolf notes,
What is interesting in "Thank Goodness" is that Dennett does not reject the search for meaning, but instead proposes an obviously ersatz religion, which displaces traditional theology. Dennett doesn't say, "Look, I'm a scientist. I'd like to believe in tooth fairies and Santa Claus, and a benevolent God. But my scientific integrity demands that I recognize that we are nothing but selfish creatures, endowed with a fierce desire for survival, and a number of socially constructed illusions that make us more successful as a species. Like everyone else, I'll indulge my infantile wishes when I choose to. But if you want to know what the answer is to the question of whether there is meaning in the world, I'd have to say there is none." Instead, Dennett proposes the ersatz religion of "Goodness," which is a silly form of rationalism and panglossian progressivism that wouldn't stand up for one moment of the kind of skepticism that he directs toward traditional theology.
But the really interesting thing about Dennett is that he is a philosopher of mind. Well, so far, most of the key problems that materialists would need to solve about mind in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of their position are unsolved, and they have no idea where to look in order to solve them. That sheds an interesting light on the certainty with which they attack all traditional perspectives on life, mind, and humanity. Whatever else their certainty is, it is not the certainty of people who actually know something better or truer.
But perhaps the anti-God crowd feels no need to know something better or truer if they can convince themselves and others that anyone who disagrees with them is merely deluded. Which brings us to Richard Dawkins.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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